There I was, standing at the kitchen sink, elbow deep in soap suds, when the fire of missionary zeal came over me. I was listening to Catholic radio (or maybe one of my DVD’s or lectures on CD) while I did the dishes, and someone was talking about Mother Teresa. They related a story of Mother Teresa answering questions about her spirituality, about how she was able to carry on her work year after year despite its grueling—even crushing—difficulty. How did she do it? What drove her? What sustained her? Mother Teresa answered by taking the hand of her interlocutor in her own, and touching each of his five fingers as she said five words: “You. Did. It. For. Me.”
I know I’d heard those words from Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 25, 35-45) many times before, but they had never really sunk in. This time the seed fell on fertile ground. I don’t know why, if it was just that the moment had arrived and I was finally ready to “get it,” or the skill of the story teller, but whatever it was, for the first time the words penetrated past my brain and got into my heart. The power of that Scripture verse reached down and grabbed me by the lapels (actually, the frayed edges of my grape-juice stained t-shirt), and suddenly I felt like Imogene Herdman in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, when “Christmas just came over her all at once, like a case of chills and fever. And so she was crying, and walking into the furniture.”
I wasn’t crying or walking into furniture, but I took my hands out of the soap suds and turned off the radio and just stood there.
Here was a concrete way to live the Gospel. Even more, here was a command from Jesus. And here was an actual way to serve Jesus Himself in the flesh, here and now. Not just symbolically or metaphorically—but person to person, amid all the messiness of this very moment. I didn’t need to wait for some mythical “ideal circumstances” to present themselves—like enough time to spend all day in Eucharistic adoration, or money to found a new hospital, or a Master’s degree in pastoral ministry, or until I finished reading the entire Summa. I could help Jesus right here and now, even while slogging through the muddy trenches of this hectic, too-much-to-do, daily life in a fallen world.
And I knew: I must do this.
I had to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, comfort the afflicted, clothe the naked . . .
“Dad,” my four year old walked in the kitchen, “could I have some Goldfish crackers?”
“Sure, sure,” I answered, distracted. I got a plastic bowl down from the kitchen cabinet and filled it with crackers. “There you go, honey.” I tussled her hair and sent her back out.
Where was I? Oh yes: corporal works of mercy. Me. I must do them, but . . .
“Hey Dad,” now the three year old came in. “Do you have any more of those Goldfish?”
“Yeah,” I got another bowl down and filled it. “Here you go, Little Love.”
Missionary fire. Christian zeal. It was burning me up. I was ready to go out and change the world, all I needed was to find someone to help . . .
“Diaper!” this time it was the one year old walking in, announcing a state of affairs which my nose was able to detect all on its own.
“Ok, Little Man,” I told him and scooped him up. “Let’s go get you a brand new diaperie-doodle and get you back out on the road.”
I took him to the changing table and attended to the matters at hand. The whole time I was wracking my brain, where should I seek some corpuses (corpi? corporals?) to heap my mercies upon?
I sang our diaper changing song as I worked: “It’s the snappy nappy removal service, we’re here just for you. The snappy nappy removal service, we’ll get that nasty nappy off of you!” etc. It’s a tune of our own devising, and has several verses (enough to keep a young one occupied through even the longest of diaper changes, if needed). And at the conclusion of operations I always announce: “There you go, a new diaper, fresh as a morning breeze!” (“Nappy”, by the way, is what they call a diaper in England, and it’s a lot easier to find rhymes for “nappy” than “diaper” if you find yourself crafting a multi-verse diaper-changing shanty.)
When I finished I told the Little Man, “There you go, fresh as a morning breeze! You’re all ready for action!” and put him down on the ground.
“Action!” he beamed and toddled off again, little arms pumping.
I went back to my room of rumination (the kitchen), and on the way was gratified to see that the older two were doing well, eating their snacks and drawing with crayons—and actually on paper this time, which is always a bonus.
With all appearing safe and tranquil, I returned to resume my missionary meditations among the half-washed pile of pots and pans.
But not for long . . . no sooner had I struck a pensive pose, placing my hands on my hips and knitting my brows together in my most serious look of cogitative concentration, than angry wails erupted from the living room.
Uggh, no more time to think about this now. I could see it was getting late, dinner time was calling, and the natives were getting restless—I better get on with the business of the evening. I grabbed the pen off the top of the microwave and scribbled a reminder to myself on the paper I keep there, “You did it for me,” and ran out to see what sort of catastrophe was brewing.
As an aside, I keep a pen and piece of paper on top of the microwave to write notes to myself, since it’s rare to go more than a few minutes without interruption, which tends to reduce my brain to a flitting cloud of unfinished thoughts, like a jumble of sparrows darting about helter skelter before disappearing into the clear blue sky. In his book My Early Life, 1874-1904, Winston Churchill described his own experience with this evanescence of thought after a mystical encounter he once had with the mysteries of mathematics:
I had a feeling once about Mathematics—that I saw it all. Depth beyond depth was revealed to me—the Byss and Abyss. I saw—as one might see the transit of Venus or even the Lord Mayor’s Show—a quantity passing through infinity and changing its sign from plus to minus. I saw exactly why it happened and why the tergiversation was inevitable but it was after dinner and I let it go.
