Recently Dom and I were discussing the institution of the parish nursery and the desirability of bringing toddlers to Mass. I was rather surprised when two mothers of my acquaintance were in favor putting their children in the nursery when they are between the ages of 18 months and three and a half because, they argued, that’s when they are at their worst behavior and because when you have three or more children it becomes impossible to control them all and even if you do control them you spend the entire mass distracted. Six days a week I give give give, said one mother, on Sundays I need to be fed.
Now I may be (probably am) stepping where angels fear to tread. And I don’t mean to question any other parents’ decisions about how to raise their children. (Please, please, please let’s not get into that!) And I’ll acknowledge that we have been blessed with two girls with very sweet temperaments and easy dispositions. And after all I only have two children as yet. Still, Dom and I pretty firmly agree that none of our children will ever spend Mass time in the nursery. This is a point we’ve discussed at length and I can’t see any external circumstances changing our attitudes on this. We will continue to bring the children to Mass and walk them out when it becomes necessary.
But that’s all rather beside the point. This isn’t really a post about nurseries or bringing toddlers to Mass. What I want to focus on is the question raised by our friend: What does it mean to be “fed” at Mass?
But before I attempt to answer that question, I’m going to risk treading on a few more toes. Today was first communion Sunday at our parish as at many parishes. Which for me usually means grit my teeth Sunday while trying not to let the little complaining voice take over: Crowds of noisy people who never otherwise go to church and don’t know how to behave and leave early, sappy music picked to appeal to the children’s tastes, applause of course for the children when they sing, cameras flashing. I knelt in the pew before Mass and tried to tune out the grumble of dozens of conversations and prayed for the grace to not be distracted: God, please let me focus on you and not on all the things and people that might annoy me today.
Even before we pulled into the church parking lot and saw the crowds and realized what we were in for, I knew today was going to be a challenge. Yesterday my pelvis started to really ache, every step or shift in my weight has felt like my bones were grinding against each other. I don’t know what happened, if the baby flipped or what but I have been in pain. Also Sophie woke up about an hour earlier than usual and was acting cranky. I knew she’d probably have to be taken out during Mass. And my sister has a bad bug and stayed home sick, so she wouldn’t be able to help with the girls.
As it turned out, Dom took Sophie out twice when she cried so I didn’t have to stand in the back with a squirmy child. I just had to deal with wriggly Bella who wanted to stand on the pew so she could see. (This is why we usually sit near the front. not an option today, of course.) I survived, though, and Sophie was sound asleep in Dom’s arms at the end of Mass.
Anyway, that’s all preamble (sorry this is a very rambling blog post) to what was really running through my head as I re-ran that conversation and the mother’s complaint about needing to be fed. I haven’t sat through Mass undistracted by a small child in three years, I thought. And, yeah, I miss those quiet prayerful days before Bella was born. And I so very, very understand what she means about needing to be fed. I’ve certainly filled up a few blog entries about my needs for silence and prayer. Nevertheless, I want my children and my husband with me at Mass and I won’t park them in a nursery or split up and go to different Masses just to get that quiet time.
The way I have come to see it is that this is a sacrifice that I will make for only a brief period of my life and I’m making it for the very best cause: so that my children can be in the presence of God and come to know Him and love Him and serve Him. I have confidence that in this area of life as with my personal prayer time, the act of showing up faithfully to Mass and the attempt to give as much of my attention as I have to Him is what he will reward. He is my Father and He will feed me what I need to be fed.
Here I’m also thinking of Karen E’s excellent reflection about mother’s prayer time and the importance of just showing up:
This is not to say that as mothers we don�t need quiet, contemplative time to be in touch with our Lord. Most assuredly, we do. There must be time to �come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile� (Mark 6:31) but it will not always be as we envision or schedule it. We are not in control of exactly when and how the Lord will come to us in �fruitful conversation�, the thing for which I was so longing. He, being the Father of all fruits and the director of every conversation, will in the end determine the depth of our prayer lives.
Karen is speaking of personal daily prayer; but it strikes me that the same is true about our communions with God at Mass. It is ours to show up and his to determine the shape and depth of our conversation.
