The domestic church is like an enclosed garden; a planned space
for the cultivation, nurture and care of the family.
The present is the only chance to build our family as a domestic church.
One Fruit of a Novena
In the beginning of February, I started a novena for our daughter, Mary. In the last semester of her high school, she is still discerning where to go to college in the fall and her major of study. In looking for the appropriate novena to pray for her, I chose the Visitation Novena which is based on the scriptures of Mary visiting St. Elizabeth since our daughter is named Mary Elizabeth. I trust that the Lord will answer my petition for our daughter through the intercession of Mary and St. Elizabeth. One fruit of praying the novena for me was the grace of a growing desire to “visit” with people.
I am one of those women who makes a big deal of cleaning the house and preparing to host guests in our house. I take hospitality seriously and it is work. I want my guests to be comfortable in our home, enjoy good food, and be delighted to have spent time with us. And we have had many of these gatherings in our home. Although these events are celebrations of special days and holy days, they are not occasions for true visiting. Visiting is a natural and integral part of life or life in a community that was commonplace only a generation or two ago but seems to have disappeared from our regular life today.
The Lost Art of Visiting
Two women, both from foreign countries, reminded me of how visiting, especially among women, is a natural part of living. For many reasons and factors, women today seem to have lost the practice of connecting with other women by visiting. Reflecting on the Visitation brought to mind two isolated instances that brought into focus the art of visiting.
One was something a woman from Western Europe observed. In the course of a conversation on people having coffee, she said, “You Americans are so funny! When you say, “Let’s have coffee,” it is an event. You take out your schedules and look for a common free time, agree to meet, and write it into your schedule. At the appointed time, you drop everything and sit down with the person you are having coffee, talk for a while and then leave. In my country, having coffee is part of life. We go to a neighbor’s or friend’s house or they come over, have coffee and the hostess continues to do her work or chores while her visitor moves along with her as naturally as she were in her own home.” Her words stayed with me because her observation of how we do coffee was accurate.
The other woman, from the Middle East, however, let us experience it. She invited my daughter and me to have tea with her one Friday afternoon. We did not really know what to expect, so we were surprised when we got to her apartment. She had her table set like a tea party – no frills, simple, and I got the feeling that it was commonplace at one time in history or in a foreign land. My daughter got really excited because it felt like the tea parties she used to have with her sister using miniature tea sets. This one was no pretend. There was a ceramic tea set with a teapot placed on top of a holder that held a burner to keep the tea hot, three matching cups on saucers, matching sugar bowl and creamer. As we sat around the table, our hostess took out an apple strudel that she had baked for us; its aroma filled the room. The combination of all the elements: a beautifully set table, fresh pastry, smells from a warm kitchen, curling steam from our tea and gracious talk, somehow drew us in feminine affinity and we all enjoyed the visit tremendously.
I am a one-cup-of-tea sipper, so after the first cup, I was ready to go home. Our hostess poured me a second cup and gave us another sliver of apple strudel. I felt like we were over-staying and started to feel pressed. Sipping the second cup of tea, I forgot about time. After being there for most of the afternoon, which included my daughter looking over our hostess’ collection of nail polish in a shoe box, meeting her high school son and her cat, watching a streamed show from her home country, and looking at a photo album of her parents, we were ready to say good-bye. It surprised us that she actually expected us to stay for supper. She already started the dish in the oven and she cut vegetables while we visited. All the while, I thought she was preparing for her family’s supper. My daughter and I begged off because we had dinner plans at home. She insisted on packing part of the dish for us to bring home and its warm aroma pervaded the car – like the lingering scent of someone’s perfume after they have left the room.
This experience helped me understand even more that visiting is not just an event but part of common living. I was grateful that my daughter experienced her first real tea party and for me, a deeper understanding of what we have lost as women today. Maybe we can recover the simple practice of visiting each other, taking time to share our lives in domestic and unelaborate ways, learning to enjoy each other’s company.
After this nine-day novena, I felt inspired to be more open to visiting and asked God to lead me. Although we hear much about “girl-time” which falls under the category of being an event; i.e. dropping all else to gather with other women and do enjoyable things together, the Visitation demonstrates a different way. Filial, feminine, and spiritual describe the time of Mary and St. Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah.
