"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Parent Prayer Life

This summer, the family and I were at a Sunday Mass that was part of a theological conference. The presider gave an excellent homily on the need for theologians to have a prayer life - to spend time in the presence of God, in silent contemplation. It was the kind of homily that made me feel a little guilty, and made me want to commit myself to all that he was describing.

This particular Mass was in a not very family-friendly setting; it was a very small building with no place to take children who were being loud or active. That I even heard the homily was quite astounding, but even more astounding, Jeff heard it too. And afterwards when we discussed it, Jeff admitted that he was a little frustrated. Priests can just be so idealistic, and sometimes they seem to have only one vision of what a prayer life can look like. And let's be honest, if a good prayer life involves hours of quiet time in a chapel, my prayer life won't be "good" for at least a couple of decades.

So, maybe the homily wasn't so good after all. I have mixed feelings on this because I do really value quiet prayer time, and I do think my life would be better if it involved MORE quiet prayer time. But at the same time, I don't see any way that I can fit into my schedule the kind of contemplative prayer time that this priest was describing. It's the same kind of mixed feelings that I had when I read Sarah Coakley's piece on kenosis and self-emptying prayer that is about being and listening. Great, right? Yes. But in a book that's about feminism? Maybe certain (most likely childless) female academics can devote time to this, but most of the women around the globe probably can't. Most of the women around the globe spend their daily time with concerns similar to my own - feeding kids, changing kids, cleaning kids, taking care of a house, and so on. If they're going to pray, it's going to be prayer they can do while taking care of a family.

This was all percolating in my mind today because I met for the first time with my new spiritual director. He's great - a holy man and very kind. But he's also used to working primarily with seminarians. He asked me about my spiritual practices, and, when I was done telling him, he noted that most of my prayer is liturgical/devotional. Or you could say that most of my prayer is of the sort that can be fit into the space of 5-10 minutes or is combined with my exercise time. Monday-Thursday the only time I have "to myself" if you will is from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and then 8 to 10:00 p.m. In the morning that's exercise and Mass, and in the evening, it's work time. (I know, I know... you're all wondering when I find the time to blog... but really this takes very little time... and it comes out of my work time or I stay up later than I should.)

I was trying to explain this to him, and I started to get really sad.

But I also started to feel very defensive, which was uncalled for because he was in no way criticizing me. Later I started thinking that seminarians should have two kinds of pastoral assignments: one where they live at the rectory and work in the parish and one where they live with a local family. I'm a supporter of the Latin tradition of celibate priesthood, but sometimes I worry that these men can get out of touch with what family life is like.

I know there's a tendency to idealize the other vocation, and I'm probably guilty of that. Most priests get a full night's sleep every night. They can choose when to wake up in the morning, instead of getting out of bed at 6:15 a.m. to change a poopy diaper (Eva's very regular, you see). I had a long day yesterday, and by dinner time I had a headache. I thought to myself, if I were a priest who had been working hard all day, I could just lay down on the couch for an hour or so and rest. But no, I had to cook, with two girls in the kitchen who both thought that what I should really be doing was holding them. Enter a neighbor who wanted advice on a difficult situation. Then I realized that I was missing two key ingredients for the dish I'd decided to make for dinner. Husband arrived home, but the kids didn't seem interested in any attention from him. They just wanted mom because apparently 10 hours in a row just isn't enough. Then aforementioned husband asked what was wrong - a headache. Ten minutes later, he asked what was wrong - I still have a headache. Then he asked if there was enough food for seconds. Nope, sorry. (He's not eating leftovers now that he has free lunch at the seminary, so I've been trying not to cook too much at dinner.) Are you upset? he asked. No. I have a headache.

And I was thinking, wow, it must be great to be a priest.

I'd say more on this, but Eva's calling for me on the monitor.


Jana Bennett said...

I saw the title of this post and I immediately thought of how my "quiet" prayer time is often those moments when I'm awake at 3 am walking with Lucia trying to get her back to sleep, or nursing, or other mom-type activity that involves some modicum of silence on the part of the child - or when I'm walking to work. (usually I'm walking - huh). I was impressed by that homily too, and I think he's right.... but maybe "butt prayer" to use his term can also just be the kind of prayer that you sneak in when you can get it, when it doesn't necessarily look like prayer. I'm not generally thankful to be awake at 3 am, but on the other hand, I guess I'm grateful for the mandatory vigil :-)

Clara said...

An older priest I know used to use examples like yours to shame younger priests or seminarians who claimed they were "too busy" to do this or that. "You go spend a day in the life of one of the parents in your parish who's balancing a job and a household, and then come back and tell me how "busy" you are," he'd tell them.

Actually I've known some priests who do seem awfully busy, but even then, I think they get quite a bit more credit for it than moms do.

Aside from the usual advice to do what you can and offer it up when you can't (not getting to pray can be a kind of sacrifice too!), you might consider that life might get a *little* easier in less than two decades. Your girls are in a particularly difficult (at least in the sense of time-consuming) age right now, and while there will hopefully be other little ones to fill that spot when Maia and Eva have reached school age, you will also eventually reach the point where the older ones can help watch the younger and give you a bit of a break.

My mother had at least one child under 5 in the house for a solid twenty years. But once I got to about high school, she started taking classes every summer (she was doing it piecemeal before then, but only one at a time, and not every semester.) Pretty much she'd leave me at home with the younger ones all morning while she went to class, and usually she'd get back right around the time I finished feeding them lunch. I don't think I really minded; it seemed fair that she should get her turn to do something. And now, of course, her youngest is in high school and she's hoping to finish her PhD this year. In a way she really did get to have it all; she actually left college after her second year to get married (which nobody did when we were at Notre Dame, but it wasn't uncommon for Mormon girls in her day), but in the long run she got to have her family and explore her academic interests too.

I guess the point is that raising kids does take quite awhile, but not your whole life. I think that's a healthy thing to keep in mind, both so you can enjoy their childhood while it lasts, but also so you can keep some grip on all the other things that you wanted to do and felt like you were missing... you may get back to them some day.

As a final note, I've always thought, particularly in our society where people live so long, that it would be good to have retirement homes that were also sort of quasi-monastic communities. Also, we should emphasize to the elderly that they have entered the stage of life where it is their particular duty to pray for the Church. Some elderly people pretty much do this on their own, of course, but I've never heard it emphasized, and it seems like it would be good for multiple reasons: it would help alleviate the problem of elderly people feeling useless once they can no longer be "productive", it would help prepare the soul for death, and also, in this age of diminished vocations, we really do need to have more people praying for the Church. And wouldn't it be nice to have something like that to look forward to, when you reach your twilight years? It wouldn't be the same, of course, as living a whole lifetime as a contemplative, but perhaps even the world-weary among of us could get a little taste.

Theologian Mom said...

Thanks, Jana and Clara. Believe me, I look forward to retirement (or at least when I have kids a bit older).

Mr. Bojangles said...

Thanks to all 3 of you. You've edified and encouraged another weary mom struggling with these questions and demands, and in need of a little boost to her prayer life (and academic life to boot). So Maria, I guess God is even using your blog time. Like the investments you're making in your girls' lives and through your academic writing as well, you may never know how it is multiplied and used for God's good work. Be encouraged, friend.

Trinita said...

I appreciate the vocation of the priesthood greatly and do not envy them their work. I know it is very demanding. But most priests have housekeepers and cooks. Imagine.