When I’m trying to write, my young daughter likes to sit on my lap and have what we call “typing time.” Her fingers perched over the keyboard, she practices her motor coordination and spelling skills by typing simple words over and over. Mom. Mom. Mom. Cat. Cat. Cat. I indulge my daughter in practice, but in spirit, I usually am eager to get back to my own typing. I keep thinking about the real work, the writing, that I need to be doing.
It is easy for me to exalt the writing life. When I put words on paper, I make a confession of faith; I pour out my heart to God. It’s a sacred act, almost a form of prayer. I find it more difficult to see the sacred in the everyday moments of parenting, especially the inevitable stream of interruptions that come with rearing children. No sooner do I sit down to write than the requests pour in. Could you tie my shoes? I’m hungry. Can I have typing time? To be a mother and a writer (or a mother and anything else) is to live with a sometimes unbearable tension.
From the moment I discovered I was pregnant with my daughter, I began searching for ways to negotiate this tension. I bought a book on balancing writing and motherhood, and I sought (and still seek) commiseration and advice from fellow parents and friends. But the best counsel I ever got came from someone who’s not a parent. He’s not even alive.
Researching and writing about my favorite time period, the Middle Ages, I came across the work of an English mystic named Walter Hilton. Hilton was a canon in the Augustinian order; that is, he was a priest who took vows similar to those of a monk. Hilton had a heart for Christians in the active (non-monastic) life and often counseled them. In the mid-14th century, he wrote a letter to a layperson, probably a businessman. This layperson expressed concern about reaching his full spiritual potential in the secular life he had chosen. Hilton gave him this advice:
A contemplative quality of life is fair and fruitful, and therefore it is appropriate to have it always in your desire. But, you shall be in actual practice of the active life most of the time, for it is both necessary and expedient.
Therefore, if you are interrupted in your devotions by your children, employees, or even by any of your neighbors, whether for their need or simply because they have come to you sincerely and in good faith, do not be angry with them, or heavy-handed, or worried—as if God would be angry with you that you have left him for some other thing—for this is inappropriate, and misunderstands God’s purposes (Toward a Perfect Love: The Spiritual Counsel of Walter Hilton, trans. David L. Jeffrey, Multnomah Press, 1985), p. 18.
Hilton’s gentle reproof spoke through the centuries, right into my situation. This mystic helped me see that in my zeal to do what I want to do for God, I am in danger of misunderstanding his divine purpose. God might very well intend that my children interrupt me. These interruptions are a hallmark of the active life to which I have been called. They do not lead me away from God but draw me deeper into the life he has given me.
Ever since reading Hilton’s letter, I’ve been trying to embrace a “spirituality of interruption,” in which I see the sacred in the little moments of childrearing—in the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the dirty hands that need washing, and the inconvenient requests for typing time. I try to see these moments not as interruptions, but as punctuations that give my day a rhythm, albeit a somewhat jerky one.
The last time my daughter came to me for typing time, I put my new spirituality into practice. Even though I had been working, I stopped, took my daughter on my lap, and watched her begin her laborious pecking at the keyboard. As I held her close, I looked at the screen to see what she had typed. The string of words I saw surprised me. Mom. Mom. Mom. Love. Love. Love. God. God. God. I smiled. This was no interruption at all. My daughter wrote of her love and of God’s great love. I may have a writing ministry, but so does my daughter. Her ministry is to me.
I am and will probably always be in the active life, like the medieval layperson to whom Walter Hilton wrote. But, this life is fully sacred. The rhythm of writing and childcare is a little like ora et labora (pray and work), the motto associated with the monastic life. I need both to find God’s purpose for me. I need love and typing time.