There’s something inside you waiting to unfurl. It is quietly growing beneath the surface. You can feel it gathering itself up, the momentum of its growth building. How it began is a mystery. What it will become is yet to be seen—even to you. But in its time, if you nurture it well, it will bloom.
“I understand now,” she said slowly. My mom sighed deeply and shook her head like she was trying to shake off the realization that had settled over her. “Seeing the way you interact with the people, seeing how you are here…” her voice trailed off as she gestured toward the old city street bustling locals and tourists entering shops. “You’re different somehow,” she finished after a pause. “You come alive,” she said as she placed her drink down on the table, every move deliberate as if the words pained her.
I wasn’t exposed to much diversity as a child in the middle-class Bible belt of suburban Georgia. I don’t know why this hunger had been churning and rumbling inside me or why it founds its place of rest and belonging the moment I stepped off a plane onto Asian soil.
I was twenty-one before I ever traveled outside the borders of America. It wasn’t for lack of trying before but my parents said no to that trip in high school and my college study abroad plans fell through. I couldn’t name this burning desire that had always been germinating inside of me. It longed to connect to something I couldn’t see—somewhere out there. As soon as I could pay my own way and had the chance, I was gone.
In the next ten years, I traveled to eight countries and lived in South Asia and the Middle East. I dragged my mom to Hindu temples and Bollywood movies. She came to watch my classical Indian dance performance and listened to me practice my broken Arabic with at the Lebanese restaurant where she warily tried shwarma. But she never connected with the cultures for which I had an insatiable appetite. I was growing in a direction that took me far away.
My first Bharata Natyam teacher explained my immediate aptitude for the complex Indian dance form as something I was born into. “You must have been a devadasi (Hindu temple dancer) in a past life.” My South Asian friends laugh sometimes at my ready acceptance of their culture—“Sister, you are more Bengali than we are.”
Fourteen years after my first steps outside of my home country, my mom and I sat together in a café tucked inside the ancient cobbled walls of the Arab Quarter of old Jerusalem. It was her first trip overseas in her adult life and my first chance to show her the world I loved. I knew the admission pained her, to say that she finally understood it, in her own way. It was a relinquishing of sorts—releasing me to something that threatened to take me (and my family) from her side...
A gentle whisper in my ear broke through my early morning dream. I sat up quickly when the sunlight filtering through our red paisley curtains cast a crimson glow across my son’s face. The unwelcome light accused me and immediately my self-berating thoughts began:
"I did it again. I promised this day would be different. I would get up while it was still dark and spend time with God. I know I need it and it is a new year. I can’t do anything right."
“Play with me, mommy?” My six-year old's big brown eyes danced with hope as I was caught up in my inner dialogue of despair. My first instinct was to decline his request and send him on his way. My husband and daughter’s snores told me I could hand my son an electronic device and still have time to hit my yoga mat before they woke.
In the split second between his request and my response, there was a war raging inside my head. I thought back to the previous day when I sat at the dining room table with papers scattered all around. My half filled out bullet journal from last year sat there mocking me. You failure, the uncompleted to-do lists said. The daily gratitude page was half filled out, telling me I was ungrateful. You're lazy, said the books I intended to read but hadn’t. The pieces I needed to have already written because deadlines were looming, calling me: Procrastinator. And worse of all, the scriptures I hadn’t memorized, the devotional I was reading that I was weeks behind on said: Bad Christian.
I ripped out the accusing pages one by one. I stared at the crumpled mess on the floor and wanted to shout at them, "You don’t define me. I am going to change. This time will be different." After over three decades of living with this inner dialogue, I know my tendencies by now. I’m all or nothing. If I can’t follow through with every stroke of my schedule, the whole plan is abandoned. If I say I am going to get up and workout, read my Bible, and pray every morning and instead oversleep (again), then I will go the whole day without doing any of those things. I’ve already failed, so what’s the point in trying?
All those stories so ingrained in my early upbringing in the faith run through my mind. Meant to encourage us towards spiritual disciplines, these stories set a bar of perfectionism I have been trying to attain every since. There was the one about a certain man of faith who never once missed a day reading his Bible. When he got sick towards the end of his life, his wife sat by his hospital bed and read it to him each day. There is the man praised because he didn’t miss a single Sunday of church even when his child was sick in the hospital or the woman who showed up to rock babies every weekend for decades. I was always told faithfulness to a task proves faithfulness to God…thus I am unfaithful.
This bent towards perfectionism has been killing me for years, snuffing out a fire of intimacy with God that used to burn brightly. And I’m so tired of it...
I didn’t know how much I would miss the “feeling” I have come to associate with Christmas. It starts when the air turns crisp and the leaves crackle under your feet. It’s this intangible excitement that comes along with the lights and the parties, the stories to be read and cookies to be baked. It’s this atmosphere of anticipation when people say, “It feels like Christmas.”
There are no lights this year around town nor any signs of the season. We have moved to a country where Christmas isn’t celebrated in the same way. It’s celebrated under brightly colored canopies hung in the courtyards of the few churches that meet together, in advent candles and carols sung. It’s celebrated quietly in homes where the few Christ followers meet. As I’ve been dreaming of a white Christmas (as I longingly looked at pictures of snow from friends online, in awe because we rarely get snow this early in the year in my deep south American hometown), I’ve been given something of a gift. I’ve been given a small Christmas.
It doesn’t feel much like a gift at first. The ache for the familiar felt like it had a vice grip on my heart as others said, “Oh you’re so lucky you are escaping the commercialism that has taken over Christmas and advent.” Maybe that’s true but is it wrong to just want a peppermint mocha and some pumpkin pie to get me into the spirit? And don’t get me started on the mental hoops I jumped through explaining how Santa would still visit even though most people in our country don’t celebrate Christmas at all. I felt like I was missing something vital to give my small children in this place...
“A sacrifice to be real must cost, must hurt, and must empty ourselves. Give yourself fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in his love than in your weakness.” —Saint Teresa of Calcutta
After the tears finally stopped flowing, I scooped him up in my lap and looked him straight in the eyes. “You are wonderfully made,” I tell him. “You think mommy loves you? God loves you so much more. You are His masterpiece.”
It was only a small incident at school that set off my son’s meltdown. He was having trouble with personal space, as active five-year-old boys tend to do. But when he saw me, he melted into the tears of one grieved by a great failure, insisting he was bad. My heart broke as I saw shame in those heavily lashed chestnut eyes.
We talked a few minutes and he accepted the consequence of no technology with a, “yep, I deserved that” nod. He turned to go but I returned his gaze to me and said, “Now what are you to God?” He fidgeted and squirmed, suddenly uncomfortable in my arms. “No, I’m not a masterpiece,” he insisted. Finally, he conceded, repeated what he knew he should have said and ran off to play.
Left alone in the silence, I felt raw and exposed. I want to shelter him from the years I have spent shrouded in guilt and doubt. I want him to be firmly established in who God is and who he is as His child. Only a few years old, the world is already teaching him the same lessons it taught me: You are too weak to be good; You not enough; You’re not worthy. Were these tears that stung my eyes for him—or for me?
I devour the stories I read with my kids about God’s “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love,” which are so different than the King James Bible I read as a child. I tell them about grace and love, trying to focus more on the motive than the behavior. But each time I tell them these things, I am telling myself. I have to preach grace to myself every day. Because my own weakness is all I have believed in for so very long ...
I sigh as I tug on the hem of the cleaning gloves for what feels like the hundredth time and wipe another fingerprint off the wall with the magic eraser that is all but torn to shreds. Now that we are getting our house ready to sell, I notice every smudge and imperfection made by little fingers. Each one represents another chunk of time, another task to do before the deadline we have set for getting ready to move. It seems all those little segments of time add up to more hours than I have available these days. The practical has been pushing the spiritual out of my life and my soul is parched. I ache for quiet moments to seek God like I used to, those precious days I get to retreat to the monastery or go to a writer's conference. I am fortunate to have those opportunities but then I return to "real" life and I long to be able to find quiet in my every day for the spiritual practices that feed my soul.
But I also know that time slips away so easily and I don't want to wish away the hours with these little ones that won't be little for much longer, my nearly eight-year-old already turning into a young woman in front of me. When I take a few minutes out of my dinner preparation to pour red and yellow paint onto a plate and brush it onto their eager hands, I notice how much more paint it requires these days. I have stacks of handprint pictures from their preschool years but we haven't done this in a while. Their fingers barely fit on the page and I'm startled at how sad it makes me. It's funny how I laminate and treasure these little fingerprints, evidence of how tiny they once were. But those same precious marks don't seem so precious when found on my clean walls.
As I working mom of two, I have found the noise of life to be overwhelming. Hence the desire for this place online I created two years ago (with a 5 and 3-year-old at the time) seeking to help myself and others find God's voice in all the real and virtual noise of life. I have explored new spiritual practices (like examen, silence, keeping the church calendar) and tried the same methods that I want to work but can't seem to make fit into my life anymore (waking early to read the Bible, journaling, online women's studies).
