…little things…great love…small acts from little hands…building up the Kingdom of God…I’m no pioneer in this mode of thinking…many saints have said it better…and yet you get my thoughts on it today…
One of the things you may or may not know about me is that I hate confrontation. And I also change my mind a lot. So I really try to keep myself from smugly posting things like, “I will never bring snacks to Mass.” Because, believeyoume, there have been days that I have had to eat my words. With gravy on top. WHILE I laboriously pick up all the Cheerio crumbs from the pew. And I really don’t like to open up heated subjects on the blog. This is my place to be a little bit funny and a little bit serious and write out some of the words that would otherwise sit in the caverns of my brain and drive me crazy(er).
Right NOW, in this season of life, we don’t bring toy-like things with us to Mass and we don’t bring food. The one exception is that the boys may bring a children’s Bible or missal. Ami can have a non-noise-producing teether and she may nurse. But I HAVE packed crayons and other toys before. And I HAVE discovered that the minions have packed in contraband (matchbox cars) at one juncture or another. Do I appreciate other parents’ attempts to keep distractions to a minimum? Absolutely and I do my best to send mental high-fives their way. After Mass. Outside. I only send mental high fives in the vestibule. And then only reverently. You know. *grin* But, do I understand and have I been there and have I prayed that other people not judge me over it? Absolutely.
I won’t lie and say that I don’t sometimes wish that the family next to us would have left 10 of the dozen action figures or dolls at home. It’s tough on easily distracted 4-year-olds to watch full on playtime happening two pews over and know that he is expected to sit there quietly. Not impossible. But still tough. And since the ratio of noise to toys seems proportional, I sometimes wish, for their sake if not mine, they knew that Mass without tons of toys and snacks is actually easier (note: not EASY…easiER) especially in the long run.
Over time we have gradually reduced the things we bring to Mass. I no longer put forth the effort to print out coloring sheets that correspond to the Gospel. I don’t pack a “Mass bag” anymore, and that’s a personal preference. I don’t pack things FOR my children. Most items are on the “We don’t bring” list. IF they want to bring a Bible or missal, they may, but it is something they are entirely responsible for. This doesn’t ensure that my children will be well-behaved at Mass, but it does mean that they won’t be arguing over the same blue crayon.
Do you know why I do (or don’t do) this? I do this because I think that it helps children encounter God. We and our children are human, and we will always encounter distractions when we worship. Bringing more distractions with us, I think, sends a message that our time spent in participating in the sacraments and in prayer are things to be endured instead of acts that we engage in so that life can be poured into our souls. I do this because I want the Mass to come alive for my children. I do this, also, because I want them to learn that we distract ourselves at a cost to our relationship with God and with each other.
But do you know what else? I don’t write any of this to chastise. I write it because I feel compelled to offer hope and because, actually, I want to remind myself to always offer small acts of love from my little hands. I write it because our faith is both vertical and horizontal, and because we have a chance to live out that vertical focus and horizontal love in a special way when we worship together.
Even more, though, I write it because there have been so many many days at Mass with wild, distracting children when my heart was breaking. I’m not being dramatic to say that. I was at Mass, clinging to a life line. Literally. And when I was on the receiving end of comments or looks or heard of criticisms later, I wanted to scream, “You have NO idea what is happening in my life!” It wasn’t just from people I knew, though those were the ones that hurt most deeply; I would read blog posts on how to raise children who behaved in church. I felt so inadequate when I would read things like “church shoes beget church behavior” and the following Sunday wound up black and blue from a temper-tantruming toddler who packed quite the kick with heavy, “nice” shoes on his feet. Or when I read, “we make our children under the age of three sit on our laps, no exceptions” and realized that there was one of me and two of them.
We were a family in crisis, and it was something I did not share. I never said a word because I didn’t want pity and, anyway, I knew I couldn’t tell my story. I wanted understanding and compassion even though they couldn’t know the depth of my pain. And maybe maybe it would have been nice for someone to offer an extra set of hands. Desperately desperately I desired love and belonging despite the loneliness and brokenness and suffering I felt (even when it may or may not have been evident, for I am generally naturally optimistic and was very active in our church community). I didn’t desire relaxed standards. I loved and love reverence and beauty during worship. I didn’t desire to feel like my kids were good by comparison (“Your kid screamed louder during Consecration than mine did, so I must be doing something right!”). I didn’t want someone to make excuses for me. I did know that I felt overwhelmed and lonely and stuck. I felt like I was on the outside, looking in.
I think back on those dark, dark days, and I remember how there were some real and holy people who showed love and hospitality and kindness, even when they didn’t have to and when they didn’t know how much I needed it. It makes me think about how to show love to the brokenhearted and to be reaching out, even when I am not aware of someone’s suffering. This is not my forte. I’m not exactly shy, but I’m introverted. It’s HARD for me to strike up conversations. It’s really hard for me to remember that I’m not the only person who has problems. Because, however, I think it’s of great importance to reach to people on the margins and I think this holds true at church. Here’s my “scratch the surface” list:
- On a regular basis, sit next to/behind the young parent with child(ren) that you see attending church solo week after week. When we get down to brass tacks, this could be for any persons you see attending alone (elderly, college student…really any person), especially if you might happen to notice that they duck out quickly afterwards and don’t seem to know many people.
- I’m not one to encourage long, loud conversations as soon as your good padre has left the building or even after the choir has stopped singing. I like to make eye contact. Maybe send over a friendly nod and smile. If a mother with young children looks particularly frazzled as she scrambles to clean up goldfish crumbs, get down there and help her out.
- IF opportunity presents, it’s ok to make an offer to help! Said person might turn you down if they are not comfortable with it (e.g. if I have a screaming infant and a 3yo insistently informing me that he’s “gotta go potty”, I may not be ok with leaving either one in your care while I help the other one) or they might be really, truly grateful. I’ve seen large families take smaller ones under their wing, so to speak, and offer a set of hands to hold a baby or a “totally cool teenager” to sit next to the toddler and help keep their attention on the Mass. My boys will sit in awe of teenage boys, and will imitate them sitting quietly when NO amount of my shushing worked. Be a familiar, encouraging face! Build community! Small things really show great love!
- Does your parish have fellowship following Mass (non-Catholics: insert “church” and “service”)? Look for the people sitting by themselves, camp near them, strike up conversation as you break donuts. This doesn’t have to be to the exclusion of talking to people you already know – you know how to introduce people!
- Sometimes the person sitting solo at the table is an introvert who happens to like donuts. Sometimes sitting alone in a crowded room is a quiet cry to be noticed. Be persistent with your friendliness, but not pushy. Use your common sense.
- Remember that you don’t know someone’s sorrow. You don’t know their losses. You don’t know their struggles. You don’t know their situation. Some may open up to you. Some may keep their armor impenetrable. You might never know how much your kindness meant to them (this side of Heaven).
- Organize meals! Invite people to dinner! (Don’t forget about your priest!) Take meals to people in need! Organize play day picnics for moms home with small children! Meals show love!
- This should be a no-brainer, but…befriend people as real friends. I’m not saying that you need to become best friends, but if you offer charity with condescension, it hurts. Don’t discuss them or their situations with others unless you have been asked to do so. Don’t swoop in to save them, patting yourself on the back for your great kindness. People are not objects. Remember that Jesus, alone, is Savior.
- Look with kindness and compassion on those around you. Suffering doesn’t always look the way that you expect it to.
What would you add to this list?