Stained Glass of Jesus Crucified with Mary and John at the foot of the cross

Giving Birth to Contemplation

Posted : May-07-2021

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“Family, the Domestic Church: A Sign of Hope and Life” is the theme of this year’s National Week for Life and the Family, May 9-16.

To mark this occasion, Catholic children’s author and illustrator, Carissa Douglas, shares the similarities between family life and monastic life and explores how parents can live out the mission of the Church as contemplatives in the world. Carissa and her husband, Patrick (Associate Director of Family Life in the Office of Formation for Discipleship), are parents to 14 children and are passionate about new ways to evangelize with families.

I am surrounded. 

As I write this and reflect on my “life choices,” specifically my “open-to-life” choices, I'm interrupted (true story), by my son apologizing because he just broke my favorite mug and the chorus of “this is why I can't have nice stuff” is running through my head. I am an introvert. I appreciate silence. I like to have time and space to think. So why would I choose to give birth to enough kids to form both teams of a basketball game with substitutes?

Well, love can make you do some crazy stuff. And believe it or not, I think this may be my path to becoming a contemplative. Hear me out.

I once read about a spiritual writer, Carlo Carretto, who had been living as a hermit for many years. He had the Blessed Sacrament (and a goat for milk) as his companion. He spent his days translating the Bible into the local tongue, and living a life of sacrifice, fasting and unceasing prayer. You would think that having embodied an existence of reflection, withdrawal and silence would have him mastering the state of contemplation, far surpassing anyone caught in the clamor of everyday life. Yet, he relates how his mother had somehow been brought even further through her vocation:

“Returning to Italy one day to visit his mother, he came to a startling realization: His mother, who for more than thirty years of her life had been so busy raising a family that she scarcely ever had a private minute for herself, was more contemplative than he was.”  – R. Rolheiser, The Domestic Monastery

And this was a woman immersed in the chaos, the noise, the cleaning, the cooking, the constant pawing of little hands, the ... well, the everything of motherhood. I’m so comforted by this hermit’s findings and reflect on them every time I try to bow my head in prayer, only to have chubby, toddler hands manually prying my eyes open with a “LOOK AT ME, MOMMY!” 

The writer noted some beautiful similarities between the monastic life and that of the home – the domestic monastic life! 

Holiness in large part is the idea of being set apart. In a monastery or convent, monks and nuns are set apart from the world. They live in isolation and are called to lay their lives at the foot of the cross, surrendering their time, energy and will. 

Mothers of young children are right there with them, laying it all down at the foot of the cross. They surrender their time, energy and will and can often feel isolated – in many ways removed from the world. They dramatically lose their sense of freedom. For example, it is really difficult for mothers to get out and even when they do, that time is often limited and still requires that primary consideration be given to the needs of the family.

The freedom to do what you want, when you want is sacrificed and that is hard, hard, hard, but it is a profound offering of love.

“Love consists of a commitment which limits one's freedom - it is a giving of the self, and to give oneself means just that: to limit one's freedom on behalf of another.”  – St. John Paul II, Love and Responsibility

A father who limits his freedom, spending more time with his family, readily making himself available to his wife and children, exemplifies Christ laying Himself down for the Church. When he sacrifices his own will – missing shows, games, web surfing and downtime in order to respond to the immediate needs of his family or to simply be present to them, he has entered the “domestic monastery.”

Parents of young children have a monastic bell. In a monastery, when the bell rings, the monks are required to stop what they're doing immediately and turn to the task to which they are being called. It is an opportunity to detach, to let go of their will, it stretches their heart and teaches them to choose God's agenda over theirs. 

For parents, the bell often resounds in the form of the cries (or full out maniac screaming) of a child. It forces them to drop everything and turn to meet the needs of their little one. The incessant chiming of a child who is begging for attention or assistance, compels parents to set aside their own agendas and make a gift of their time and energy.

It is this practice of doing God’s will and patiently letting go of our own, that leads us to a greater union with Him. 

In St. Josemaria Escriva's book, Furrow, a father shares how he offered the sacrifice of his time to mend a toy for one of his children (986), and the saint affirms him, letting him know that it is with that same love that God mends our souls. 

Monastic life calls for deep humility and parenthood draws us to that state. It is where you can give more than you’ve ever given in your entire life, and yet receive neither recognition nor gratitude. Even basic needs will often take second place to the duty of the moment, as many sleep-deprived parents can attest. 

Life with littles, like the monastic life, is often scheduled and ritualistic (most young children thrive on schedules) and silence is highly valued ... because we never get any. We even wear metaphorical haired shirts which are actually quite tangible – vestments saturated with spit-up and other unidentifiable fluids.

It is a vocation that helps us practice the call to detachment, another element of monastic life, because our valuables are smashed, scribbled-on, lost, devoured or thrown into the toilet. Sadly, this applies to our favorite mugs ... Grrr! In the end, we learn to be less attached to material things, and it's actually quite freeing.

It is said that monasteries are the "power-houses" of the church. In their faithfulness to their calling, I believe that mothers and fathers who saturate their homes in acts of love and selflessness are seriously packing on the fuel that will lead to an explosion of graces, and the crosses and sacrifices embraced through this vocation unite their hearts to Christ in a most intimate way.

For those parents who are living this out, you can’t imagine the blessing you are to your family, to the Church and to the world at large. To those still wondering if this path is for you, you’ll have to ask yourself... 

...Am I interested in becoming a contemplative? 

To learn more about resources to assist parish leaders in ministry with married couples and families, please visit: