The Eighth Sacrament


It is my daughter’s nineteenth birthday. I drive to her small Oregon college in the sorrel glow of ill-defined weather, feeling the strangeness of going to visit my one child at her new home, to share her dorm bathroom and sleep on her crusty dorm floor. We are unnatural in our separation, Madison and I, each a single unmatched sock. We’re the sort of mother-daughter who walk with linked arms and give one another bear hugs in public, who stir each other to laughter or to such a pitch of frustration that we repel one another like colliding projectiles. It is not that we have a fraternal relationship lacking parent-child boundaries; we are simply a mom and daughter who know and love each other compassionately despite it.

This bond between parent and child strikes me now, more than ever, as sacred, and I lately wonder, in the manner of wondering for its own sake, why parenting is not a holy sacrament. Why is marriage a holy sacrament, or confirmation, or baptism, and not parenting? I have imagined that something got missed. Maybe the symbolic number seven delimited the list and parenting simply didn’t make the cut—too hard to enforce, too hard to validate in the way of holy sacraments.


“Don’t be obvious,” Madison says as we are sit together in the cafeteria, “but look at that boy walking in. He has an ear bud in his ear constantly, playing loud speed metal.” The boy walks across the room to meet up with a friend whom he greets without removing his ear bud. “Whenever I see him,” Madison confides, “I think of what you always tell me about silence, and how our spirits need silence.” Hearing this, I feel so swept away by thanksgiving that I almost float out of the cafeteria into cloud-dappled ether. She has been listening to me.


I want baptism for my daughter—this immersion in spirit—more than I can understand, I want her heart to connect irreversibly with the undercurrent of love that stirs life in her and heals the things we humans break and makes the sap to run and the hummingbirds to arrive at my feeder. I want her to feel surrounded by the breath of God that made her and guides her and that will receive her back as breath in the end. I worry, in a culture so cacophonous, so overwhelmed, where the young people, where my young person, will arrive at a meeting with this spirit, where they will sit down to meet themselves for the first time.

My phone rings one night. It is Madison, her voice immersed in the holy water of tears. “I’m just so bad at this,” she tells me, meaning college. Madison, who has a learning disability, has struggled academically for as long as I remember. “I try so hard,” she sobs into the phone, “but I just can’t do it. Maybe I’m not cut out for college. It is so hard. Especially studying for tests … I look at the same notes over and over and cannot seem to focus, and just when I think I’ve got something, it vanishes.”

I try not to hate the pain seeping through her words, the anguish in her voice. I know that the struggle is part of what shapes her, is part of the crucible of faith formation. Yet I want to gather my arms around her. She is four hours away. I want to protect her from the fear and drowning that led me to practically sell my soul when I was her age. I believe her, that she is trying, doing the best she can do, but I advise her to use different study methods, maybe work for shorter periods or at different times of the day. “I am sorry,” is mostly what I tell her. “I’m so sorry,” I say, “I wish there was more I could do to help.”

She hasn’t even reached the part about loneliness, which leaks out in tragic sobs that tear my heart.

Holy Orders

After lunch in the cafeteria, where Madison pointed out the ear-bud boy, we head back to the dorm. She collapses her sibylline head onto my lap. She’s had a headache for days, she tells me; asks if I will massage her neck; so I sit rubbing her slender neck and stroking her hair in the lava-lamp-lit room.

“I miss you,” she says. “It can be so lonely here.” And as I continue to stroke her temples, I fight back a monsoon of tears, praying achingly, almost desperately, into the silence, “God, help her. God, help her. God, help her.”

If a sacrament is “a visible sign of an invisible reality,” as classically defined, why wouldn’t the parent-child relationship be viewed as a sacramental sign of God’s relationship to humanity, which is characterized as a parent-child relationship with every whispered “Our Father…”? If there is anything analogous and signatory of the tender creating and guiding of a world by God, wouldn’t it be the conception and birthing of human children, and the stinging, euphoric work of holding them and releasing them and loving them into full being? Wouldn’t this be a better symbol of God’s way of leading than anything else?


