A Dominican, a Franciscan, and a Benedictine walk into a bar.
The Benedictine goes into the back room where he gazes upon the glory of his labors–the keg which holds the grains and hops he cultivated, the water he distilled, the yeast he added in timely manner– the beer he brew.
The Franciscan joins him momentarily. He lets the liquid fall into the stein knowing full well that it will go as swiftly from his hand to another, just like all of the material riches that come his way. He places the container on a serving plate and dashes out to the table that ordered it.
The Dominican sits at that table, the evening sun dusking with orange and purple sunbeams sifting through the open window. He takes the stein, flips opens the cap, and drinks. As the beer passes through his lips, he retraces the drink’s steps–back to his Franciscan and Benedictine brothers, back to the artisan that fashioned his stein, back to Mother Earth who fashioned the ingredients– back to the God who created it all.
Then he writes a book about the whole experience titled The Contemplative’s Guide to Drinking With Friends.
Of course, you can add just about any human act to that title and the premise of the book would be much the same:
The Contemplative’s Guide to Prayer
The Contemplative’s Guide to Social Media
The Contemplative’s Guide to [enter your favorite action here]
But there’s one title in particular that the vast majority of the world would consider an oxymoron, namely, The Contemplative’s Guide to Parenting.
The two acts, that of contemplation and that of parenting, tend to be at odds with one another like water on a grease fire. On the one hand, parenting requires not only a constant stream of activity, most of which is redundant and time consuming. Parents are required to wake up early in order to wake their children up early. We prepare their meals, clean up after them, remind and remind, and remind them again on how to properly take care of their needs by themselves. (Eat, clean, play, clean, learn, clean, clean, clean, bathe, clean, sleep, repeat). Beyond the actions, it’s the thoughts about our children, and our spouses, that overtake our minds. Did firstborn son finish his homework that’s due tomorrow? Did second born daughter pack for her practice tomorrow? Am I doing enough to teach them their Catholic faith? Have I neglected anyone? And did I forget to turn off the oven?
With all that is on the plate of parents, how can they possibly enter into the silent solace of true contemplation, an act necessary for sanctity?
I’m not going to do the thing that many would and suggest ways you already know don’t work like “Set Aside Time” (when you don’t have any) or “Read the Bible” (yeah, right, so my toddler can rip its pages from out of my hands and make origami with the Gospel of Luke?). On the contrary, here are some actual things you can (and should) do to revive the contemplative within you when the job requirements of “mommy” or “daddy” take their toll.
Embrace the Chaos
This is rule #1 for any parent not only to scrape the surface of a contemplative life, but also, you know, for staying sane. Parents make thousands of decisions that result in thousands of micro-acts of service every day. As a result, jobs get done, fun is experienced, snuggles are had… but also dishes go unwashed, laundry gets left in the dryer for days at a time, and rooms become more like Shelob’s lair than a king’s courtroom. The wary and tarry of our Martha-like, constant-action days tend to wear on us. Whether we are carting kids to and from school, to and from extra curricular activities, to and from Church, our minds go to and from mush until we can no longer form a single coherent thought– we are on automatic parent mode. It’s chaos.
And yet, there’s a brief eye in the storm that passes over us. The stoplight on the road. The line at the store. The baby naps. The 3am wake-up scream that ends in a full tummy of milk and a cuddled baby. The smile protruding from your third-born son the next day as he kicks the slivers out of the wooden board at taekwondo class for the first time.
These brief, little moments are the prime resources of contemplation– gentle reminders that while drive and reverse are the most used gears on your parenting machine, neutral and park are also options on the busy road of life.
Go to the Bathroom (without your phone)
For millennia, the human mind has been conditioned to function at a lower capacity during times of rest and boredom. Parents, of course, have minimal opportunities to both rest and be bored. Hence, our brains are always activated.
So, we go to the bathroom. Sometimes we don’t even have the urge to go, we just need to escape for a minute. To breathe. To wash our face. To reset.
Historically, the bathroom has always been a place of privacy where our minds could do just that– reset. During our bowel-movement moments as well as our times of boredom, our minds might activate on a lower level than if we were teaching our middle schoolers how to do algebra, but they coast into a set of waves linked with creativity, foresight, and dreams. This mental state of dis-concentration is pivotal to contemplation, for it detaches us from our survival modes and links us to something beyond us–or should I say someone–God.
Lost in a daydream is where God finds us most easily.
It is no secret that parents are anxious and some, unfortunately, struggle with depression. Which is why it boggles my mind that parents take a device that is linked to increased levels of anxiety and depression into the bathroom with them to escape anxiety and depression. This goes for any room in the house, any cubicle in the office, any pew in the Church. Screens are the anti-contemplative, and we need to recognize that sooner than later or we risk loosing our ability to place ourselves in the presence of God altogether.
Build Your Death Filmstrip
One of my favorite philosophies of life as a parent is memento mori. According to tradition, when a Roman general would return to town after a victorious triumph in battle, the citizens would applaud him. During the parade through the streets, a servant would be tasked with whispering into the general’s ear ““Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!” Look behind you. Remember that you are a man. Remember that you will die!”
Memento mori. One day, you’ll die, dear parent.
And when our time comes, it is said that our lives flash before our eyes, a filmstrip of our happiest memories that guides us into eternal life. What scenes will play out in that biopic for you? I hope the ones that co-star your spouse and children.
Make the most of your vocation by truly living as one in love with the ones God has called you to love within your domestic Church. Take that walk, even if it’s cold. Go on that vacation if you can afford it. Be present at that basketball game. Lock eyes with your toddler while you finger paint with them, Smudge a bit of rainbow frosting on their cheeks while you bake cupcakes.
The mindset starts with memento mori, remembering your death. But it grows into memento vivet.
Live to love, and you’ll love to live.
Win the Race
Understanding that God is in the midst of both the chaos and the calm is the definition of contemplative parenting. In the end, our goal is join St. Paul in saying “I have kept the faith. I have finished the race” (2 Tim. 4:7). Parenting is exhausting, a marathon that takes most of a lifetime to complete. It is filled with pitstops, delays, fair weather and tempests. It’s harbored by strollers, dirty diapers, skinned knees, and tears. But, it evolves into a steady strength, a shoulder to carry you, a paced victory, and ultimately, a baton passed onto the next generation. That baton is your faith, the one you ingrain into your children with every act of your will, every word of encouragement, every prayer that leads to the fulfillment of not only their souls, but yours, too.
The day you became a parent was the day your life got flipped upside down, for it was no longer about you anymore. It was about your child. Every decision you previously made was for your own good and now, after the conception of this new mass of your flesh and your blood, every decision you make is for the benefit of this beloved child that God gave you.
Your reward for accepting that vocation and pursuing it with heroic, saintly zeal is that Dominican’s stein at the dusking sun, that flood of memories with your family that inebriate you, filling you with unbridled joy.
And then there’s that other fellow sitting across from you at the table– Jesus, who takes a sip and says “Thank you. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink (*nods at His own stein*). Whatever you did to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, that you did unto me” (Mat. 25:40).
For no one has greater love than this, than to lay down their life…
Which you have done every day since the day God called you to be mother/father.