I remember the first time I heard about Brother Lawrence, the famed seventh-century monk who wrote The Practice of the Presence of God about finding God in the common daily tasks of the abbey. I thought this is what I need, wisdom in finding God in ordinary life. I read the small book eagerly, and while his words are an inspiration, I still found it difficult to relate the practices of a French monk to my schedule in which I am either taking care of someone or working most every waking hour of the day until the house is quiet and my mind is incapable of anything more substantial than a conversation or television show.
So, here I am - busy mom, wanna-be contemplative, failing at the practice of God's presence - and a friend asked me to read her new book on motherhood and spiritual disciplines. Honestly, at first, I thought, oh, another thing I don't have time for. Another book to tell me what I should be doing and I'll try for a little bit but then just end up feeling guilty I am not doing better at it. I picked up the book at a retreat and read the back cover: "Rich, soul inspiring practices for moms who have neither quiet nor time." I was intrigued.
The more I talked to Catherine that weekend and connected with her humor, her wisdom - I knew I had to read it. I opened the book on the plane ride home that weekend and in just the first few pages I knew this wasn't the "do more" mom book I had been expecting. It was the how-to practice God's presence in the midst of the noise of motherhood book I never thought anyone would write. It was the Practice of the Presence of God for 21st-century women. It was more than soul-inspiring to me. It was life-giving.
So, I'll let Catherine tell you a bit more about her heart behind the book and hope you find it as rich a tool in your journey towards God as I did.
Thank you! I’m a mom with three kids (and a few part time jobs). I love to read and garden. I love to study theology and ancient cultures. I’m always trying to learn something new. I enjoy getting to know my neighbors and learning how different people see the world. I love to explore how theology impacts our real, physical lives…and how our real lives impact theology. I’m enamored by the creation of new life but find that working in the garden is less exhausting than pregnancy.
Now, introduce us to your book Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.
Long Days of Small Things is a book that looks at the real life work we do in our everyday lives, and finds God right here in the midst of it. It’s a book for moms (or dads…or grandparents…or caregivers…) who know they don’t have any extra time or energy, but still want a way to connect with God and discover how to find Him.
How do you do that in Long Days of Small Things?
In each chapter I tell stories from our real lives—the seasons and stages of motherhood, pregnancy and delivery, infant days, sleepless nights, caring for children of all ages—and the tasks that fill them. I look at spiritual tools that already hide there—like sacrifice, surrender, service, perseverance, and celebration—and consider how we can open our eyes to the spiritual boot camp we walk through every day. Without adding anything extra to our live or to-do lists, we practice so many disciplines every moment of the day.
Why did you decide to write Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline?
A few years ago I was a work-from-home mom with a baby, a toddler, and a preschooler. These precious, demanding children took me all the way to the end of my rope…and left me there indefinitely! My life changed in every way, yet I heard only the same spiritual prescriptions I’d always heard: spend quite time each day with God. Find 30-60 minutes each day to be in silence and solitude before the Lord. As I considered the classic spiritual practices (which I love!)—prayer, worship, fasting, meditation, service, solitude, etc.—it became abundantly clear that the realities of motherhood meant I was likely to fail. Or opt out entirely.
But my spirit didn’t allow me to do that. I heard a lament rising in the hearts of the women around me—I have nothing left, nothing left to care for myself or give to God. But as I looked at the actual seasons and tasks of motherhood, I was convinced that there was no better “boot camp” for my soul. Each day we mothers create, we nurture. Each day we are pushed to the end of ourselves and must surrender, sacrifice, and persevere. Each day we serve, pouring ourselves out. We empty ourselves for those in our care—and isn’t this emptiness the very reliance on God that the spiritual disciplines are designed to produce?
I’m convinced that motherhood is doing an eternal work on my soul, even if I’m too exhausted and overwhelmed to notice just now.
What are the “Practices” that you describe in Long Days of Small Things?
At the end of each chapter, I list three things we are doing already—things like walking, eating, driving, changing diapers, going to work. And I explore how we can use these things, already in our daily routines and schedules, to awaken to God’s presence with us. Moms often don’t have time to add additional tasks and tools into our days, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use the tasks already there! In fact, in many cases, I think these natural things are the most effective.
How has motherhood impacted your understanding of spirituality?
We think of spirituality as something that happens in our minds, in silence. We are taught that our bodies, our mess and complications and noise hold us back from being with God. That doesn’t leave a lot of hope for moms, whose pregnant or post-partum bodies, newborns, toddlers, and van-full of carpool kids have no end of loud, messy, physical, chaotic needs.
