In Matters of the Heart, We Are All Twelve

The Jesus Prayer and Family Gatherings

A soft little hand nabs my fingers and dark blue eyes peer up: “Mommy, will you make a Lego cake with me?” or “read this to me?” or “dance with me?”  It was early January, and my three-year-old was recovering from attention withdrawal over the holidays, when for a week, she could clutch her older cousins’ hands and lead them willingly into another room to do her bidding.

This was one of the joys of Christmas for my husband and me: to be contained in a house with six other children besides our two. Chaotic?  Yes, but when the children are older than ours and yet young enough to take an interest in them, we can let sleep the constant radar sweep for missing children and naughty behavior. My sister and I girl-talked, I chowed on my Mom’s sugary orange mass of sweet potatoes, I hugged my grandpa, who’s beginning to snooze often in an easy chair. I marveled at the light in the faces of my middle school nieces. They’re coming into their own—their boot-strutting style and new poise, their way of slipping in with the adults.

And yet, a small piece of me dreaded the holidays. In early December, I read a newspaper article about family flare-ups. I complained in college that I “fell into a groove” when I returned home. My parents have a four-block lane off a county road to their house and Iowa acreage surrounded by corn and soybean fields. If not filled with gravel and scraped often, the lane ruts up, leaving a jogged-about and–on rainy days–gummy ride for unwary visitors’ vehicles. But as a young person, the ruts that concerned me were the ones in my heart. I could easily offend my family and be easily offended by them.

Higher education did little to heal the old family patterns I occasionally fall into. One of my wisest friends has said, “In matters of the heart, we are all twelve,” something I witnessed in my Ph. D. program as fellow students applied the flirting tactics of a tween sitcom, vying for the attention of a charismatic, single professor. Psychological therapy has helped me, and for the most part, I’ve outgrown the hooks, tiny opportunities for negative family interactions. But as one woman stated in the article, “we regress” when we’re around each other again.  At least I do.

“I’ll be complicit,” I thought, staring at the newspaper. I could cause the flare-up.

What would be my recourse? I would say the Jesus Prayer. I had read of a traveling Orthodox monk who internally repeated to himself, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” Asking for mercy, acknowledging my flaws, surely that is what I needed.

The flare-up happened. It was my fault. And I wasn’t as pretty or hip as the woman in the newspaper illustration. It was ugly. I made a bossy comment, embarrassing my sister. She took a break from being in the same space. I announced to my husband that I wanted to leave. (Yes, I did that.) I retreated into a bedroom and read a story mindlessly to my three-year-old. My sister came in, and we made up.

For a few moments lying under the white metal bars of the top bunk, I twisted toward the wall and thought the Jesus Prayer until she walked in.

I hadn’t kept up with it through the twelve-hour drive, the trip down the lane, or upon entering the house.

But I’m not sure it would have mattered. Maybe instead of a solution, it was a comforting statement of reality, not about me as much as about the God who forgives, who made family in this way that can feel crazy-making as if a web of skin with nerves and vessels can be snapped, and more than one person is yanked and stung.

Jesus gets this. Every year he traveled to Jerusalem for the holiday of the Passover. When he was twelve and stayed behind, his parents didn’t know, assuming he was with friends or family, as I assumed my two preschoolers were safely contained in a house with cousins. Jesus had to have seen the shouts and embraces for loved ones not seen since the year before, heard the bickering and even the out-of-place comment as they trod their own roads together.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And He did this Christmas. Child of God, He forgave me, and the worst-case scenario the article gave—leaving with the meltdown unresolved–didn’t happen. I’m grateful.

Another year I have to pray and hope that like the Grinch’s heart (a story my three-year-old has yet to set aside), my heart will continue to swell until all those creases have pressed out.

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