At dinner, in our favorite pizza place, we become distracted by the couple sitting across the aisle from us, who appear to be on a date and having a quarrel. Earlier the man had dropped his head to the table, burying it in his arms while the woman moved her chair beside him and draped her body across him, probably whispering consoling words in his ear. Now they have stood and are sharing a long, sad embrace in the middle of the restaurant. I wonder if we have witnessed a break-up and feel terrible in my role as witness. Just looking at the man brings up a hollow, expanding sickness that lay dormant in my gut—a feeling mildly like panic, the memory of devastating someone who loved me. Maybe I wish parenting was a sacrament because I have failed so miserably at matrimony. Maybe I want another sacrament to make up the difference.

Penance and Reconciliation

Yet I have failed, too, at parenting. Madison was a colicky, fitful baby; I a young mother, twenty-one years old when she was born, and I am sure I started failing her on the third day, when sleep deprivation caught up to me and I became exhausted and impatient. I haven’t stopped failing her since, in the innumerable, unintentional ways parents fail their children. As a parent I have always wanted, more than anything, to help my daughter see and embrace divine love. Yet I have simultaneously failed to love her in the ways I had hoped. I have ruthlessly hushed her as a small child for fidgeting and jabbering during the concerts and classes I dragged her to, shaming her for nothing more than being a kid. Before learning Madison had a brain ill-equipped for organization, I would force her to spend painful hours cleaning her room, organizing her belongings. I descended into instinctual silences too many times to name, when what Madison needed was companionship. I’ve yelled at times. I have taken my frustrations out on her. I have spent whole days of her life consumed with my own recklessness and obsessions, too stuck in my head to be a good mother. I confess. Lord have mercy.

Despite all of this, Madison seems to know that God loves her. This is the sweetest grace of all.


A sacrament is a conveyance of grace, a vehicle for stepping consciously into the surrounding air of holy, divine love, a bell waking us up to what is already ours. When young people are confirmed, they are anointed with oil—a sign or symbol of the holy spirit’s anointing of them, of the inescapable holiness of who they are and the everyday holiness of their imperfect lives.

As a parent I’ve come up blank so many times, wondering how to awaken my child to the divine love she is soaking in. Yet I was doing it all along by conferring parental love. In fact, parental love seems to be the main way kids are awakened to God’s love, through this primary experience of love at home. How many of us had our sense of grace shattered because parental love was poorly communicated or imparted with dangling strings?  How many of us know people who have suffered this shattering?

Anointing of the Sick

As evening arrives on Madison’s birthday, I am initiated into the nightly college rite of fro-yo. We walk to the frozen yogurt shop before returning to a friend’s dorm to watch the Grammys. I take a seat next to Madison and massage her feet and her headache magically disappears.

The root of the word “sacrament” means “consecrate.” To consecrate something means to make it an object of veneration, or to dedicate it for a specific purpose. If parenting was a sacrament, would we venerate it? How would that veneration look? Maybe if parenting were venerated, staying home to raise children would be viewed as an exalted calling, a holy act, an ordination. Maybe the people who do it, moms or dads, would be supported and rewarded and honored instead of being ignored and dismissed, or paid with lip service rather than substance. Perhaps if parenting were venerated, the current of economics would bend to something other than competition.

Madison and I crawl into our beds, mine a borrowed mattress thrown on the floor next to hers. She snuggles under the quilt I fashioned for her from yards of flannel and love. I turn on my side, away from her.

“Mom,” she whispers so her sleeping roommate will not hear, “will you turn around?

So I do, knowing she wants to hold my hand, that the bedtime hour of lying in the dark feeling the loneliness and homesickness of months gather like a swarm of bees around her head has come, but her mother is there and she can hold my hand. I lay there stroking the caterpillar skin on the back of her hand, thinking how much it feels like the little-girl grip I’d held and stroked every day of her young life, how the bones have the same inconsequential weight and the knuckles the soft suede ripple of a bean pod. Then she starts to cry, softly, almost inaudibly, and I do too.

{Originally published in Portland Magazine, Spring 2013; To read the article in the magazine, click here:}

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