I am delighted to feature a new book by Laura Kelly Fanucci called Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting. The mother of three young boys, hers is the kind of feminine theological voice I craved at that time in my life, and though we sit at opposite ends of the parenting cycle, the warmth and wisdom of her Mothering Spirit blog drew me in when I chanced upon it several years ago. (I also had the pleasure of meeting her earlier this year.) Her book is really an open invitation for everyone to see the sacraments in ordinary moments. Fireflies on a summer night as flashes of the Spirit. God’s healing presence through hands-on care from other people. Spontaneous sharing of bread in the kitchen as a rite of reconciliation.
I definitely saw our family life in the parenting experiences she draws upon to reflect the sacraments, both the funny and the frustrating. Her account of putting lunch on the table after church one Sunday evoked such vivid body memory that I felt nearly breathless when Laura finally sat down! “In my last dizzy spin around the counter while they’re clamoring to eat, I grab forks, spoons, napkins, four glasses, one bib, and a sippy cup; I plop everything at the table, myself in a chair, and look up at the grimaced faces waiting for grace.” (p. 55)
Intellectually, it’s not difficult to associate our daily meals with the Eucharist, yet as Laura points out, the pressures and pace of life often preclude our notice of this spiritual richness. The Second Vatican Council’s document on the church calls the Eucharist “the source and summit of the Christian life,” and from my newly empty nest perspective, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the dinner table is the source and summit of family life, in our case beginning in a rather literal sense with the actual piece of furniture at which we eat. During our marriage preparation process (23 years ago) with a couple from the parish, one evening I admired the beauty of the table where we sat across from one another to discuss our responses to the FOCCUS questionnaire. When they replied, “It’s for sale,” at first Joe and I assumed it was a joke. Then we quickly agreed to buy it. Two months later we were married in an afternoon ceremony and began our domestic life together by dining that evening at our table.
With the birth of our first child the next year and two more subsequently, we embarked on the multi-tasking meal era of babies and toddlers that is Laura’s present stage. And yet, even in such chaos the Spirit led us to make one of our most important parenting decisions, evident now in hindsight. Kieran and Michael were about 1-1/2 and 3 when we began requiring that they ask to be excused before leaving the dinner table. If the request to “be ‘scused” came before everyone was finished eating (or at least the little ones), the reply was “Not yet. Stay at the table a few more minutes.” Gradually they learned not to ask until the answer would be “Yes, you may be excused.” When they grew into larger bodies, we pulled out one of the table’s sides to provide more elbow room. Their personalities also emerged, and we arrived at a marvelous point where they stayed around the table talking and teasing long after the eating was finished, until someone would sigh and push back their chair saying “I’d better get going on homework.”
As first one, then another left for college, the table took on added resonance as the place of reconnection at holidays and breaks. But when the youngest graduated high school last spring, I began to mourn the imminent loss of our family table as a day to day reality. A profound three-part exodus occurred in late August and early September. Over 10 days we drove one to his first year of college 740 miles away, sent another to a semester abroad in Africa, and finally, moved the recent college graduate to an apartment and job in Chicago. I accompanied him in the U-Haul and assisted with unloading and unpacking, then rode home the next day on the Megabus, by this time totally spent from the physical and emotional labor of these transitions.
It seemed quite fitting that our empty nest life would kick off at dinner time. When Joe and I conferred on the phone during the bus ride, I said, “I want to eat at home, and I really want to shrink the table.” Earlier in the summer we had discussed reducing the table back to its original size once the kids were gone. All at once this gesture seemed imperative, a necessity to actualize our new reality. On impulse we also folded up the table pads and table cloth and brought out place mats we’d hardly ever used. Sitting down before the beautiful dark wood we’d admired all those years before, just the two of us once again, time seemed to telescope as a sense of peace and wholeness enveloped our meal and set a hopeful tone for the ensuing days.
The Vatican II decree on ministry states that the other sacraments as well as all the ministries and works of the Church are connected to the Eucharist. “For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church.” Likewise, as a place of sharing and relationship, the dinner table encompasses the spiritual good of the family that gathers around it, however large or small, young or old or in between. In Laura’s words, “Here is where we practice communion: giving thanks, breaking bread, feeding the hungry. Here is where we teach and forgive and celebrate and praise. Here is where we love in flesh and blood.” (p. 56)