All those night wakings and endless demands? They can serve a higher purpose.
You wake at dawn to the sound of the baby crying, needing a diaper change and to nurse, which seems kind of unbelievable given you were up nursing at midnight, 2 a.m., and 4 a.m. Before you can even make some much-needed coffee, the older kids are crowding around you, clamoring for breakfast, for a toy that’s disappeared in the recesses of your home, for a Band-Aid for an invisible injury.
And so it goes, all day long: little hands grabbing your legs, little voices crying out for your attention, little bodies climbing on you if you sit down for a minute. Who knew that having a baby would come with a daily serving of nearly paralyzing overwhelm in the face of incessant demands, day and night?
But what if your hidden life as a mother to little ones could be as meditative as life in a monastery? What if your children’s interruptions could bring you closer to God each day?
Motherhood can be an unexpectedly contemplative vocation, as a modern-day hermit was astonished to discover when he compared his life of isolation to that of a mother raising a family:
Carlo Carretto, one of the leading spiritual writers of the past half-century, lived for more than a dozen years as a hermit in the Sahara desert. Alone, with only the Blessed Sacrament for company, milking a goat for his food, and translating the Bible into the local Bedouin language, he prayed for long hours by himself. Returning to Italy one day to visit his mother, he came to a startling realization: His mother, who for more than 30 years of her life had been so busy raising a family that she scarcely ever had a private minute for herself, was more contemplative than he was … What this taught was not that there was anything wrong with what he had been doing in living as a hermit. The lesson was rather that there was something wonderfully right about what his mother had been doing all these years as she lived the interrupted life amidst the noise and incessant demands of small children. He had been in a monastery, but so had she. What is a monastery? A monastery is not so much a place set apart for monks and nuns as it is a place set apart (period). It is also a place to learn the value of powerlessness and a place to learn that time is not ours, but God’s.
Mothering young children indeed feels like a place set apart, a country with its own language and customs, existing side-by-side with, but nearly invisible to, the adult world. But the years spent in this land need not be lost time. Instead, these years can be a time of real spiritual growth.
A monastery seems like a direct contrast to a noisy family home, but below the surface, the vocations to motherhood and monasticism have more in common than it seems. Both require obedience and subordination of one’s individual desires to a greater good. The similarity is best understood through the bells that ring in the monastery, calling the monks to their next task:
“The demands of young children also provide [a mother] with what St. Bernard, one of the great architects of monasticism, called the ‘monastic bell.’ All monasteries have a bell. Bernard, in writing his rules for monasticism, told his monks that whenever the monastic bell rang, they were to drop whatever they were doing and go immediately to the particular activity (prayer, meals, work, study, sleep) to which the bell was summoning them. He was adamant that they respond immediately, stating that if they were writing a letter they were to stop in mid-sentence when the bell rang. The idea in his mind was that when the bell called, it called you to the next task and you were to respond immediately, not because you want to, but because it’s time for that task and time isn’t your time, it’s God’s time. For him, the monastic bell was intended as a discipline to stretch the heart by always taking you beyond your own agenda to God’s agenda.
A mother with a new baby knows only too well that her time is not her own. But to regard each interruption as a call from God, a reminder to obey His will in this vocation, makes these intrusions into something sacred. Each time a child cries out for you, it’s an opportunity to answer “Yes,” as Our Lady did, to God’s call.
Hence, a mother raising children, perhaps in a more privileged way even than a professional contemplative, is forced, almost against her will, to constantly stretch her heart. For years, while raising children, her time is never her own, her own needs have to be kept in second place, and every time she turns around a hand is reaching out and demanding something. She hears the monastic bell many times during the day and she has to drop things in mid-sentence and respond, not because she wants to, but because it’s time for that activity and time isn’t her time, but God’s time.
How would life as a mother to little ones change if their interruptions are considered “monastic bells,” calling one to loving obedience? What would a home look like in which the domestic church reflected this monastic belief?
These interruptions, so irritating in the moment, can be powerful moments of prayer when offered to God with love. Responding to these daily “monastic bells” not only with obedience but also with joy is the work of a lifetime—but what worthwhile work. What mighty spiritual fruit these sacrifices can bring.
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