Two years ago my relationship with God took a nosedive. It wasn’t some terrible tragedy that started the downward spiral. It wasn’t the problem of evil, or doubts about my faith, or a lack of trust in God.
I had a baby.
Before the baby, my time was my own and I had a lot of it—though I didn’t realize it then. I spent time in solitude. Went on retreats. Kept journals. Thought about things.
After the baby, my time belonged to a tiny human being who kept odd hours, filled diapers with astonishing frequency, and depended on me as the sole source of her food. Solitude was a distant memory. Retreats were out of the question. My journal gathered dust, and I was too tired to think. Deprived of the spiritual disciplines on which I had depended for a decade and intruded upon by a miniature third party whose highest priority was her own comfort, my relationship with God faltered. I looked forward to the day when I could use my time as I pleased. It was a discouragingly long way off.
In Listening for the Soul, Jean Stairs offers a different perspective. “The ordinary events of our experience,” she argues, “should not be in the way or apart from the way to living in the presence of God, but the way to it.” If this is right, then midnight feedings and diaper changes—the ordinary events of my suddenly-hijacked life—are, somehow, the way to the presence of God.
Silence and solitude are indispensable spiritual disciplines, but to practice them requires some measure of control over one’s time and some measure of independence. Control and independence are some of our highest cultural ideals, but they are not a new mother’s reality.
My downward spiral slowed and then reversed when I began to work not against the tied-down nature of my new existence, but with it. Sitting down to feed the baby became a reminder at regular intervals throughout the day to offer a prayer of gratitude to God for the way he sustains my life. Being always available to another human being became an opportunity for reflection on the nature of a God who never sleeps and always is available to all. The fierce love I felt for this baby paled in comparison, I realized, to God’s love for his people.
The Christian tradition is rich with examples of people who lived with an awareness of God’s presence in the most mundane of circumstances. Brother Lawrence reveled in the presence of God while washing dishes (The Practice of the Presence of God). St. Augustine wrote an extended meditation on God’s provision to him through the ordinary medium of his mother’s milk (Confessions). Jean Stairs refers to the awareness of God’s presence and provision in the midst of the hustle and bustle of everyday life as “noisy contemplation.” For parents of young kids, it often seems there is no other kind! But if Brother Lawrence could sanctify the time he spent washing dirty dishes, who’s to say we can’t do the same with time spent changing dirty diapers?