I went to Mass alone yesterday. I usually have someone with me but I decided to go at the last minute; I needed to sort some things through. It had been the kind of week that gave us a preview of things to come and some reminders of things we hoped were over. At such times I like to go to Mass and check in with my parents in heaven. I am grateful for the link they created in the common experience of going to Mass, back when the Church was a haven and when you felt guilty for not going. Now I feel guilty when I go and when I don’t; betrayal weighs down both sides of the scales. The Golden Rule remains, though, and it is enough to bring me back. I pray – head down eyes closed most of the time – through every Mass and wait for my favorite phrase: “Free us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope…” I hang on those words as I have ever since I can remember and they never fail to comfort. I tell my children this; I do not know if they listen.
And so yesterday I prepared to lay my questions before God and family, knowing that the simple act of unburdening them in this way would bring some measure of peace. Unlike many other Sundays, I was more confused than desperate. In fact, my issues were pretty typical: I wanted to come to terms with what it means for all of my children to grow up – dating, college, driving, cooking, cleaning, banking, living without me. My job is to make them independent and if I succeed they leave me and if I fail they stay and drive me crazy. Lonely versus crazy. This was the problem du jour. I needed a plan.
I listened to the priest make a reference to the movie The Exorcist, which I still have not seen because my mother – on the instructions of the Church – forbade it in 1973. I imagined every kid in that church going home to stream it on Netflix. I wonder if my own kids would be more terrorized by Linda Blair’s spinning head than they were the first time they saw the bleeding crucifix suspended over the altar. It made me smile to think of that as we stood for the Profession of Faith.
I looked across the church and up at the balcony (the building is shaped like a cross with the altar in the middle) I saw a father with three boys and the one next to him was clearly autistic, fluttering his fingers and chattering away (but not audibly to me).
Several times after that I saw the Dad forcefully put this hand over the boys’ mouth and whisper in his ear, sometimes enveloping him in his arms as he spoke to him. They boy did not seem upset or to resist his father’s embrace (the deep pressure probably felt good), but he didn’t appear to comply, either. The other two children looked away. The father was losing his cool, unaware that this was playing out in front of dozens of people, focused only on quieting a child who, compared to the toddlers and babies holding forth, was making very little sound. Feeling both angry and empathetic I wanted to tell him that it isn’t worth it, that if being successful in church requires such physical restraint then maybe he needs to redefine success. I recalled earlier times when my favorite thing about that cross-shaped church is that it has nine exits – nine ways to escape if (when) things go south. Sometimes – rarely – we made it all the way through, but the plan of action was the same for Mass as everywhere else we went: don’t go anywhere that you can’t leave, and be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. Sit near the door.
The last time we went to church as a family was this past Christmas Eve, and for most of the Mass I stood behind my son – who is taller than me – trying to persuade him to keep the Kermit the Frog he had smuggled in his coat from making an appearance. The conversation went something like this:
“Why did you bring Kermit?”
“So he could hear the singing.” He shows me that he is holding Kermit’s hands together as if he is praying. He looks at me and then uses his other hand to clamp Kermit’s mouth closed. With some effort, I give him a stern look.
“He needs to stay in your coat.” His eyes widened.
“Is it because he is naked?”
Tears of mirth and joy welled up in my eyes to know that he enjoyed the singing and that he was trying so earnestly to understand the impropriety of bringing a large stuffed frog to church. I remembered how we tried to get him accustomed to the routine of the Mass, but it was never predictable enough – he was constantly startled by people suddenly bursting into song (and I noticed that not everything is sung at every Mass; it is pretty random as far as I can tell). For him, if it wasn’t a wedding or a funeral, each of which clearly have a purpose, Mass was something to be survived. With the help of many lovely people, we managed to get him through religious education and to make his First Communion but it was clear that the very stress of going was draining the spirituality out of the whole experience for everyone. I prayed that the man in the balcony would learn the same lesson, and soon.
Mass with Kermit means progress, albeit the kind I never expected, and I guess that’s the point. Drawing a map of other people’s lives as a way of defining my own will only take me so far. Sometimes the most you can do is sit near the door.