There are many ways I can prepare for Mass beforehand that will help me to receive what it has to offer. I can read the reading ahead of time, meditate on them and make myself open to God’s word outside of Mass time so that even if my attention is being demanded by a fussy baby or a bumped knee or a demand for a toilet break, I have still allowed myself to be nourished by the Word. I can seek out homilies online even if I spent the time of our priest’s homily completely distracted our outside of the church altogether in the basement bathroom.
And of course I can seek quiet time alone with God in the cracks and crevices of my week. For some women this means getting up before the kids. That doesn’t work for me. But I am usually awake after everyone else has gone to sleep. And recently I’ve been able to snatch a quiet time during the girls’ naps. Once baby Benedict arrives my quiet time will undoubtedly be less. Still, those late night and early morning nursing sessions can have a peace of their own sort. Perhaps in this season those moments will feel more fruitful than Mass times. But they will only be so because I am being fed by the Eucharist at Mass.
Also, I find that as much as my toddlers can distract me from the Mass, they can also focus me if I allow them. When I guide Isabella’s hand to make the sign of the cross and help her to remember to genuflect, I am more apt to take time with what I am doing, to focus and make it a real prayer. When I direct Sophie’s attention to the altar at the consecration or listen to her joyfully join in with the alleluias, I find myself caught up in a childlike awe at the moment. I remember a mystical experience my sister once had when she saw the Blessed Mother during Mass and Mary told her to “look, look,” during the consecration. I feel humbled taking on that role, helping direct my children’s attention and prayers to God.
As I walked up the aisle to receive communion today I walked with Isabella for the first time in a long while, usually she’s with Dom as I have Sophia. I was struck by the way she approached the altar with her hands folded firmly. She didn’t want to take my hand when I tried to grab hers to hurry her along as she stopped to look at the people in the pews as we passed. She paused for a blessing from the priest and stood still and reverent with her hands neatly pressed together as I received communion. And her slow reverent approach slowed me down and reminded me to pause and dwell in the moment.
For all her wriggling on the floor and standing on the pew in order to see the altar, her whining that she wanted to go out with Dom and her bumping her knee and her dropping her book, for all the distractions she caused me, still there were several times that Isabella focused me instead. So often I have heard God speaking to me through my two little teachers, Isabella and Sophia.
Listening to Father’s homily, mainly directed to the First Communicants and their parents, it struck me that it is so hard to find the right things to say to them on this day. You want to emphasize the awesome nature of the sacrament and yet help them to understand that they might not feel any of the awesomeness. Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist is an objective reality whether or not our emotions or our attention lead us to feel that presence at the moment.
I was reminded of a story I read once about a child receiving his or her first communion who had been told that it was such a special day and who was asked over and over, “Do you feel different now?” And what a let down when it was so mundane, when there was no rush of feeling, no difference. When the taste and texture of the wafer was a distraction from the spiritual dimension. And the feeling that something was wrong. That discord between expectation and reality can be enough to shatter a newly blossoming faith.
And so I ask again, what does it mean to be fed? Is it about an emotional reality, a physical feeling of peace and contentment or is it rather a spiritual reality that might come despite a storm of emotions and distracted thoughts and worldly concerns?
I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t seek quiet time with God. But I think that we can perhaps go too far in grasping at those quiet moments. If I become too focused on my own need for quiet, I run the risk of making those quiet moments into a sort of God, or at least of imposing my own preconditions or my own limitations on the way God might speak to me. Elijah didn’t hear God where he expected in the wind or thunder but in the still, small voice. I think too often we mothers can get fixated on the quest for silence (which is far too fleeting an experience in our chaotic world) so much so that we get frustrated with all the other small voices that invade our quiet times. We fixate on the quiet that will let us hear a small voice of God whispering, all the while ignoring that God is speaking to us in quite a different voice, perhaps one more like the one which roused Samuel from his sleep. A strident voice demanding our attention, calling Mama, Mama, Mama.
