Parents of little ones may not be able to pray without interruption, but accepting God's will in these moments is the greatest sacrifice we can offer.
One of the first things I realized after having a child was that my prayer life would have to change. With four very active little ones, I can’t drop into the Adoration chapel at a moment’s notice or spend long quiet mornings reading Scripture.
But this sudden change doesn’t mean that a parent can no longer have a prayer life or progress spiritually. In fact, the opposite may be true: Parenthood offers enormous opportunities to grow in virtue. The tricky part is embracing these opportunities, which almost always come in unwanted forms.
Perhaps the secret to spiritual progress is both simpler and harder than we might think. The answer lies in total acceptance to God’s will for us in any given moment, even when His will is not what we would have chosen ourselves.
I’ve seen other mothers describe this idea as the “sacrament of the present moment.” Recently, I realized anew how hard it is to embrace this attitude, but also what value there is in striving for it.
Last week, my three older kids were busy playing while the new baby was napping. One of my favorite ways to sneak in time for prayer is to play an audio Rosary app and pray along with it while my hands are occupied. Laundry is an endless job in our home, so I fired up the Rosary app and began folding.
“Finally,” I thought, “I’ll pray a whole Rosary in peace.” That turned out to be wishful thinking.
One after another, each of my kids came in asking for something and interrupted my attempted prayer time. One wanted water, another a snack; someone needed help using the bathroom, another wanted help finding a toy; then two started fighting and had to be separated.
On and on this went. With each interruption, I paused my prayer and work to go attend to a child’s needs.
After the third or fourth interruption, I began to get irritated. Shouldn’t I have some time to myself to pray the Rosary, at least? Why does God let these kids keep bothering me with their endless requests?
Then I remembered a homily I had heard years before. The priest gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever heard. A mother can be a contemplative in the midst of her busy, noisy home, he said, when she learns to see her children’s interruptions as a summons to do God’s will:
The demands of young children provide [a mother] with what St. Bernard, one of the great architects of monasticism, called the ‘monastic bell.’ All monasteries have a bell. Bernard, in writing his rules for monasticism, told his monks that whenever the monastic bell rang, they were to drop whatever they were doing and go immediately to the particular activity (prayer, meals, work, study, sleep) to which the bell was summoning them. He was adamant that they respond immediately … not because you want to, but because it’s time for that task and time isn’t your time, it’s God’s time.
Hence, a mother raising children, perhaps in a more privileged way even than a professional contemplative, is forced, almost against her will, to constantly stretch her heart. For years, while raising children, her time is never her own, her own needs have to be kept in second place, and every time she turns around a hand is reaching out and demanding something. She hears the monastic bell many times during the day and she has to drop things in mid-sentence and respond, not because she wants to, but because it’s time for that activity and time isn’t her time, but God’s time.
As I recalled that life-changing homily, I had a moment of clarity. Praying the Rosary without interruption would be a beautiful prayer, but that’s not what God wanted me to do at that moment. God wanted me to love my children and take care of them, before anything else.
My primary vocation in this season of life is the hands-on, physically demanding work of raising babies and toddlers. For me, the act of virtue in that moment was not to pray a peaceful Rosary. It was to dig deep inside and find the patience to respond with love to my children, even as their requests began to grate on my nerves.
Each request from little voices was a summons from God, an opportunity to serve God through serving others. Even if I could not pray the Rosary without interruption that day, I could offer God an even greater sacrifice: I could choose to respond with patience and love each time I was interrupted.
I wish I could say I always remember this lesson; I wish I could say I always respond with patience. Of course, I don’t. But I know that each time I choose to peacefully answer the interruptions of my “monastic bells,” I’m offering God the most meaningful prayer I can make in this season of my life.
This prayer takes more effort of the will than anything else I could give God right now. It’s a sacrifice countless mothers make every day, a sacrifice of time and energy, and it almost always goes unseen in the heart of our homes.
Yet God sees these continuous small acts of self-denial, and I know these efforts mothers make on behalf of our families never go unnoticed. They will always, always be worth the effort.