When we’re wrestling our small child army into the pew at mass on Sunday mornings, I usually try to pick an outside spot on the center aisle – best for quick getaways and great for allowing a distractible 3-year-old a front row view of the entrance and recessional processions. Sometimes we sit further up front than might seem wise, but lately we’ve been stuck closer to the back as we creep in, moments after father has already ascended the steps to the altar, late enough to be irritating but not so late that we miss any readings. But that’s life with 3 babies 3 and under, at least for now.
Our boys, ages 2 and 3.5, are prone to the same bad mass behavior in babies the world over: begging for snacks, drawing on collection envelopes with the omnipresent ballpoint pens that seem to always end up on freshly laundered church pants and little hands, smacking heads on pews, dropping kneelers on the feet of unsuspecting adults, etc.
In short: we’re in Purgatory for 70 minutes. And the kids? They know it.
I’ve seen a direct correlation between how recollected and peaceful I am at mass and how well-behaved my children are. Unfortunately for all parties involved, while I might enter the sanctuary at a 3 on the stress o meter, I’m generally around an 11 by the kiss of peace. Because naughtiness! And bathroom trips. And near-concussive altercations with the bottom of the pew. And audible expressions of outrage involving lighting candles (no, you may not) and eating donuts (that’d be a heck no).
So. Mommy’s not usually peace-filled during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. And therefore, all too often, my little charges are reduced to little more than squirming bundles of angst and woe, completely undone by the cruel hour of torture we subject them to on a weekly basis.
We’ve tried religious children’s books. We’ve tried bribery. We’ve tried talking up the spiritual highlight of our week as, well, the spiritual highlight of our week. But I’m beginning to think they knew we’re faking it. Or at least, I am.
You see, I don’t actually look forward to mass, particularly mass with our family, the way I really ought to if I truly believed we were going to see the God of the Universe up there on that altar come Sunday morning. I am mostly preoccupied with the logistics of feeding, bathing, dressing, transporting and unloading 3 precious bundles of baptized joy into an open pew at 9:33 am, and quite frankly, by the time we get there, I’m about as far from a recollected state of worship and reverence as could possibly be.
Sure, it’s understandable. We’ve got 3 little kids, after all. And on any given night, chances are the somebody isn’t sleeping through it. But the more I contemplate giving our children a real appreciation for the Sacraments and for their faith, the less convinced I am that I’m setting a good example for them.
I don’t long for the Sacraments the way I want my sons and daughter to; I halfheartedly drag myself out of bed to fulfill my Sunday obligation, and I Confess frequently because I know I need it. But it’s all very businesslike at this particular moment in my spiritual life, very habitual. And I know that’s part of faith and part of living the adult Christian life. It isn’t all feelings. But for the very small people in my care, feelings are a huge part of what motivates them to do, well, anything…and if I can’t instill positive feelings about practicing our Faith in them from a young age, I worry about what kind of roots will put down in their souls.
When we kneel for the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I try to take one of the two male rascals into my arms and focus their attention on the altar. Steeling myself against the rhythmic slamming of a tiny blonde head backwards into my nose, I wrestle them in silence, sweat dripping down the back of my Sunday best. When the big moment comes I lean in close, whispering in their ears:
“There’s Jesus. He loves you so much.”
Yesterday as I whispered into not-quite-two-year-old John Paul’s ear, it occurred to me for the first time how much I needed to hear what I was telling my son. There’s Jesus. Up there, on the altar. In the flesh. He loves you so much.
“He’s really up there,” I found myself thinking. How often do I really reflect on that? Really consider what it is we’re trying to teach our children.
He’s really up there. And He loves us, so much.
That’s why we wrestle them through Mass week after week…and that’s what we hope they take away from all the faith-forming and catechizing we subject them to; His love. His mercy. His presence in their lives.
Because there, up on that altar, in the unassuming form of bread and wine, held aloft in the very human hands of our parish priest who sat around our dinner table only last week…is Jesus.
Heaven help us as we help our children to navigate this sacred mystery: the reality of eternity mingled with the daily mundane. It’s easy enough to forget, grounded as we are in the earthly realities of work and diapers and tears, but it’s no less true.
There’s Jesus. He loves you so much.