Close to Home:
“DID YOU HEAR ME?” I yell up the stairs, my voice tight with annoyance. “Wha-a-at?” comes the maddening reply from my kids, whose response time has been slowed down considerably this morning by sleepiness and a general slow-pokiness you’d think by now I’d have grown accustomed to but, judging by my high frustration level, apparently not.
“GET DOWN HERE FOR PRAYERS!” I repeat for the third time. “RIGHT THIS MINUTE!” After a second or two, I can make out the sound of footsteps – footsteps not hurrying: stomp (pause), stomp (pause), stomp (pause), and here they come, all sour-faced and on my every last nerve.
We gather together around a small brown shelf holding four icons, two pussy willow stems and a candle. I am wondering now whether this edgy and bristly atmosphere is an appropriate or inappropriate environment in which to offer up intercessions to God, in front of his saints and the most Holy Theotokos. Pausing to gain my composure, I take a deep breath and proceed, despite my misgivings. “O Heavenly King, O Comforter, O Spirit of Truth…” we all begin.
By the time we reach the morning prayer of Metropolitan Philaret, I have quickened the pace a bit; my four and six-year-olds are getting wiggly. The words come effortlessly to my lips; I know them well: “...In all my acts and deeds guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events let me not forget that all are sent by you. Teach me to act firmly and wisely without embittering or embarrassing others…” SMACK!! Ouch! I’ve been struck again, unexpectedly, right where it hurts.
I’ve always considered myself a, for the most part, calm and composed kind of girl. It has never been all that hard for me to keep from gesturing out the window when a car cuts me off on the expressway, or to refrain from unloading my exasperation on a distracted store clerk, an inattentive waitress or a persistent telemarketer. In general, I truly do strive to give the benefit of the doubt to those I come into contact with, which is why I’ve been lying awake in bed at night wondering why, oh why, it’s been so difficult for me lately to restrain myself when dealing with the attitudes and behaviors of my own children.
I go through seasons as a mother – seasons of growth and rebirth, and seasons of stagnancy. What I’ve fallen into presently is what’s known as a good old-fashioned rut – one in which I act, act and react all the time, unconsciously. I find myself talking at, more like lecturing, lecturing angrily, my oldest son and he is scowling, scowling self-protectively; he is hardening his heart. JUST OBEY! I want to scream, I’m too tired and too busy for your outbursts and interruptions! But here’s the thing - he’s a human being, not a pet, not a houseplant, or an inconvenience. My kids can sense when they’re being tolerated rather than treasured.
It’s a tall order for us parents, having to figure out how to lovingly discipline without embittering or embarrassing our children. It takes a real and concerted effort to garner the insight necessary for setting limits that are solid and yet respectful of the individual receiving them. It is far easier to vent, reprove and summarize than to consistently, unemotionally, with authority and kindness, address conduct that is rude, unhealthy or deceptive. There is no trick to it - no fool-proof method I can apply that will override my own sinfulness or exhaustion. Thus, there will be periods of tension and misunderstanding within our household. I will undoubtedly succumb to reactionary, and ultimately ineffectual, methods of child rearing. The question isn’t, “What if I screw up?” but rather, “How long will it take for me to pick my head up from out of the sand and realize I need to shake myself off and start over, lest I continue on for way longer than necessary being burdened by guilt and aggravation?”
Quite undeservedly, I was gifted with a much hungered for spark of enlightenment. So comforted it made me feel, and yet also ashamed – like how the sun’s rays can fill a room with its brightness and warmth while simultaneously drawing attention to the dust and lurking cobwebs in its corners. I was not being the right kind of firm. I was not being wise. My children were embittered and I was embarrassed, when confronted by this prayer, because of it. But overall, I was, deep down, very thankful - thankful that despite my selfishness and lack of discipline Christ cared for me enough to tap me again on the shoulder and whisper, “Hey now, let’s pay attention.”
Elder Porphyrios wrote,
Pray and then speak. That’s what to do with your children. If you are constantly lecturing them, you’ll become tiresome and when they grow up they’ll feel a kind of oppression. Prefer prayer and speak to them through prayer. Speak to God and God will speak to their hearts. …. Say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, give Your light to my children. I entrust them to You. You gave them to me, but I am weak and unable to guide them, so, please, illuminate them.
Ah. Yeah, I see the problem. I have not been doing that. Period. I’ve not been rising early enough to offer my sons and my daughters up to God before the busyness of the day overtakes us. I have not been imploring Him in the evenings for forgiveness, guidance and direction. What must I look like, flailing my limbs and gasping for breath next to a big old neon life ring, within reach? You know what, friends, I am really tired of fighting so hard against the current – I think I’ll grab on now, allowing God, our God who is compassionate and omnipotent, to keep me afloat. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on my family. Please, I need your help to become a devout, a patient, a prudent and forgiving parent to my children whom you love fiercely and unconditionally. Amen.