This piece by Heather King has been making the rounds today. Owen Swain linked to it. Elizabeth Duffy commented on it.
May I confess that it rankled a bit?
Here’s how you know your life in Christ is bearing fruit:
In spite of your own suffering, loneliness, and pain, you’re welcoming. You’re warm. You’re kind (or you’re at least shooting for those things, and not just toward the people who can “do” something for you, but everyone). You’re in immediate, intimate contact with a few active drunks, someone who’s headed into or has just emerged from a psych ward, an incarcerated felon or two, several porn addicts, a young girl who’s pregnant out of wedlock, several women who have had abortions and are in silent, excruciating mourning, at least one stripper, several people in desperately unhappy marriages, about to be evicted from their apartments, or dying, a minimum-wage worker or two, at least three people who are certifiably insane, at least one U.S. Army chaplain and one peace activist (even better if they’re both priests and the latter is in solitary confinement in a federal prison), several homeless people (the more the better) and a whole TON of gay people, transgender folks, and sex and love addicts of all stripes…
If that’s not part of your circle–in my case, that IS my circle–you’re not getting out enough.
No. That isn’t my circle and no I’m not getting out enough. I’m a introverted mother of five children under seven living in the suburbs. What King describes is not my circle at all. And if I were to leave home to seek that circle I’d be abandoning the role that God has meted to me.
Now this rankling isn’t really Heather’s fault. It’s something I’ve been wrestling with for several years now. But her piece hit a nerve, that’s for sure. Now I know that I’m reading it in a most prejudicial way and that she doesn’t mean that this is the only way to bear fruit in Christ. But well, she also doesn’t include a picture of any other way. And she frames it as a proposed homily. Homilies are meant to be for everyone.
The fact is that my circle is a small one these days. Many days we don’t get out at all. And yet there is scope for the corporal works of mercy in the heart of my home.
To feed the hungry. To make one more peanut butter sandwich when all I want to do is sit down and eat. To get up half a dozen times during dinner to fetch ketchup and milk and a new fork. To wake up at 3 am with a hungry nursling.
To give drink to the thirsty. To fill sippy cups. To remember to pack four sippy cups before loading all the kids in the car. And to wipe up the inevitable spills that happen when the thirst are just learning to use cups.
To clothe the naked. To do load after load of laundry. To sort through bags of hand-me-downs. To change that poopy diaper.
To harbour the harbourless. To be the safe refuge for every scraped knee and wounded spirit. To read that favorite to them detested by me book one more time. To let all five of them hang on me when every fiber of my being screams “leave me alone”. To be mother, the truest safe harbor a child knows.
To visit the sick. To dose them with Tylenol at four in the morning. To find a bandaid and to pull a splinter. To hold a crying, sniffling child all night long. To clean up the vomit.
To ransom the captive. To end the time out early. To say, I’m sorry even when you are boiling and you know you were right and they were wrong so that they may be freed from the prison of resentment. To clamp down on your temper so as to release them from the sting of a biting retort.
To bury the dead.—well, this is the only one I haven’t got a fit for. But 6 out of 7 ain’t bad.
And toddlers can bear an awful lot of resemblance to drunks and strippers for that matter.
For a long time I’ve been worrying at this. I know we’re called to do more. But we’re also called to specific vocations. As a wife and mother my primary vocation is to my husband and children and right now my circumstances are such that I don’t have much time or energy for doing much more than taking care of their basic needs. Sometimes even that is a strain. Just look at the piles of laundry and the dirty dishes right now.
And frankly I think there have been quite a few saints who might have been challenged to create a circle such as Heather describes. And yes, my reading is tendentious but if I misunderstood others might too. What is important is not creating a checklist of knowing the right sort of people but that we meet the people we do encounter every day with Christ’s love. That we see beyond the superficial health and wealth to the broken hearts that everyone carries around.
I know that what I do counts. But there’s something about the way she phrases it that makes it seem exclusionary to me. I know that’s not how she means it or how most people are reading it, but it feels like she’s saying: where are the drunks in your life? Why don’t you hang out with more meth heads? And I’m all like: um suburban mom with bunch of kids I don’t get out much because if I did I’d be neglecting the people I’m supposed to be taking care of right now.
Whereas she is an extrovert with fewer matters at home calling her, I am an introvert with five people dependent on me at every moment of the day. I know that. I remind myself not to compare. But I have to say her proposed homily would totally deflate me. Her way of putting things feels alienating to me rather than encouraging. Whereas Pope Francis’ remarks about how tenderness takes courage and about being a protector… those have me nailed.
I fear this will come across as defensive. Maybe it is. Maybe I just feel guilty. I’m not doing enough. Not radical enough. Not loving enough. Not enough of a disciple. You’ve got me there. I am not doing enough or loving enough or being a radical enough follower of Christ.
Still, it seems that King’s homily mistakes the way her life in Christ bears fruit for the way all people must bear fruit. There are many gifts but one Spirit. Dominic and Francis and Benedict and Carmel are very different charisms but the same love of Christ. The Franciscans in the Bronx live a completely different life than the men at Cistercian Abbey in Irving, Texas or Therese in her convent at Lisieux. And a mom is a mom first and foremost and that takes precedence before all of that ministering to the broken and downtrodden. What is He calling me to do? I don’t think I’m supposed to hire a babysitter and go meet some transgendered drunks. No, I think I need to love more, die more to myself. And to be open to the people the Spirit does thrust in my path on the rare occasions I leave the house, five kids in tow. Just as Therese had to relinquish her dreams of the foreign missions, I have to have the humility to let go of these notions of what fruit looks like. Instead, I should tend to the shoots of olive that cluster around my table demanding a refill on their milks.
Updated to add Auntie Leila’s latest installment on Casti Connubii explores the same theme.
I too can remember the days when I literally did nothing but clean up poop.
It’s hard to feel charitable and works-of-mercy-ish when you get the baby changed and in a snowsuit, get the toddler changed and in a (nother) snowsuit, and then come to find that the “toilet-trained” child has had an accident.
In a snowsuit.
It’s those days when you wonder whether Mother Teresa had the right idea embracing the celibate life and going to the streets of Calcutta, where there cannot possibly be this much poop.
So if women raised their own children, suffering the isolation and a certain, how shall I put it, lack of affirmation, what would happen to the world of people who need ministering to?
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