The Holy Spirit came upon Mary and the power of the Most High overshadowed her. Her womb carried God becoming man. In haste, she went to the hill country to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who was in her sixth month. Scripture tells us that Mary stayed with her for three months – the last trimester of Elizabeth’s pregnancy while Mary’s first trimester. Two women filled with the Holy Spirit and two infants in their wombs, both miracles – for Elizabeth was barren and Mary was a virgin – since nothing is impossible with God. Three months – in the fullness of time. The older mother, in her final preparation for the birth of John, prepares the young mother, who, when the time would come, will be away in Bethlehem birthing in a manger. The younger mother, in beginning the wait for the birth of Jesus, waits on the older mother, who, at a time the Lord saw fit, took away her barrenness. As cousins, their love for each other not only ran through their blood, but also, in their long Jewish heritage. As pregnant women, they shared intimately the joyful maternity of their first born, actualizing in their femininity of bearing new life. Filled with the Holy Spirit, their bond with each other, with their sons in the wombs, with the promised Messiah – was a union no humans have experienced before them.
In that blessed three months, the mystery of the Incarnation began to radiate salvation to the intimate small first community of believers in Jesus Christ. In that early dawn of the fulfillment of the prophecy still hidden from the world, two women shared domestic tasks rejoicing: Elizabeth thanking God for taking away her disgrace and Mary singing her canticle of praises to God – two women but one in the Spirit, having one heart raised to God, linking the old and the new into one family of God. The quietness of those months spent together was like the mysterious work of leaven for the new bread offered to humanity.
So Ash Wednesday arrived and in thinking about the three practices of lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving, I felt called to an unusual lent of visiting women with whom we have said to each other, “Let’s get together sometime,” when we happen to meet somewhere, but never have taken the time nor followed up with concrete plans. For the first week of lent, I decided to invite the woman who lives by herself next door. We have been neighbors for the last 25 years but we have never invited her over. The excuses were many, like having babies, homeschooling, and the incessant full plate.
We tried to be neighborly. Every time I cook beef stew, which always is a big batch, I fill a recycled cottage cheese tub and send one of my kids to deliver it to her. In the fall, she bakes zucchini bread and our children gobble it up. Every time we meet in the grocery store or somewhere else, she always tells me how she loves the gravy of the beef stew I make. I tell her how her zucchini bread disappears in one sitting with the kids. And we usually say, “We should get together sometime.” That has been the extent of our neighborly interactions, in addition to the annual Christmas-caroling at her door on Christmas eve as part of our family holiday tradition of caroling our neighbors. Last summer, she had a big sign at her window facing the street that said, “Happy 90th Birthday!” We did not know we lived next door to a woman who has lived 9 decades already. To the children, that is like a hundred years.
I called Kay and invited her for tea on the first week of lent. She said, “That would be lovely.” I decided to unearth the tea set buried in bubble wrap that came with the china set in storage in the basement. “We don’t ever use these pretty things,” I thought. Paper plates and paper cups make for less work for hostesses of events. I set the end of our table with the tea set and placed freshly baked muffins on a rarely used crystal platter that we got as a wedding present. When the time came, I watched Kay from the window as she walked slowly from her house to ours. It amused me that she brought along her purse that swung from her shoulder as she made her careful trek.
There is something ceremonious about pouring tea from a teapot. Grasping the handle with one hand and keeping the lid in place with the other, the tea-infused water is poured with focused precision. Little girls and grown women pause long enough to watch the stream of amber liquid fill up a cup before conversing again. Kay and I were no exception. She resumed to tell me that she has lived in the house next door for the last 65 years and narrated the development of the neighborhood within that time. We talked about children, education, books and her water-aerobics class three mornings a week. Not one word was mentioned about beef stew nor zucchini bread. After one hour, she put both of her palms on the table and said, “I have taken enough of your time.” I pointed out to her that she still had half a teacup of tea and that she had not had a muffin yet. She said to me, “Our talking was food enough,” as she determinedly stood up. As I watched her slowly walk home with her purse swinging from her shoulder, I too felt content that a deeper hunger was fed.