I love you so much I could eat you up: what I’m learning from thirteenth century nuns

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Overlook at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, CA. Photo by The Manual.

Jesus knows how bodies work

Your hunger for truth, beauty, and goodness is real. Really take, really eat, really be fed. It is here for you. I am here for you. I had been going to mass for months and the real presence was my last obstacle. At a New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, CA, we gathered around the altar with a few other people at a daily mass, and as the priest spoke the words, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body, which will be given up for you,” he held up the bread that the monks made there, and I felt in my body that this was Jesus, that he was speaking to me. It was less a command and more permission granted, affirmation given. You are hungry, and I am here to feed you. I was overwhelmed to be seen and known in this way, and I sobbed through the rest of this very intimate mass.  

That kind of mystical experience of the eucharist has only happened that one time for me. I became Catholic shortly after becoming a mother, and my typical experience of receiving the eucharist is much more mundane. I’m usually herding a preschooler in front of me or holding a squirmy toddler. I don’t often feel that I have much of a devotion at all to Jesus in the eucharist. And yet, the grace is still there. He still feeds me. And he feeds the baby inside me, which is growing without conscious thought or effort on my part. Jesus knows how bodies work.

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“If I had you, I would eat you up, I love you so much!”

In Caroline Walker Bynum’s essay, “Women Mystics and Eucharistic Devotion in the Thirteenth Century,” she explores how, for many women in this time, “The eucharist was … a moment of encounter with that humanitas Christi … For thirteenth-century women this humanity was, above all, Christ’s physicality, his corporality, his being-in-the-body-ness; Christ’s humanity was Christ’s body and blood” (p.129). These women had a profound understanding of Jesus’s experience of living in a body that impacted everything about how they understood him and their own bodies. “The humanity of Christ with which women joined in the eucharist was the physical Jesus of the manger and of Calvary. Women from all walks of life saw in the host and the chalice Christ the baby, Christ the bridegroom, Christ the tortured body on the cross” (p.130). And, in a way that seems crazy to us now, these women knew that that they could unite with Christ’s sufferings in their bodies and express their love for him in a physical way.

It is this “being-in-the-body-ness” that I experience when I am tired and distracted at mass. It is not removed from Jesus’s experience. He knows what it is like to be in a tired, distracted body. It is this “being-in-the-body-ness” I live when I look at my baby and am overwhelmed with love for this truly good, undeserved gift. In and through the body, this mystery of new life came to me. When I smother my baby in kisses and nibble at her chubby cheeks, that feeling of I love you so much, I can’t get enough of you, I just want to eat you, is not removed from Jesus’s experience either. God created us, in our bodies, with an appetite for what is truly good. Bynum writes, “Both in a eucharistic context and outside it, the humanity of Christ was often described as ‘being eaten’ … Anna Vorchtlin of Engelthal exclaimed, upon receiving a vision of the baby Jesus: ‘If I had you, I would eat you up, I love you so much!’” (p. 129-130) These thirteenth-century women knew, in a way I am just beginning to discover, that this appetite is real. We live in bodies that literally hunger for the good and beautiful, and it is Jesus we desire. This is my body, take and eat. He is here, to feed us.

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Visitors join the monks around the altar at mass. Photo by New Camaldoli Hermitage

using my gifts

In the first trimester of this pregnancy, when I was feeling super tired and introverted, I found myself using the pregnancy as an excuse to get out of social commitments. I know we planned to hang out tonight, but actually, I’m pregnant and I just want to go to bed at 8pm (real text by moi). Right after that, I was invited to give a talk to some undergrad women for an Advent day of reflection. And I jumped at the chance – it did not even cross my mind to say no.

Before I left my work with campus ministry in California, one of my colleagues, Wes, spoke a word of encouragement that I’ve been thinking about lately. He said something like, I hope this next season of life would give you the chance to use gifts that you haven’t been able to in your work now. I was about to have two babies under two and move to a new state. I remember thinking, Interesting… I have no idea what that would look like. 

Almost two years later, I’m seeing that this stay-at-home mom, Notre Dame grad-wife life has given me the chance to flex old muscles. Two months after we arrived, I started campaigning with brand-new friends and neighbors for family student housing to continue after the demolition of University Village – that was a wild ride that I got surprisingly fired up over (hello, eight wing of this enneagram nine). And little opportunities have popped up since then, that have tapped into my love for writing and public speaking, and have been doable with young kids and have just felt right. 