But God made us, didn’t He? Genesis describes Him getting in the dirt and forming us from the dust by hand, then breathing His own breath into our mouths. That’s pretty physical and messy! Then He actually took on a body Himself. The King of Kings wiggled around in a woman’s womb, surrounded by amniotic fluid. He entered the world through her birth canal. God was born, you guys. That’s our Good News.
All this physical stuff that we feel keeps us from Him is the same stuff He used to meet with us, to speak to us, to save us.
So Long Days of Small Things is a book for moms “who have neither quiet nor time” as the cover says—or dads, grandparents, and other caregivers.
Describe an experience that first caused you to understand motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.
I was shopping with my three kids. Can you imagine the scene? Lugging my infant in one of those terribly unwieldy baby-carriers. Holding my toddler by the hand, while my preschooler zoomed around the store. The diaper bag was falling off my shoulders, and I clenched the grocery bags with the same hand that grasped my toddler.
And then…the door. I couldn’t figure out how to get us all through. The baby was wailing for milk and a nap, the toddler and preschooler needed lunch (and a nap). I wanted lunch and a nap too, truth be told. But mostly I just wanted to get us out the door. No one held it open for me, but plenty of people watched me make a fool of myself trying to wiggle us all through without banging any heads or pinching any fingers. It felt like a hero-feat, an epic win.
When I finally got everyone home, fed, and sleeping, I sat down to read an article I’d been saving; a short biography of a favorite Christian teacher. The biographer described this hero of the faith as so spiritual, he radiated peace just by walking through the door.
This stopped me in my tracks. The memory of how I looked going through a door was so fresh in my mind. I realized that if spiritual growth entailed developing an aura of peace and radiance, I was never going to arrive—at least not without getting rid of these precious babies!
The contrast between this teacher and myself was so stark, and I realized he and I were simply on two separate paths. I was seeking God through the chaotic but life-giving seasons and tasks of motherhood, and this was going to look entirely different from the classic spiritual practices. “Results may vary” as they say.
How is this book different from all the other books and conversations out there regarding motherhood today?
There are so many books out there for moms on the topic of devotion and spirituality. Almost all of them have this in common: after admitting that moms are exhausted, stretched too thin, without any margin or time or energy, they look for a few extra minutes here or there which might be harvested for God; or offer a Bible study or prayer list that might fit in the tiny slots. Get up at 4:30am before the baby wakes at 5am! Read two minutes of the Bible each day!
I’m all for doing these things when it works, but I’m convinced that we don’t need to exit motherhood to have a spiritual life. Our children are what we create, and this is where our Creator God meets us. I’m certain of it. Without adding more “should’s” or “to-do’s” to our days, we can open our eyes to a unique spiritual journey, made just for us—and find him here. We’re already doing it. All that waits is for us to breathe deeply and being to drink.
What are your hopes for the moms reading Long Days of Small Things?
I told my publisher and editor so many times: I want the title, the cover, and every word to convey that I’m not saying you should do more. You are enough. You are seen. You are loved. You are doing so much already, and there is value here. God is here already. These long days of small things make us feel shunted to the side, second class, invisible.
But I’m certain of one thing: this is the very place God meets us. That’s why we practice spiritual disciplines—to arrive at this place. I’m confident that every flowing, bleeding, dripping, sticky, crying, dirty, wet, exhausted piece of motherhood is a piece that God made and loves, a place where He came, and place where He is.
If moms can hear me say that, and accept the invitation, and find Him there—I will be overjoyed.
Nicole again here. Guys, I truly recommend this book (and yes, Catherine is a fellow writer but I didn't think I had time to help promote the book but when I looked over the table of contents, realized I needed to read it so I bought it. And when I read it, I knew I needed to share it with you). Go buy and read Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.
I would recommend reading this book with a small group of moms, too. If you are in MOPS, a homeschool co-op, a small group or any sort of gathering of moms, I have a special treat for you. As I was reading it, I was thinking how well the book would lend itself to reading together with others and discussing how you found the spiritual practices applicable in your own lives. Thankfully, Catherine has made a discussion guide available for just that reason and you can download it here!
And if you aren't a mom - I am sure you know one or two! I am going to stock up on this book as a baby shower gift for all new moms. Blessings friends as you seek to hear God's voice in the noise of mothering, fathering, and every other noisy season of life!
Interview and discussion guide courtesy of Catherine McNiel, author of Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline (NavPress, 2017). Catherine McNiel survived her children's preschool years by learning to find beauty in the mayhem. Now, she writes to open the eyes to God's creative, redemptive work in each day. The author of Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline (NavPress, 2017), Catherine cares for three kids, works two jobs, and grows one enormous garden.