Chapter 10: Just Go To Sleep
Last night was rough. The night started off strong as Courtney and I lucked out with a dinner that everyone ate without complaining. After cleaning up the pieces of food that Isaac finally rejected after several rounds of taste testing, we let the kids play for a few minutes and then they all went to bed relatively peacefully. Then around midnight, Isaac woke up. We’ve learned the hard way that exhausted kids don’t always sleep so well. When Ellie was a baby, I remember we were so optimistic one night as we put her to bed. She hadn’t napped much that day, so Courtney and I naively assumed that meant Ellie was due for a great night of sleep. We were wrong then, and the lesson was relearned last night when our overtired son woke up late at night eager to party.
For four hours, I tried everything I could to get Isaac to sleep. He drank milk, I walked with him in my arms for awhile, I laid down with him, but nothing was working. Once I set him down, he’d stand back up and start running around in his crib. I brought him downstairs and immediately he demanded to watch kids singalong videos on YouTube. Before anyone is either overly impressed by Isaac’s communication skills or alarmed by our lack of parenting skills, it’s important to know that he simply said, “E-I-E-I.” The “O” at the end was implied, and yes, we do let him watch an animated rendition of the Old MacDonald song every so often. No matter how desperate I was, I knew that screen time wouldn’t help, so I found myself with an overtired, energetic, and whiny toddler who kept repeating those two vowels ad nauseam.
Isaac kept fighting sleep, and in hindsight his perseverance in the battle was impressive, but he eventually gave up and passed out in my arms. It was obvious that the kid needed to go to bed, but it was the last thing he wanted to do. As I held him, Isaac kept trying to squirm away, flailing and writhing to elude my grip. Even in my own sleep deprived state, I knew that my son wouldn’t find rest in running around or watching YouTube videos, no matter how insistent he was. Especially for kids, sleep is essential to their growth and development. Children simply need sleep to aid in all the growing, learning, and moving they do every day. Like every other human who’s ever lived, Isaac without enough sleep is a mess.
I miss the days when he was a baby, when rest was his default mode and when he was most content in our arms. There’s something beautiful about the utter trust of a baby in the arms of their mother or father. They don’t grip, they don’t hold on to you, they often don’t even open their eyes to see how high they are or what’s around them. There’s no fear or even awareness of the possibility of falling, because they’re safe with us. As a father, there are few times in my life when I’ve felt more content than when my child is asleep in my arms.
Now that Isaac’s getting older, he usually resists being held. Just like his older siblings, Isaac now only wants to be cradled in our arms when he’s ready for bed, scared, or suffering in some way. In many ways our kids’ growing independence is a good thing, but Courtney and I cherish the rare moments when our kids are willing to be held. Our kids are convinced that our embrace can protect them from whatever they fear and that our affection can heal whatever’s hurting. While we never want to see our kids hurting or afraid, we are grateful for every second we are given to embrace our children. Most of the time they’ll squirm away once the fear subsides or their pain is eclipsed by some shiny object in the room grabbing their attention.
I know you’re not supposed to have a least favorite passage from the Bible, but for the longest time I didn’t like the story of Martha and Mary. This particular narrative comes at the end of the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, soon after Jesus sent His disciples out to preach and heal as they announced the coming of the Kingdom. Jesus prepared His followers well and they came back excited to share stories of God’s power at work through their ministry. The disciples got to do cool stuff and demons were terrified of them. This is the type of story I can get excited about. After the disciples return, we read the parable of the Good Samaritan, another call for Jesus’ followers to reach out in love and service. That’s not quite as appealing as demon expulsion, but still I find it inspiring.
Then Jesus goes to Martha and Mary’s house. As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary [who] sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her. (Luke 10:38-42)
It never made sense to me why Jesus would affirm Mary for sitting around while her sister Martha is doing all the hard work. It’s understandable that Martha would be anxious, worried, and probably a bit annoyed that Mary just lounges around while Martha keeps busy serving Jesus. What could be more holy than making dinner for God? Doesn’t Jesus value Martha’s hospitality?
I pride myself in being busy. I must not be alone in this, because most of the time when I catch up with friends and ask how they’re doing, one of the first things I hear is how busy they are. For me, busyness is the barometer of my day. I feel lazy when I’m not productive. I used to say that I felt lazy when I was on vacation, but now that I have kids, a day on vacation is like every other day except with a higher chance of sunburn.
