Thursday, April 28, 2011

My Monastery is a Minivan

When we purchased our new-to-us car two years ago, I was pleased to be able to convince my husband that it was not really a minivan. Let’s be honest, though; once he saw that it came with an aftermarket roof-rack perfect for skis or a canoe, he didn’t really care what it was or wasn’t. What was more difficult was convincing my then 4 year old son that the new car was not a trash can. Even with the installation of a seat back trash receptacle, it's a daily battle to keep snack wrappers and chewing gum off of the floor of my car.
In her collection of essays on encountering the divine in the daily life of a parent, psychologist, mother and practicing Catholic Denise Roy describes how she has come to understand her own minivan to be a divine space - that the regular hours she keeps in it are reminiscent of the calls to prayer in the life of a monastic, and that the fingerprint smudges and who knows what that cover the windows of her car are in fact just as illustrative as stained glass, through which the light of God can be reflected.
Our mothers' group read this book together a few years ago, and the collection is diverse enough in its examples that almost everyone was able to find some element or story to which they could relate. Probably most apt was her chapter-opening quote from British author Fay Weldon: “The greatest advantage of not having children must be that you can go on believing that you are a nice person. Once you have children, you realize how wars start.”

Two passages from her collection were most meaningful to me both when I first read the book and when I reread it for this entry.
The collection is almost entirely focused on finding the holy in the ordinary, and she shares a story from her own childhood at 4 years old:
It is still dark, although I sense that morning is coming. I hear someone in the other room, and so I climb out of bed and creep down the hallway toward the light. Through sleepy eyes I see my mother in the dining room, ironing clothes by the light of a lamp. On the table there is a large laundry basket filled with my father’s shirts and my play outfits. My mother smiles, surprised to see me awake at such an early hour. She pulls up a chair for me to sit on, and I watch as she sprinkles the clothes with the water from a glass soda bottle that is fitted with a plastic nozzle. After we talk awhile, she sets down the iron and looks at me. “Since you are such a big girl now, would you like a cup of coffee?” Incredulous that I am being given this symbol of adulthood, I nod eagerly. She pours me a cup that has more sugar and milk than coffee in it, and as I sip, I am warmed by a deep sense of connection.
It is humbling, as a parent to realize what it is that children remember. All of our many efforts to provide them with fancy gifts or exciting trips may not, in the end, matter as much as the feeling they get when they sit in a tree or on our lap. For all of us, the memories that contain the greatest joys are usually of times when we felt connected – to ourselves, to nature, to our parents, to God. Even though these moments happened many years ago, we continue to carry within us something of their holiness.
Later in her collection she talks about the importance of community in the life of faith:
I am sitting here in the church pew, surrounded by people who are in everyday life, engineers, kindergarten teachers, salespeople, surgeons, lawyers, CEO’s, unemployed, secretaries, moms, dads, grandparents, single folks, widows, and children. But in here, we are simply a little community of ordinary people journeying together in faith.
I’ve tried to live without such a community. It was easy to stay in my nice isolated world and not have to deal with the inevitable irritations and difficulties that arise when strangers come together. But this isolation eventually caught up with me, and I realized that self-sufficiency is overrated. I missed the stories, the rituals, the examples of compassion and kindness, the companionship of others. I missed having a spiritual home, a place where people help each other find God.
So here I am in this pew. It’s not always comfortable. Community is a mirror, one in which we will see our best face and our worst. A spiritual community is not only the place where we go about the work of transforming the world; it is also the place of our transformation. Sometimes I’d rather interact only with certain people, especially with those who think like me or act in ways I approve of. But growth requires that I move out of my narrow and separate world.
The experience of being in a community reminds me of the practice in Korea of washing potatoes. I read that in that country, when people want to wash a lot of dirty potatoes, they don’t wash them one at a time. They put them all in a tub of water. Then they put a stick in the tub and move it up and down, causing the potatoes to bump up against one another. As they bump into one another, the hard dirt covering them is loosened and falls off. It would take a long time to wash these potatoes one by one; by putting them all together, they can help clean one another.
This is why I choose to be in a community of faith. When we join hands, our prayers and our lives bump up against one another, and something holy is made in the process.
If there were only two things I could ever convey to parents it would be these: that what the world tells us our children need pales in comparison to their need to feel connected to us; and that raising a child to practice and express their own faith cannot be done well without the experience of a faith community.
My Monastery is a Minivan: Where the Daily is Divine and the Routine Becomes Prayer, Denise Roy, Loyola Press, 2001.

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