The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

The Prayer is in the Playdough
By Kathleen McTigue

 Commentary July/August 1999

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On the day my first child, Hannah, greeted the light of the world and was lifted into my arms, I had no clue about the impact she would have on my spiritual life. I would have told anyone who asked that this child was God Herself, or as near to it as I would ever get, and she immediately became the focus of my passionate idolatry.

I lived in a state of awe during the early weeks of Hannah’s life. In the long silences of night-time nursing and through days that drifted and eddied around this new being, no detail could escape my attention. I was mesmerized by her minute fingernails, the curve of her foot, the perfect translucence of her ear, the blue-black depth of her eyes. Through all of my years working with various spiritual disciplines of prayer and meditation, the heart of the practice was always to learn deeper attention. After Hannah’s birth, attention flowed effortlessly, expanding out from the center she occupied like ripples on a pond.

I suppose that if those early days really characterized parenting, people raising children would be on the fast track for enlightenment. But the path doesn’t stay within that surreal realm for very long, and the new parent soon understands why there are so few stories of saints outside the monastic tradition. Along with the profound joy of parenting come all those other experiences that interrupt one’s starry-eyed devotion: the drool and spit-up, the months of sleep deprivation, the endless diapers and, for some unlucky souls, the mind-numbing nights of colic. Later on there are squabbles and tantrums, the willful deafness to parental pleas, the high-pitched scream in inhuman decibels. Above all there is the constancy of interruption: broken sleep and fragmented dreams, conversations reduced to half-sentence snippets, days divided into fractions, each one full of uncompleted tasks. 

The spiritual life is usually depicted as requiring total dedication: the solitary pilgrimage, the focused weeks of prayer or meditation, the ecstatic chanting in the company of other seekers. When Siddhartha began the journey that would transform him into the Buddha, he left behind his wife and infant son. This choice seems unforgivable, hardly the stuff of enlightenment; but on the classic spiritual journey, which is characterized by austerity and solitude, there is no room for spouse and baby to trot alongside.

We don’t hear stories about saints and sages walking the path to their enlightenment hauling bags of diapers and stacks of diaper wipes, mini-packs of tissues, liquid Tylenol, and teething rings. It’s hard to imagine them engaging in soul-deepening religious thought or dialogue while they wipe a runny nose or clean up after Spaghetti-Os. And a parent is more likely to be found poring time and again over the words of The Runaway Bunny or Goodnight Moon than over the classic sacred texts.

The real journey with children is motivated not by our spiritual hungers but by our offsprings’ more prosaic appetites. Although children’s lovely, spontaneous ways may re-awaken us to the world, being a parent often doesn’t look anything like traveling a spiritual path. Parents have little opportunity for regular prayer or meditation, Sabbath reflection, study, or journal-writing. Instead, such practices may be reduced and disrupted almost to the vanishing point. The real journey for parents leads right through the life we are living—through the chaos, the interruptions, the exhaustion.

This ordinary, unsung path requires tremendous openness to the unanticipated. It meanders around a thousand turns that feel like detours or dead ends. It requires faith that the spirit does not grow in a straight line nor does it require traditional forms and practices, as helpful as these can be. Real spiritual growth depends on our willingness to be transformed. And very little transforms us as thoroughly as sharing our lives with children.

In my office—in the one room in the house that is theoretically all mine—I have created a small altar. It is nothing elaborate, just a cardboard box dignified by its covering of Guatemalan cloth. It holds the multitude of small things I’ve found over many years that symbolize the people and places woven into who I am: a candle in a ceramic holder that belonged to my mother; a Buddhist meditation bell; a cross given to me by a friend now dead. It holds a pine cone from the Monterey coast, a shard of pottery from an Incan ruin, a bullet casing from Nicaragua, a hawk’s feather, a sea fossil, and stones and shells from the far corners of the planet. I have carried these things with me and reconstructed them into a new shrine in every home I’ve lived in for the past 20 years, adding to it as I go along. The altar is sacred to me— a visual mantra affirming the world’s holiness. It is beautiful— and irresistible to a small child.

When Hannah began to reach for my altar and crow her pleasure, I realized that yet another dimension of my spiritual life was destined to change. I would hover, vaguely scandalized, as she fingered her sticky way through my treasures. I tried to keep my office door shut, but she soon learned to reach up and turn the knob. By the time my second child, Maris, could crawl, I had resigned myself to sharing the altar.

I find my stones and shells in the pockets of my children’s overalls, tucked behind the couch cushions, or hidden in the children’s own treasure boxes. They’ve been stuck into ungodly pink or blue playdough creations and forgotten and put to bed with dolls and stuffed animals. Once or twice a week I regather my precious fragments and rearrange them on the altar. I am Sisyphus, knowing that each time I put things back together they will be relentlessly dismantled. 

Every now and then I grow peevish and consider building a child-proof shelf five feet off the ground or installing a hook-and-eye lock high out of reach. My little shrine could serenely gather dust as it used to. But I haven’t done any of this, and I suspect I never will. Instead, the altar has become a metaphor for the spiritual path I walk as a parent. The sacred is left vulnerable and unprotected from the gleeful fist that reaches for it. Sometimes it gets lost for days or weeks, other times it’s chipped or discolored by the excessive affection it’s received. 

When I stumble on pieces of the altar in some unexpected corner, I touch them as if for the first time, hold them lightly, and lift them again onto the uncertain sanctuary of the altar. I struggle with shared ownership, with the imperative to let go, to be surprised. I work with this new form of prayer, which does not come easily, built as it is on relinquishment and the open hand. The path doesn’t resemble the austere life of the spirit led by the saints I once hoped to emulate. But my prayer is there, in the midst of life, where children are born and raised and where they become our wisest teachers.

The Rev. Kathleen McTigue is minister of the Unitarian Society of New Haven, CT.

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