Last night a friend of mine posted this on Facebook, “Anyone else’s kids impossible to take to church right now? Need some encouragement” Little did he know that hours earlier Josie and Rita had performed their greatest balance beam routine of their Sunday morning Mass gymnastics careers, as James repeatedly asked just exactly how Lazarus came back to life 25 decimals louder than the priest’s microphone, leaving me tired of taking them at all.
Few things in parenthood leave me feeling more defeated than my children’s poor Mass behavior. With three kids 4 and under, I realize solemn prayer and recognition of the pews and kneelers serving a purpose other than that of balance beams and things on which to tap dance is a rather tall order. Nonetheless, I want to believe it possible for them to do slightly more communicating with God than gymnastics.
The truth is we’ve tried everything from cry room to front pew, middle aisle to easy exit. We’ve packed fish and banned food the following week because purposely creating orange cracker crumbs is much too entertaining to a two year old. I’ve packed a Mass bag. I’ve forgotten to pack the Mass bag. We have attended daily Mass as practice. We’ve hired a babysitter and kept them at home. I’ve taken the older two individually for Mass dates. Punishments have been threatened and ice cream promised. I’ve turned away both laughing and nearly crying when hair is pulled or faces are scratched, or the word “poopy,” is said at moments of silence. Crayons have been allowed and then permanently banned and tend to stain pew wood slightly more than a baby wipe can fix. We’ve praised the good and ignored the bad. We’ve re-read our child psychology books, and put in a call to Pavlov’s dog. No answer. I’ve allowed the bad to ruin my own experience of Christ, and yet, I’ve been given the grace of deep union with God even while a baby pulls my hair and tries to open my closed and praying eyelids. I try frequently to remind myself that my kids are 4,2, and 1, remembering that the concept of mommy and daddy praying while they sit quietly seems to carry about the same contextual weight as bathroom privacy or cellphone etiquette. As anyone who has once tried to maintain a conversation with me via cellphone, these realities of raising little ones can be frustrating. Most weeks Jim and I leave Mass and feel relieved that “it’s over!” And that, my friends, is the poorest of parenting techniques.
This week’s Gospel, however, reminds me of something very important. “He wept.” It’s the shortest sentence in the Gospel, and to me, the most amazing. I know I should maybe be more amazed with Jesus’ ability to raise Lazarus from the dead, but, the full humanity of a God weeping at the sight of His friend’s sorrows gets me pretty good. While I fully realize relating a weeping Christ to my qualms with poor Mass behavior is more than a mile away from a giant hurdle, as Rita began throwing each and every Missal out of the pew on purpose, those words struck me and eased my very real motherhood frustration. Jesus gets it. He is deeply human and fully understanding of every crushed gold-fish, fought over animal cracker, and tip toe balance beam performance. He hears my prayers and theirs in the fullness of their simplicity and/or complete silliness. And it is for that reason and that reason mostly that I will continue taking them to Mass, most weeks at least, despite their lack of readiness or ability to sit quietly or participate. He hears them as much as he hears me, and communicates with them just as much, if not more.
Moments, that may have felt like an eternity of stern staring and wrangling, I was given a glimpse of hope in what often feels like the strenuous task of family Mass. Josie began singing the Holy, Holy with almost all the wrong words. “Holy, oh holy Jesus! The holy spirit is in the sky with the birds.” Her rendition is probably closer to the Norman Greenbaum song than any part of the liturgy, but that’s not the point. She then whispered “are the angels here now?” I smiled and breathed a small piece of heaven and was sure of the prescience of every angel in all eternity surrounding the altar of the feast of all feasts. Even though it feels like a tireless task of no results, she has been paying attention. And when Rita soon after offered an elderly woman, sitting alone, the sign of peace, the contagious joy filled up three pews of people and hopefully allowed them to forget about all the times she threw missiles and hymnals too close to their heads.
This week and all weeks I hope to remember that it’s not about me or even the other people in the pews. Taking my kids to Mass is a chance, frustrating as it is, to offer my kids an opportunity to hear and experience the voice of God in their own lives. Sure, the homily probably sounds just like Charlie Brown’s teacher. And the readings never have any pictures with which to follow along. But God is much more powerful than all of these things and I refuse to limit his power by keeping it in the tomb of my desire to control. So next week, God willing, we will fly by the seat of our amateur parenting pants, break dozens of parenting rules, hoping for the best but expecting the worst and annoying dozens of Church goers in the process. And in all of it, each of my babies will spend time in the presence of God, gaining access to his secrets and mysteries, his adventures and stories in ways I’m much too faithless to understand.