Immaterial gifts

(c) Littlehampton Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Ever since I became a mother, I’ve been thinking about the connection of parenthood with gift giving. Gift giving for children is a subject fraught with strong opinions. And while I am interested in the relationship of physical objects in a child’s life and formation, I’m thinking here more of immaterial things.

It’s easy to become jealous of other parents who can afford all the organic/handmade/designer things for their children. Or of the private schools, neighborhoods, and travel destinations they’ll get to enjoy. Or to be persuaded by the false idea that certain things you may pass on to a child are gifts rather than what really might be burdens: opinions, political views, aesthetic taste, unfulfilled life dreams etc. Even beyond lovely and unquestionably good gifts of homecooked meals or craft time or, heck, reading, writing, and arithmetic, there are more foundational gifts Christian parents in particular are called to give their children. These gifts aren’t bound by money or intelligence, but only by love. Only by a mother or father’s willingness to conform their will to the One who is Love.

An existence rooted in love

In a world that wishes to make the starting point of existence conveniently vague, to turn children into commodities ready to be harvested and purchased when desired or blotted out when inconvenient, it’s a gift to root a child’s existence in the loving marital embrace of a husband and wife. By conceiving and receiving a unique and unrepeatable human being, a husband and wife live out the life-long vows they made the day they wedded themselves to one another: that they were “prepared to accept children lovingly from God”. And by being conceived and received as such, a child comes to know the truth that all creation is willed into existence by love–that, as a philosophy professor of mine once said, “all existence is a love affair with goodness.”

A recognized and honored identity

The mystery of the baby in the womb is thrilling and exasperating. You see them first during the ultrasound and now this abstract, fuzzy idea of your baby becomes concrete and breathtaking. Then, perhaps, you find out whether you are having a girl or a boy and you start to visualize the little person that’s about to make their entrance. Then you give birth to them and see them face to face and, maybe like I did, think, “Who are you??” Of course you don’t know their personalities yet. Their quirks. The things that will fill them with joy or irritate them. And honestly, it’s hard to even know what they really look like, all squashed and newbornish as they come.

But there are a few things you know and that you gift to your child by recognizing and honoring: that they are your son or daughter. That they have a heritage rooted in the families and cultures you’ve come from. But far more importantly, that they are are a son or daughter of God and have been made in His image and likeness. That they have a spiritual heritage: a family in the communion of saints.

That they are born with a free will that is most free when it is united to God’s will. That they are born with a vocation written in their hearts that you as a parent can’t alter or substitute with your own desire.

That they are ultimately not yours, but ultimately God’s. That they never fully belong to you. Not when they are growing in your belly or sleeping milk-drunk against your shoulder or at any moment beyond. That they are intended for deepest union with God and may be invited into that union in ways or at times unwelcome by you. To relinquish that control, to forever be reminding them of their identity and what that identity calls them to is a gift.

A name

A name is a powerful thing. A word imbued with such significance as to summon up a whole person in your mind. And you hope the names you choose for your children will be lovingly repeated again and again all the days of their life and for years after they’ve passed.

Names far too often become style symbols: a way to reflect the parents’s good taste and originality. Moreover, parents jealously guard them from “name-thieves” and woe be to anyone who “steals” the name they’ve chosen.

But a name is not a parent’s possession. Rather, it’s something that ought to be chosen and gifted for the good in itself that it is. How beautiful to give a child a name with namesakes of saints and angels and family members who then are called upon beyond time and space to become dear friends, guardians, and role models for the child. How beautiful it is to remember firstly that a name is not something in which to look for glowing reactions from others, but the very thing under which your child will be baptized and therefore forever be tied to his or her most fundamental identity as a Christian.

An understanding of reality

It’s easy to view childhood as a dreamy space removed from reality; that is, removed from suffering and sorrow. But reality is more than just hardship. It’s the fact that there is a ground beneath your feet and a sky above your head. That the physical world is impregnated with transcendence. That there are metaphysical confines of time and space which can be frustrating, but can also be made holy. That, like the mathematical laws that keep a cathedral standing through the centuries, there are absolute laws of nature written in the heart of man that must be upheld lest the architecture of human relations comes crashing down. But that within these solid and unchangeable truths of nature, there are a myriad of beautiful nuances. As Gerard Manley Hopkins so perfectly writes:

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Too often, adults withhold the beauty of reality from children because of their own relativistic confusion and fear of imposing absolutes on anyone. Parents and teachers mistakenly believe they are forming open-minded people, when instead they are turning out empty-minded people. Instead of imposing absolutes, they impose their own anxieties on susceptible minds left to fumble through the world as a distorted funhouse of mirrors. It’s, therefore, a child’s birthright to be rooted in reality. It’s a gift to share with a child stories and conversations that reflect reality, to give them experiences of the God-given diversities in nature and in people, and to sanctify the time they spend and the spaces they inhabit (i.e. living the liturgical year and making the home a domestic church). It’s through these things that a parent gives a child a cohesive and awe-filled vision of the universe.

