Betty Duffy

Friday, May 27, 2011

On spiritual mottos

Once upon a time in spiritual direction, I struggled to come up with a motto for my life--a catchy slogan like "So easy, a caveman can do it," or "A little dab will do ya"--not so much to sell me on the essence of my vocation, but to remind me in five words or less what my vocation actually is, when, for instance, I'm overwhelmed because I can't control my husband, my kids, my dog, my house, the weather, my moods, or anything really, and I'd rather go to France and do the can-can.

I found it difficult to be a cheerful giver. So my spiritual director, who was always inclined to go easy on me, suggested, "Service with a smile." I thought that might actually work out, and I imagined a twinkle on my incisor as I placed a bowl of Shredded Wheat on the table in front of one of my kids.

But kids don't really care that much if you're smiling when you feed them. They want sugar on their Shredded Wheat. They want a different bowl. They want a spoon. They want as much as their brother has. They want more milk, or less milk, or they've decided they're full after two bites, and they're wasting perfectly good food, and they're not taking their bowl to the sink, they're spilling it on the floor, and screaming, because now they actually want their cereal. At least that's how it goes at my house--multiplied by five.

So I went back to my spiritual director and told her it wasn't going well.

So we took another step back. She said I needed to regard myself as I regard my kids--like a child--maybe my expectations were too high--as though just knowing that I lacked joy would bring it, that if I concentrated hard enough all my woes would be gone.

We decided to change my motto to "Service because it's my duty." I thought this might work, as it addressed a certain lack of humility present in my first motto, the suggestion that my vocation really is so easy a caveman can do it, and only a heathen would do it without a smile. Well, not so. I don't really think a caveman could do what I do. Plus, many good women have gone before me, unsmilingly to their grave as the mother of relatively functional children.

So I went back home to do my duty, cleaned my house and it got messy again. Then my husband came home and thought I hadn't cleaned it. I made dinner, and no one liked it. There were other difficulties as well, like I was tired, and I felt like my energies were too precious to waste on things that would be undone in a matter of seconds. I was also grouchy about stuff, and that made me a bore to be around.

And…that's pretty much where things stand.

I have one more slogan in my life that I've heard so many times it no longer has meaning. It grows tiresome, formulating new systems and salves for my broken nature, and then berating myself when the desired effect never comes.

I read in an old journal recently, some notes from a retreat attended many years ago:

"Treat others as the image of God whether or not they have treated us that way. There is self-centeredness in our service:

If they didn't do it for us…

We serve others especially if they didn't do it for us, because that is what Christ does."

And at first it troubles me, because Christ and his ways are not always on the tip of my tongue. Jazzy slogans are easily recalled and easily dismissed, but Christ, and his ways, are a challenge to recall, but impossible for me to dismiss.

At the same time, with a little reflection, I can see that, yes, years have passed, and I have been doing the service, because it's my duty, for people who don't really return the favor. And I have done it, at times well, at times poorly, for one reason alone: because I love Jesus. I really do.

If I didn't, I would be lifting my skirts to France.

There is a bigger picture that only reveals itself over years. On a day to day basis, it's easy to believe that I have failed in my vocation, because I yelled at my kids and went to bed grouchy, even as my heart has yearned for God.

Looking back over years, I can see that my yearning for God is the only thing that may have saved me, that has indeed been my one success. I am still serving others, people who may never return the favor, because I yearn for the one who did it for me. He did it perfectly. I do it poorly--that's a gap that may never be bridged, even with the most poignantly sassy soundbite on instant recall. But it's also a start that has maintained me for eleven years. And I'm going to go with it.


Becky said...

I've been so impressed with your writing since my first visit here... something seemed familiar about it, but I wasn't sure what. Recently, I've revisited some Annie Dillard, my writing idol in high school. And then I realized why your writing is familiar to me. The writing is the same - intentional, ironic, introspective, intelligent, but truly your writing has more depth and insight and power to affect my life. Love your blog!

Kimberlie said...

There are many days when my love for Jesus is the only thing that keeps me from walking out the door and never looking back. I tire of serving when no one appreciates. I tire of trying to make food that all will enjoy but they never do. I tire of constantly washing clean clothes because they don't make it into the proper drawer but instead they rest on the floor.

I wish I could do this all with a joyful heart, with a sense of this is my greatest purpose in life and I'm fulfilling my call, but most of the time I complain and fulfill the saying "if mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." Big, fat, fail over and over.

