Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Church without Walls


He tends his flock like a shepherd, he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.
Isaiah 40:11

Today, my son is going to church for the first time. It's hard to believe he hasn't been to church as an outside baby before; only a few weeks old and already, I cannot imagine my life without him. It almost feels as if he's always been here.

My husband and I set the alarm last night for a time that made me weep, and I cuddled and nursed my son through the night until the vapid beeping forced me from the bed. We have two children now, to wake and dress and feed and nurse and change and nurse and change and nurse. We have a diaper bag to pack with two sets of diapers and two sets of clothes, snacks, toys and books for my daughter, another change of clothes for my son. And a baby sling, several blankets, spit-up cloths, and an extra shirt for me, just in case. No extra shirt goes in for my husband; he says if he gets leaked on, he'll just deal with it. When we're done the diaper bag is so full is barely zips, and I find myself briefly wondering if parents of two under two need two diaper bags, to hold all of the sets of twos. I find myself glancing at the sky and looking for rain, all of this two-by-two is making me feel like I should be building an ark.

It's almost time to buckle two children into two car seats, and I haven't gotten dressed or eaten. I'm on the verge of tears as my son starts to cry, and I abandon my readying and sit down to nurse him.

"I can't do this," I tell my husband. And I sob. I want to go to church this morning, I've been looking forward to bringing my son to church since the day he was born, if not before. But I can't handle the requisite level of preparation.

If I ran the world, new mothers would be exempt from church. For about a year. Or, at the very least, church would be more accommodating to the new mother, the growing family. As I nurse my son I try to imagine what a church would look like if designed with new mothers in mind. It wouldn't start so early in the morning, for one. We could show up in our pajamas. And the hard wooden pews? Right out. It wouldn't be so far away. . . or, better, we wouldn't have to go anywhere. Church, instead, would come to us.

Actually, what I'm envisioning is not all that unlike our life for the past few weeks, ever since my son arrived. He emerged into a world so ready to welcome him that I feel like we've been snuggled into a cocoon, my family and I, attended and cared for by those who love us, by the church, the Body of Christ.

I've had the privilege, on a select few occasions, to attend a Eucharist service celebrated entirely by women. A woman led the processional into the sanctuary, carrying the cross. Women read from both the Old Testament and the New, a woman gave the homily, a woman stood behind the altar and broke the thin wafer representing Christ's body. Women's hands placed a smaller wafer on my upturned palms, and tipped the chalice of wine, the Blood of Christ, to my lips. At the close of the service a woman dismissed us, her smooth alto tones filling the space of a sanctuary where every porous surface held the faintest scent of incense.

I thought about how blessed I was to be in church, a holy place, in the company of women. There's something powerful about gathering with believing women to participate in this ancient rite, something extraordinary about this communion, the women of the Body of Christ. I felt a "rightness" about the service in a way that was also the very opposite of extraordinary, reaching even to mundane: the service wasn't anything special, it was simply a group of women gathering to celebrate our love for our Lord. Yet at one point, such a celebration would have been illegal; the Church of England's vote to allow the ordination of women as priests happened only within my lifetime.

As I nurse my son, I think about women as priests, as deacons, and I think about women who lay no claim to such titles, but whose lives show forth the same devotion. Women who gladly give of themselves in the service of others. For the past few weeks I haven't needed to venture outside of my house to find a community of people to care for me; women have brought the Body of Christ to me.

Women from a plethora of different faith traditions have supported my family as we've welcomed our new little one. Women's hands have cooked meals for our family. A woman with no children of her own called ahead to make sure all of the ingredients she was planning to use were breastfeeding-friendly; another woman brought us spiced cider on a cold, rainy day. Women's hands have guided my daughter to the nearby park so I could have some time alone with my son; women's hands have pushed her on the swing and helped her down the slide, then given her space when she simply wanted to sit, alone, on a park bench. Women's hands have vacuumed my floors; women's hands have folded the laundry that another woman washed. Women's hands--and some men's hands, too--have brought us groceries, returned our library books, made us yet another meal. Eventually, we had to ask people to stop bringing food when our refrigerator and freezer couldn't hold any more. Our cup, literally, runneth over.

I think about the church in its earliest incarnation, the church as Christ established it--small groups of people, meeting in their homes, sharing meals, fellowship, worship. Small groups of people looking for ways to live out what they understood of Christ's message: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked. Tend the flock. I'm never going to be someone who forsakes the sanctuary in favor of the house church, I'm too in love with the rhythm of the liturgy, the heat of flickering candle flames, the dizzying height of soaring ceilings, the pungent scent of incense. But I've appreciated my time away, a time to rest, revive, and receive.

My son finishes nursing and I start to rush him to the car, then change my mind and decide that first, I need to eat. If we make it to church today, that will be wonderful. But even if we don't, I realize, that's okay, too. I don't need to be in a particular place to partake in Communion, I am living communion: the communion of the Body of Christ, the church without walls.

Elrena Evans holds an MFA from The Pennsylvania State University and writes the column Me and My House. She is co-editor, along with Literary Mama Editor-in-Chief Caroline Grant, of Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press 2008) and the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night, forthcoming from DreamSeeker Books. She writes for Her.meneutics, the Christianity Today blog for women, and lives with her husband and three children in Pennsylvania.

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This was sadly pertinent reading this week. I'm glad you have such a supportive community of women at home, and grateful for the one we share here.
What a gift to have so many giving people in your life. And incidentally, as a mom of 3 two and under, the diaper bag thing gets such better as your youngest gets older. Honestly, we don't even do a diaper bag anymore, just have some extra supplies in the car. We need our hands free. :)
"I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together"...from that kids' song. :) "If two or more are gathered in His name"...I guess that means it's occasionally acceptable to skip out of church (the location) and watch VeggieTales in pajamas...
Elrena, Your words brought Twila Paris' song "How Beautiful" to mind. "How beautiful the feet that bring The sound of good news and the love of the King How Beautiful the hands that serve The wine and the bread and the sons of the Earth How Beautiful, how beautiful, how beautiful is the body of Christ. " Thank you for sharing. Your column is an encouragement to me!
What a wonderful essay, Elrena. A sanctuary as designed by a woman probably does look very much like a home-a place where you can be your true self. Thank you for your encouraging words about women clergy, too. How many times did I want to appear in my pjs in the pulpit!
This is absolutely beautiful and 100% true.
Thank you all so much for your comments! I'm glad to see this piece resonated with so many people, and thank you for sharing your thoughts with me.
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