The National Catholic Review
Deirdre Cornell

Motherhood is monastic. Walking into Gethsemane Abbey during Night Prayer, I had to catch my breath. Not one to be swept up by hero worship, even of such a worthy figure as Thomas Merton (or for that matter, Kathleen Norris), I had braced myself to be critical. Nevertheless, entering the chapel, seated within this gentle fortress on the hill, I was overpowered by a sudden visceral reaction. As I watched the evening light pour in and listened to the monks’ plaintive chant, I found myself thinking, So this is what it looks like.

 

In Kentucky for a Grail meeting, I was far from home but not alone. Too young to be left behind with my husband and our two older children, five-month-old Seamus weighed heavy in my arms. We had spent an uncomfortable night in a new bed and an exhausting day in meetings. Sheer doggedness was the only thing keeping me awake. Wits scattered by what a friend only half jokingly refers to as “milk-brain,” I was familiar with this effort to remain watchful.

I found it easy to identify with the no-nonsense robes and hairstyles of the two rows of monks. My body’s beauty has been sacrificed three times, and while its contours were only temporarily reshaped, its flesh remains permanently creased. After each pregnancy, inevitably some of my hair falls out, leaving me with a mother’s tonsure: a ponytail that thins (even as my hips widen) with each child.

And I, too, have had to learn detachment from career ambitions and material possessions. My best jacket, treasured for some future teaching job, was ruined by milk stains; my grandmother’s lace tablecloth shredded by my son Thomas’s scissors.

But the shock of familiarity that made my stomach clench and deflated my lungs came from a recognition even more fundamental. Like a cave hewn into mountain rock, the chapel vault confronts the eye with its relentless simplicity. A wooden cross dominates the space. An icon, the only ornament, graces otherwise bare walls. Windows stretching several stories high allow natural light to ebb and flow. I found myself staring at a visual portrait of the kenosis, the self-emptying, brought about by this last, unexpected pregnancy.

My husband and I thought we had mastered the balance of work and family, even amid the chaos of our Catholic Worker lifestyle. Having two children already, we assumed that with minor adjustments (like finding health care coverage) our parameters would remain basically the same. This time was different. My energy level plummeted. I waited for the middle semester “second wind”—it never came. Checkups, prenatal vitamins and daily exercise, par for the course in my other pregnancies, became accomplishments in themselves.

As my husband and I began to pare down our active lives, we were forced to admit that we had been doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons. Trading off the kids while we raced around to migrant farm-worker camps, the Grail Women’s Center or our inner-city parish, we had lost track of the source of our motivation—or, to use an old-fashioned word, our vocation.

During this third pregnancy, taking in too much at one time became overwhelming; clutter became unbearable. I craved simpler foods. Our new limits dictated a simpler pace of life. My already slim work hours vanished into a leave of absence. We had to end our only formal project, a gardening program with Latino teenagers. While this new life took shape inside my body, pushing for room, I felt my outward life slipping away.

Even the Mass was as if taken away from me. In the first trimester, tides of revulsion made it impossible to stomach the liturgy’s sexist language. As the surge of anger subsided into the more usual annoyance, no matter how hard I tried I could not return to three-times-a-week attendance. Just as the noon bells chimed, the phone would ring with a complicated need, or an unexpected guest would arrive. I thirsted for the wine’s sweet, burning sensation to seep into my chest. I hungered for the host to cleave to the roof of my mouth. Instead, my hunger and thirst were sharpened.

Deprived of the anchor that grounds my busy days, I groped for a lifeline. During stolen moments while Rachel and Thomas napped, I sat with the breviary my mother had so wisely given me when I left home. Savoring their poetry, I pored over the psalms, rediscovering the lines that had already saved me once, during my college crisis of faith. Stitching each word into memory, I marveled at the way they, in turn, baste my own small story into the seam of Christian history. I thought of those early communities of women and men who fled the comfort of urban centers and the security of Constantine’s church. They, too, were haunted by this desire: “I will lure you into the desert and there I will speak to your heart” (Hosea 2:4).

At 33, I am the inheritor of two great lay movements, both of which must be reborn in the present generation. As mother of three, I can labor for neither one. Following a calling that demands so much from me, I had been faithful to its appearances while resisting its internal giving over. As their externals were stripped away, I found myself face to face with the original imprint on which the Catholic Worker and the Grail were based: the mystery of vocation laid bare. As in labor, there is no going around the pain, only through it; and just as at Seamus’s birth I had allowed the contractions to bowl me over, keeping nothing back from their agonizing waves, so now I allowed myself to be overwhelmed by the familiarity of this chapel.

Compline ended. All but one of the monks filed out. Invited to the inner chapel with the other visitors, Seamus and I lined up to be blessed with holy water. Passing the icon, we were greeted by the gaze of the Madonna holding her child. I thought of all those nights staying up with the children when they have fevers, watching their breath rise and fall in the O Antiphon of sleep. Motherhood is an office that, like dishes, or meals or countless minuscule acts of hospitality must be recreated every day, several times a day.

At Gethsemane I recognized the tenacious return. Body exhausted, hair falling out, bound to late-night vigils and early-morning lauds, I come back to the Liturgy of the Hours, to its words etched onto the bones. Like the monastics, I take my place in this remnant: to lean, fully awake, into stillness, embracing it like a lover; to seek the original imprint; to train an inner ear to the intimate voice of Christ.

Deirdre Cornell, who lives in Newburgh, N.Y., holds a master’s degree in theology from Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley.

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