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.

 

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.

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.

turn it into love

Every kind of work can become prayer.

– St. Josemaria Escriva

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One of my spiritual practices now is offering up the work I do as prayer. File this one under Things I Love Now That I’m Catholic But Had No Idea About Before. (Confession, saints, Natural Family Planning, relics, and feast days are just a few others in that category). I’m still learning about this practice, but as a way of understanding work and prayer, it has formed a new way for me to relate to God. Similar to the monastic bell idea, and this is kind of a part two to that post. After Evange was born, I was added to a Facebook group of moms in the campus ministry organization I worked for. I remember different threads popping up around the question – As a mom with a newborn, I can’t find space have a quiet time anymore. What do your prayer lives look like with babies? At the same time, I joined a Catholic mom Facebook group focused on Advent reflections. Through that (and this blog that I’d been following for a while because she’s also a convert, and loves Anne of Green Gables and Harry Potter – the best!) I started to see that Catholics seemed to have an understanding of prayer that extended beyond the “quiet time” in a very helpful way for a sleep deprived new mom.

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I’m a big fangirl of this lady, and she wrote a reflection that stuck with me. She was talking about this idea of offering up the small, every day tasks. That we have the choice to whine or complain about the little things that just need to get done, every day – feeding our bodies and others’, cleaning up after feeding those bodies, cleaning the mess of non-toilet trained others – or, we can offer up those tasks as prayers. From what I gather (again, baby Catholic here) there are formal prayers, like the Morning Offering, to offer up the day ahead, all the work, prayers, joys, and sufferings, that will come, to Jesus, for however He wants to use them. But I think you can also just pray throughout the day. When I hit the end of my energy or patience, I try to quickly, mentally, pray – Help me do this well, as a prayer for ___. (Quick side note – I usually like to pray for the pregnant women in my life, but right now there are SO MANY I can’t keep track of them all. We’re definitely not in the Bay Area anymore).

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I don’t know if that’s really what offering it up is, but that’s what I do. This understanding of prayer is also deeply linked to a Catholic understanding of suffering – that we can link our suffering to Jesus’s. I think I first heard about this in relation to labor pains – that women would ask for prayer requests before labor, and offer those intentions up. Zelie’s due date was Good Friday and I was excited about the idea of being in labor on that day – Dang! I’ll be suffering as Jesus is dying! How cool is that?? But then I had to ask Chris, “So, how does offering up someone or something in prayer work, exactly? Do I have to keep them in mind while I’m in labor? Cuz that is not happening.” And he said no, I can pray before labor, to offer up my suffering as a prayer, for whatever. And I was like, ok cool. But she was born four days early. And I got an epidural because I didn’t want another 50 hour labor. So, obviously not ready for Good Friday levels of suffering over here. But everything can become prayer, and that’s something I wish I had known sooner and want to keep leaning into.

Turn it into love, my friend. Turn it into love. 

-Blythe Fike

 

 

 

the monastic bell of motherhood

John of the Cross once described the inner essence of monasticism in these words: “But they, O my God and my life, will see and experience your mild touch, who withdraw from the world and become mild, bringing the mild into harmony with the mild, thus enabling themselves to experience and enjoy you.” What John suggests here is that two elements make for a monastery: withdrawal from the world and bringing oneself into harmony with the mild (Rolheiser).

I came across an article, “The Domestic Monastery,” a year or so ago, and it’s popped into my mind several times since then, usually when I’ve hit the killer combo of sleep deprivation + the girls both waking up many times in a night. Or when I have things I want to get done and Zelie is feeling sick and wants to be held all day, or Evange wants me to play with her (how dare she). Basically, the times when I really crave extended silence and solitude. Like being a monk in a monastery.

The thesis of this article is that the contemplative life can be lived in the domestic sphere. That a stay at home mom actually lives in a type of monastery, primed for deep experiences of God. “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” (Rolheiser). This notion intrigues me to no end because the contemplative life is the life I long to live. Me, on a mountain, praying and working in a garden. Me, in a cabin in the woods, reading my books. Me, living my best life as a monk.

Really, it’s me wanting what I want. It’s wanting control over my time, to do whatever I want for as long as I want. Which really isn’t how monks live at all.

All monasteries have a bell. Bernard … 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 … 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” (Rolheiser).

