French Fries, Hamsters, and Bob Marley: The Wisdom of a 4-Year Old Mystic

One of the greatest mysteries of motherhood is how my two children can be such polar opposites in almost every way.

As I discussed last week, our recent return to Catholic school has drummed up a lot of “God Talk” in our house.  Emma, as I mentioned, takes things literally.  She is also not satisfied with an answer that involves the word “symbol.” So I try to put things in more tangible terms, but that usually backfires, too. As I curled her hair for her spring chorus concert, she says:

“So I get Jesus.  He was a real person, like…Abe Lincoln, right?”

“Yes. It is documented.”

“Then what’s the deal with the Holy Spirit?”

“The Holy Spirit….is….something that helps us in time of weakness. That helps put us on the right path.  Kind of Glenda that Good Witch from Wizard of Oz.”

The minute I said it, I wished I could take it back. Wrong answer, Jessie.  Buckle up. 

“So the Holy Spirit is a princess-witch??” Her voice was getting tense. “Or like, a symbolic princess-witch? Why can’t anything just BE WHAT IT IS?  AND CAN WE PLEASE GET HONEST ABOUT THE EASTER BUNNY?”


Now, I love Emma for exactly who she is, and I can relate.  My last letter to Santa said: “Show yourself, old man, or the jig is up.”

But sometimes I need a break from these probing philosophical inquiries.  Which is why I have Phoebe.


Phoebe is more like Phil in that she seems immune to the Catholic guilt of sin and unworthiness.


Don’t let this angelic pic fool you.

Phoebe is also on a God-streak as of late, but she doesn’t ask me many questions – in fact, she speaks with authority on the topic.  While eating her lunch at the kitchen counter, it is not uncommon for her to get quiet for a few minutes, and then say:

“God is here, you know.”

“He is?”

“Yup.  He’s eating a hot dog.”

“Does He want mustard?”

“Let me ask.” She cups her mouth and whispers to the empty chair next to her, then reports back: “Only if it’s Dijon.”

Since starting Catholic school, Phoebe blesses herself incessantly, which made me a little nervous at first.  Why is she doing that?  Does she feel she needs to do that to feel like, cleansed?  Is she sad?  What is she praying for?  

So when she blessed herself for the fifth time in an hour, I asked her:

“Hey Pheebs, you ok?  What are you praying for?”

“French fries.”


Now I know she’s only 4, and things could change as she gets older….but I am pretty sure Emma was not praying for french fries at 4.  In fact, that was about the age she drew this cheerful Easter picture:


That’s around the time we decided to take a break from Catholic school.

Phil, on the other hand, is 42, and I wouldn’t put it past him to pray for french fries.  And a Coors Light to boot.  So I asked him:

“How did you get through all those years of Catholic school without a guilt complex?  How do you still feel so good about yourself?”

“I just don’t give a shit about rules,” he said, “and I hear what I want to hear.”  “People get all bent out of shape about the word Commandment, because it’s such an authoritarian word.  But I just ignore that word and choose to hear “Love your neighbor and yourself.”

“I don’t think that’s one of the 10 Commandments…that was Jesus.”

“See? Details, details. They will bring you down.”

I had to admit he was on to something. Why choose to be heavy when you can be light?  And for me, listening to Phoebe’s theological ramblings is music to my ears.  Emma must feel the same way, because it’s the one time she will let Phoebe talk uninterrupted.  On the way home from school yesterday, this conversation happened in my back seat:

“Hey Emma, I’ve been to heaven you know. Before I was born, I was with God.”

“That’s cool Pheebs. What did you do in heaven?  Was God nice?”

“Yeah, He gives me gummy worms.  And He has a hamster who pooped on my hand!”

“Gross! Was anyone else there?”

“Yeah. Nannie, Ellie-dog, and Bob Marley. They are in a band called God’s Rockin’ Angels.  And George Washington. He plays the tambourine.”

Emma caught my eye in the rear-view mirror and smiled.  If that’s heaven, we want in.

Theologian Evelyn Underhill said:

The fundamental difference between [mysticism and magic] is this:  Magic wants to get, mysticism wants to give.

So, ok.  There is definitely an I Dream of Jeannie element to Phoebe’s mode of prayer.  She actually does a little Walk Like an Egyptian dance after blessing herself.  But I am not going to tell her to stop praying for french fries, or My Little Ponies, or talking hamsters.  Because it is my experience that the guilt about the getting eventually blocks the giving.

And Phoebe gives me a lot: hugs, finger paintings, sloppy-on-the-lips-kisses, and joy.  Lots of joy, in the present moment…and the realization that there are many ways to pray.




* Phoebe highly recommends rolling down a hill as a form of prayer.  Just not too many times or you might puke.* 









Why Do We Have To Go To Church, Anyway?

Emma, my almost 8 year old, is a relentless questioner, a dedicated seeker of truth. Nothing goes unnoticed or unchallenged. I hope that this quality will make her a crusader for justice, a freedom fighter, an advocate for the overlooked and misunderstood.

But as her mother, the constant interrogation can get exhausting, particularly when I don’t know the answer. Which, lately, is a lot of the time….because her questions are all about church.

