As longtime readers of this blog and my writing know, I’m a big advocate of including children in worship. But lately – as in for the past six months or so – I’ve either dreaded bringing my 2-year-old to Mass or simply avoided bringing her. My other girls both went through a difficult period in Mass, but it was brief and wasn’t nearly as embarrassing. They didn’t, for example, poop in their pants, attempt to scale the holy water font, or throw a tantrum when I told them I couldn’t nurse them.
On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, I could not figure out a way to go to Mass without bringing the whole gang with me due to my husband’s work schedule. So I loaded up the kiddos, packed along an arsenal of religious-themed books, and prayed that God would reward me for my noble efforts and not make Mass too traumatic.
Everything started out okay. Mary Elizabeth wasn’t too antsy or too loud, and Thomas was snuggled against my chest and snoozing peacefully. Then sweet Madeline whose intentions are almost always good asked Mary Elizabeth if she wanted to draw. Madeline had taken it upon herself to pack her own Mass survival kit, but she didn’t follow my rules of only bringing books to flip through*. She had crayons and little figures to play with stashed in her purse. I whispered, “Don’t give M.E. any crayons. You know how she is with crayons.”
Since you don’t know how she is with crayons, I’ll fill you in: Mary Elizabeth writes on just about everything but paper: her skin, her sister’s skin, toys, walls, clothes, counters. She prefers to work with more creative mediums rather than coloring on anything remotely related to pulp. I did not want her adding her graffiti to the pews or in the hymnals. I’m her mom so I appreciate the genius in her scribbles, but I doubt others would share my feelings.
Madeline apologized. “Oh, right,” she said. “Sorry.”
Then, “Here, M.E.. Play with some figures,” she whispered in her most nurturing voice.
“But we don’t play in Mass,” I hissed back.
“SCREEEECHHH,” M.E. screeched as 4-year-old Rachel tried to take one of the figures out of her hands.
“We don’t fight in church either,” I said.
Thomas woke up and grinned. Thank you, God, for that precious grin.
M.E. was now saying she was hungry and thirsty. Thomas cooed what sounded like, “Hi!”
“Thomas just said, ‘Hi!'” M.E. yelled.
“Shhhhh….” I said.
College kids were everywhere since we live in a college town, and I wanted to set a good example: To show them what a gift these noisy kids are. But I wasn’t feeling it. At all. This was no longer a Holy Day of Obligation. There was nothing holy about it. At that moment, Mass with four young children simply felt like a cumbersome obligation.
Yet, I kept thinking about a recent post over at Rosetta Stone. (I know I should have been paying more attention to Mass, but it was enough for me to be thinking about anything besides strangling my toddler.) Michelle wrote that, “Nothing compares to a three-year-old boy. Nothing.” I’m not going to start comparing who is harder – girls or boys. I loved what someone wrote after an older post of mine that wherever you’re at and whatever you’ve been given is probably the hardest for you. If God is trying to prune us and sanctify us through the vocation of parenthood, then it makes sense that He gives us just the kind of children we need – the kind that will push our buttons and throw us down to our knees and force us to realize that we cannot, absolutely cannot, do this on our own. We need Him. We need to keep a constant dialogue open with God throughout our days. Even when we find ourselves questioning everything about God – whether we’ll ever have a personal relationship with Him, whether He even really exists or cares deeply, profoundly about us and our children – we have to keep talking. We don’t have to pray like others pray. We have to pray as we pray. Sometimes we have to simply show up – and stay put once we’ve arrived even if every part of us is screaming to just go, escape, get the heck out of there before you or your child really loses it.
Will a three-year-old boy drive me further to the edge than my spunky M.E.? Time will tell. We’ll see soon enough now that I have a little man in our midst who will grow into that incomparable three-year-old boy, but right now, for me, nothing compares to a still-nursing-spirited-impish-two-year-old-girl. I ended up in the bathroom for a big part of Mass with said child just trying to keep her quiet. I didn’t want to bring her outside as we often do because then she thinks it’s playtime so why not scream for Mommy’s Milk? You may not get to nurse, but you’ll get to frolic outside. Woo-hoo!
As I sat breathing in a strong disinfectant and only hearing the murmur of the priest and unable to hear his Homily much at all, I thought that maybe I should just gather the kids and leave. What was the point?
Then I remembered more of Michelle’s wisdom: “Don’t quit. Retreat, yes. Surrender, never.”
When M.E. appeared settled down a bit, I bravely returned to the pew. I held my head high. I wanted to squeeze her into submission. Instead, I lavished her with love and patience. Madeline apologized again for giving her crayons and figures.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “You were trying to help. You’re a great big sister.”
She smiled. Thomas kept smiling as well. He was hamming it up for two college guys kneeling behind us. They couldn’t help smiling back.
“M.E. pooped,” Rae whispered.
Not even a bum explosion was enough to make me surrender.
When it was time for Communion, my gang and I shuffled forward. They all received a blessing, and I got a taste of peace.
Back in our pew, I glanced down and noticed that M.E. had taken off her shoes and socks, so she had marched to the altar barefoot. Great, I thought, now I really look like the “old lady in the shoe who had so many children she didn’t know what to do.”
We survived Mass. I put M.E.’s shoes back on, and Madeline helped me gather all of our belongings. As we were leaving, a college girl crouched down and started talking to the girls asking them questions and smiling at them. Then she looked at me and said, “They were so good!”
Maybe my vanity – my desire to look like I have it all together all of the time – blinds me to how well we’re all coping in Mass or otherwise. I don’t know. What I do know is I was grateful I stuck it out and didn’t surrender. As we were walking past a Marian shrine, Madeline asked, “Mommy, can we go say a prayer to Mary?”
My three girls, including Stinky Bum, knelt in front of Mary and looked up at her. The moment didn’t last long. Soon they were running around, screeching again, but I knew that we’d all received plenty of graces that day. What if I’d left? I would have been angry, resentful. We wouldn’t have stopped to say hello to Mary. My kids might have associated that day at Mass with anger and disappointment.
Later I was perusing a collection of Advent reflections written by Mother Teresa that our church had passed out for free, and the very first one I opened to said this:
“Let us bring the children to Mass. Do your best to get them there. If you have to run [after] for a child, do so. God in his infinite mercy may give light and grace to that child’s soul because of the trouble you took. Never lose sight of the mercy of God. Take the trouble to help the children to love the Mass, to know the meaning of the Mass, to join in the Mass through simple prayers and hymns. Be careful of the attitude you take while minding the children during Mass. Do not correct loudly. Keep your hands joined. Join in the prayers and singing. The children will do exactly what you do.”
Tears pricked behind my eyes. It is trouble taking kids to Mass sometimes. It’s downright stressful at times. Likewise, not everyone is going to dole out the kind of mercy God so freely gives. There will be raised eyebrows. There will be people who tell parents that we should not bring small children to church. An older woman recently talked about how more parents should spank when children misbehave in Mass because that’s what happened to her when she was young and she sat silently and would never move because she knew she’d get a whooping. Getting a whooping after worship? That just doesn’t jive with me. Maybe I’m a softy (others say I’m too hard on my kids), but I don’t want to make my kids behave in church out of fear. I want them to worship out of love.
I’ve had people comment after articles or blog posts I’ve written about bringing children to the table of the Lord say that kids don’t belong in Church and that it’s selfish and distracting to bring them. One fellow mother said parents should opt for a spiritual communion rather than attending Mass when the kids are little. Yet, if God’s plan for my family is to have little ones underfoot for a long time, then does that mean I stay away from Mass for years? What’s really selfish of me is to make it a habit of always leaving the children at home, to deny myself the opportunity to grow in grace and in patience by keeping my children in line in a loving way and by showing them that here is Love itself. I’m speaking for myself here, so please don’t feel judged if you’ve prayerfully decided to avoid taking certain children to Mass. I get it. I completely get it. I still won’t be taking M.E. every Sunday, but I do need to take her more frequently and to not worry so much about what others think of us.
I also have to remember that there will also be people like that young woman after Mass who encourage me. And there will be the Mother of all Mothers waiting to draw my children near. The children will do exactly what you do. Be firm but gentle. Fall on your knees and beg for the graces to keep bringing these small souls to the Lord. Not one of these little ones will be lost if it’s up to God. Personify love. Personify God.
Oh, and keep a sense of humor when your child imitates the Franciscan brothers at your church and approaches the Lord with naked feet.
*Please note: I am not judging you if you bring other items to Mass to keep your children’s fidgety minds, bodies, and hands busy. I’ve just found that books with spiritual images work well in Mass. I do occasionally allow my older child to draw, but she’s only allowed to create religious images. She’s drawn some pretty neat pictures of Jesus on the cross and Mary during Mass. These “rules” are what work for us.