As a lifelong Catholic, I learned at a young age that life was conveniently divided into two categories: holy and ordinary. I remember asking my first-grade teacher, Sister Mary Christine, if the particular day we were living was a holy day. She said, “No.”
When I asked her if we were in Advent or Lent, she replied negatively again and explained, “We’re in the season of Ordinary Time.” Well, right then any expectations I nourished for that particular day went down the drain along with the lukewarm milk they served us after morning Mass. I plunked myself down into an orange plastic chair in the bluebird reading group and composed myself to suffer through the ever-tepid adventures of Dick, Jane and Spot.
In the back of my mind, I dreamed of holy days, when the chaos of life was hushed and incense curled around the altar, when life was infused with mystery, drama and meaning.
A Clear Vision
That was just another day in 1968 in small-town southern Indiana. I think that was the day that I first began to toy with the notion of becoming a nun. Even though I carried this notion around for nearly 20 years, I never did anything serious with it.
I never investigated religious orders, sent away for pertinent literature, or made any type of inquiry into what religious life might be like. I just harbored this lovely notion that when plain old ordinary time got to be too disappointing, I would trade in all my worldly possessions for a bus ticket to Ferdinand, Indiana, and sign myself up for a holy life in a convent.
I viewed the Benedictine monastery that was set amongst the pastoral hills of Ferdinand as a sort of escape hatch from my small-town world, which was messy, chaotic and booby-trapped with sinkholes that were cleverly disguised as human relationships.
All through the uncertain days of my childhood, into my teen years and beyond, I lived life with one finger on the eject button, just waiting to get up the nerve to get on that bus headed for holy ground, bypassing ordinary time altogether.
I had a clear picture in my head of the room that awaited me at the convent. It was small, uncluttered and ruthlessly clean. There was a single bed covered with a pristine white quilt, a nightstand with a Bible on it and a small trunk to hold the meager remains of my worldly possessions. Best of all, there was a window with streams of light pouring through it, overlooking a spectacular view of the holy grounds. And there was not another soul in sight.
Even after I met my husband and became entangled in a relationship that appeared to be a permanent complication in my life, I kept the notion of my room at the convent on a back burner in my mind. I figured, if things didn’t work out, it was still an option, albeit a far-fetched one.
Seven years of marriage and three children later, I was mired up to my neck in ordinary time. My days were crammed full of teeny, tiny “peapod” activities. I changed diapers, swept up Cheerios, and read aloud until I was hoarse from the adventures of Clifford, the big red dog.
A quote from the poet Ranier Maria Wilke nearly perfectly describes my state of mind during my years of early parenthood: “Anything alive which makes demands arouses in me an infinite capacity to give it its due, the consequences of which completely use me up.”
There were consecutive years when I felt completely used up, not by my children themselves, whom I loved with that typical maternal intensity that borders on madness. It was from the crushing burden involved in raising them to be responsible, open-minded, fair, honest, brave and compassionate, not to mention warm, fed, clean, dry and Catholic.
On really bad days, I used to take the phone out to the back deck, which was the only place I could think straight. Then I’d punch the speed-dial button for my sister’s office.
“I knew I should have been a nun!” I would hiss into the receiver. “Why didn’t you talk me into it?”
“It’s over, Karen. Move on,” my sister would reply in her crisp, certified public-accountant voice.
Then I would look over at the three little faces plastered up against the steamy kitchen window and concede that she was right: It was, indeed, over.
I could never pinpoint the exact moment but, somewhere along the line, I completely relinquished any option I’d ever held for living a holy life as a nun. I may have known, subconsciously, that my life was a direct result of my own choices. But I made valiant attempts to pin the blame on the ever-growing number of other people who were habitually clogging up my life.
For example, I was convinced that my husband, Joe, was responsible for steering me into domestic doom. After all, he was the one who had approached me all those years ago when blessed nunhood was still a viable option.
Yes, it was all his fault for having the nerve to step out of a smoky haze in a dimly lit room and ask me to dance. (Whenever I replayed that romantic scene in my head, I used to imagine an older, more haggard version of myself popping up over my shoulder shrieking, “Just say no!”) I was convinced in my heart of hearts that I could be the perfect wife, if it were not for that plumber I married. Day after day, I told myself that I could be a wonderful mother, if I could just get rid of the kids.
My friendships would be things of great beauty, if my friends would butt out. And I would probably be nominated for daughter of the year, if it were not for my mother. This stage of my life strongly reinforced my lifelong identification with the biblical character Zacchaeus, the diminutive tax collector who climbed a tree to get a better look at Jesus (Lk 19:1-10).
On the surface, Zacchaeus and I did not have much in common: Zacchaeus, being a male, was not a slave to fluctuating hormone levels. He couldn’t have been a parent because, if he had children, he wouldn’t have been at the Jesus parade in the first place: He would have been driving the family donkey to some kind of extracurricular activity.
He could not have been married, because anyone interested enough to marry him would have been at the bottom of the tree, fretting about what her husband was doing up there. His wife would demand to know how long Zacchaeus was staying in that tree and whether or not he had the newspaper up there with him. No such bothersome character appears in this biblical story.
But Zacchaeus and I shared a major dilemma: Both of us desperately wanted to see God but there were always too many people in our way.
One afternoon, not long after I had resigned myself to serving a life sentence of ordinary time, my dad showed up at the front door. When Dad came, the baby was wailing. The 2-year-old was in her high chair, throwing bananas at the wall. And the 5-year-old was sliding up and down the banister in his underwear.
Dad surveyed the chaos with the complacency of one who managed to escape early parenthood by working his way through 10-hour days and consecutive six-packs of Stroh’s.
