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

new-camaldoli-hermitage-monestary-1248x702
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.

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset

“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.

New Camaldoli Hermitage
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.

56918188956__79993b7e-5c0e-4f69-8960-3bddbea8412b
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.

one year later

Zelie’s first birthday party was so fun. My dad was in town and we had about 30 people over to celebrate. It was such a contrast to Evangeline’s first birthday that it got me reflecting on all the changes and transitions that I’ve gone through in the past year or so.

We had Evange’s party at the beach in Santa Cruz with friends and family, and it was really just an excuse to hang out at the beach with our friends. No party decor or games, no presents. I was still working, and the thought of preparing enough food for everyone and trying to bake anything was just so overwhelming that I outsourced. I asked my amazing foodie friend to bake cupcakes and I went the Whole Foods catering route for some fancy sandwiches. Oh, and I was seven weeks pregnant with Zelie. So … no energy.

Zelie’s party was our first big shin dig in the new house we just bought. Sometimes I still can’t believe we own a house (in Indiana) but that’s another post forthcoming. I’ll do a little house tour when we’re more settled in, ie have some furniture. But it felt like a big deal to be able to really host something in our own space for the first time. I used serving platters from our wedding registry that had never seen the light of day. And in some ways, it kind of marked for me a one year anniversary of being a SAHM. I was able to come up with a menu for 30 people, shop for it, and cook it all without crying. I was even excited about it. I went the pulled pork route and borrowed crock pots and made 7 pounds worth of this and about 7 pounds worth of this. (And discovered in the process that my crock pot is an ancient piece of junk).

I baked a cake for the first time (and while the icing humbled me, I’m still v proud. Thanks for the rec, Seisha!). For Evange and her friends (because, really, what does a one year old do at a party) we played Pin the Tail on the Donkey, and it was so cute.

I can’t wait for the weather to warm up so we can host parties in the backyard! I envision lots of Spikeball, S’more, Sangria parties this summer. Come visit us!! 🙂

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.

IMG_0291.jpg
pretty sure the feat of that day was tying the moby wrap.