Like most people without children, I assumed that training a toddler to sit through Mass would be a snap. In reality, the idea is more like fool’s gold: glittering with promise, but without any real grounding in reality. If our children are our visas to heaven, that particular stamp in the passport must be worth more than a few weeks of humiliation. That thought got me through a few rough weeks, until another epiphany hit: I am more like my children than I care to admit.
Christopher and his sister Sarah had been living with us about a week when we took them to church for the first time. Six-month-old Sarah spent most of the time dozing on Craig’s shoulder. Two-year-old Christopher, however, was clearly out of his element; he clutched my thigh and howled each time I tried to take my place behind the piano. Earlier that week he had lost one foster mother; he was not about to lose another one without a fight. Somehow we got through that Mass, but it was obvious that, at least for a time, the ensemble would have to make a joyful noise without me.
We had heard good things about another parish, one closer our new house, and decided to check it out the following week. Christopher still refused to come within arm’s reach of my husband, the gentle giant. So I suppose it should not have surprised us when we went forward to receive the Eucharist, and Father Will reached out his hand in blessing, that Christopher responded with an emphatic “NO!” and a surprisingly accurate left hook.
“Brat,” I heard someone behind us mutter as we beat a hasty retreat to our pew.
Later, we introduced ourselves to the priest, and explained that our foster son did not yet understand that a man could reach out to him in kindness, rather than anger. Fortunately Father Will has a good sense of humor … which he got to exercise again the following week when Christopher bid the priest good-bye by grabbing his vestments six inches south of the equator, the highest place his two-year-old hands could reach.
Becoming parents – even by proxy – gave us a new perspective on parish life. Gradually we encountered a range of philosophies about “good” Catholic children and their parents, including a plethora of unspoken rules and expectations guaranteed to keep someone scowling at all times. Here are just a few of our favorites.
The “Saintlies.” The Saintlies seem to have extended family (usually very large extended families) in almost every parish in the U.S. During Mass, even the baby sits like a bit of statuary, while the older children have thigh and pectoral muscles like steel bands (from the daily genuflecting and clasping of hands). The youngest knows the Rosary in eight languages; the older ones amuse themselves by diagramming Father’s three-point homilies. Mother is perfectly coiffed and serene, Father golfs with the bishop. The Saintlies are exceedingly nice, and visitors can always find a seat immediately behind or in front of them: “Regulars” tend to avoid the Saintlies, whose perfect deportment make “regular” kids look doubly grubby.
Flighty Gidget and the Messy Marvin Brigade. At the other end of the ecclesial acceptability scale is a family that sits… well, let’s just say very close to our pew. Their three-year-old, the escape artist, once belly-crawled over ten rows of kneelers for a better look at a visiting priest. Big brother Marvin holds the record for Cheerio stacking on the pew in front of him… a record Marvin tries to break each week, with predictable results. (He gives himself extra points when cereal falls inside the collar of whoever occupies that seat.) Mom now puts a Dust Buster and tranquilizer gun in the diaper bag with the sippy cups.
Cry Room Commandos. You would think that the thick layer of glass would pretty well contain the cacophony. And it does – until one of them discovers that beating his plastic Rescue Hero against the glass during prayer time makes grownups turn and look at him with a decidedly un-prayerful expression. Ah, feel the power!
Chattering Charlie. Two-year-old Charlie is at that awkward stage: Old enough to understand the power of the spoken word, but not old enough to get the concept of whispering. Last week Charlie’s mother, who spends more time shushing and distracting her son than praying, told Charlie that his noise would scare all the angels away. He responded by gazing at the ceiling and giving a full-throated dinosaur roar. Charlie shares his mother’s musical ability, as evidenced by the chorus of “Amazing Grapes” he belted out in the middle of Father’s homily a new moments later.
Busy Bees Brigade. It’s understandable that a family of eight might on occasion have difficulty getting out of their coats and into the pew before the first notes of the opening hymn. However, this particular family has not heard the responsorial psalm since the first Bush administration, and subscribes to the theory that children should sit in the very front, where they can see – and be seen. See Mikey hit his brother. See Margie ask to be taken to the bathroom. For the third time. See little Patty, displaced from Mama’s lap by the latest stork-drop, pull her dress over her head and cast herself in the aisle.
Except for a handful of Saintlie clones out there, these true-to-life cherubs make us smile because most of us have been there at one time or another. We have weathered the Cheerios and coloring book phase of parenting, and (with a lot of prayer and just a pinch of luck) are headed for a different set of challenges, as our children embark on that perilous journey of spiritual adolescence, trying to figure out what they really believe, and why.
“Unless you become like a little child…”
My earliest memories involve the inside of a church. In the first thirty years of my life, I belonged to a variety of Protestant denominations (usually as the organist/piano player/choir director), graduated from Bible school, and went on a few short-term missions trips abroad.
The thing is, while my faith “broadened” as I stretched myself to handle each of these challenges, that faith did not grow much deeper. I had given in to a subtle yet all-too-common form of spiritual pride: I thought God wanted me to be more concerned about the souls of those around me than my own spiritual growth.