It can be harder to hear God in the fuss of a baby or the whine of a toddler than in the quiet after communion when I am blissfully alone in my prayerful fortress of solitude. And yet Katherine reminded me the other day of a passage in Kimberly Hahn’s book Graced and Gifted in which she argues that mothers live an �Apostolate of Interruption� wherein God refines in us a �heart of loving service and wisdom to know how to respond to each interruption.�
There certainly are great spiritual riches in monastic silence, in quiet spaces of contemplation and prayerful stillness. The deep quiet of the Carthusian monastery, the hermit’s cell, the silent retreat. And yet is that really my vocation? I am not a monastic but a mother. My church is the domestic church with all its hurly-burly and mess. My choir is very often the prayer muttered through gritted teeth, Lord help me get through this, this, this constant demand that pulls me in so many directions. Jesus’ admonition to Martha is less about her choosing to serve and rather about her anxiety over Mary’s not following her example. My path is not to envy the lot of my sisters who follow Mary’s example, who sit quietly at Christ’s feet and listen to his words. Mine is to put aside anxiety and to serve him joyfully in the persons of my family, my children.
Let the little children come unto me.
#8220;Mama, is it Sunday?” Bella asks. She already seems to know that Sunday is the most important day of the week. She seems disappointed when I say no.
“Mama, what are we doing today? Can we go to church?” Not today, dear. We have to go to the grocery store.
“Mama, can we say prayers?” Not right now, dear, I have to do the dishes and change this diaper and do some laundry and…
“Mama, help, I need you!” Does it have to be right now?
Am I listening? Do I hear his voice? Or are my anxieties drowning out His call?
I heard His voice calling me today. It sounded like a three year old who can’t quite say her Rs. It sounded like a cranky one-year-old baby who woke up too early and needed desperately to be cuddled and comforted by her still-sleepy Mama.
I heard His voice demanding that I get up yet again to go to the kitchen and prepare another meal, to get another snack for the picky child who has no words to specify what she wants and who won’t be satisfied until I can make the correct guess.
When I was hungry you gave me food.
Did I feed Him or did He feed me? Did He serve me the meal that I really needed, not the one I wanted?
I heard His voice demanding that I help with putting on socks and shirt and shoes and jacket and underwear and diaper and pajamas.
When I was naked you clothed me.
When I helped the least of these under my charge to get dressed today, did he also clothe me? Do I find myself wearing garments that are more pleasing to him, the garments of humility and of love and service?
What does it mean to be fed by the Mass?
I return again to Tolkien’s advice to his son about making communion in circumstances that affront one’s taste, that challenge one’s charity. Because a Mass filled with noisy, demanding children is the same as the Mass of the most reverent monastery. The Mass full of distractions that leaves me feeling empty is the same as the Mass I imagine I want and need. He is there.
I recall hearing a similar story about Mother Teresa, that her nuns were complaining about an irreverant priest or a bad homily or some such and she stopped them to demand whether or not Christ was present. The nuns of course replied in the affirmative and that settled their complaints. Jesus is there present whether we feel it at the moment or not. If we are open to Him, then He will surely feed us whether we have to walk out with a fussy baby or are distracted by the toddler hanging on our arm or the squabbling siblings who must be separated.
One of the primary errors of this generation is that we get much too caught up in feelings. we mistake feelings of being spiritual for true spiritual practices. Feeling peaceful, feeling reverent, feeling fed. Certainly we must make time for going to Mass, we must make time for prayer outside of Mass as well. But I am not sure I must have Mass time be my time for silent prayer. Can He not feed me even while I am not feeling His Presence?
Mother Teresa it seems went for decades without feeling His Presence in the Eucharist. And yet she faithfully went to Mass as often as she could. She walked not by her senses but by a sort of blind faith that knew she was being fed even if she never felt the fullness of Love which filled her and so visibly poured out from her to feed everyone she touched.
I’ve been thinking of baptism quite a bit recently. Mainly about the mundane details of planning. We’ve already started planning Benedict’s baptism. When will we be able to schedule it, who will the godparents be, all the details. But also I’ve been thinking about the promises I will make and of the promises I’ve made on behalf of my other children. In a week we’ll celebrate the first anniversary of Sophia’s baptism. And a month later Isabella’s. I promised to help them to know God, to love him and to serve him. The best way I know to do that is to bring them to Mass. I have already seen it bearing fruit in their lives. I can’t imagine not bringing them. I know they aren’t old enough to have a duty to go. Nevertheless, I feel I have a duty to bring them to Mass. For don’t they need to be fed as well?
Also, see Part 2, a few more thoughts on the subject.