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5 Things the mystics have taught me about motherhood

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These people can help you live more simply, shake off insecurities, and be a better mother to your kids.

When I was suffering from postpartum depression, I sought solace in the Christian mystics as a way to find language for my own intense emotions. I live in an intentional community on a farm — a lifestyle that can feel radical at times. Because the Christian mystics often seem to linger on the fringes of society, religion — and sometimes even emotional health — they have given me perspective on my life and experiences. Here are five things I’ve learned from these mostly single and cloistered mystics about being a mother and caring for my family and community:

1. Living simply is meaningful

After a life-changing encounter with a leper on the road, St. Francis of Assisi — who grew up wealthy — gave away all of his possessions. Like Francis, many of the Christian mystics are radical in how they embrace simplicity. Studying them has encouraged me to find ways to live more simply in my own life. Giving up things that seem important to my daily life can feel like a heavy burden, but the irony is, the less I have, the more easily I’m satisfied.

Many people today find that living more simply is better for the environment, their own emotional health, and, by extension, those living in poverty across the world. The popularity of TV shows like HGTV’s Tiny House, Big Living attests to a societal transition toward longing for a less cluttered life. But simplicity doesn’t have to mean living in an unusual home without electricity (although some lovely folks do that, like Esther Emery). There are many ways each of us can bring simplicity to our lives.

One way is through our electronics. I have found that the use of social media and my smartphone have the potential to make me miss important and seemingly small interactions with my children. My husband and I have a rule that phones are never allowed at the table, and unless I’m working on something urgent, I try to limit the use of my phone and computer when the kids are home from school.

And there’s so much else to do with the extra unplugged time you’ll have: gardening is a simple and rewarding way to help you and your children understand and better appreciate where your food comes from. De-cluttering your home, giving away unnecessary items and clothes, not buying things you don’t need or won’t use, shopping at thrift stores instead of retail, these are all first steps in simplicity. But most of all, simplicity involves a change of outlook that says: I can be satisfied with less and focus on the non-material things to give meaning to my life.

2. Suffering helps us grow in compassion

Many of the mystics, like Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, faced times of emotional distress. Even the most pious and devout mystics were afflicted with spiritual torment, dark days, and both psychological and bodily pain.

When I was struggling with my own depression and anxiety, reading of their pain helped me lean into my own. Knowing that these women of radical faith struggled with emotional health made me feel less alone. Emotional distress is an occasional part of motherhood, but depression and anxiety can be long-term clinical diagnoses that need counseling and medication. Experiencing this kind of suffering has taught me that sometimes we need to listen better to ourselves, to our bodies, and to our hearts. It takes courage to say, “I need help,” and being in pain can be a very humbling experience, one that gives us compassion for the pain of others.

3. Practice authentic hospitality

Many of the mystics practiced radical hospitality, or as my friend and writer David Janzen says, “hospitality that is offered to those who cannot return it.” Whether it was accepting people into their homes, their convents and monasteries, or offering their work and service to those in need outside of a typical home, the mystics lived hospitable lives.

When I first became a wife and a mother, I didn’t really know how to cook. Soon after we moved to a farm, I was thrown into the joys and challenges of hosting and cooking for large groups of people in my small home; at that time, hospitality meant serving our nicest meals and making sure our home was at its cleanest. But the longer I’ve hosted, the more I’ve realized that hospitality is not about having fancy furniture, pretty dishes, expensive tastes or even a clean home.

Sometimes we’re able to offer hospitality more authentically when people enter our home at its most typical, instead of its most pristine. When my youngest was only a few months old, I got confused about a play date I was supposed to have with a friend. She ended up coming over at a time I wasn’t expecting and I was embarrassed that my kitchen wasn’t clean, my living room was a mess, and my hair wasn’t brushed. When I apologized, my friend said she was glad I was being so real. I think she was telling me that she could relate to my messiness and that our relationship was able to go a little deeper because of the honesty of our encounter.

Hospitality is about more than having people over to eat; it’s about authentically offering the good gifts we have to others.

4. Be generous

Like St. Francis, many of the mystics gave away all they had. Catherine of Siena voluntarily became a lay member of a religious order at the age of 16. She was an early activist who gave up her possessions and lived an ascetic life. Like many before and after her, Catherine dedicated her life to serving others.

Many of us feel challenged by the demands of family life and work. But giving time and money to others doesn’t always have to involve a dramatic shift. Sometimes, our generosity can come in the mundane everyday ways we serve and care for others. I have found that my time is the hardest thing to give up.

5. Take time for solitude

One thing most of the mystics have in common is their deep prayer life. Many of them lived cloistered lives that focused on daily and sometimes even hourly prayer and silence. Thomas Merton, a 20th century monk and mystic, wrote extensively on solitude and contemplative prayer. He believed that prayer had the power to help us see with new eyes: “Prayer does not blind us to the world, but it transforms our vision of the world, and makes us see it, all men, and all the history of mankind, in the light of God.” Those mystics who had families also relied on prayer as a primary means to experience and be in relationship with God.

Most parents of young children would scoff at the idea that we have any time to ourselves. The idea of time alone, when you have so many responsibilities and so many people relying on you, seems impossible. But solitude can actually help stressed-out parents cope better with our daily lives in healthier and more meaningful ways. Solitude isn’t the same thing as being alone or just being in a quiet space. Although it can be rejuvenating to spend 20 minutes watching a show or reading, true solitude involves rich, deep, and intentional quiet time, spent in prayer or meditation. It only takes 10-20 minutes a day. And many studies maintain that prayer and meditation are essential for greater mental and physical health.

So how does one find time for solitude? At first, it may need to be taken from other things like sleep or surfing the internet. And, for many of us, finding someone to care for our kids during this time is very challenging. But since I’ve made 20 minutes of solitude a priority (and I don’t do it every single day), my anxiety has decreased and I’m better able to approach my family and community with love and patience. Just another lesson I’m so grateful to have learned from the Christian mystics.

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