This week, Hazel and I went to church. We usually go to dance, but this week was special because the children of St. Christopher’s Episcopal church put on a Christmas Pageant and Nora played the part of Mary. I wouldn’t have missed it. All of Nora’s grandparents attended. Hazel was not so enthusiastic, but she came, even if she did spend the first 45 minutes sitting at the end of the pew with her arms crossed.
Nora went to both of the rehearsals and knew what to do: 1. move doll from angel’s arms to the basket of hay, 2. receive the inflatable pirate treasure trunks of gold, frankencense and myrrh from the wise men and put them next to the basket. Even so, she was really nervous about the whole thing. She didn’t actually say she was nervous but that’s how I’m interpreting her complaints of terrible stomach pains the night before and her worry that she “might be too sick to be Mary in the play.”
On Sunday morning, there we were. Nora was with the pageant kids and our family members filled a whole pew. We all participated in the service: processional, salutation, music, lesson, psalm… I’ve loved a traditional service since Catholic school, and I was really into it on this day. I was singing loudly (ignoring Hazel’s sideways glances), I was praying, I was listening, I was genuflecting.
Eventually, it was time for the Nativity play. Nora was in the middle of the procession, behind the angel and in front of Joseph. She was dressed in one of those blue princess dresses from Target that had been stripped of all Disney branding and she wore a piece of pale blue fabric and a gold ribbon on her head. She walked up to the front of the church with the other kids and when she passed our pew, she didn’t make eye contact. She was serious. She was focused.
The play only took a few minutes and all the kids were great. The older kids stepped up to the microphone to deliver each line and made a couple of cute jokes with knowing smiles. Nora, rather perfunctorily, did her part, too: Baby to hay, gifts to floor, stand next to Joseph. There was palpable relief on her face when her part was over.
It was wonderful to see Nora. I think she’s a terriffic 6-year-old, and mainly, I attended church that day to collect a little more evidence to support my case. But all the singing, listening, praying and genuflecting must have prepared me for something more, because in the two seconds it took my young child to take a doll and put it into a hay lined basket, I had a profound experience in the form of a few gut-wrenching realizations. Mary traveled for hours on a donkey on the day she gave birth, she delivered her baby in a barn, and then she placed her perfect, precious, baby-God in a pile of hay because that was the best or only place for the kid to rest. A pure, new baby in barn hay. I thought of my babies on the days they were born. I had a midwife and support and a clean, safe place to be. I had warmed blankets for my babies, a soft knitted hat for each of them, and a special bed for them to sleep in. I sat there looking at my precious baby, not so small anymore, playing the role of ‘mother’, which she may one day be. She put a baby doll on some hay and the big, long, story of mothers and giving birth and babies, and all the places and millions of different ways that this can happen for women across the world and through time, washed over me. Some of the stories are perfect and idyllic, some are difficult, some are very messy and most happen in ways most unpredictable. I bet Mary didn’t think she’d be giving birth to the Christ child in a barn when the angel told her she had conceived miraculously. With all of that swirling around inside of me, and tears streaming down my face, I have to admit, I felt so connected to mothers and Mary and to Jesus and to this part of the Christmas story in ways I haven’t before. It was much more of a Sunday morning experience than I had bargained for.
But isn’t this the point of church just like this is the point of yoga practice? I’m not talking about the mothers and the Jesus and the Christmas part of it, but the part of having an experience. That’s the way my teacher, Chase, presents it, and it makes so much sense. Something happened as I sang and prayed and reflected on the epistle and the gospel reading. I was prepared for an experience. I felt connected and this feeling had an effect on how I experienced the rest of my day. Believe me, I don’t get myself out of bed early in the morning to merely check yoga off of my to-do list. I practice so that I just might be able to have a meaningful experience that helps to shape the rest of my day. The ceremony of a traditional church service did something similar for me, which reminded me that there’s a purpose to our preparation, there’s way we bring our attention to the subtle and spiritual, and there’s an effect that the experience can have on us. That experience can leave an impression on us and the rest of our day is different because of it.
In the YATNA Yoga Therapy training program I’m a part of, my teachers talk about ten parts of a meditation practice. These following steps are ways of thinking about preparing for a meditative experience, the main part of the practice and then coming back and reentering the world. These are elements that can help us to focus our attention and communicate to our system that something important is coming. They are elements in a church service and elements in a yoga practice. The difference is that yoga isn’t saying what kind of prayer you must do or who you have to worship or where you’ll go when you die. We get to fill that in for ourselves. Whatever the details of a meditative experience, this list lays out some steps that can be a part of meaningful spiritual practice.
- prārthanā – prayer
- saṁskāra – preparation, moving toward a pattern of focus
- saṃkalpa – setting an intention
- nyāsa – placement (how we hold our hands or the shape the body is in)
- cintanam/ smaraṇam – to reflect/ to remember
- pradhāna krama – the main meditative practice, the main experience
- anucintanam – to follow the reflection, a retasting
- visarjanam – to disconnect
- sāttvika tyāgam – offering the effects of the practice to others
- dik namaskāra – ‘honoring the ten directions’
Merry Christmas, if you are into that, and Happy Holidays to you all.
I’m so grateful for this blog community and for each of you.
And on this day, I’m sending out a little extra love to all the mamas and all your stories, no matter what kind of story it is, how old or how new, where it happened or how you hold it in your mind and heart. Big respect and MAMA LOVE coming your way.