When she was pregnant with her third child, Catherine McNiel was all too aware of the gap between her daily life experiences and the classic practices of spiritual formation. And yet, each day was chock full of creation, nurture, service, sacrifice, and perseverance; all taking place within the womb of the Creator’s life-giving song, undergirded by His Spirit. Over time, Catherine began to look at God’s creative, redemptive work in the world through different eyes—the eyes of a mother. It’s a grace to welcome Catherine to the farm’s front porch today…
It beckons to me, this quiet sacred space.
“The Convent of the Blessed Virgin Mary” reads the arched sign above the door.
There’s precious little peace and quiet in a mother’s life, but here I am, standing unexpectedly at the entrance to this chapel. The open doors draw me in. I don’t even try to resist.
Once inside I take a deep breath. My spirit wills my body to relax, my mind to leave thoughts of shopping lists and toddler discipline at the door.
I take it all in, accept the invitation, and welcome the surprise of solace.
Protestant that I am, I fumble uncertainly with the holy water at the doorway. I’m so grateful for this gift of sacred space, I don’t even know how to approach it.
I begin walking through the gorgeous, empty room. No cacophony of children, no piles of work to do, no phone beeping and twitching in my back pocket. Instead, light and color, candles and incense, tapestries and stained glass. The bread and the wine. The loaves and the fishes.
I study the stained-glass windows. Each one in order, leading to the next, telling a story. The first shows the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, telling her she has been chosen of God, explaining what is to come.
The most unexpected of surprise pregnancies. Yet Mary responds with surrender and submission: “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, esv).
This grips me powerfully, from one pregnant woman to another. We have so little control over our lives, over the things we hold dear. Everything irrevocably changes over a few drops of monthly blood—or the lack of it.
Our task is to listen, wait, and accept—to surrender. In the hidden womb of the spirit this is the beginning, or the end, of everything.
In the second window, Mary holds the newborn baby Jesus.
What isn’t depicted in the sharp lines of the glass is the extended story, but I can readily fill in the details. The hours that came before the serenity. The knife-edge between life and death, the blood and the water.
What an astonishing thought: This messiest of human moments is when God breathed His first breath.
Then, the third window. Mary and Joseph finally find their son, who ran off to teach in the Temple.
I see in her face the anxiety, relief, bafflement.
My spirit cries out with the realization of the task now ahead—giving up, letting go, humbly realizing that this child is no longer primarily an experience of her own, but a person and identity all his own.
For Mary, and for mamas everywhere, we give birth to a new soul—and then must begin to fade into the background. But we treasure up all these things in our hearts.
At the fourth glass I’m stopped in my tracks. Mary, watching her son on the cross, watching and weeping. The look on her face is easily recognizable.
She confronts a mother’s ultimate fear—the pain and suffering of her child, the breaking of the body and life she so carefully built and nurtured. She cannot know the redemption that lies ahead—only that this is the son who learned to walk clutching the hem of her dress.
Entranced by these stories of color and glass I find myself near the altar, standing before a life-sized statue of Mary. She holds her baby, Jesus, who reaches for her face; Joseph standing at her shoulder. They seem close enough to touch.
I wait, transfixed, trying to understand what it’s all about. Such a familiar scene—the most familiar scene—man, woman, child. A family. Mary, looking so much like the mother, wife, and woman she is . . . with God playing on her lap.
I am struck by the scandalous, beautiful wonder of it all. The everyday intimacy of family.
The real-life, flesh-and-blood quality of God’s work in us: His birth, life, and death.
God’s most powerful acts, His Incarnation and redemption, did not break out of these most human of actions and identities—but rather worked within them. For the first time, I look upon God’s work through the eyes of a mother.
The convent’s images drove into my heart a message that has never stopped resounding.
Mary and Jesus will never be duplicated, but what strikes me is how ordinary it all seems.
The Messiah she carried, God-made-man, was unlike any other—but His redemptive acts were communicated through the common, everyday vernacular of our bodies.
From the confusing, exciting, terrifying news that she had conceived, to the agony and ecstasy of birth, through the years of wondering and worrying, to the moment she wept as she held her Son’s dead and broken body in her arms.
Can I wrap my mind around the fact that these acts of pregnancy, labor, nighttime feedings, and skinned-knee-kissing are the same doorways God walked through to enter the world? Never.
All at once I see the two stories I know so deeply, side by side.
The gospel story my soul has been drinking in since cradle roll, next to the story my adult body has inhabited for a decade. Unexpectedly, motherhood becomes the purest window I have to see that when God touched mankind most dramatically He used the same life seasons given to each one of us.
To reveal Himself He came to earth not on a bolt of lightning or on a cloud, but carried in a womb, born of a woman, knitted into flesh and blood—incarnated.
To redeem us, this same human body was broken, His flesh torn, His blood spilt—death.
Surrender, and birth.
Surrender again, and death.
So very, very physical.
So absolutely creaturely. And God’s redemption played out within them, among them, and through them.
This means that the sacred does not float ethereally beyond the reach of mortals.
The sacred has mingled inseparably with the mundane.
Catherine McNiel survived her children’s preschool years by learning to find beauty in the mayhem. Now, she writes to open the eyes of weary moms to God’s creative, redemptive work in each day.
In her book Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as Spiritual Discipline, Catherine invites exhausted moms to awaken to the spiritual value God places naturally in their very physical day-to-day roles and tasks. When there isn’t enough quiet or time for a quiet time, He always sees you. He designed this parenting journey, after all. He understands the chaos of motherhood. And He joins you in everything―whether you’re scrubbing the floor, nursing a fussy newborn, or driving to soccer practice. Catherine invites you to connect with God right here, in the sacred mundane of every mothering moment. Rich, soul-inspiring practices for moms who have neither quiet nor time — connect with God right here, in the sacred mundane of every mothering moment.
[ Our humble thanks to Tyndale for their partnership in today’s devotion ]