Along the way, I’ve been learning more about myself. About what gives me energy and life, and finding the courage to say yes to those things. In the fall, I got connected with a very flexible, part-time editing job, helping students with undergrad and grad school application essays. I started this, my own lil blog, and have really enjoyed having a space to share some of my thoughts and reflections (with my ten followers, lol). And most recently, I wrote a post for the McGrath Institute’s new blog about interruptions. 

There have been other opportunities that I’ve gotten really excited about, but the timing just hasn’t been right (like this new Catholic literary journal I found on Instagram that was accepting fiction and poetry submissions that week). I’m learning to be patient and trust God’s timing with this stuff more, rather than try to force things to happen, or be all angsty about it. And mostly it’s just been a cool journey of becoming more confident that yes, I do have gifts and strengths, and yes, there will be opportunities to use them, even in this season.

 

our baby valentine

I wanted to write about our experience of miscarriage because it was helpful for me to read stories from other women, like this post a friend sent me. So I share some of how I processed it in the hope it could help someone else feel less alone. 

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At the end of June, I lost a baby at five weeks. I wrote about how that baby is part of our story now, and this post is more about the experience of miscarriage and the ways we have grieved and found closure. He or she would have been born sometime this week, so it’s been on our hearts.

It was my first miscarriage, so at Chris’s urging I went to immediate care, where it was confirmed a miscarriage and I was sent home. There was heavy bleeding for several days, and painful cramps. And now I know that this experience of passing the baby varies widely for different women. But I was grateful, in a way, that the pain lasted for a while, because it felt like a mini mini labor, and a way that only I got to experience a little more of this baby we would never get to know.

Chris’s reaction to the news was to cry a little with me and then figure out how we should do this well. He did some research and found that we could give the remains to a local funeral parlor, who would bury the baby for free in a designated section of the cemetery. They would hold a memorial service for all the babies who died before 20 weeks from March-June in 2018. We named the baby Valentine, since he or she (I usually say she) would have been born around Valentine’s Day, and it was a name I liked but probably would never use for a living child. The memorial service was held on a sweltering day in August. I was glad we went, but I’m more grateful that we have a physical place to visit her whenever we want. (Evangeline has now asked if we’ll all be buried under the same stone as Baby Valen when we die. Chris and I made a mental note to make a will.)

 

 

 

 

When Chris did the funeral parlor research, he also asked if I wanted to invite a priest friend over to pray for us. I felt awkward about this. But I knew that later on I would wish for something – some way to find closure – so I said sure, let’s have him over for dinner.

Chris had just gotten to know this priest on a trip to Israel. He’s a Franciscan, newly ordained, also studying theology at Notre Dame, and a Catholic convert. I always love meeting other converts. As Chris put the girls to bed, I told Fr. Andrew more about the miscarriage, and how I’d been feeling. When Chris returned, we sat in the backyard and Fr. Andrew prayed for us, using a prayer specifically for parents after a miscarriage from The Catholic Book of Blessings (which also has the prayer we used to bless our garden seeds). It was so beautiful, and I just let the liturgy wash over me. I felt deeply at peace, and was grateful to Chris for suggesting we do this. We sat in silence for a few moments and then Fr. Andrew asked, Would you guys want to sing some songs together?  

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I miss you, summer backyard.

I was surprised but said sure, I like to sing. Fr. Andrew started singing, “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord,” Chris joined in, and I started bawling. I leaned back in my chair, letting them sing, feeling waves of sadness, and also, still, peace. It felt so right, to be there in our backyard, singing songs that I had grown up with in church, with a Franciscan priest. I hadn’t realized how much I missed singing casually with other people. As they sang, I asked God, What role will this baby’s life and death play in our family’s story? And as I asked, I was surprised to feel confirmation in my desire to have more kids, to have a large family, like this baby was already praying for courage for me. I also felt God pointing out to me the consolation of that moment and saying, It doesn’t help anyone for you to leave behind all the ways you knew me before you were Catholic. There was something so healing for me in Fr. Andrew singing those songs I had almost forgotten. It brought together two worlds; the old that I had begun to reject as I was learning to navigate the new.

