Saturday, January 23, 2010

Living into the Sacred Depths of Everyday Parenting

The following is a brief article submitted recently to the Aidan Way (community journal of the Community of Aidan and Hilda) and The Australian Friend.

Immersion in a life of raising young children can have a relentlessness that knows no bounds. It is hard to imagine where days and weeks and years go in the birthing, growing and learning. I now know by experience that rearing children is one of life's holiest and most challenging endeavours. What would lead my life to join in the conceiving and growing of new lives? What force keeps stirring me to commune with the sacred within my life and the life of the world? Something about bringing children into the world brings one closer to what is real: the holy round of life, generation after generation. From leading and controlling to being led. Led by the power of ecstatic intimacy and union with my lover to new life. Even the movement of desire within one's body, heart and mind is impossible to articulate satisfactorily. But it is something more than two lovers that desires this new life...A life so new that its uniqueness will never be seen again. And paradoxically a life shot through with the same life that every other human experiences in some way.

I imagine our first daughter who senses our readiness and decides upon a new becoming. I sense the power of our second daughter who surges from the invisible into life. I enter the mystery of our unborn child who brings great sickness but dancing feet and intriguing forms. A child is like Jesus, the teacher, who turns to the crowds on the road and demands the fullest attention. A child comes from the source of life itself, beyond the sexual encounter that sets cells in motion, and invites the greatest attentiveness. A child, like all of us, comes with the capacity for union, the one thing necessary. Why is it that only in my most contemplative moments do I see what is absolutely real? The simplest moments in the life of parenting can be the most meaningful. The heart rendering anticipation when one knows the waiting is over and birth is imminent...The delight of physical contact with a child whose feelings need soothing....Peacefully observing the imaginative play of children...The natural wonderment at the world as it is...The satisfaction that comes when children are asleep and all is finally quiet for another day. These are by no means uncommon experiences.

Becoming a parent forces a shift in the self. The vulnerability that comes with the changes in this stage of life is fertile soil for a new self to emerge. Waiting for birth, feeding at all hours, reduced sleep and energy, maintaining relationships and personal priorities and changes in sexuality all can be confronting on their own. The shift to parenthood can also bring about reflection on the wounds and strengths of one's own childhood and the qualities and weaknesses of one's own family background. So internally much is going on. In all this one's humanity and connection to the larger whole can become more real. I remember holding our first baby daughter outside a Quaker Meeting while she slept one morning in 2005 and identifying with the Mary of Orthodox iconography who is pictured contemplating simultaneously the wonder of new life and the unavoidable movement towards death. The swaddling cloth of the infant is also the burial fabric of the tomb. Reflections on mortality are not just the preserve of the sick and the elderly but also of parents! There is enormous stillness in this contemplation because the Holy One is near and both beauty and grief are close at hand. Perhaps the beauty of a child is even more precious because we know in our most aware moments that all is fleeting, all is passing away. Even one's meditation on this passes away.

In my less profound moments when I am feeling most overwhelmed by parenting and family relationships I experience the shadow side which lurks and is sometimes expressed in feelings of great impatience, irritability, isolation, anxiety and anger. It is tempting to be harsh towards my shadow side with its fire, inflexibility and self-entitlement but its fragility is palpable and carries a desire for wholeness...a desire to remember that I am not in fact alone and do not need to carry the whole thing or meet all the external and internal expectations attached to my life. In my most horrendous moments of anxiety, stress and self-judgement I long most at these points to return to the Centre and yet it seems so far in the distance and, like the Prodigal Son, I sometimes do not know how to return or indeed how I got there. It is no wonder that the unceasing prayer of the desert was: Be pleased O God to deliver me. O Lord, make haste to help me! (Psalm 70:1). Perhaps it is the Holy One who longs most passionately for us in this inner desert when the shadows lengthen. For me it is my instinct for prayer, silence and loving relationship which becomes the salve and the gift. This gift hidden somewhere in the depth of the shadowy places represents a longing to be-loved so I can in turn love my family and the world from my heart rather than some fearful place. God help me to minimise the harm to others in the mean time! Family life, viewed from this lens, becomes a place for peace making.

And so like the passion narratives of the Gospels, I find that when I look at the whole thing it is passion which is lived out in my parenting. I commit to reject nothing in my experience of parenting, embracing anguish and the sublime, anxiety and fulfilment, ecstasy and isolation. I commit again to a journey of peaceful ways, seeking holiness in family life and affirming those moments in which the Sacred makes itself most known.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Too Much Christian In You

I was reminded today in talking with my partner of an amusing story from my student days when I lived in a community household with two close friends in Perth, Western Australia. One afternoon I was sitting on the front porch reading when a dirty, scraggy looking fellow with tobacco stained beard and red pock marked nose suddenly appeared at our front gate. "Want your gutters cleaned out, mate?", he said. I was somewhat startled but managed to respond, "Oh I don't know haven't looked at them recently". I walked over to him and we performed the most cursory inspection of the gutters from the ground before I found myself pitying him, taking in the smell of smokes and booze and general state of disrepair and agreeing to have our roof gutters cleaned for twenty bucks. Our new subcontractor got himself up onto the roof so adeptly that he'd definately done it before and started talking while he scooped some muck from our gutters. After a while I left him to it and went back in side. As I took all this in it occurred to me that I didn't necessarily want to condone someone's alcohol habit so I went back outside. "Heh, would you like me to get you $20 worth of groceries instead of cash?" "No thanks mate, the cash will do...there's too much Christian in you son" he offered, with a whimsical and friendly tone. After about an hour or so of gutter muck getting scooped out we mutually agreed to end the piece of work and I drove him to the local bottle shop where he presumably continued his relationship with the bottle. He told me he was likely to try to find a bed on the concrete grandstand of a suburban sporting ground.

I have thought of this interchange at various times since and it never fails to bring some amusement. I like the 'there's too much Christian' line. In a sense this homeless fella saw right through my attempt at spontaneous social work. There is the 'too much Christian' in most of us, the part that is all too willing to intervene and slip into self-righteous changing of other people with little genuine compassion and acceptance of frailty and idiosyncracy. The "too much Christian' part of our spiritual life can easily deny our own addictive behaviour in favour of manipulating others. Like the contrast in the Gospel of Luke between the Pharisee who thanks God that he is not like sinners and the tax collector who recognises his own failings. The tax collector is the one who goes away 'right' with God. Thank you for wise homeless men who wander from place to place offering to clean out gutters.