Faith

There’s a moving part in the novel, Brideshead Revisited, where the character of Julia Flyte laments that she wasn’t able to give her childhood faith to her stillborn child:

“I hadn’t thought about religion before; I haven’t since, but just at that time, when I was waiting for the birth, I thought, ‘That’s the one thing I can give her. It doesn’t seem to have done me much good, but my child shall have it.’ It’s odd, wanting to give something one had lost oneself.”

The indelible mark left by her own baptism makes Julia realize that the passing on of faith to one’s child, no matter how poorly you’ve adhered to it, is a gift.

We are creations living in a created and fallen world so we necessarily need a relationship with the Creator to navigate the fallenness and to reach our final, intended end with Him. That relationship is nourished and cultivated through concrete things such as the sacraments, Sacred Scripture, the moral teaching of the Catechism, the works of mercy, and little traditions and devotions. It’s up to parents to integrate all the aspects of their lives with these things.

A community

There’s a reason a child is born to a mother and father rather than growing out of the ground or dropping from the sky: because we are meant for community. And there is nothing like the community of family to form a person in joy and humor and, you know, to painfully stretch their soul in virtue. This is why being open to having more children (i.e. siblings) is a gift to a child. This is why investing yourself in the larger community of extended family, friends, and neighbors is a blessing. Why choosing good and holy godparents for your child is so important. Why reading stories of the saints (i.e. their spiritual community) with your children is a gift. Why considering something radical like communal living might be a weightier choice for your child’s life than whether you should formula feed or co-sleep.

A lived theology of the body

This is tied deeply to growing up in a healthy, loving community and having a sane sense of reality, but I think it deserves its own section. We are incarnational beings in an incarnational world. But it’s a fractured world where body and soul are often at odds with one another. A world where we are never comfortable with our bodies because of ever-changing standards. Where bodily autonomy reigns even to the point of medicated self-destruction. An over-sexualized world where bodies are objectified and the caution-tape language of consent must be learned at a young age. It’s frankly scary to have a body in this world.

So one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is an lived theology of the body. To teach them, through the everyday touches of life and our conversations with them, that there will always be a tension between the desires of the body and the soul but that body and soul are meant to be reconciled and redeemed. That our bodies are groaning for the resurrection. That the bodily actions that make up our days and our lives (washing dishes and hugging and resting and crying and dancing and, yeah, sex or the sacrifice of it) are all profoundly bound up in our relationship with one another, with God, and with the course of history.

An appreciation for stories

This one might not seem as foundational as all the other ones listed, but there’s something to be said about every human culture valuing storytelling even before written language existed (or you know, before long-form Netflix tv shows). More crucially for the Christian, history is not simply a random succession of events, but the story of salvation, and we are living in that story. As such, all good stories dramatize truths about the human condition in light of the creation, fall, and redemption. And this is why good, compelling stories matter and can change your life.

Far better than I could ever put it, Jessica Hooten Wilson argues for the need to be scandalized and changed by good stories:

I hope that we…that we do not turn away from the stories that may shape us into better humans, better Christians, more faithful sons and daughters. For as Christians we all live in the shadow of the Book of books, and we all desire with great fear, trembling, and hope to be scandalized by the Word made flesh.

….

All these things might seem obvious but so often they’re considered secondary or obsolete to other, frequently false things. So if you’re like me wishing you could give your child the world (i.e. needle felted wool toys and the ability to speak French), you can at least take comfort in the fact that you’re doing your best (even if your best is far from the best) to give them the things that really matter.

Image: Reginald Bottomley, A Mother and Child Looking at the Virgin and Child

Immaterial gifts

Mamas Day Movies

My sister often asks me for film recommendations for different holidays. I like themed movies so I try to come up with a perfect one, but oftentimes I just redirect her to About Time, which works for all occasions and never gets old. This year, I’m preemptively posting some for Mother’s Day. These films deal with more than just physical motherhood, but with the call to spiritual motherhood that’s written in every woman’s heart.

