I am outdoors in the late afternoon and sitting cross-legged on a quilt from which I can view the garden. This spot, under the shade of a large sugar maple—the setting idyllic and agrarian—should be perfect for quiet prayer. But it’s not.
I think I am emerging from the haze of an anxiety that caught hold of me when my baby was three months old: panic attacks and mind-spiraling fears that left me feeling unbalanced and overwhelmed.
As the primary caregiver for my three children, I regard their naptimes as precious hours. During their naps I am alone and try to pull myself out of the storm. Today, however, my baby is rebelling against naptime. Swinging her in the hammock beside me has become the only way I can get her to sleep.
So I rock her with one hand, my mind wandering to the practices of mystics like Simone Weil and Father Thomas Keating who have begun to keep me company when the house is dark at night and a book light is the only way I can see their words. My turbulent mind has been drawn to their strange and mysterious relationships with God and the deep encounters many of them seem to experience.
I close my eyes briefly and imagine that the silence will last longer than a few moments. That centering prayer might bring me to Thomas Merton’s hermitage at Gethsemani, where I can share a beer with the monk. Or help me to be more like Weil, who, however extreme her faith practices, had a sensual assurance of the nearness of God: “I do not need any hope or any promise in order to believe that God is rich in mercy. I know this wealth of his with the certainty of experience; I have touched it.”
Sometimes it feels like I don’t have the space to feel God’s presence. The Christian contemplatives seem to dwell in places of constant search, marked by times of quietness and times of agony, periods that lead them into a deeper relationship with God. Many of them monastics and nuns, they all appear to live in extremities of solitude, silence, and prayer, where distractions are mostly internal.
Clearly these contemplatives didn’t have three young children. My solitude is extreme only in its absence.
The baby teases me with fluttering eyes and a half-awake grin. I rock her more vigorously knowing that my preschooler will soon come outside and want me to push him on the swing. Before long we will hear the heavy breathing of a school bus down a country road bringing their older sister home from school. My quiet time is slipping away.
Did I take a pass on mysticism when I became a mother and not a nun? Distractions abound and solitude takes so much energy. Henri Nouwen, another contemplative, gives me a little hope. He says that the ancient contemplatives didn’t use prayer time to get away from the distractions of life: “For them solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is the place of conversion where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occurs.”As much as I love to read Weil, Keating, and Merton, I find Nouwen’s words hit closest to home. Surely this is because he spent his time, not behind cloistered walls, but in community with those who needed extra care. He spoke to pastors and community members, to men and women alike. The field of mystics is so full of single white males that sometimes I wonder what will happen to me if I practice their prayers.
Where are the voices that can speak to me in my fumbling towards mysticism? Where are the mother mystics? The grandmothers who spent hours rocking their babies and grandbabies to sleep? The widows and the people of color? The single women who have given their lives to community? Do they have something to say about finding God’s presence in the midst of distraction?
Could they teach me something about finding a mystical union with God because of the duties of my life? Could motherhood and womanhood, in general, be a place where the old self dies? Could the mother mystics teach me that contemplative prayer with young children is its own spiritual practice, the practice of embracing futility?
When the baby finally relents and drops to sleep in the hammock, I am desperate with relief. I relax on the quilt to pray. In the stillness, the sweat bees begin to collect, loving the taste of my exertion. They hover around me, darting up and down against my skin in turns. After a few minutes of swatting, the pointlessness becomes overwhelming and I take the baby inside.
Maybe tomorrow I will be a mystic mother.
Christiana N. Peterson grew up in Texas and received a PhD in Creative Writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland. She has published poetry at Catapult, Curator, and Literary Mama as well as articles on fairytales and farm life at Art House America, her.meneutics, and cordella. She lives with her family in rural Illinois in an intentional community where she is learning the joys and challenges of church and farm life. You can find more of Christiana’s work on her blog thebeautyofthishour.wordpress.com and follow her on twitter.