red leaves

I am a contemplative Christian. But I am not the kind with a cloister. I’m not even the kind with a door that locks. I’m the kind with a toddler who gets into the trash. I am a homeschooling mom with three children under the age of seven. And I’m a contemplative. Don’t tell me, this sounds like the set up for a joke.

I used to believe, along with the jokesters, that it would never work. I suppressed my desire for solitude. I ignored my pesky and recurring craving for silence. Even before I had kids, I apologized for skipping parties, failing to return phone calls, dropping out of clubs. I called myself bad friend, bad family member…bad sister, bad wife, bad woman.

I was nearly thirty when I realized that it wasn’t nothing that I craved so deeply. It was Nothing. Nothing with a capital “N” and it stands for a deep communion with God. I was nearly thirty when I finally came to answer this craving of my heart, intentionally developing a practice of contemplative worship, guided by a community of contemplatives.

Then it no longer felt impossible. But it still felt selfish. How can I take this time just for me? I had a baby and a toddler; I was breastfeeding. Surely this call, this deep desire for solitude and internal seeking…surely this was meant for someone else?

I did my sitting meditation in the early mornings, before the rest of my family got out of bed. I sat under the window and faced the dawn. The time was heart-opening and healing; sometimes even magical. Having this rich, quiet time with God each morning, I could feel myself gaining traction. I could feel my spiritual self gaining weight.

But still. Always and forever, the guilt. If my husband came in, or one of my children woke up early, I would jump up immediately and make myself do something useful. I would brush off the meditation time as an unnecessary luxury, something not really important. Secretly this made me feel resentful of my family. I felt like I had just finally figured out something that made my life and personality make sense, and now my loved ones stood as a threat against it.

As spring weather shifted into summer, my then two-year-old son started getting up earlier and earlier in the mornings. Trying to protect my meditation time, I got up earlier and earlier, too. No luck. One very, very early morning I was about halfway through my twenty minutes of sitting when he wandered into the room in his truck pajamas. Half desperate, that day I held my seat. I didn’t know what else to do. I just kept breathing.

My son wandered over to me. I kept breathing. He sat on my lap. I kept breathing. He looked out the window with me. I kept breathing. And then he wandered over to his trucks and started to play.

Ten minutes later my timer went off. I got up and went over to my son and said, “Good morning, sweetie.” He told me that his trucks were hungry, so I went into the kitchen and made breakfast. We ate together in the quiet of the very early morning, and we were fine. He was fine. And I was fine. Nothing got broken.

Since then I have not been afraid to meditate in the presence of my children. Oh, believe me, often it doesn’t work. Once two of my children sat together on my lap and banged on the radiator with sticks until I broke up laughing. Another time the cat was stuck in a drawer. In five years of semi-regular practice I have had things thrown at me, I have been peed on, I have had to drag the toddler out of the trash.

But sometimes it does work. Sometimes the whole house is quiet and twenty minutes later we all feel just a little better. Enlightened I am not. But I have broken through the shame.

I am not the one to tell you how this happened, but collectively we have framed a mother’s desire for contemplative time as something selfish. It’s right here in our language. We take our alone time. We take time for ourselves. I believe strongly that this deserves reframing. Maintaining a contemplative practice is not a selfish act. The desire to balance cultural pressures to produce and consume with a practice of mental silence is not an attitude that I would call self-serving.

Taking a wide perspective, a contemplative practice keeps me calmer and happier. It increases my reserves of patience. It enhances my capacity to see beauty, and engage in creativity and play. It strengthens the hold God has on my family’s entire life.

But even in the moment, my contemplative time is an offering to my children. I show them that I am capable of being calm. I create a baseline of emotional neutrality. This is not what I look like when we are in traffic and late for a swimming lesson. This is not what I look like when the middle child has just smeared blue paint all over the deck (again). This is not what I look like when I have just ended a difficult phone conversation, the subject of which they neither hear nor grasp. And yet, I am capable of this. My children can expect this of me, and eventually of themselves.

We are capable of being peaceful: calm and present and breathing. We are capable of sitting near to God.

It is ridiculous, yes, to seek God in the middle of the chaos. It is ridiculous, yes; messy, yes; frustrating, of course. But it is not impossible.

Even here, between the diapers and the squabbles and the splashes of spilled milk — even here! — there is a welcome as vibrant and expansive as the dawn.

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This post was originally published at Deeper Story. Thanks for being here with me!