Now I have to run because my 5 yr old daughter is outside crying, obviously because of some atrocity committed by her brothers like they actually probably looked at her. It's that time of day when everything falls apart. :)

wifemotherexpletive said...

I like this so much I need to try and figure out how to 'keep' it nearby... reminder of the one who did it perfectly, no wonder i can't keep up... sheesz.

MrsDarwin said...

"There is a bigger picture that only reveals itself over years. On a day to day basis, it's easy to believe that I have failed in my vocation, because I yelled at my kids and went to bed grouchy, even as my heart has yearned for God."

This has been true almost every day lately. Ifrel like I'm less successful in my vocation as time goes by, instead of practice making perfect. Now I understand what people meant when they told me "Enjoy them while they're young." It's so easy when all their needs and challenges are purely physical.

Liz Odom said...

How about "Be still and know that I am God."

Suzanne said...

And now I must unlurk and say how much I love your blog. Thank you for being real. As the mom of three small kids, I'm in what you might call a bit of a "funk" right now -- for about the last four years. And yet, to serve because He served, to love because He loved, this is what we strive for. And France? You dream big. I always thought of running, but only as far as Canada.

JMB said...

My alter ego is Consuela. Consuela halls in the groceries while the kids sit around and complain that we have no food. Consuela walks the dogs that the kids begged for, Consuela runs to school to drop off forgotten lunches and musical instruments, Consuela cleans up the back yard after a fun night of partying.

But I think underneath it all, Consuela means consoling.

Owen said...

Success Re-loaded. Amen.

Mary Poppins NOT said...

Wow. You hit the nail on the head. I am amazed at the precision with which you articulate the intricities of this mother's life. You have placed, in this post, about seven years worth of spiritual direction I have had, and summed it up so beautifully. And thank you for the hope you gave me today. It IS my yearning for God that keeps me going; I just didn't know how to articulate it, and I wasn't sure what it was. But that is it. BTW, my motto is "To live life with an open hand." It does work for me, mostly.

nicole said...

Oh this is wonderful. Perhaps the most timely thing I've read in quite a while, in regards to my own life and my own attitude about my vocation. Thank you!

Theresa said...

Everyday in high school the last thing my father said to me as I walked out the door for school was:

"Theresa, today is the first day of the rest of your life. What are you going to do with it?"

I've had many mottos during my years as a CW and in RC, but I always seem to go back to is the first day of the rest of my life. Then a couple months ago my brother read something to me that ended that quote perfectly. It was something about at the end of the day were my actions worth the price of each moment that I'll never get back? Was watching 2 movies worth the price of one day? Was being crabby with my kids and throwing interior tantrums all day worth the price of one? One day that I will never get back?

It made me think. Ultimately I end up doing the same stupid things and seem to waste my days, but every time I stop to think about that it DOES change my perspective no matter how crappy I'm feeling.

Love this post. Thank you.

Mike said...

I have used slogans and mantras myself. At times, I have thought them a shortcut—a way of avoiding the hard work which is required of a parent or any striving person for that matter. But over time there is a very useful centering effect. It doesn't always work, but it often does, more and more with the passage of time. And I have found, too, that whereas at first I did not believe my own slogan, over time I came to believe it. And so the exercise has had the additional benefit of helping to teach myself what was always true.

My slogan: I have the riches of a king.

nayhee said...

This post makes me want to pray. Cry and pray.

Anonymous said...

Hallelujah, pass the Tylenol...

Melanie B said...

"There is a bigger picture that only reveals itself over years. On a day to day basis, it's easy to believe that I have failed in my vocation, because I yelled at my kids and went to bed grouchy, even as my heart has yearned for God.

Looking back over years, I can see that my yearning for God is the only thing that may have saved me, that has indeed been my one success."

I keep reading this over and over. I still can't find anything to say but: Yes. Yes to the feeling of failure and yes to the yearning. Yes to your saying so clearly what I can't quite articulate.

amber giles said...

even if you have nothing, to Love tenderly is everything.

Great for when I am all out of everything. mummy of 5
amber xxx

Erin said...

I often have to remind myself that this life IS the life I chose. It IS my dream come true. It IS my own doing. And then usually, sometimes, I can smile again. But a motto?? That might be tough to come up with...

Catherine said...

The motto that's getting me through my current season of life is "Setting up pins (for knocking them down)"

It helps my mood to know that's I'm washing dishes so they can be dirtied again, making the beds so they can be unmade, etc. and that's how life is SUPPOSED to be, and everyone else is really just doing the same thing (i.e. making money so it can be spent)

Just listen to this Sara Groves song: