When my first child was still under a year, I met with my spiritual director.
She patiently listened to me go on and on about how I didn’t feel like I was doing enough for God now that so much of my time and energy was spent at home caring for my child.
Once I stopped to take a breath, she gently challenged me by asking, “Why isn’t changing your child’s diaper serving God?”
I sat there stunned. I didn’t have an answer.
In fact, in silence the import of her question sank deep into my tired bones. What she was helping me see was that I had failed to recognize the gift of ordinary life as that through which God reveals himself to us.
In return, we are able to see in our daily tasks opportunities to be present — to God, our families, ourselves.
When viewed this way, the chasm between “faith” and “real life” closes and serving God becomes more about seeing and serving God in all the various tasks that make up our lives. Faith becomes practical — not spectacular.
I am not the only one who struggles with this. One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in contemporary Christian life is the modern separation of “theory” and “practice.” This dichotomy affects the church and can be seen poignantly as believers struggle to understand what their Christian faith has to do with “the rest” of their lives.
When viewed this way “faith” becomes “theory” and “life” becomes “practice.” Faith becomes some abstract ideal but is ultimately unrelated to ordinary existence in the “real” world.
And yet if there’s anything Jesus taught us it is that these two things are in fact one thing; that is, Christian discipleship is precisely that reality of a life lived in faithfulness to Jesus Christ.
We love because he loved us first. We feed the hungry because he feeds us every week in the Eucharist. We forgive those who sin against us because while we were still sinners Christ died for us.
The Christian faith must be practiced to be true. And yet acknowledging this can tempt us to think that the practice of faith must be measured in order to be truly valuable.
It’s through this lens that I have come to deeply value what we call in the atrium “practical life.” It is “ordinary” work that may seem to have very little to do with cultivating the child’s faith in Jesus the Good Shepherd.
In the Toddler Atrium we water our two class plants. We spoon beans, moving them from one bowl to another. We pour beans from one small pitcher into another small pitcher. Later in the year we learn how to pour water in the same way, taking care to clean up our spills with a damp sponge.
While there are multiple objectives for this work -– such as developing fine motor skills, preparation for more advanced works and greater participation in the liturgy — I think one of the true gifts of this work is the implicit integrity of it.
A child can pour beans from one cup into another and experience tremendous joy and satisfaction in doing so. In the context of the atrium this work is understood as valuable because, quite simply, it is good work.
That is, it is work through which the child can sense the presence of Jesus — even if she doesn’t yet know how to identify her joy with Jesus the Good Shepherd.
As catechists we know we don’t have to explain this connection to the child; if we sit back and observe we can see the child already has some sense of this deep joy as she repeats the work or feels contented to put it away and choose something new.
The goods are internal to the work and, therefore, the work allows for a depth of formation that isn’t always quantifiable — just like Christian discipleship.
As catechists we trust that through all the work in the atrium, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the child is learning something significant about Christian life, namely, that it’s really quite ordinary.
At home I have discovered that the more I’ve become aware of Christ’s presence in daily life, this awareness helps me think about what my children are observing in watching us take care of them, the home, and others in our lives.
Do they see us rushing about, resenting the work we have to do?
Are they able to see some joy in how we care for them, the home and others?
If, like me, this joy and attentiveness is something you will have to intentionally cultivate in your life, you may find it helpful to include your child in more of the household tasks.
It will require more time and patience, but when I have done this I have observed that it is through my children that I’m better able to see and experience the presence of God in the work.
When we work together to prepare a meal, sweep the porch or wash the windows, we are not only experiencing the joy of being together, but we are experiencing the joy that comes from having good work to do. And it is in both, I believe, that we are drawn closer to Christ and learn the embodiment of Christian life.