Category Archives: Quotes and prayers

Parenting and the Peace Prayer paradox


As a forty-year-old cradle Catholic, I’ve heard these words more times than I can count:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

I’ve read these words, I’ve memorized them, I’ve sung them.  I’ve prayed them as a kid in a blue plaid uniform and as a teenager attending a high school named after St. Francis.  I thought I knew them inside and out, until I was reflecting on them a few weeks back and I suddenly realized that they capture motherhood — motherhood, in all its paradox and glory — so perfectly.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

When you have a child, you realize that your role in this universe has forever shifted.  You now have to step up to the plate and do what your parents once did for you.  You aren’t on the receiving end of the action words anymore, like you used to be when you were a kid.  You’re now the subject of the verb, the one doing the helping or the consoling or the understanding or the listening or  the comforting.

Is it hard to give and give like that?  You bet.

And yet even though you are constantly sacrificing yourself for others, and yes,  even though you may feel a little bitter about that at times, you don’t go away empty.  There’s a freedom that comes from realizing that your own little you-centered plans for the evening are not the only ones, or even the best ones.  You come to realize that playing a game on the living room rug with your kids is actually far more renewing than looking at shoes online.  In serving others, we receive our own graces, gifts we didn’t know we needed.

And when you remember that truth, parenting becomes easier.  Maybe next time, your kids won’t have to ask so many times before you finally pry yourself away from the laptop and help them set up the gameboard.  Maybe you’ll even be the one to suggest playing the game in the first place.

Because there’s a wonderful paradox to parenting: when we empty ourselves, we end up full.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Wordsworth, St. Ignatius, and motherhood

Here in California, spring arrives early.  This last week has seen an explosion of petals: pink and white blossoms are everywhere, tulip trees are unfolding their mauve loveliness, and I’m  greeted with daffodils everywhere I go.


I hate to play favorites, but there’s something about daffodils that is utterly irresistible.  Maybe it’s their bright color, which makes them look like sunshine on a stalk. Maybe it’s the fact, being bulbs, they are underground for most of the year, so it’s easy to go months forgetting their very existence.  It makes the annual riot of blooms all the more delightful.

And maybe I like them because they remind me of Wordsworth’s famous poem.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Years ago, I visited Wordsworth’s home in the Lake District.  We weren’t there during daffodil season, but it was still an intoxicatingly beautiful place with mountains and lakes and greenery and open spaces and little copses and small cottages.  If you had me pick the one place I’ve ever visited that felt like heaven on earth, the Lake District wins hands-down.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

 When I read this poem with my students,   we always talk about the contrast between the single poet – he who wanders lonely as a cloud – and the ten thousand daffodils, a golden community by the bay.  One is alone; others are together.  And though a daffodil on its own is beautiful too, a whole mass of them together is beyond breathtaking.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

 For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

 Wordsworth once famously wrote about “emotion recollected in tranquility” as being the basis for poetry.   And I think Mr. W.  put his finger on a powerful spiritual truth there.   This poem is really about the power of time and memory, isn’t it?  The poet enjoys gazing at the daffodils, but can’t begin to imagine how they will enrich his life.  It’s only later, when he keeps seeing the daffodils flash upon his “inward eye,” that he appreciates the power of those flowers.  He doesn’t even have to go out by the bay and look at them again; all it takes is the recollection of them for his heart to fill with pleasure and dance.

It strikes me that there’s something very Ignatian about this.  When you pray the Examen, you review the day and identify where you saw God in your experiences.  Sometimes, it’s only after the fact that you realize how much something – a sight, a sound, an encounter – has impacted you.  And though I doubt Wordsworth had ever studied Ignatian spirituality, he of all people would understand the power of memory, and the way that reliving an experience in one’s inward eye can lead to a sense of peace and understanding that are nearly mystical.

That’s a comforting thought for my life as a mom, too.  I’d never have thought this when the kids were newborns, but I’m starting to get scared about how quickly the days are passing.   Over the last year or so, it feels like time is a rock rolling down a hill, picking up momentum and constantly going faster and faster.  Parenting is easier now, in many ways, but there are certain experiences – the feel of a baby in my arms, the endearing wobbliness of a toddler – that I won’t experience again.  But I have my memories of those times, and every now and then they flash upon my inward eye – often sparked by a photograph, or a conversation with Scott or the boys’ grandparents – and that comforts me.   And there is a certain something I understand now about those moments that I didn’t have as I was living them.  It’s a sense of the big picture, perhaps, a clarity about how those moments made my babies into the boys they are today and made me into the woman I am today — and that clarity has its own sweetness.

It’s a short season, spring.  As I drive past the daffodils on my way to work each day, I know that their bright yellow beauty won’t be there forever.  “Nothing gold can stay,” as Robert Frost wrote, and he’s right.  And yet when you strive to live life as a poet or a saint or a mystic or a mom, you realize that the experience itself is not the end.  It’s a comfort to know that the inward eye will go on seeing, perceiving, and understanding long after the moment has passed.