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1. Marie’s Story: based on a true story, Sister Marguerite works at a convent school for deaf girls. When a blind and deaf girl named Marie is rejected from the school because the mother superior doesn’t feel they are able to help her, Sister Marguerite takes it upon herself to become the girl’s personal teacher. Marguerite becomes a second mother to Marie, guiding her as it were, out of the dark, silent womb she’s been living in her entire life into the light of communication and communion with others.

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2. Babette’s Feast: two puritan sisters in late-nineteenth century Denmark take a refugee of the French Revolution into their home as a cook and when she wins the lottery, she spends it all on cooking a luxurious feast for the sisters and the other members of their church. The feast, gratitude expressed materially, works as a reordering of the senses toward a sacramental vision of life. I don’t know of anything more profoundly motherly than a marriage between physical and spiritual nurturing. Also, it’s Pope Francis’s favorite film.

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3. The Painted Veil: based on a book by W. Somerset Maugham, this film set in 1920s China centers on the character of socialite, Kitty Garstin (Naomi Watts), who marries bacteriologist, Walter Fane (Edward Norton), simply to escape her stifling life at home. Once married, she continues to live selfishly and begins an affair with another man. Her husband punishes her by taking a position in a remote cholera-ridden village, but it’s in that environment, that Kitty is able to grow, to learn to live for the other rather than the self, and to come into her own motherhood. “When love and duty are one, then grace is within you,” says the Mother Superior of the convent and orphanage where Kitty volunteers at. I think those words sum up motherhood most fully lived out.

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4. Tree of Life: Confession–I’ve only watched about half of this film because *hsp alert* I can only handle so much emotional tension in a film at one time. However, Jessica Chastain’s portrayal as the ethereal and nurturing mother of three boys in Terence Malick’s film/spiritual-daydream/visual-existential-voyage is beautiful. She embodies her vocation as a mother both in the physical aspects of rocking babies and cooking meals for her family, but also in trying to maintain a sense of peace and stability in her husband’s emotionally volatile shadow.

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6. Cinderella: this is just a visually stunning film to watch, but I also love the long extending influence of Cinderella’s mother’s words to her: “have courage and be kind”. These maternal words of advice help Cinderella grow up with an inner strength that those around her lack and help nurture virtue in her.

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5. Room: I probably won’t ever watch one because of my sensitivity to sexual abuse in films, but it’s come so highly recommended from reviewers I trust that I couldn’t leave it off this list.

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6. Pray the Devil Back to Hell: okay, another one I probably won’t ever watch because of the violence, but if you’re looking for a film that shows the unwavering love and grit of mothers, this seems like the one for you.

And some fun bonus ones: Matilda (because Miss Honey), The Sound of Music, Little Women, It’s a Wonderful Life (because Mary Hatch), and if you’re in the mood to watch a hilarious and terrible mother, Love and Friendship.

What films that explore spiritual and physical motherhood would you add to this list?

Happy Mothers Day to all mothers!

Mamas Day Movies

Film Review: About Time

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I’m pretty sure About Time, which follows protagonist, Tim Lake, as he navigates work, love, marriage, and family life with time travel thrown in, will convince any vocational on-the-fencers that they’re called to marriage. I watched the film just weeks before my wedding and it bowled me over into a heap of achingly blissful sobs. How could it not? It movingly and wittily centers on marital and parental love and it was only a matter of time before I’d be eternally vowing myself to a life of that.

Every time I’ve seen it since, it never fails to make me joyously reaffirm my marital vows–the highest of compliments for a film. But it doesn’t just flatly affirm the goodness of love, marriage, and family. It touches on something more nuanced that’s been on my mind ever since I first realized my changed identity as someone’s mother: the relationship of time and family life.

Here are a few things on that theme that stick out to me:

Parents are the keepers of time in their children’s lives

He always seemed to have time on his hands. After giving up teaching university students on his 50th birthday, he was eternally available for a leisurely chat or to let me win at table tennis.
All in all it was a pretty good childhood. Full of repeated rhythms and patterns. By the time I was 21, we were still having tea on the beach every single day. Skimming stones and eating sandwiches, summer and winter, no matter what the weather…And every Friday night a film, no matter what the weather.

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These are some of the first lines of the film which opens in the loveliest way–placing us in the midst of a happy, idiosyncratic, imperfect, but love-filled family (in idyllic Cornwall to boot). When I begin watching this film I always think, “That’s what I want my family to look like.” But this life of repeated rhythms and patterns doesn’t just happen its own. Rather, it’s a parent’s responsibility to structure their children’s and their own time in a meaningful way.

I don’t think it’s too bold to say that parents are tasked with the reclamation of time as a sacred element of human life. Modern life sets upon us the pressures of instant connectability and a never-ending influx of information. We become sick with the glorification of busyness as work increasingly spills into personal life. Our children’s inner lives begin to dim when every moment of their lives is crammed with activity.

