It’s six in the morning, still dark. The rain is thrashing down outside – it’s been this way for days. Winter has arrived in South Africa. I can hear him before I see him – the gentle thud-thud of socked feet down the corridor. I’m awake but I shut my eyes, hoping for ten more minutes. Soon his little body is cocooned next to mine, his head on my pillow, the duvet wrapped over him. “I want warm,” he says. The grass drinks in the rain outside our window. The plants and trees are battered around in the storm, but their roots are grateful.
And as the cereal bowls sit on the table, the whining rises, the sink is blocked, the bills just get paid and I watch before my eyes dirty feet scrape over the sofa, I picture God with someone else.
We slide out of bed, along the dark corridor into the lamplight of the sitting room. I click the gas heater on – one, two, three – and the little flame flickers out warmth in waves. The train tracks are spread out on the rug, the kitchen still dark. We wait for the blue morning light outside to glow through the night, and for his sisters to stumble out of bed, one by one, clad in pink fleecy onesies.
It’s another day at home. This is where we’ll be – in this big room with its sinkable sofa, wooden table and speckled blue rug. With its paints and books and coffee machine and tantrums and long hours and spillages and laughter. We’ll be here until bedtime. Right here.
One gift lockdown is holding out to me is contentment. No sparkly promises sit on the horizon: parties and holidays, events and dinners, people we love to see. Even a simple walk was off the table at first. So I’m looking around at what’s left and I see this: my children’s faces, luminous in the lamplight. The grey clouds swelling with rain, then the sharp sunlight falling onto my kitchen table just before lunch. The pile of clean, warm clothes, ready to be folded. God, in the room.
Yes, God is moving here, but because it doesn’t seem spectacular to my untrained eye, because there isn’t the thrill of a new thing, or because I don’t feel the zest – the pride, perhaps – of lifting the weight of a life which is too hard for me, I assume maybe He’s somewhere else. With someone else. But the One who played in the dirt, who prayed in quiet and cut wood for thirty years isn’t as allergic to the everyday as me.
Father Ron Rolheiser suggests the domestic can be monastic. He quotes John of the Cross who described monasticism in two elements: withdrawing from the world and being exposed to the “mild”. We picture a desert monk, surrounded by silence, exposing himself to the “mildness” – the sweetness, the purity – of Christ. Or rooted in my pragmatic, Protestant ways, I picture a missionary withdrawn from the riches of middle class life, wandering the back streets, exposed to the “mildness” – the sweetness, the purity – of Christ’s love for the poor.
This is how I have always found God. The desert. The back streets.
And as the cereal bowls sit on the table, the whining rises, the sink is blocked, the bills just get paid and I watch before my eyes dirty feet scrape over the sofa, I picture God with someone else. When dinner is surely just chopping and stirring but it feels like a mountain to climb, when three kids are under my feet, when someone is crying, someone is dirty, someone’s lost their favourite stick, I picture God with someone else.
Millions of us mothers opt out of a spiritual journey in the mess of motherhood because we have never been given a theology for Him loving us here.
Come, Carpenter. Come close.
Oh, Jesus. If the way you came was in the inner parts of a mother, and if the first miracle you did was after your mother asked, and if on the cross, Jesus, you were thinking of your mother, well then maybe mothers are still on Your mind. And maybe contemplation – a fancy way of praying with an open heart – is at its richest and real in the repetitive rhythms of the day.
Here I am, bending low into my laundry basket, gathering the clothes in my arms. Skirting my eyes around the living room – a lone sock here, discarded pyjamas there – I pull it all together into the machine. All those clothes, clothes that warm us during this wet winter, spin round and round, drenched in soapy water. As we sit round the wooden table, practising letters and chatting, my tea steaming in the air, we can hear the slosh-slosh of the warm water, round and round. When it’s done – school and washing – the kids pour outside, inhaling the cold morning air and bouncing on the trampoline with shrieks. There I am, hanging the wet clothes up, one by one. Sometimes I shove it all in the tumble dryer – there’s no time, I’ve got no time – but on my best days, I’m there in the garden. One peg, one piece. The mountain’s indigo beauty hovers beyond the trees, the grass is wet and dirty underneath my feet, the air is clear. God. Right here.
I see myself withdrawing from all of it – the pushing and proving, the stimulation and acclamation, the coffee-on-the-go and late night work – into the desert of my beautiful little home. With the damp clothes in my hands. One peg, one piece. It’s no good charging off to bring shalom to an aching world if the home underneath our feet has begged for it, and we’ve turned a deaf ear to that cry. We need to know Him here first, and that isn’t selfish, it’s just the order of things. And how I’ve wept over it, because I wish I could get out there faster. But it’s the order of things and the more I receive it, the more my soul – with all it’s fragility and limitations – seems to expand. Exhale.
Shalom will kiss my house first.
I read a little more of Ron Rolheiser, and saw him develop this “domestic monastery” idea a little more like this: “[a mother’s] sustained contact with young children (the mildest of the mild) gives her a privileged opportunity to be in harmony with the mild [Christ].” Could this be true? My scrappy, tribe children can be feisty, explosive, rambunctious, tiresome. Just like any other children. The mildest of mild?
But then I watch Leo’s face when he stares off into the distance and I begin to sense what Fr. Rolheiser meant. His round creamy cheeks, his open eyes. His unwavering trust in me. I see it in Willow’s drawings to her sister. I love you Lily, she scrawls next to her stick figure. I see it in the way Lily paints her homemade clay donut – “It’s chocolate and cherry, Mummy,” she looks at me, without wavering in her hope that I will treasure whatever she’s made. “I’m calling it Cherry Chio.” Their purity breaks my heart. They way they open their eyes each day to the world with so much trust, so much love. With open arms, expecting goodness of all of us. They’re so mild I can hardly stand it. But I get to have “sustained contact” with it – I get to brush up with something of Christ each day. That’s what makes me slip into their rooms when they’re all asleep – straightening their duvets, kissing their warm foreheads. Christ. There in the dark, in the quiet: the mildness of mild.
Another day has passed. I slip back into my room, pull the curtains closed. Under the white duvet I sink, grateful for the electric blanket. It’s half-broken, but it warms my feet. My rooibos tea sits next to the bed, steam curling into the cold evening air. It’s true that today felt long. There were tiring parts, tedious parts, stretching parts. It was a simple day – not much to show for it except dust on the floor and sleeping babies. I feel a little thrashed around, much like those plants outside, still whipped about in the storm outside even now. But my roots drank. I saw the Carpenter a little more clearly. Shalom, you kissed my home, and for this is I give thanks.