Only for me it’s more chores that need doing and groceries that need getting, like those cotton-balls for an art project, than wonders of the cosmos.
But, having now scrawled my note to myself, I rushed out to restore peace and harmony among the nations. It turned out to be mostly fatigue and hunger catching up with the three year old, spilling over into a meltdown sparked by a perceived inequality in the distribution of crayons and construction paper in the joint art project underway with her sister. But the real issue was the need for snuggle time. So I picked her up and held her and rocked her, then when everyone was calm again, acted as mediator brokering a new resource allocation.
Now, better get the food going, or the worst would still be yet to come.
I could feel the intensity of my Christian zeal fading, succumbing to the constant demands from tugging little hands, slowly going out like a fire being extinguished by a thousand tiny drips from a Sippy cup. I still hadn’t figured out what to do or who to do it for, but the moment was slipping away. It was like that great song by Cathy Fink & Marci Marxer, “Orange Cocoa Cake,” where two moms are talking on the phone, with one trying to tell a recipe to the other, but she keeps getting interrupted by her kids and never does get through the whole thing. Only now it was my spiritual calling instead of a recipe. If only I could get a second to think! Didn’t these kids know that I had a vocation? It was out there somewhere, if I could just find it!
But the tide and toddler-dinner-time wait for no man. “Daddy’s going to start cooking,” I told my wee ones, “so you’ve got about 40 minutes to color before we’ll be eating.”
When the one year old heard the word “cooking” he yelled “Cook!” and came running for the kitchen. He loves helping Daddy cook, which at this stage mostly means that I hold him while I work and he narrates everything I do. “Onion!” he’ll exclaim. “Yes, that’s right Little Bro,” I respond, “an onion.” “Chop!” he declares. “You know it,” I say, “we’re going to chop this up and sauté it in some butter.” And so on. Our culinary dialectic continues right through to setting the table. Who knows, the Little Man may do play-by-play color-commentary someday—for the Food Network.
Working together the Little Man and I managed to finish washing the dishes, cook dinner, and set the table, all the while making frequent forays into the living room to ensure that art supply justice and artist equanimity was maintained. About ten minutes before it was time to eat, I asked the girls to clean up and come to the table.
And so together as a family we wended our wandering way toward dinner. When everything was ready, we all sat at the table together and said our prayers, and as we started to eat I asked: “So, what was your favorite thing today?” We usually begin dinner with this question, and as we each recount something good from our day the conversation gets rolling. This time the talk got around to show-and-tell at pre-school tomorrow, and in a sudden panic I remembered I still had to wash a load of socks. When I went to the kitchen to fetch a gallon of milk to fill the kids’ cups, I stopped at my microwave writing station to record the very important note: “Wash socks” and punctuated it with “!” before heading back to the table.
But as I hurried out with milk, my eye caught the earlier note, “You did it for me,” and in another flash I suddenly realized, as I’d heard Danielle Bean say once on another Catholic radio show, that the kids weren’t a distraction from my vocation, they were my vocation. And it finally struck me that parenting was my daily opportunity to answer the call, “You did it for me,” right here, right now.
Then I remembered another thing Mother Teresa said: “Love begins by taking care of the closest ones—the ones at home.”
And: “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.”
(I’ve got two sisters with strong devotions to Mother Teresa, and they’ve provided me with a steady stream of Mother Teresa quotes, books, and devotionals over the years, giving me a pretty good store of her wisdom ready to hand.)
Standing there in the kitchen once again, this time with a gallon of milk instead of soap suds, it finally struck me that I didn’t need to go searching, my missionary fields were right in front of me—tiled in linoleum! Which, looking back on it, is probably the reason I finally “got” those words from Matthew’s gospel—because I needed them: there was a message in that passage of Scripture for this season of my life, so Grace pried open my heart and poured it in.
Not that it isn’t still good—and necessary—to reach beyond our own homes (see again Mt 25, 35-45 and also see Mt 5, 43-48). But for those of us who are parents, there can be times when our hearts burn to do something big, and we want to go out and take on the world and, you know, make a difference, but we can sometimes feel distracted or detoured or weighed down by the demands of our own homes. That’s when it’s good to remember that this is something big, and we parents are making a difference, changing the world one person at a time, moment by moment, day by day, in taking care of what God has entrusted to us here and now in our own families.
It’s even more important to remember on the other days—when it feels like your only accomplishment was finishing off the ice cream tub to make more room in the freezer, and you’d rather shut the door on the world than take it on. When nothing goes right, and it all seems too much and the joy is hard to find, those are days to remember the tremendous charge—and opportunity—for serving God, and transforming the world, that He has given us in our own families. It’s hard work, no doubt about it. But it’s important work, and it’s worth all the effort, heart and soul we pour into it—every last interruption, sleepless night, and wiped-up spill of it.
Copyright 2014 Jake Frost