Emma, my almost 8 year old, is a relentless questioner, a dedicated seeker of truth. Nothing goes unnoticed or unchallenged. I hope that this quality will make her a crusader for justice, a freedom fighter, an advocate for the overlooked and misunderstood.
But as her mother, the constant interrogation can get exhausting, particularly when I don’t know the answer. Which, lately, is a lot of the time….because her questions are all about church.
This should not come as a surprise to me, considering she goes to a Catholic school, with her First Communion rapidly approaching. I was prepared for the standard “God Questions:” God is love, God is everywhere, etc. But the church/catechism questions are not my area of expertise.
The day of her First Penance:
“I just don’t get why I need to tell some strange man my deep, dark secrets. If God is always listening, why can’t I just tell Him? Telling the priest is kinda like sitting on the fake-Santa’s lap at the mall. It’s creepy – you know it’s not Santa. Why the middle man?”
Upon discovering the library was closed on Good Friday:
“What I want to know is why do they call it Good Friday? What’s good about it? I can’t get any books out of the library, and it goes without saying that it was a pretty rough day for Jesus.”
After school yesterday, as I fumbled to open the door while juggling book bags and water bottles, THIS conversation happened:
“Mom, did you paint this door red to look like lamb’s blood?”
“To look like WHAT?” (I was pretty sure “Lamb’s Blood” was not on the Sherwin Williams color wheel).
“Lamb’s blood, like in the Bible.”
“Uhh….where in the Bible does it talk about that?”
“Mom. Shouldn’t you know this stuff? In biblical times, they painted their doors with lamb’s blood to protect themselves from the Filipinos.”
“I think you might mean the Philistines.”
“Hmm. Yeah maybe.”
Then there were the questions she asked for 75 minutes straight during mass at my parents’ church on Easter Sunday: “How much longer is this going to take? When can we go home? Why does that kid have candy? Is this almost over? Why do we have to go to church anyway?” She was hanging on my arm so heavily I almost lost my balance in the dusty black heels I had fished out of the back of my closet.
I sighed and gave her the hairy eyeball. I knew I should reprimand her, but the truth was I didn’t want to be there either, which made me feel guilty and fraudulent – both as a mother AND a Catholic. It’s Easter! The Big Day! The Catholic Super Bowl! Jesus is Alive! Be joyful!
But I didn’t feel joyful. It was hot in the choir loft where latecomers and families with rowdy children are banished; the Time-Out Chair for the inconsistent parishioner.
I went to church every Sunday of my childhood. Easter Mass meant tights, Mary Janes, an Easter bonnet – my mom wasn’t messing around.
But when I turned 17, I got my driver’s license. Freedom.
From that point on, I opted out of my parent’s regular 9:30 mass and instead attended the 12:15 at Our Lady of Perpetual Caffeination, aka. the parking lot of Dunkin’ Donuts, where I would drink coffee and read for an hour.
I didn’t fancy myself a teenage bad-ass. I played the mellophone in the marching band. How bad-ass could I possibly be?
Nor did I consider skipping church to be an act of rebellion, but one of self-preservation. Like Emma, I was a sensitive -and literal – kid. Being forced to say things like “I am not worthy,” without a greater understanding of the larger context of sin and forgiveness made me feel confused. And kind of ashamed. I just wasn’t sure of what.
During a 3rd grade confession, I asked a priest if you had to be bad to get possessed, or if Satan picks people at random.
He replied, “It’s totally random.”
So I spent the next decade waiting for Satan. For some reason I thought he was less likely to be hanging out at Dunkin’ Donuts.
But in my 20’s, something kept calling me back, and I figured that “thing” must be God. Private prayer has always been part of my daily life, but I felt the pull to community. Not back to a traditional parish church, necessarily, but to the lively, music-filled student masses at Villanova University, and Maris Stella, the simple seaside chapel perched on the Barnegat Bay in LBI.
But last Sunday in the cheap seats, it wasn’t the crash of the waves that filled my ears, but the bang of children dropping missalettes and begging for juice, for Goldfish, for the entire contents of their mother’s purse. The hybrid stench of incense and a baby’s dirty diaper was suffocating. I did not feel contemplative. I felt trapped.
So why do we have to go church, anyway?
Maybe the thing that keeps me hanging on is the desire for a shared spiritual discipline. One hour of the week where there are no screens or activities. We just sit our butts down and be quiet. Together.
Henri Nouwen says:
A spiritual life without discipline is impossible…the practice of a spiritual discipline makes us more sensitive to the small, gentle voice of God. The discipline of community helps us to be silent together.
No spiritual discipline is easy. As a yoga teacher I have often said, “the hardest part is getting on your mat.” You go to class not because you feel like it, but because you believe in the power of the practice. The power of showing up. Maybe you spend the entire savasana making your grocery list in your head. But, hey, you showed up. If the only true moment of quiet was that 10 seconds in Viparita Karani, well…that’s something.
One weird thing
among many about the Catholic mass are the select songs that will make you weep instantaneously. As I walked back from Communion, the choir sang “Taste and See.” Something stirred in my cranky, Grinch heart. My shoulders inched their way down from my ears, my face relaxed, and my eyes filled with tears. In that brief moment of presence, there was a release. I let go of something that I didn’t need.
And if that’s the only reason that I go to church…I guess that’s enough.