“Whatcha doin’?” he drawled.
“I-am-trying-to-finish-a-story,” I said between gritted teeth.
Dad ambled over to a chair next to my desk and sat down.
“You know what I think I’m going to do, Dad?” I said. “I think I’m going to send the kids to daycare a couple of days a week so I can write something worthwhile.”
Dad pushed his cap back and scratched his head. “Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” he cautioned.
“Why not?” I snapped.
“You get rid of the kids, you probably won’t be able to write a word.”
“Why not?” I snapped again.
Dad shrugged and said, “Won’t have nothin’ to write about.”
I was astonished: Dad seemed to assume that I was writing about the kids! I tried to conjure up a day of my real life converted to prose and shuddered at the result. Fiction was my field, not reality. I wrote short, dramatic stories and went over them again and again, weeding out the flaws and polishing the characters until they were perfect. Then I mailed them off to editors and began again.
I had the process down pat. I could do it in my sleep and often did, tapping away at the keyboard until the early hours of the morning, nursing the baby between scenes and dreading the alarm from down the hall that would herald the arrival of the real world.
But Dad’s ludicrous comment planted the germ of an idea in my head. One day, I found myself attempting to write about my life instead of trying to write around it. To write about something, one must pay close attention to it and give it its due.
When I began to pay more attention to my life than to my dreams of rising above it, I made some startling discoveries. They were probably similar to the discoveries Zacchaeus made when Jesus came along and lured him down from that tree by inviting himself over for dinner.
Like Zacchaeus, I have learned that there is not all that much difference between laughter curling around a dinner table and incense curling around an altar. Even the lowliest dwelling becomes holy the moment God enters, whether that place is a stable, the home of a first-century tax collector or a 21stcentury family.
I could never appreciate or even acknowledge the presence of God in my own life until I began to examine it in the light of my Catholic, Christian faith.
Ever since I could mouth the words to the Creed, I have stood in church on Sundays and professed my belief that God came down from heaven, was born of a woman and became a human being. Yet I had spent years seeking God in the hollow spaces of empty rooms, and I became frustrated when people intruded.
When I finally began to look at all those aggravating people in the light of my faith, however, I began to sense the one Divine Presence that dwelt behind their individual features. I had been a Christian all my life, but I was finally beginning to experience the reality of Christ, of God made human. I realized that, like Zacchaeus clinging to the limb of that sycamore tree, I had been clinging stubbornly to my vision of an ethereal God, robed in splendor. I nearly missed the fact that, for over 2,000 years now, God has been wearing skin.
When I realized that Christ’s resurrection guarantees God’s continuing presence within the human race, Jesus’ words “I am the way, the truth and the life” finally began to make sense.
I began to see that people are not in the way of God, they are the way to God. The more emphasis I put on my relationships with other people, the more connected to God I began to feel.
Even the most superficial human contact could contain moments of grace. But deeper and more complex relationships are opportunities for great spiritual growth.
One of these special relationships for me has been with a Benedictine nun who, ironically, has become one of my closest friends. I met Sister Jenny Miller several years ago, when she was the pastoral associate at my parish. I was envious of what I perceived as her ideal lifestyle. She had no husband, no children and, thus, I naively surmised, no problems. Jenny had a serenity about her which attracted me the first time I met her. I was sure that her serenity was a result of her sequestering herself away from the human race for hours of daily prayer and meditation.
But as our friendship deepened, I noticed something about Jenny’s life that perplexed me: It was almost impossible to ever catch her alone. She was constantly surrounded by people and intimately involved in their lives.
People lined up outside Jenny’s office door with problems and requests in much the same way my kids lined up outside the bathroom door at home every time I shut it. Every five minutes, the phone on Jenny’s desk rang as persistently as a bunch of high-pitched voices shrieking, “Mom!” As soon as she locked the door to her office at night, her cell phone would go off like a newborn at 2 a.m.
I was baffled. The coveted Sister in front of her name was certainly a poor barrier between her and the rest of the flawed human race. Like me, Sister Jenny lived in a state of near-constant interruption.
When she wasn’t dealing with other people’s problems, she had her own fair share. She had problems at work and problems at home where, it turned out, she lived with real people in notso-solitary splendor.
Jenny may not have a spouse and children, but her world is as populated with human beings and as complicated by human relationships as mine has ever been. Although she probably spends quite a bit more time at prayer and in church than I do, she likens her time spent in such holy pursuits to “spiritual recharging.”
The real work of her faith, she has assured me, is rooted firmly in the tangled web of human relationships that she navigates on a daily basis, both inside and outside of the church doors.
My friendship with Sister Jenny is one of a series of human relationships in my life that I have come to view as holy. My marriage, which is entering its 20th year, is another. Motherhood continues to be a mixed bag of joys and tribulations for me. The “baby” is now 11. The toddler who once delighted in throwing bananas at the wall is 13 and much more interested in throwing slumber parties these days. And the kid who used to slide down the banister in his underwear just got his driver’s license.
Over a decade has passed since the day my dad stopped by and gave me the notion that my life might be something worth writing about. As a tribute to his simple wisdom, I sometimes stop by the cemetery after I’ve had something published and send up a silent word of thanks for his role in launching me into what has become a series of adventures in ordinary time.
I have written enough about my ordinary life to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that it is infused with mystery, drama and meaning. And like Zacchaeus, I have discovered that it is only when I allow myself to sink fully into my own human experience that I finally find the face of God.
Karen Muensterman lives in Evansville, Indiana. Her articles, fiction, and poetry have appeared in various religious publications, including St. Anthony Messenger.