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flowers sent by a friend

This was an unexpected gift I received as I processed the miscarriage. A reminder of how I used to connect with God and with others, and the courage to more vulnerable. I had time in those summer weeks to think about how, after a year in South Bend, I was fairly happy with the community I’d found, but still wanted to know others more and be better known. When I voiced this, I found that my friends were also hungry for deeper friendships and wanted to pray together more openly. Since then, our moms group that meets for play time and prayer has grown more vulnerable in ways I was craving, and I didn’t have to force anything to happen. I just started being a little more honest.

This baby’s life and death has already taught me so much more about trusting God. My hope is that I’ll remember and remain open to what He brings, open to lessons from grief and from joy. Thanks, Baby Valen. We love you.

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this picture was actually taken on the day of miscarriage, I realized later. We were showing The Village to a visiting friend.

january thoughts on art and motherhood

A new mom friend from Evangeline’s preschool shared this essay with me (thanks, Rose!) and I loved this part especially.

“But at my most hopeful I think that writing and art are essential to motherhood and vice versa. Each accesses the most ancient, the most universal, the most complex emotions. Each requires the nurturing of a new consciousness, a new being, a new way of seeing. Each is endlessly different and endlessly dull, endlessly challenging and spiked with constant disappointment and beauty.” 

I need this reminder in the monotony of winter. As the newness of the new year lessens and January presses on with long dark mornings and gray skies. Each day is spiked with beauty, and each moment with my girls is endlessly different and endlessly dull. I marvel over the little sentences Zelie is putting together and how she plays independently with her toys when Evangeline is at school. I find myself surprised at the pictures Evangeline is drawing these days, the shapes she now makes, the colors she puts together. And I die with frustration when Zelie wakes up in the middle of the night and then naps through the morning spin class I have come to count on with near-obsession. Or when Evangeline needs to be dragged to the potty before she pees her pants. And something about the gray and the cold makes it harder for me to recover from these attacks of extreme grumpiness.

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creativity, but not where I  appreciate it.

All the while, I am looking for ways to create. To write, to share my thoughts. To add beauty to our home. To try a new craft or baking project. Winter lends itself to this, with all the time spent inside and inside my own head. And most of the time I’m not even thinking about my biggest winter project, which is constantly growing, without any conscious effort on my part. Week after week I am surprised to see how big she is and how my belly is growing. It’s just happening. Ordinary, ancient, and amazing.

books of 2018

2018 Reading List

I keep track of the books I’m reading each month. Some take me a few months to finish! The asterisk means started but didn’t finish. I’m a big believer in books having a right time. So, maybe I’ll finish those books someday, or maybe life’s too short to keep reading a book I don’t want to read. YOLO.

Before we get too far into 2019, I wanted to record my books from last year. This is really only for me to look back at. I’m not even writing out thoughts about each book. Just some observations from this year – I found a couple new authors (Sigrid Undset, Alice McDermott, Elizabeth Strout) and read several books by them. Kristin Lavransdatter was my whole July and it was glorious. I also spent six months listening to Harry Potter in the car (a great life choice). I trailed off in December and haven’t been reading at all lately, which is weird, but oh well. I cracked open Middlemarch and have read half of the intro – does that count?

January

  • The Tech-Wise Family – Andy Crouch (audio)
  • *Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – Barbara Kingsolver
  • *A Severe Mercy – Sheldon Vanauken

February

  • *Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – Barbara Kingsolver
  • *A Severe Mercy – Sheldon Vanauken
  • The Ninth Hour – Alice McDermott

March

  • Anything is Possible – Elizabeth Strout
  • A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle
  • Zeitoun – Dave Eggers
  • *Jesus of Nazareth – Pope Benedict

April

  • The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas
  • Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson
  • *Jesus of Nazareth – Pope Benedict
  • *An Immovable Feast – Tyler Blanksi

May

  • Someone – Alice McDermott
  • One Beautiful Dream – Jennifer Fulwiler
  • An Immovable Feast – Tyler Blanksi
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – J.K. Rowling (audio)
  • *Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – J.K. Rowling (audio)

June

  • Hannah Coulter – Wendell Berry
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – J.K. Rowling (audio)
  • Anne of the Island – L.M. Montgomery
  • Anne’s House of Dreams – L.M. Montgomery
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J.K. Rowling (audio)

July

  • Kristin Lavransdatter – Sigrid Undset
  • Harry Potter and the Triwizard Tournament – J.K. Rowling (audio)

