Marriage and children have had roughly the same effect on my life as I once imagined life in a monastery would. That’s an odd statement, suggesting that these two extremes can serve complimentary ends. Perhaps what I mean to say is that parenting – in particular, parenting with Chrisoula under the rubric of A Course in Miracles – has inspired the very contact with God it once seemed was the sole province of the formally religious.
Whatever calling I felt to leave the world and enter a Catholic monastery was wrapped up in a fantasy of solitude. For me, the longing for God is intimately connected to being alone. But what does this mean?
In my twenties – fighting booze and drugs, writing poetry that alternately channeled Jack Gilbert and Sylvia Plath, occasionally homeless, always drifting from one place and one relationship to another – solitude seemed peaceful but impossible. I was alone sure, but in a way that grated. It was very hard for me to manage the world in those days. But in all that pain and loneliness, there was some respite. I loved the priests I knew! Their tidy rooms filled with sacred books, their quiet chapels, the safety of daily, weekly and yearly routine. I felt Jesus in the presence of those nonjudgmental men. And I wanted what they had.
Yet I felt Jesus elsewhere, too. I met him in the men with whom I sometimes shared park benches. I felt him in some of the poems I wrote, page after page of impossible-to-read script, the writing of which was unmistakably salvational, like being picked up by powerful winds and slung across the sky. I felt Jesus in the zendo at the Vermont Zen Center, in the guitar I carried everywhere. I felt him in the arms of those friends who stole into my life like beneficent thieves.
And somewhere in all that – hanging out with priests and monks, putting aside the booze, getting an apartment, publishing poems – the call to join a monastery just sort of . . . faded. It wasn’t like I made a decision to let it go. It was more like one day I woke up and the woman I would marry was sleeping beside me. We were lawyers who spent our free time hiking and biking and baking bread and reading the thousands of books we hauled out of used book stores. And one morning we decided to have kids. Sometimes a thousand lifetimes pass in just a couple of years.
When I met Chrisoula, I began to write a series of poems called “In the Country of Turtles.” Turtles are my totem animal, even though I appear to have very little in common with them. Those poems are still some of my favorite writing. But like every writing project, they eventually faded. Somewhere between the wedding and the first time I sat second chair at trial, those poems fell away.
Then, one night, a few weeks after my daughter Sophia was born, I couldn’t sleep and went outside with the dog. I wrote this poem on the back of a gas receipt:
The turtle asks:
is this any way to live
now that you have a daughter?
And so I go climb a low hill
in the rain to pray.
And my life changed again.
In a confused way – I am nothing if not a stumbler – Jesus began to speak clearly to me again. Something in my daughter – the unbelievable reality of her toes, her voice, her eyes, the way she fell asleep cradled in my arms – called me back to an intensity that had once been nearly fatal. The poems came back, and the prayers came back, and the longing to be alone and know God came back.
That was a hard year! Chrisoula and I struggled in our marriage and we struggled learning how to be parents. A lot of things fell apart. We made some decisions around work and where we lived, the consequences of which I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But the hard times passed. And we experienced their passing as a family. When it was over, we were new. We weren’t afraid. We were ready to be alive.
In the ACIM Manual for Teachers there is a note about the three levels of teaching/learning relationships (M-3.5:1). Of particular relevance is the third level which reflects those lifelong relationships in which “each person is given a chosen learning partner who presents him with unlimited opportunities for learning” (M-3.5:6).
In those lines, I recognize instantly what is holy about my experience of being both husband and father. It is not a hierarchical thing – it is not about authority. It is about being fully aware of gift of being both student and teacher. There is never a moment when my children are not teaching me. If you and I sat down for tea and scones and there were three scones, I would steal the third while you looked the other way. But with my children I wouldn’t dream of stealing that scone – it would be theirs, without question or condition. And you know what? They would take the scones and break off pieces for me! We would all be fed. And I would remember then that we are always being cared for, that we don’t have to worry about a thing because we are always being cared for Jesus. We are never not with God.
I wrote earlier that my longing for God is connected to my love of solitude. How is this possible with a family to which one is happily willingly committed? In part, it is about carving out spaces – both temporal and physical – in which one can rest knowing that no other body will intrude (even though yes, sometimes they do creep in). But in a larger and more productive way, it is about finding the ability to be alone with God no matter what is going on outside of you, no matter how busy or crazy or loud things get.
Thomas Merton once wrote (I believe in the introduction to Contemplative Prayer) that as the world evolved more and more Christians would be called to live contemplative lives outside the monastery walls. I am not saying that I am a monk. I don’t think about my life in those terms any longer. But I do think in terms of spiritual community, one that supports my prayer life, deepens my love and expands and inspires my capacity for service. Together, this community makes God possible.
And wasn’t that always what I wanted? Only it turns out this community is not – for me – a bunch of Catholic men. Instead, it’s one woman, two daughters and a son. To the world we look like a pretty normal New England family, given to gardens, horses, homeschooling and reading a lot. And we are that. But we are more than that, too. We are home together and together we lead each other home.