And so within the home, we must reclaim time for contemplation, for leisure, for recreation. And that atmosphere is precisely what the teas and the table tennis matches and the family dinners all create in the film. That’s why Christian parents, in particular, are meant to live out the liturgical year in their home both daily and seasonally.

Children teach us something about the nature of eternity

No one can ever prepare you for what happens when you have a child. When you see the baby in your arms and you know that it’s your job now. No one can prepare you for the love and the fear. No one can prepare you for the love from the people you love can feel for them, and nothing can prepare you for the indifference of friends who don’t have babies…Suddenly, time travel seems almost unnecessary, because every detail of life is so delightful.

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I’ve written before about the weird and wonderful stretching of the metaphysical confines of time and space in pregnancy. And equally wild is the baby’s actual arrival. Because you’re going about life linearly hitting different milestones and achievements and then this new, intense human being emerges (out. of. your. body.) and time feels as though it stops and everything is suspended in this new dimension of reality: slow and sweet and grueling and frenetic all at once.

The film does an excellent job of highlighting how having a child is both miraculous and commonplace.

The scene after Tim and Mary’s first child is born is a tender one and I love the choice of Arvo Part’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” playing at that moment. The name of the song translates to “mirror in the mirror” referring to an infinity of images connoting the profound transcendental weight that moments in time carry.

We then follow more commonplace, miraculous moments in Tim and Mary’s new life as parents that show how children only magnify the love of one’s community and offer more opportunities to come together, pause, and celebrate–a foretaste of eternity.

It is the ordinariness in our lives that reveals the extraordinary

We’re all traveling through time together, every day of our lives. All we can do is do our best to relish this remarkable ride.

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Director, Richard Curtis, got the idea for About Time when he was talking to a friend about how they would want to spend the last day of their lives.

“We just want a very normal day at home, giving breakfast to the kids… seeing friends, having dinner with the family,” he explained.

I love that this film is littered with scenes from ordinary life. Going on nervous, thrilling first dates. Waking up in the morning next to your spouse and playfully teasing one another about who is going to get the kids. Listening to your dad read you a favorite passage from Dickens. Coloring monsters with your three-year-old.

Time travel may be the plot device that the film pivots on, but it isn’t really about that. It’s about real time travel. That is, our travels through our days that are made up mostly of small moments in which we may forge love and kinship with one another. These moments make up the framework of our relationships and create a space in which we can delight in one another and be vulnerable with one another.

SPOILER

In one of my favorite scenes near the end of the film after his father has passed away, Tim has one last opportunity to visit him in the past. His father beats him at a game of table tennis and Tim asks him for a kiss goodbye. It’s a moment that moves quickly from hilarity to poignancy. They decide to travel back to a moment from Tim’s childhood where they walk along the beach and skip stones. The two of them have played hundreds of table tennis matches and skipped hundreds of stones together and these repeated ordinary rituals culminate in this last scene revealing an extraordinary love between father and son.

END SPOILER

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Do yourself a favor and watch About Time. Or rewatch it. And think of the remarkable ordinary moments of our days that we all too frequently let slip away unnoticed.

As Mary Oliver says, “Who needs poets if we just offer up to the world our attention.”

P.S. another to reason to watch: to mourn the fact that you don’t live in this house.

Film Review: About Time

To be a mother is to ache

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I wanted to be a mother.
I wanted soft skin to nibble on,
warm, small bodies to wear in lovely maternal wraps,
eager, young hearts to teach to love the true, the good, the beautiful.

I just didn’t want to be so achingly tired.
I didn’t want my dreams to be dashed.
I didn’t want my body to be irrevocably altered.
I didn’t want my time to be reduced to nothing.

I thought of woman after woman
surrendering their bodies and lives,
doing these common acts of
carrying and waiting;
most now buried and turned to dust;
their stories forgotten though
they bore and bear history forward.

When I looked at that plastic stick,
it’s two lines rechristening me:
mother,
I didn’t realize what giving my body for
the tiniest of lives would mean.

That to be a mother is to ache, to be dashed, irrevocably altered, and reduced to nothing.
But then to be remade.

Until I unworthily waited for and carried the weight of life,
I couldn’t fathom that for a person to be a whole universe for a person is to defy time and space.
To grow great and magnificently spherical with a wild changeling;
with a momentary rosebud, tadpole, whirlwind, pugilist but always
person fated to be an
immortal horror or everlasting splendor
is the most unbearable and beautiful
mystery.

To be a mother is to ache