The quiet is palpable but not heavy. In the way the warmth of a fire eases down into your very bones, the quiet here is the bearer of a strange kind of comfort. It isn’t the absence of sound. Every tiny noise reverberates off the white stone arches of the abbey. A monk coughs in the expanse between prayers. The squeaking of the wooden pews betrays the stillness. But what is found here is far deeper than the absence of sound.
“Silence is spoken here,” say the signs on the silent-dining-room tables. That’s it. The silence speaks. The Cistercian brothers that live in community in this monastery have carefully crafted and maintained it. They are the curators of silence. It’s what I come here time and time again to find. The silence has been built into something tangible and it speaks to your soul if you let it.
It’s never quiet here. The buildings fit together in this city like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The construction noise from the high-rise going up next to us is endless. Bang. Steel beams drop from a truck at one am. The next day we see more bricks have been added and are amazed that another building could be squeezed into that space. Millions of lives are tangled up together like the electric wires that supply the sometimes-sporadic power to the city. I forget what quiet sounds like in a place where noise creeps into every room like the mosquitoes that craftily find their way through the holes in the nets.
I miss quiet walks in the park, the way a tree can speak to me of the Creator. I miss hearing the silence speak. The clanging of construction, honking cars, ringing rickshaw bells, and barking dogs steal the quiet. They are the thieves of silence. The noise can drown out the sounds of your prayers if you let it.
I didn’t notice it until the third day I was here. The weekend was a blur of activity but when the house was finally quiet for one morning, four small children finally dropped off at school, I hear it...
It’s so much to take in—the cacophony of sounds that is never-ending in this place. There is never silence in our swelling, overcrowded city. The sounds are becoming familiar to our Western ears these days.
Allahu Akbhar. The musical nature of the call the prayer lulls the children to sleep.
Briing. Briing. We have come to expect the jingling melody of bicycle rickshaw bells. We hardly notice the yelping of the street dogs anymore, the clanging of aluminum rice pots in the early mornings. These are the sounds of life in the most densely populated city on earth. We feel our place amidst the noise, but a speck in this teeming sea of life.
But it is when I try to fill this space with my presence that I become even more aware of my smallness. The language I long to speak sounds like just another noise to my untrained ears. This language has existed in some form for thousands of years, descendant from one of the most ancient tongues on earth. This language is the pride of its people, shaped the very foundation and form of this nation.
Friends who’ve learned what feels impossible to me know tell me the first step of learning the language is listening, teaching your ear to recognize the rising and lilting sounds of Bangla. They call it the listening phase. For the first couple months full comprehension isn’t the goal, but recognition.
I hear a word that stands out in a string of melodic words, can recognize one or two and fill in some of the rest based on context. I know enough to get around town (sometimes) and talk to our house helper (about some things). I stumble my way through a sentence or two. A glimmer of joy passes through her eyes when she feels understood and our normal communication of gesturing and sounds becomes something a little bit more.
Dhonnovad. Thank you.
Onek Shundor. Very pretty.
I recognize so little. Understand even less. I long for my listening to produce the fruit of knowledge, of separating noise from language. I want to cross the bridge into familiarity instead of everything feeling exotic, unknown, other. But it takes time. Lots of it. It takes discipline, work, repetition—and always listening.
I’ve been working for years to understand another language, the language of the Spirit. Silence. Communion with God. I’ve been struggling to separate God’s voice out of what feels like the din that is ever-growing around me. Sometimes I feel a glimmer of recognition. I feel progress in hearing, experience His Presence. Other times His voice seems as unrecognizable as the curls of the Bangla script to this bideshi’s eyes...
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.
I stared into the tiny flame that danced in brilliant yellows, oranges, and reds. Everyone else had gone back to the bus, ready to move onto the next site in our pilgrimage through the Holy Land, but I stayed behind. I knew there wasn’t anything more holy about this place, that I wasn’t any closer to God’s presence on this mountain than anywhere else on earth. But I stayed anyway.
It was on this very mountain that Elijah called down fire from heaven. On Mt. Carmel God showed up in the fire, consuming everything. The Lord’s power was so visible for a moment, proving God was real and cared about the prayers of the people. Now a monastery stands in the place of that fire, a little chapel that serves to remind people of the God who answers prayer.
There was a heavy burden on my heart that day. Someone I loved back home was hurting and I felt compelled in that place to kneel before the little altar and light a candle—calling out light in the darkness. It was just a tiny reflection of the fire all those years ago but it was a visible representation to me that God hears when we call.
So I lit a little flame in the darkness and I cried, believing that the God of Elijah could still rain down fire and show up in mighty ways.
In the quiet of the morning before my family awakens, downstairs in my living room, my mind wanders to my to-do lists for the day. I try to focus on a word to center me, bring me back to what I am trying to find—the Presence of God that I felt on that mountain. I grasp for it like a parched traveler in the desert. I can see it up ahead. Like a mirage in that scorching desert, it remains just out of my grasp.
I can remember the way an aching need called me to prayer, the way I found God there. I try to muster concentration, grasping for stillness in my mind to match the silence of the house before all the noise begins. It’s like a flame I try to light with no matches, trying to will it into existence. I can’t find the spark, and my attempts at waiting quietly before the Lord sputter out. I sigh and get up to start the day.
There are moments I have grasped the holiness of God, felt the Presence so strongly. It was like a fire in my soul burning orange and hot, and my prayers the incense that rose from the flames. I remember those moments with longing.
More often than not these days, prayer is work...
Do you ever feel like you can't find the presence of God, like sometimes prayer is work? I am over at SheLoves Magazine today sharing what God is teaching me about contemplation and prayer, even when the presence of God feels elusive.
Join me there.