Ah, the monastic bell of motherhood. For me, this articulates the first and most painful lesson I learned upon becoming a mom. Time isn’t your time. My memories of the first few weeks of Evangeline’s life are sitting on the couch ALL DAY, nursing her ALL DAY, and accomplishing very little other than keeping us both alive (and I had a lot of help). I remember thinking, wow, somehow, for my whole life up until now, I really thought I was in control. HA HA HA. Motherhood from Day 1 has been poking holes into the understanding I have of who I am and what gives me value. In those first months, it was a triumph to get out of the house and go somewhere, once each day. Grocery shopping took a herculean effort. Dinner was pasta, pasta, and more pasta. (When I really stretched myself, I’d sauté some vegetables on the side. We walked to the taqueria a lot.) I had never thought of myself as achievement oriented, but when I could not point to one single thing I had done that day (outside of keeping me and E alive), it really started to frustrate me. What is this?? I’m a competent person! Who am I if I can’t do anything??

I’ve come a long way in the two and half years since then, but the monastic bell imagery is still super helpful. It reminds me that it is actually reality that time is not my own and that I don’t have control. That I can lean into that reality and trust, instead of fighting it. It reorients me back towards my girls and their demands. It helps me find meaning in all the small, daily sacrifices. The nighttime wakings become a call to prayer (like a real live monk!) even if the prayer is, “Help me, Jesus.” The interminable bedtime routine – read this book one more time, I have to pee one more time – where I most tangibly feel the discomfort of my heart being stretched because this is definitely not my agenda for the evening can become a discipline, a place for me to practice patience. (Currently, I am terrible at this. Bedtime is where the most ugly parts of me are revealed.)

The domestic monastery somehow came up in one of Chris’s classes and he was trying to explain the idea to his classmates, some of whom are seminarians (studying/training to be celibate priests). I told him he could share my example of the bell for that day. I was interrupted from reading emails by Evangeline yelling from her room, where she was supposed to be napping, “MAMA, I NEED HELP! I DID A POOP!!”

The bell indeed doth toll.

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pretty sure the feat of that day was tying the moby wrap.

 

cloth diapers

A theme of this blog rn now is: I’m trying to figure out how to be a Stay At Home Mom. I stopped working after Zelie was born, and then we moved across the country, so it all felt like transition-zone all summer. Plus summer always has a different rhythm, so it wasn’t until the end of August that it felt weird that I didn’t have something like school or work about to ramp up. My solution was to come up with a bunch of projects I could tackle, that would make it feel like I had stuff to do. Project #1 was Potty Training, a whole saga deserving of its own v riveting post. Project #2 was Cloth Diapering aka An Eco-Friendly, Laudato Si-Fueled Unexpected Frenzy of Energy. If you’re ever interested in using cloth diapers, you should read this and ask Sarah for tips because that’s what I did. But because I got some cute pics of Zelie, a post on cloth diapers there shall be!

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So, cloth diapers are a labor intense, sometimes pain in the butt, tbh. Buuuut they feel worth it (right now, at least) because they save money and I like throwing less diapers into landfills to never decompose. I almost got some used BumGenius for a good deal on Cloth Diaper Trader but then found a better deal through a moms Facebook group, so the upfront cost was only $50 for 15 diapers, I shall brag. I found out later that the diapers used to belong to one of my neighbors in the Village! Ha! I also snagged two reusable trash diaper bags for $10 from another neighbor. Cashing in on everyone else giving up on cloth diapering! Which makes me realize it’s pretty hard to keep up when you have lots of kids. Having only one baby in diapers and a washer/dryer in our unit made it possible for me to make the switch. That, and having a clothesline. I LOVE CLOTHESLINES. So right now it feels easy to wash them every 2-3 days or so and I don’t mind the scraping poop into the toilet part. It’s humbling and probably good for my soul. Oh and I bought two packs of these per Sarah’s recommendation, so we have reusable wipes, too. So eco-friendly rn.

I am really looking forward to spring when I can line dry them again, because I miss those minutes by myself at the clothesline. I love the feeling of cool, clean laundry in my hands when it’s hot outside, and how it slows me down to think and pray in the sunshine. Looking forward to spring for many, many reasons. Hoping I survive my first real winter and am still infatuated with le cloth diapering come … March? April? May? Whenever spring starts in South Bend.

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in all its glory