(Sermon) “Parenting as a Spiritual Discipline”

A sermon about the spirituality involved in being a parent – but also about where we find spirituality in general. The poem is excerpted from Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods”.

“Parenting as a Spiritual Discipline”

People will go to great lengths in pursuit of spiritual growth. I’ve heard of people travelling thousands of miles, paying thousands of dollars to study with a guru in a meditation center somewhere. While there, these seekers of wisdom take on a heavy diet of silent meditation – they learn about themselves through hour upon hour of tedium, sitting still, quieting themselves. When they are not meditating they perform basic tasks like sweeping the floor of the monastery. They sleep only a little – you only really need 3 or 4 hours to get by. They eat only a little. They are expected to follow the rules of that particular center or guru, or go home. It’s not an easy life. But what they get from the experience, hopefully, is wisdom. They come home a new person, stronger and more resilient, more mindful. And they have a renewed sense of who they are.

I would love to go to one of those months-long spiritual retreat centers some time in my life. But if you don’t have the time, or the money, or the inclination to engage in any of this, here’s good news: not only do all of us have opportunities for spiritual growth right here at home, some of you are already partaking of a very similar experience to the disciplined, monastic life. It’s known as parenthood.

Yes, parenthood takes many long, tedious years, requires you to put off sleeping, sometimes eating, too. It can be wildly expensive. And you have to follow the rules of the monastery, such as it is: you spend years in service of another being – only this “guru” is younger than you, and not always wiser, but you serve them anyway. Parenting is an intense form of practice, to be sure. But it’s quite possible that you will emerge from the experience knowing more about yourself than you ever did before.

A spiritual discipline is some regular practice that gradually shapes your spirit. Meditation, prayer, and yoga are some obvious examples. In the same way that regular physical exercise can sculpt those abs, the exercise of listening and mindfulness exercises can shape who you are as an emotional, spirit-filled person. Through gradual and intentional practice, you build up your resiliency to life’s ups and downs, you heighten your sense of compassion and connection, you feel more at home in your own skin. These are the kinds of results that spiritual discipline can lead to, though admittedly it’s not always as easy to track as weight gain or muscle loss.

Many of you may already have a spiritual practice, and I congratulate you if you do. But whether you do or don’t, I want you to consider that the everyday things you do can be a spiritual practice, when engaged in the right spirit, with the proper mindfulness. A few years ago I was with a group of ministerial colleagues and we were all sharing our spiritual practices. One parish minister, when it was his turn, said, “my spiritual practice is writing sermons.” “But that’s cheating!” I almost wanted to shout. “We do that anyway. It’s part of our job, we do it every week.”

But of course, as he went on to explain, just because it was something he did each week out of necessity didn’t mean it wasn’t spiritual. And it could still be a discipline, too – it could still challenge us, force us to grow, week after week. Perhaps your professional or volunteer work does that for you. I hope so. Those of us who can say that about our day jobs are very lucky.

We can certainly say this if our day jobs or night jobs include being a parent. Taking care of others, whether it is being a parent to a child or taking care of an aging parent or any way we take care of others, is one of the most powerful spiritual practices available to humankind. It’s not always quiet and serene like yoga or meditation, admittedly. As we heard in the first Renita Weems reading, if spiritual practice is thought of as a dignified pursuit taken up in some quiet monk’s cloister somewhere, then parenting is very far from a spiritual practice. You can’t just be still and silent and listen for the voice of the divine. Caring for someone – whether it is a child, an aging parent, a client, or anyone really – is a messy, ungraceful, plodding sort of practice. It’s full of interruption; it doesn’t go to plan. Parenting humbles us at every opportunity.

But isn’t the voice of the divine to be found in the wailing of child who skinned her knee as much as in the sacred chants of the Benedictine monasteries? Couldn’t God’s voice, transmitted through human beings, sniffle and moan and cry out for help in the night? To most parents here, I suspect these are rhetorical questions. If anything on this earth is holy, caring for those we love is holy. There is only one grail: it is the cup held up to the thirsty lips of those we love. And it is in the giving, not the goblet, that the sacred is transmitted.