Even my time spent in prayer is busy. When I try to just have quiet prayer time with nothing to read or no prayers to recite, I spend most of the time thinking about the 30 things I still need to do before the end of the day. I’m not very good at sitting still. If I am not accomplishing anything or at least working toward some goal, I feel like I’m just wasting time. I am constantly striving for greater efficiency, convinced that my worth is tied to my productivity. My obsession with productivity isn’t limited to when I’m at work; I struggle with the fear of sitting still even at home with my family. Fortunately I’ve been blessed with children that are always willing to remind me of what matters most as they pull me away from checking my phone.
I’m comfortable with the idea of God as my cheerleader and motivator, but I’m usually too proud to realize my utter and constant need for Him. It takes a lot for me to recognize where I really stand. Illustrating the unique way that suffering wakens us to the reality of our dependence on God, author C.S. Lewis, in his book The Problem of Pain, claims that pain “removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.” Like my kids, I resist the idea of resting in the Father’s arms until I remember that’s the only place I’ll truly find peace in this life. When I experience moments that make me aware of my profound need for God, the reality of my existence is brought into focus again and I am reminded of my constant dependence on His goodness.
More than I desire to hold my restless kids, the Father desires to hold my restless heart. Despite my pride and distractedness, this overwhelming affection I feel for my children must be only a shadow or an echo of God’s love for me. He knows well that my running around won’t give me peace, my work won’t set me free, and that the best use of my time spent with Him is for me to simply receive His love. I still can empathize with Martha’s frustration, but I’m beginning to see that Mary did indeed choose the better position. In their inability and their helplessness, babies remind us that it is possible to be immensely loveable even when we’re terribly unproductive. Just as Isaac’s restlessness doesn’t lessen my love for him, God tenderly continues to invite me back to prayer no matter how often I flee from His embrace. From the very beginning of humanity’s relationship with God in the Garden of Eden, it’s clear that rest is an essential component of our lives. Before Adam and Eve had worked at all, they were commanded to take a day off. Celebrating the Sabbath rest helps to re-center our lives and to reorder our priorities as we humbly recognize that the world keeps turning and the Father continues to provide for us, even if we stop working for 24 hours. In the Psalms we even find a command to go to bed. The psalmist reminds us of the primacy of receptivity over production: “It is vain for you to rise early and put off your rest at night, to eat bread earned by hard toil—all this God gives to his beloved in sleep” (Psalm 127:2). The witness of men and women religious who have found a life of fulfillment and joy in the midst of embracing poverty challenges us to rethink our obsession with work and to be reminded of each person’s true posture as beggars before God.
The lives of the saints testify to this reality. When we read their autobiographies, it can be disheartening to hear how they became more aware of their littleness before God as they progressed in the spiritual life. If these saints who truly drew close to God felt weak in their faith, what hope do I have? The saints’ growing awareness of their limitations actually served to draw them nearer to the Lord; in seeing their weaknesses they could see more clearly the depth of the Father’s love for them. Our inadequacies are not disqualifications in God’s eyes. He loves us with all the affection of a parent for their messy, stammering, stumbling toddler. Reflecting on her own weakness and the impossibility of progressing spiritually through one’s own efforts, Saint Therese of Lisieux saw the image of an elevator as an analogy for what God can do for a soul:
I was far too small to climb the steep stairs of perfection. So I sought in holy Scripture…and I read these words: ‘Whosoever is a little one, come to me.’ It is your arms, Jesus, that are the lift to carry me to heaven. And so there is no need for me to grow up: I must stay little and become less and less. (Story of a Soul)
Though much of my time spent in prayer is full of distractions, with my mind ricocheting between overanalyzing the past and worrying about the future, God the Father can handle it. Although I’m less able to sit still in His presence than my kids are in mine, God’s okay with that. In referring to our childlike posture before God the Father, the Catechism beautifully illustrates the importance and simplicity of contemplative prayer. “Contemplative prayer is the prayer of the child of God, of the forgiven sinner who agrees to welcome the love by which he is loved and who wants to respond to it by loving even more. But he knows that the love he is returning is poured out by the Spirit in his heart, for everything is grace from God. Contemplative prayer is the poor and humble surrender to the loving will of the Father in ever deeper union with his beloved Son” (CCC 2712).
I love the wording in the last line of that description. We should always be aware of our poverty before God, cognizant of how little we have to offer Him. My poverty extends to my surrendering as well; I love to cling fiercely to everything I have and I’m bad at letting go. Even if I surrender poorly, if I struggle to let go of my agenda and my to-do lists in prayer, I can still find the Father’s arms reaching to embrace me. Though I still have a long way to go before they’ll be naming churches after me or asking me to pose for a holy card, I am just as loved and cherished by God as the great saints that we honor and strive to imitate. The goal isn’t for me to go off and do great things for God, the goal is to rest in His presence and learn to trust that He’ll do great things through me.