When the commute is prayer

Statue of Mary at Carmel Mission, Carmel, California

A half-hour commute is a mixed blessing.  The downsides: one hour per day spent in the car; astronomical amounts of money spent on gas; near-panic when the traffic c-r-a-w-l-s and you seriously wonder if you’ll make it to the classroom before your students do.

On the upside:  a commute is lovely when you can savor the early morning sunlight and admire the quilted clouds in the sky and the fog drifting over the hills and listen, as I did this morning, to a musical rendition of Mary’s Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God  my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed…
He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
 He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty. 
He has helped Israel his servant,
remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers,
to Abraham and his descendants forever. (Luke 1: 46-55)

There is something so wonderfully, confidently subversive about these words.   Mary’s song is a statement of support for the little guy, for the disenfranchised, for the marginalized.  As a young woman living in an occupied country, Mary surely knew how it felt to be powerless.   And there is something about her song that says, God is full of surprises.  What is happening here and now is not the final chapter.  Her song also says, We are worth more than they tell us we are.  God knows that — and God wants us to know it, too.

And as I sat in the line of cars waiting to exit the freeway, I thought about how we are most like God when we see and celebrate the best in each other.  Every day presents us with hundreds of ways to do that, both with people we know, and with people we don’t know.  I sipped the dregs of my coffee and thought about what it means to see the worth in each person I encounter, and to let them see that I see it.  It seemed like a very good thing to keep in mind as I began the day.

Not every morning commute is this prayerful, believe me.  I think that’s a very good reason to remember the ones that are.

What do I wish for my children?

Baptism has been on my mind lately.  We’re drawing into the season where we remember the boys’ baptisms, and this year, I’m planning to actually celebrate those days by doing something special (a cupcake?  a tour of the photo album?  a special prayer? all of the above?).   I’m also thinking about baptism because of the book I’m reading, the excellent Raising Faith-Filled Kids by Tom McGrath.   In an early chapter, he challenges parents to think about why they want to baptize their children, and why they want to raise them in a certain faith tradition.  “What do you wish for this child?” is the question asked of parents and godparents during the rite of Catholic baptism, and as McGrath points out, that’s a great question for parents to ponder at length.  What is it that we think faith will bring to our children’s lives?  What has it brought to our own lives?

This isn’t a new topic for me, writing-wise (there’s actually a chapter in my upcoming book that looks at this very subject).   But it’s a question that fascinates me.  When you choose to raise your children in a certain faith, you are giving them so much: a community, a set of rituals, a way of understanding the world, a way of relating to others.  You are giving them a set of specific memories (in my case, memories of Sunday Masses and May crownings and Stations of the cross, memories of church hymns whose lyrics I can sing by heart thirty years later, memories of lighting candles and kneeling in prayer).  You are giving them a way to understand  things that may, on the face of it, seem to have very little to do with religion (how many times have I read a book over the years and realized that the protagonist is a Christ-figure?).   You are, hopefully, giving them tools for finding solace in life’s crises, for finding meaning when all seems meaningless.   You hope, too, that you are giving them a sense that life is precious, that the world is fundamentally good, that love is our highest calling.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t live up to the ideals of my faith all the time  (does anyone?).  And I will admit that there are times when other members of this church (often very high-profile ones) say and do things that make me wince.   Sometimes it’s hard to explain to other people why I want this faith for my kids … or even why I want it for myself .   But I do.

In a way, perhaps the best way to explain what I want for my children is to invoke the words of the late Jesuit priest Walter J. Burghardt.  I first heard of Father Burghardt in the book Why Stay Catholic? (a great read, by the way), where author Mike Leach shared the following quotation from one of Father Burghardt’s sermons.  I was so taken with what I read that I managed to get my hands on an old  copy of Father Burghardt’s book Tell the Next Generation: Homilies and Near Homilies.  Here is the passage, which comes from a sermon Father Burghardt gave  in 1973 — incidentally, the  year in which I myself was baptized:

“In the course of a half century, I have seen more Catholic corruption than you have read of.  I have tasted it.  I have been reasonably corrupt myself.  And yet I joy in this Church — this living, pulsing, sinning people of God, love it with a crucifying passion.  Why?  For all the Catholic hate, I experience here a community of love.  For all the institutional idiocy, I find here a tradition of reason . For all the individual repressions, I breathe here an air of freedom.  For all the fear of sex, I discover here the redemption of my body.  In an age so inhuman, I touch here tears of compassion.  In a world so grim and humorless, I share here rich joy and earthy laughter.  In the midst of death I hear here an incomparable stress on life.  For all the apparent absence of God, I sense here the real presence of Christ.”


Excellent question

“If evolution really works, how come mothers only have two hands?”

—  Milton Berle