I would be a much more spiritual person if I didn’t need to clean the kitchen.
We belong to two parishes, and both these parishes offer excellent adult education programs on matters of faith. Both offer various types of prayer groups. Sometimes the programs are in the evenings, other times they’re on weekends. They’re offered in all the church seasons of the year.
And Bill and I hardly go to anything.
We haven’t always been like this. In college, I went to just about every spiritual or social justice program Marquette University offered. As young adults, Bill and I attended Theology on Tap religiously. We stayed after church for the Advent and Lenten series. We joined the home-based discussion groups. We were Involved in Our Church.
Now, we go to church on Sunday, and I’m very active in the kids’ school, but we no longer do much in terms of our own continuing spiritual education. And I’m blaming the kitchen. Okay, not just the kitchen. I’ll also blame the laundry and the sticky floor and the school papers that breed and multiply if left alone for more than 12 hours. And I’m blaming the kitchen and laundry and the floor because I don’t want to blame the children.
The truth is that each successive child has made it that much harder to leave for an evening or weekend afternoon. It’s not just a babysitting issue — although that’s part of it. A bigger problem for me, is children make everything take longer. When Bill and I were first married, we could clean up the kitchen after dinner in 10 or 15 minutes. Six o’ clock dinner, with a seven o’clock program at church? No problem. There were only two plates to clean and a pot to scrub. The floor didn’t even need sweeping. We had two adults to do this tiny bit of work, uninterrupted. That same job, eleven years and three children later, takes three to four times as long. Not only are there more dishes, there’s one fewer adult to do the work, as someone needs to restrain the two-year-old from “helping” too much. The parent left to clean, while having the help of the seven and 11-year-old, is simultaneously cleaning, teaching young boys to clean, and often re-cleaning after the young boys. The floor that didn’t need sweeping after the two-adult dinner, sometimes needs a bulldozer after the two-adult, three-kid dinner. And after spaghetti, the walls near the high chair need to be wiped down or repainted.
The kitchen-cleaning example can be multiplied by every chore in the house — there’s more laundry, more toys to pick up, more papers to sort — and less time to do everything. And I’m not a person who needs a dust-free, bookshelf alphabetized environment— anyone who has seen my home knows I’m far from being a perfectionist. I don’t go to church programs not because I’m afraid of imperfection in my home— it’s because I’m afraid an hour or two away from it will tilt us into chaos.
And yet, even as I write this, glancing across the hall at the boys’ room, where their drawer is so jammed full of unfolded underwear, it won’t even close, I know I’m talking about something that is and is not an excuse at the same time.
This past Advent, after feeding the family frozen pizza for dinner one night, I actually made it to a women’s night of reflection at church. As I eased myself into the chair, I mentioned to the woman next to me, also a mother, that I was able to “extract myself from my life,” and make it to the program. She nodded in recognition.
Jesus made it pretty clear that one of the requirements of discipleship is a willingness to extract ourselves from our lives. He asked Peter to put down his net and follow him. He told Martha to stop worrying so much about preparing the meal, and sit down and talk with him. Jesus expected different things of both of these people, and I think he bases his expectations partly on where they were in their lives. I’m aware that at this point in my life, God isn’t asking me to completely stop my work and go to a meaningful church program each evening. God is the one, after all, who saw fit to lend me these three children to look after during my stay here — and that includes the spaghetti flinger.
But I think God is asking me to do more than I am doing. Bill and I have both noticed that while we had more time to give to spirituality in our twenties, a little time of grace and reflection goes a longer way now that we’re in our thirties. It’s almost as if God recognizes that we have so little free time and rushes to meet us where we are. Jesus, in fact, wasn’t asking Martha to stop working for the rest of her life — but rather just to give him a little time for that evening.
For me, the challenge is in recognizing when Jesus is at my door— in hearing him tell me to put down my work. The challenge is finding a balance between entering into the pace of life with three children, and extracting myself from that life. The challenge is giving God that opportunity to rush to meet me.