"Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline" by Catherine McNiel
God entered the flesh-and-blood reality of human life, with all its mess and chaos, in the person of Jesus Christ, and God continues to be present in the mess and chaos of our daily lives. This truth pulses through the pages of Catherine McNiel’s book for weary parents, Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.
Long Days of Small Things is not just another book for parents. First of all, it does not offer parenting advice or philosophies. Instead, it seeks to help parents be where they are and to see the ways God is already at work—in the midst of the noise and busy-ness of life with small children, and inside their own parched souls. (And this book is nothing if not realistic and honest about the challenges, frustrations, and failures of parenting.)
In certain Christian circles, much talk is made of “quiet time” with God and other spiritual disciplines. While McNiel is appreciative of these traditions, she points out the ways they can perpetuate a sidelining of family life and, especially, of moms (at least historically). They often unintentionally divide our spiritual lives from the mundane tasks we spend so much of our lives on: cooking, cleaning, yard work, wiping dirty bottoms (you get the picture). In response, McNiel masterfully weaves together Scripture, theological insights, and her personal stories to give us a sense of the sacred in the midst of the mundane. For example, one chapter brings together God’s work of creation and the miracles of pregnancy and nurturing little bodies. Another moves between the service aspects of Jesus’ ministry and the solitude and service of parenting—being woken in the middle of the night to calm fears (as Jesus was on the boat in the storm), being immersed in the grime of life (as Jesus when he washed the disciples’ feet). At the end of each chapter, McNiel offers helpful reflections on three practices we are already doing, and invites us to experience God in the midst of them: everything from breathing and walking to feeding children to menstruation and sex.
McNiel’s book is a healing balm and refreshing cup of water in the midst of a season of life that can often feel like a wilderness experience.
McNiel manages not only to give us a renewed perspective on God’s presence in the ordinariness of our days, but also to shed new light on the character of God and the beauty of the Gospel. The truth of the Incarnation unfolds in a new way as McNiel reflects on what it meant for Mary to raise Jesus: “She labored and pushed, pouring out water and blood and risking her life to give God his first breath…She placed tiny pieces of fish in his hands and taught God-made-boy to take and eat them. The wine she poured out for him, the bread she broke for him.” Here, in the midst of lifting up the holy task of motherhood, McNiel offers Protestants a new way to appreciate Mary, known from the earliest centuries of Christianity as the “mother of God.”
The stories of the Gospels come to life as McNiel paints a picture of the ancient Near East and the teacher named Jesus whose feet were “caked in layers of sweat, dust, and mud” and who told earthy stories of “sheep, fish, bread, and water” that the uneducated, working class crowds could understand—perhaps even better than the elite. We meet Jesus in a fresh way in this book, which is as much as we could ask of any book on spiritual formation.
The content of McNiel’s book would be compelling enough, even if it were written in fairly sterile prose. McNiel’s writing is anything but. There is an effortless lyricism to her writing, and at moments a particular turn of phrase took my breath away. This is a book to be savored, in small chunks—read here and there as you grab a few minutes in between soccer practices and homework help.
McNiel’s book is a healing balm and refreshing cup of water in the midst of a season of life that can often feel like a wilderness experience. It is also an invitation to women to hear God’s voice speaking to them, to own (and share) the wisdom gained through sacrifice and service, and to live boldly into the calling God has on their lives. That invitation is most welcome.
-Mandy Rodgers-Gates, Blacknall Member, Th.D. Candidate at Duke Divinity School