My kids created a game that they are playing right now. I printed off complicated “adult” coloring pages for them of castles and peacocks, but they chose some limitations for themselves. Every time they want to change colors, they have to close their eyes and pick a colored pencil at random and use that one next. Poor Maggie has picked shades of grey three times in a row. She is getting quite fed up. She had intended her castle to look like an explosion of radiant hues and this is all she has to work with–grey.
Do you ever feel as though you’re painting your day with only grey? You want to make your day something beautiful, but the raw materials of your day are less glittering than grimy.
The home is sometimes a place of fasting. And like Maggie’s pencils, sometimes we balk at what’s given to us for our daily creation. Days like that always bring me back to one of my favorite quotations:
“The highest and most fruitful form of human freedom is found in accepting, even more than in dominating. We show the greatness of our freedom when we transform reality, but still more when we accept it trustingly as it is given to us day after day.
It is natural and easy to go along with pleasant situations that arise without our choosing them. It becomes a problem, obviously, when things are unpleasant, go against us, or make us suffer. But it is precisely then that, in order to become truly free, we are often called to choose to accept what we did not want, and even what we would not have wanted at any price. There is a paradoxical law of human life here: one cannot become truly free unless one accepts not always being free!
To achieve true interior freedom we must train ourselves to accept, peacefully and willingly, plenty of things that seem to contradict our freedom. This means consenting to our personal limitations, our weaknesses, our powerlessness, this or that situation that life imposes on us, and so on. We find it difficult to do this, because we feel a natural revulsion for situations we cannot control. But the fact is that the situations that really make us grow are precisely those we do not control.”
― Jacques Philippe,
I think a key element to this is that of “freedom.” We don’t feel “free” when we wipe a table full of crumbs for the 4th time that day or pace with a fussy baby at night or walk into a job with an unappreciative boss. But our freedom is not constrained by our circumstances, only by our attitude. If we “choose” these moments–these opportunities of love–they become ours.
Think of how young children will re-frame a situation. Johnny is told by his brother that he may not have the truck. So, Johnny declares, “I didn’t WANT to play with that old truck anyways. I want to play with this car.” He turns the tables by choosing the car after all.
In a less rebellious way, we can do this as well. We trudge into a messy room and our spirits sink with that feeling of “I don’t WANT to clean this.” But we can change it; “I CHOOSE to clean this room as a surprise for my husband when he gets home.” Our energy and determination changes. We have accepted that which is unpleasant for the sake of something that is good and worthy. Of course, we can also choose small sufferings as an act of love of God or an act of reparation as well. Imagine if every mother offered every task as an act of loving reparation for her sins and those of her husband and children. I believe she would be well on her way to boosting them all up to heaven. And isn’t this what we want?
I’ve been reading Dorothy Day’s collection of essays entitled “On Pilgrimage.” Her favorite quotation seems to be that of St. Catherine that “All the way to Heaven is heaven.” In other words, when our minds are fixed on our Beloved, every action done for love of Him (or even suffering for love of Him) is redeemed and blessed.
She also likes to speak often of “voluntary poverty” and part of that is the “mortification of the senses.” I don’t know about you, but that phrase always makes me think of monks wearing hair shirts or something. I can hardly bear the physical discomfort of a shirt with baby spit up on the shoulder, so I doubt if I can become hair shirt material in the next few decades. Thankfully, she tells us that our vocation already provides these opportunities for mortification. And the sacrifices accepted but not necessarily hand-picked are even more pleasing to God than a heap of hair shirts.
We try to escape, of course, either habitually or occasionally. But we never can. The point I want to make is that a woman can achieve the highest spirituality and union with God through her house and children, through doing her work which leaves her no time for thought of self, for consolation, for prayer, for reading, for what she might consider development. She is being led along the path of growth inevitably. But she needs to be told these things, instructed in these things, for her hope and endurance, so that she may use what prayer she can, to cry out in the darkness of the night.
Here is her mortification of the senses:
Her eyes are affronted by disorder, confusion, the sight of human ailments, and human functions. Her nose also; her ears tormented with discordant cries, her appetite failing often; her sense of touch in agony from fatigue and weakness.
Her interior senses are also mortified. She is alone with her little ones, her interest adapted to theirs; she has not even the companionship of books. She has no longer the gay companions of her youth (their nerves can’t stand it). So she has solitude, and a silence from the sounds she’d like to hear, conversation, music, discussion.
Of course there are consolations and joys. Babies and small children are pure beauty, love, joy–the truest in this world. But the thorns are there…
The life of a caregiver is very real and very human. And the best of us can fall into what C. S. Lewis would label in the Screwtape Letters undue “delicacy” — that little gluttony of preferences and squeamishness about what we prefer.
I have to admit that as a country girl it tickles my sense of humor when I see women with perfect “farmhouse” decor kitchens and a “Fresh Eggs” sign over the sink who can’t stand to touch an unwashed egg fresh from the coop. I remember a conversation with a neighbor once who would not touch raw meat. She would pay several dollars more a pound for chicken in a foam tray, which she could dump into the pan, rather than buy a whole roaster hen that would have to be touched, cut, or positioned with her hands. I have my own struggles with tummy bugs and trash can grit. Are we really so soft? I think God used agricultural analogies and animal sacrifices in the Bible so often to keep us fully grounded in reality. Man, you are dust and to dust you return.
Those reminders of our “dusty” element, those grey colors in our day, are given to us to purify us. They are opportunities to fast.
This simple change of perspective has been transformative for me.
When my kids are a little too exuberant for my taste first thing in the morning — I choose to fast from quiet.
When I clean up messy cheeks (on both ends of small humans) — I try to remember to choose to fast from nice smells and feelings.
When I miss adult companionship — I try to fast from social media for a few hours and just tackle the task at hand.
Adding meaning to mess matters. It helps us transcend the mess while our hands (or at least our gloves) are still in it. We are free to focus on the essentials.
Fasting gives us strength. Iota by T. M. Doran is an interesting modern novel about the fate of several P.O.W.s in a Soviet camp. Their ability to survive and retain sanity is directly connected to their ability to find meaning in drab circumstances and their previous asceticism. We may not have to survive a prison camp, but we do need to thrive in our kitchens and laundry rooms. And choosing to be brave and face our dislikes will eventually help us detach somewhat from an overwhelming “ick” response. Then, we can focus on the person in front of us 100% — the person of a child, a stranger, or Christ Himself.
Sometimes, it seems as though we’re painting in grey. But God is painting in gold right along with us. And, like the lovely creation by artist Tracie Cheng above, we may be able to look back later and see that against that dull backdrop God was slowly revealing a landscape of the heart and a bright path of ascent to greater heights of love.
Dear Jesus, make my heart like yours. Help me to persevere through the unglamorous moments of life for the sake of love. You lived a hidden life of poverty and work and obedience for thirty years with Mother Mary and Holy Joseph. Invite us into those quiet, dutiful moments with you, and help us to see in them a foundation for love and union with You. Amen.
acrylic, oil, on wood