This should not come as a surprise to me, considering she goes to a Catholic school, with her First Communion rapidly approaching. I was prepared for the standard “God Questions:” God is love, God is everywhere, etc. But the church/catechism questions are not my area of expertise.

For example:

The day of her First Penance:

“I just don’t get why I need to tell some strange man my deep, dark secrets. If God is always listening, why can’t I just tell Him?  Telling the priest is kinda like sitting on the fake-Santa’s lap at the mall.  It’s creepy – you know it’s not Santa.  Why the middle man?”

Upon discovering the library was closed on Good Friday:

“What I want to know is why do they call it Good Friday?  What’s good about it?  I can’t get any books out of the library, and it goes without saying that it was a pretty rough day for Jesus.”

After school yesterday, as I fumbled to open the door while juggling book bags and water bottles, THIS conversation happened:

“Mom, did you paint this door red to look like lamb’s blood?”

“To look like WHAT?” (I was pretty sure “Lamb’s Blood” was not on the Sherwin Williams color wheel).

“Lamb’s blood, like in the Bible.”

“Uhh….where in the Bible does it talk about that?”

Mom.  Shouldn’t you know this stuff?  In biblical times, they painted their doors with lamb’s blood to protect themselves from the Filipinos.”

“I think you might mean the Philistines.”

“Hmm.  Yeah maybe.”

Then there were the questions she asked for 75 minutes straight during mass at my parents’ church on Easter Sunday: “How much longer is this going to take?  When can we go home?  Why does that kid have candy? Is this almost over? Why do we have to go to church anyway?” She was hanging on my arm so heavily I almost lost my balance in the dusty black heels I had fished out of the back of my closet.

I sighed and gave her the hairy eyeball.  I knew I should reprimand her, but the truth was I didn’t want to be there either, which made me feel guilty and fraudulent – both as a mother AND a Catholic.  It’s Easter!  The Big Day!  The Catholic Super Bowl! Jesus is Alive!  Be joyful!

But I didn’t feel joyful.  It was hot in the choir loft where latecomers and families with rowdy children are banished; the Time-Out Chair for the inconsistent parishioner.

I went to church every Sunday of my childhood. Easter Mass meant tights, Mary Janes, an Easter bonnet – my mom wasn’t messing around.


But when I turned 17, I got my driver’s license. Freedom.

From that point on, I opted out of my parent’s regular 9:30 mass and instead attended the 12:15 at Our Lady of Perpetual Caffeination, aka. the parking lot of Dunkin’ Donuts, where I would drink coffee and read for an hour.

I didn’t fancy myself a teenage bad-ass.  I played the mellophone in the marching band. How bad-ass could I possibly be?


Nor did I consider skipping church to be an act of rebellion, but one of self-preservation. Like Emma, I was a sensitive -and literal – kid.  Being forced to say things like “I am not worthy,” without a greater understanding of the larger context of sin and forgiveness made me feel confused. And kind of ashamed. I just wasn’t sure of what.

During a 3rd grade confession, I asked a priest if you had to be bad to get possessed, or if Satan picks people at random.

He replied, “It’s totally random.”


So I spent the next decade waiting for Satan.  For some reason I thought he was less likely to be hanging out at Dunkin’ Donuts.

But in my 20’s, something kept calling me back, and I figured that “thing” must be God. Private prayer has always been part of my daily life, but I felt the pull to community. Not back to a traditional parish church, necessarily, but to the lively, music-filled student masses at Villanova University, and Maris Stella, the simple seaside chapel perched on the Barnegat Bay in LBI.

maris stella2 Maris-Stella


But last Sunday in the cheap seats, it wasn’t the crash of the waves that filled my ears, but the bang of children dropping missalettes and begging for juice, for Goldfish, for the entire contents of their mother’s purse.  The hybrid stench of incense and a baby’s dirty diaper was suffocating. I did not feel contemplative. I felt trapped.

So why do we have to go church, anyway?

Maybe the thing that keeps me hanging on is the desire for a shared spiritual discipline. One hour of the week where there are no screens or activities.  We just sit our butts down and be quiet.  Together.

Henri Nouwen says:

A spiritual life without discipline is impossible…the practice of a spiritual discipline makes us more sensitive to the small, gentle voice of God.  The discipline of community helps us to be silent together.

No spiritual discipline is easy.  As a yoga teacher I have often said, “the hardest part is getting on your mat.” You go to class not because you feel like it, but because you believe in the power of the practice. The power of showing up. Maybe you spend the entire savasana making your grocery list in your head.  But, hey, you showed up. If the only true moment of quiet was that 10 seconds in Viparita Karani, well…that’s something.


One weird thing among many about the Catholic mass are the select songs that will make you weep instantaneously. As I walked back from Communion, the choir sang “Taste and See.” Something stirred in my cranky, Grinch heart. My shoulders inched their way down from my ears, my face relaxed, and my eyes filled with tears.  In that brief moment of presence, there was a release.  I let go of something that I didn’t need.

And if that’s the only reason that I go to church…I guess that’s enough.