Valerie SchultzMarch 18, 2021
Photo by Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash.

The annual Los Angeles Religious Education Congress is close to my heart. It’s a vacation, an education, a retreat, a breath of fresh air and a spiritual shot in the arm—all rolled into one big holy ball of beautiful liturgies and faith-expanding workshops and time with fellow pilgrims. Except this year, like everything else during the plague of Covid-19, the L.A. Congress was virtual. You could watch it, but you couldn’t go to it.

At first, I was disappointed. No communal concerts, no gigantic Masses, no coffee with friends, no pristine hotel room, no stop-and-go on Interstate 5, no travel beyond my kitchen table? Of course, on the scale of pandemic problems, I knew these didn’t measure up to the suffering many have experienced at the hands of the virus. More to be supportive than with any happy anticipation, I signed up for the Congress a few months ago. The registration fee was cut in half, as was the length of the keynote addresses. The sweet and earnest opening ceremony was performed with the little-squares-of-Zoom effect. The workshops were pre-recorded short lectures. All in all, it was a stripped-down event.

And yet.

Sometimes when we expect the least, we gain the most.

Instead of navigating the whirlwind of crowded walkways and the buzz of many exhibitors and the epic bathroom lines, I sat by myself one early morning and clicked on a presentation: Father James Martin’s workshop based on his new book, Learning to Pray.

Any time spent in the presence of God is transformative.

It was an easy choice because, after all, who doesn’t need to know more about prayer? I was hungry for inspiration. Despite all my alone time, my pandemic prayer life has felt pretty anemic. I listened to Father Martin’s prayer pointers, like taking time to note our responses to prayer, maintaining a friendship with God and rediscovering the practice of Ignatian contemplation or lectio divina, centering prayer or the examination of conscience. He also said something I would return to later.

“If you’re praying and you have a phrase that comes up,” said Father Martin, “trust that sometimes those words and phrases that come into your heart or into your prayer are coming from God.”

He talked more about not dismissing the emotions or memories or desires that pop into your head while you are in conversation with God. He reiterated that there is no right or wrong way to pray and that no one has a perfect prayer life and that any time spent in the presence of God is transformative. I came away from the talk feeling a renewed desire to pray and a new openness to meditative ways of praying. Before bedtime that night, I felt moved to practice lectio divina with a passage from the Gospel of Luke:

“Are not five sparrows sold for two small coins? But not one of them has escaped the notice of God. Even the hairs of your head have all been counted. Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows” (Lk 12:6-7).

I am sure that I have read these verses many times before, but this time I was struck by the inclusion, in the middle of the talk of sparrows, of one of Jesus’ favorite phrases: “Do not be afraid.” I stayed with those four words. I thought about them. I turned them over and slowed them down. I repeated them and was grateful for them because I am afraid of many things. Then, completely by surprise, there came into my mind a clear phrase: “We are with you.”

I believe it was God, through my parents, accompanying me in a challenging time of my own parenting.

And I knew right away, without question, that the words were from my parents.

Who were with God.

I just knew it.

Although gone from this earth, they were with me.

Now, I know that the cadence of “we are with you” following “do not be afraid” matches that of an out-of-favor hymn. I also know that I may sound as though I have been to a séance. But it wasn’t like either of those things. I believe it was God, through my parents, accompanying me in a challenging time of my own parenting.

Oh, how I need to hear these words right now.

Here’s the thing. My kids—I say kids even though they are all adults—have been locked in an explosive dispute of late. Certainly, disagreements and misunderstandings happen in every family, but the collective stress of distance and worry has perhaps made this clash even more intractable. Suffice it to say, there have been strong statements and fractured feelings.

Now that they are grown, I find that my parenting has no teeth.

My parents never told me this, but parenting adults is hard. I remember thinking it was exhausting to rock and change and nurse and comfort babies, especially when two were in diapers at the same time. Setting boundaries and establishing family rules as my little darlings got older challenged me, as I had to learn the importance of consistency and fairness. Then it was rough maneuvering through adolescence four successive times. Not to mention watching them embark on college and careers, relationships and marriage, and other beginning-adult ventures.

Each stage of parenting has had its highs and lows, moments of this is going well and times of I am a terrible mother. The hard part to accept is, when my children were children, my word was law. Now that they are grown, I find that my parenting has no teeth. I can suggest that they talk, that they find some resolution, but I can’t make them sit in a room together until they decide to. My authority has softened and dissipated, even as I still love them unconditionally, even as I hope for their happiness fiercely.

With my folks physically gone, I can’t ask them how they dealt with the many conflicts and controversies among their six children as we all aged. I now represent the oldest generation of parents in my extended family, but I do not feel wise. I feel adrift. I feel helpless and clueless and ancient. I’ve also been afraid that this rift among my children will not close. Which is why those four simple words in the night continue to enfold me and give me such consolation. My mother and father aren’t around anymore to love me unconditionally, but I can actually feel that God loves me just like a parent, and even more so, going so far as to count the hairs of my head. My parents are still with me because God is with me.

Father Martin cautioned that not everything that pops into your head during prayer is from God. I get that. This felt different, though. It felt warm and loving and certain. While I make no claim to hearing voices, this prayerful encounter has given me the insight to trust God and to let time work its healing power. My kids will always be my kids, and I will always be their mother, but what they do and how they treat each other going forward are beyond my control. I can only love them. I can only be present to them. Maybe all I can say to them is that I am with them, just as my parents and my God are with me.

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