By the time I realized the true state of things, my spiritual batteries had nearly drained themselves dry. I floundered, a bit shell-shocked, without moorings or compass until, by the mercy of God, I found the peace I craved in the very the last place I ever thought to look: the Catholic Church.
And all I had to do was become a child again.
Take the music, for example. As a Protestant I had been involved in some form of music ministry since age twelve; “Great Hymns of the Faith” was second only to the Bible as my favorite book. So imagine my chagrin when I stepped through the doorway of the Catholic Church, and I didn’t know even one of the hymns they were singing. (And don’t get me started on liturgy settings.)
As a Protestant, I was “fluent” in Scripture. Thanks to the thorough formation I received at home and in church, I knew most Bible stories by heart (complete with songs and hand motions). As a Catholic, I was devastated to find that many Catholic theologians – including most priests I know – believe that the first twelve books of Genesis are better classified as “sacred myth” than “history.” Nothing in four years of Bible school had prepared me for that epiphany. As for the rest of the Old Testament, at Masses they kept reading from books that were nowhere to be found in my super-sized study Bible. Anyway, isn’t “Tobit” one of the Hobbits?
As a Protestant, I ran to the throne of grace several times a day with my laundry list of conveniences and wishes: a parking place, twenty thousand dollars for a missions trip, a miraculous healing for my eighty-two-year-old grandmother. As a Catholic, I came to understand – very slowly, as a child does – that in this world struggle is inevitable. So is sickness and pain. And even death. The redemption is not in how we avoid these things, but in how God equips us for heaven through these experiences.
Raising the Child in Me
And so, I can think back on my “Saintlie” days, and smile ruefully. Even the appearance of spiritual perfection is a lot harder to pull off with two rambunctious preschoolers. Now I simply try, with God’s help, not to give in to spiritual schizophrenia, a common malady among those of us who struggle to “keep up appearances” – even with hearts full of muck and old, self-inflicted scars.
As a child of God – a Catholic child, that is – I found secret liberation: There was no need to keep mending the tatters I’ve torn and muddied with all my sinful blunderings. In the sacraments, God has provided a place where my failings may be remembered and washed away in tears of penitence, my heart can receive the healing balm of absolution, and my soul is called to feast upon the Bread of Angels. Still a long way from perfection, as I linger in His Presence, like a child fresh from the bath, I savor that light sweetness and inwardly resolve to try a little harder to stay clean. Not for me – at least, not entirely. Certainly not to impress others. Simply to please Him.
Released from the false burden of superficial spirituality, I don’t have to flit from church to church like Gidget, or distract myself from reality like Marvin, even if I feel a twinge of discomfort. Discomfort, I’ve discovered, is not always a bad thing: It is impossible to grow by maintaining status quo. If I am offended by something I see or hear, I’ve learned that the solution is not switching churches. God is more concerned about my soul than my fickle sensibilities, and He uses people in my life (often the very ones who rankle me most) to bring to light my own shortcomings. I can shut myself off from my brothers and sisters in Christ, or open up trust them – and Him.
Prayer is the area in which, as a Catholic, I learned the truth of the spiritual principle “less is more.” The staccato supplications and intercessions, with exact specifications on everything God should and should not do before our next daily appointment, are (if not yet totally a thing of the past) fewer and farther between. In my second childhood of faith, I’ve relinquished my inner “Cryroom Commando” and “Chattering Charlie,” and found that letting go of overly dramatic and verbose forms of prayer (at least in public) has enabled me to tap into a deeply satisfying, prayerful silence. Charlie still roars from time to time, but I’m fairly certain I don’t scare the angels anymore.
As for the “Busy Bees…” well, let’s just say I’m a work in progress. Last week I noticed a certain announcement in the bulletin, calling for the fourth time for someone to fill in a needed spot on a church committee. I pointed it out to Craig, wondering idly if I should just do it. My mild-mannered husband sputtered, “Are you kidding me?” He was right. My Bible-teaching, hymn-singing, missions-minded self was overextended – again – in well-intended but ultimately misguided “service.” I was still learning to apply to my heart what my head already knew: God is more concerned about my fidelity to the “inner circle” of my vocation – my husband and family – than that I take on other areas of influence. Now is not the time to branch out; God is calling, “Sink your roots a little deeper.”
Have You Suffered a Child Today?
After corralling my two preschoolers through a typical Sunday Mass, I have a fresh appreciation for what Jesus meant when he told his disciples, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and do not hinder them, for such is the kingdom of heaven.” Devotion, like holiness, is not passed through the bloodstream, but “caught” gradually, over time.
Oh, sure, I’ve read those “How to tame your little monsters in three Masses or less” articles, but I’ve never believed them. I mean, God designed the family, the domestic church, as the means by which each of its members are sanctified, a process that must be measured in years, not weeks. In a sense, our children are our passports to heaven – and God knows that particular visa is worth more than three weeks’ humiliation.
So, if your particular faith community is one of those that believes nurseries are for wimps and delinquents-in-training, take heart. If the “cry room” is the only place you can get a moment’s peace each week, go ahead and cry. It’s only a matter of time before you can return those lessons in humility – by embarrassing your teenager.
Heidi Hess Saxton is a freelance writer and editor, foster mother and theology student. She and her family reside in Milan, Michigan, and she may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.