August

  • Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout
  • The Price to Pay – Joseph Fadelle
  • Gunnar’s Daughter – Sigrid Undset
  • *Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J.K. Rowling (audio)

September

  • Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan
  • *No Drama Discipline – Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson
  • *Mystery and Manners – Flannery O’Connor
  • *Catherine of Siena – Sigrid Undset
  • *Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J.K. Rowling (audio)

October

  • *Catherine of Siena – Sigrid Undset
  • The Grace of Enough: Pursuing Less and Living More in a Throwaway Culture – Haley Stewart
  • Pachinko – Min Jin Lee
  • *The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J.K. Rowling (audio)

November

  • The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Burgess Boys – Elizabeth Strout
  • *Catherine of Siena – Sigrid Undset
  • *Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J.K. Rowling (audio)

December

  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J.K. Rowling (audio)
  • *Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J.K. Rowling (audio)
  • *Anne of Ingleside – L.M. Montgomery
  • *Interior Freedom – Jacques Philippe

part of our story

As I’ve entered the second trimester of this pregnancy, I’ve been thinking about how this baby’s life has already changed our family’s story. About how this baby comes to us after losing another.

At the end of June, I had a miscarriage. I’d only known I was pregnant for ten days and had only told one friend. It was still so new, and then, it was over.

So this is my fourth pregnancy, my fourth baby. But I won’t explain that to strangers in the grocery store; I probably will hardly ever talk about it. For all outward appearances, this is Baby #3. But we know that there was a little soul who would have come to us in February, and we named him or her Valentine. It’s made me think about how many other families share this experience, how the question, How many kids do you have? becomes a bit more complicated to fully explain.

I may share more about the miscarriage and how we grieved and found closure, because I found it helpful to read about other women’s stories when it happened. But for now, we talk about Baby Valen with the girls, and we go and visit the cemetery where he or she (I’ll call her she), is buried. We’ve been looking for a way to volunteer time as a family, a way to engage in social justice in some way with the girls, but everything we’ve thought of has been too late in the evening for our current early dinner/bedtime schedule. So for now, in this season, we’ve landed on the spiritual work of mercy – pray for the living and the dead. We take the girls and pray a decade of the rosary  and the prayer for the dead for the soul of Baby Valen and all the departed.

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I wish it wouldn’t have happened, of course. I wish I could have felt her move, held her, seen her, been able to get to know her. But I’ve been comforted by the reactions I’ve received from friends, and even the (free!) services offered by the local funeral parlor and cemetery. Overwhelmingly, it’s been – This is a person to bury, this is a person to grieve. Despite how common early miscarriages are, and the various factors that can cause them, I was never made to feel that this was something to just get over and forget about. And that’s been a good lesson and reminder for me, as we’ve talked about her with Evangeline. Baby Valen was still a baby, even though she was so little, and she will always be a part of our family. We can ask her to pray for us because we trust that she is with Jesus. It’s brought up good conversations about the communion of saints, the dignity of life, and death. And it just feels good to talk about her, this little person God sent to us for such a brief time.

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Baby Valen, pray for us.

that time I ugly cried at a poetry open mic

I recently had an experience that I think could be described as mystical, in that it felt like a sudden and unexpected outpouring of grace. I’ve been trying to process what happened and why it happened ever since, because although I am very grateful, it was also extremely embarrassing.

On Wednesday night last month, Chris told me that the after-party for the Thursday night prayer service led by the seminarians would be a poetry open mic, and asked if I would want to read one of my poems. I immediately said no. But then, the next day when his classmate texted me asking if I would read a poem if she did, I reconsidered. Two invitations? I decided I would read my villanelle, but I would also read a very good villanelle.

This prayer service is held in the chapel of the seminary on campus, which has the acoustics of a huge bathroom. The seminarian leading the singing doesn’t need a microphone, his voice carries easily. And the response from the pews is thunderous. It is a beautiful time of candle-lit prayer, most of it sung, with a couple short readings and a homily. The last line that closes the evening is the seminarian singing, Let grace come and this world pass away. And the response is, Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. 

This last line, the chorus of voices echoing around me, got me. I had this sudden, deep longing for everything to be made right, a strong desire for Jesus. And the way I experience this kind of longing is through crying. (I’ve mentioned I refer to it somewhat jokingly as having the gift of tears, which is a thing, I just don’t know if I really have it). I teared up but quickly pulled it together because everyone was starting to leave and head downstairs for the open mic part of the evening.