Although it is apt to be romanticized around Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, in general parenting is not always thought of as a spiritually uplifting exercise. In fact, it is often said, and commonly accepted, that parenting makes you insane. That’s not intended in a clinical sense of course.

What is meant by this turn of phrase is that your children have ways of turning you into something you wouldn’t have recognized before. What you turn into all depends on the age of your children: with infants you are a sleep-deprived, muttering zombie; when you have school age children, you become a a shadow, a half-alive doppelganger always driving to this practice or that recital, never fully present, always trying to catch up with your life and theirs and somehow lift the curse. With teenagers you are Frankenstein’s monster, a well-meaning creature turned by your captors into a terrible brute; and when your children are grown, and you think you might possibly return to your former self, you find you are a specter, doing your best not to haunt your children’s adult lives, but finding yourself cruelly drawn in again and again. It’s monstrous, what parenting can do to us, perfectly monstrous.

Small wonder, and no shame, that not everyone takes naturally to parenting. There are a few people who are extremely talented at parents; the rest of us have lots of practice. Fortunately, you do not have to be great at parenting to grow spiritually from the experience. In fact, if it makes you feel any better, I’m sure there are amazing parents who are fairly trivial, self-centered people without much spiritual depth. Whether we grow spiritually from parenting has little relation to how good we are at it.

Spiritual growth doesn’t come so much from what we do, as from how we emotionally and intellectually respond to our situation. To give a different example of this, I have had many people over the years tell me that the experience of having cancer, or some other life-threatening illness, caused them to grow spiritually. It’s indescribably scary and awful to be faced with such a diagnosis, of course, possibly the worst thing that ever happens to us. But over time the fear can harden into courage. I’ve had people tell me cancer has made them more patient, more connected and appreciative of others, more determined to make the most out of every day. Cancer doesn’t really deserve the credit for all this – the people themselves do the work. Somehow, people are able to transform difficult emotions into a new way of being in the world.

Parenting is not anywhere near as tough as having cancer. But in the same way as one doesn’t get a health scare in order to improve spiritually, we don’t deliberately seek out kids just for the sake of spiritual journeys. Nobody says, “I need to grow spiritually. I know – I’ll get pregnant!” At least, I hope not. I’m guessing if you walked into the adoption office and said, “you know, the main reason I’m here is for my spiritual growth,” they’d look at you funny.

The main thing parents want out of parenting is for their child to be happy, healthy, safe. To be good people. Spiritual growth is a byproduct. Nonetheless, we can get more out of parenting by realizing it’s not just something we do for our kids, but something that changes us into new people.

We don’t really turn into monsters – that’s just one way of looking at it. We can actually gain great spiritual powers through parenthood. With newborns and toddlers, we can become masters of the here and now, able to accept interruption with a single moment. With small children, we can vie with any magical faerie creature when it comes to our ability to shape reality to our own ends, to draw another’s attention to beauty, or to offer a lesson. When our kids are teenagers, we can become as adaptable as shape shifters, able to be a friend one minute, then a light to guide the way, then a rock to lean on. And with grown kids? Well, with grown kids we might become as the gods and goddesses of yore, learning to enjoy the curious ways of mortals while watching from a distance on Mt. Olympus, ready to intercede when needed.

There are so many ways to grow as people, not just through what we do, but how we react to those around us, who share our families and our communities and our world. My wish for all of you this Mother’s Day is that those spiritual gifts that come from caring for others come to you, making you more open to life and receptive of its pleasures; making you more able to face today and adapt to tomorrow. Or in the words of Mary Oliver, (full poem at http://www.phys.unm.edu/~tw/fas/yits/archive/oliver_inblackwaterwoods.html)

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

May the blessings of those we love help heal our world, and bring a greater peace.
(But let’s hear from you now. What have you learned through caring for others?…) That’s how I ended the sermon at the congregation, and we had a great discussion. But what about you – what have you learned through caring for others? Feel free to comment below!

About bobjanisdillon

Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, husband, father, three-chord guitar wonder.
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