After grabbing tea and scones, Chris and I found seats right in front and sat chatting with his classmates, waiting for the poetry part to begin. I was nervous because as it started, it seemed most people were reciting poems they had memorized, or doing original spoken word poems. I firmly planned to just read the two poems I had brought. Some were funny, some were funny and high energy, and mine were neither. But when it was my turn, I stood up, put on the designated “poetry scarf,” and began.

The first poem went fine. I did a little introduction about villanelles, said I’d be reading a really good one for them first, and read it. Then I turned to mine and felt it deserved a little introduction, too. I think I made the mistake of being rather vulnerable. I shared that this poem was about the Visitation, and that as I was a fairly new convert to Catholicism, I was still getting to know Mary. I like this part of scripture because it shows us Mary from Elizabeth’s perspective, and gives us another glimpse into her life. By this time, my voice had started shaking. I realized that I had just opened up a lot of myself in front of about forty people, most of whom I didn’t know. But I took a deep breath and started reading my poem.

As I was reading, it was the strangest thing, it was like I was surprised by the poem. It’s about two women, two mothers with babies in their wombs, and I suddenly thought, I’m probably the only mother in this room. I read, “Already she faced her share of the sword,” and thought, who am I to be writing this about this woman? By the time I got to the line, “Blessed one! With your yes you moved us toward/the home we long for, and all things made right,” I had totally lost it. I was full on ugly crying in the middle of my own poem.

I garbled out the last two lines, muttered, “Sorry,” and tried to sink as quickly back into my seat as I could. I could not stop crying.

I was so embarrassed and I had no way to explain to all these strangers why I was crying. I wasn’t really sure why either. I tried to dismiss it – it’s just because I’m really tired. But as I tried to block out everyone around me and how ridiculous the situation was, I remembered that God usually does speak to me in deep ways through tears. And this had felt like grace – just much more publicly humiliating and therefore bewildering than I would have chosen.

Two days later I went to a lecture on campus about Chiara Lubich, who founded the lay movement, Focolare. I had no idea who she was but for whatever reason I wanted to go hear this talk. The professor spoke about Chiara’s focus on Maria Desolata  – Mary desolate.

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He said that Mary, at the foot of the cross, sees all of the misery and suffering of the world, and holds it all. That Maria Desolata was an icon for Chiara for looking unflinchingly and lovingly at a world in pain. Chiara wrote, “If Jesus forsaken seemed to us to be the pupil of God’s eye open onto the world, we can say that Mary desolate seems to us a kind of camera obscura taking in all that is negative in the world (Essential Writings: Spirituality, Dialogue, Culture, p. 299). And the professor commented, “The Mary who holds the disfigured Christ is also the one who can gaze objectively at the world in all of its disfigurement. Just as a photographic image is developed from a negative, Mary can hope for redemption of a fallen world in the midst of her and the world’s most complete agony (“Chiara Lubich: A Saint for a New Global Unity,” Casarella).” 

And I started to cry again. Was that what I had experienced, a tiny glimpse of this? Was that the grace?

Professor Casarella went on to say that Mary desolate also offers “an icon of knowing how to lose.” He summarized Chiara’s thoughts on this, saying, “Apart from her Son, Mary had very little. When she lost him in his Passion, the loss was total and decisive. But she saw this loss for what it really was. The one who prepared all her life to be alone, became Mother to each of us, to the whole of the world (Essential Writings p.302)… Her love, her capacity for giving is human, real, and maternal. It consists of a unique capacity to bear the sorrow of the world in one’s heart. According to Chiara, when a mother hopes all things for her child and puts up with all the troubles involved, she sees further than others. (“Chiara Lubich: A Saint for a New Global Unity,” Casarella). 

I was sitting next to one of Chris’s classmates and when she turned to me at this point to whisper something, she saw that I was crying. She looked concerned and asked,”Are you okay?” I nodded and whispered, “Yeah, I’m fine, I just had this mystical experience the other night and I think it’s making more sense to me right now.” She accepted this as a reasonable explanation (you’re the best, Jackie).

I’m still reflecting on all this and will be for a long time. But in the meantime, St. Therese of Lisieux said, “Everything is grace.” It took ugly crying in front of strangers but now I think I have some idea of what she meant.