Every Sunday morning I steel myself for the battle. Wrangling a squirmy toddler and preschooler into the pew for Mass is not for the faint of heart. Because the clashes are inevitable, it’s hard to go, even when I know it’s good to be there.
The Time Trials: Sunday starts with a routine familiar to families stuck in the season of nap schedules. Should we get going early for the 8:30 service? Or enjoy a leisurely Sabbath start and hit up the 10:30? Which kid will get cranky if we choose one or the other? Who loses a nap if they nod off in the car on the drive? The Time Trials are always a gamble and rarely a win.
The Nursery Negotiations: En route to church we tackle the theological dilemma of whether to stick our youngest in the church nursery to enjoy a quiet hour of prayer or whether to keep the tantruming toddler to nurture some sense of appropriate church behavior. Let it be stated for the record that there is no decisive doctrinal statement on this question, at least in our family. Based on both parents’ current state of sanity and sleeplessness, we regularly change our positions on the Nursery Negotiations. (The Cry Room Compromise is a variation on the theme, provoking either impassioned discourse about the necessary inclusion of children in the Body of Christ or reluctant resignation that no one can worship well if Cheerios are being flung in their face.)
The Bribery Battles: Once we slide into the pew, we start the endless cycle of church books, busy bags, quiet distractions – anything to keep the children calm enough that we can keep half an eye on the altar. We try to resist snacks and drinks unless it’s an endlessly long Holy Week service, but the squabbles over toys between boys can make this part of Sunday morning an exhausting endeavor. Recently we’ve tried to go bribery-free, inspired by the success of friends who claim their kids do better with no books at all. But the verdict is still out on whether or not this works for our two-second-attention-span crew.
The Donut Debate: Even when our kids are well-behaved and keep the noise to a dull roar through Communion time, I still know the biggest battle looms ahead: to donut or not to donut. Our parish hosts a lively fellowship gathering, and our oldest quickly clued into this powdered-sugar offering as the best thing since sliced bread. He starts whining for his donut before we’ve even heard the Gospel, and I grow annoyed that he only likes the sugar-coated side of church. We inevitably butt heads over whether donuts are an obligatory part of Sunday Mass attendance. If you know a preschooler’s persistence, you can guess who usually wins.
I’m sure we’ve only begun the Sunday scuffles around church. The Clothing Quarrels still loom ahead (“Why can’t I wear jeans?”). As do the Sports Schedule Squabbles (“But I have practice every Sunday morning!”). To say nothing of the plain old Adolescent Arguments (“I’m not going to church with you – it’s stupid! And boring!”) We’ve got decades of fun ahead of us.
But it’s a good fight to fight. I remember Jacob wrestling with God till dawn, and I wonder if all our spiritual lives are wrapped up in this rough-and-tumble. I’m just as torn between my selfish inclinations and my deeper desire to live faithfully. It would be easier to sleep in on Sundays, to laze around in our pajamas and linger over syrupy pancakes. But every time we slip into the slacker version of our Sabbath, the rest of the day – and week – feels off. It seems we need the ritual of church on Sunday to orient us towards what matters most.
Of course I hope to cultivate a broader spirituality in my children’s lives; I don’t want them to think that God and faith are limited to an hour on Sunday morning. I hope our everyday practices of praying together, talking about God, trying to live simply and working for justice will nurture a deeper, embodied sense of their calling as Christians. But the regular rituals are important, too.
We need this touchstone, this same Sunday worship, this consistent act of faith in the midst of our ever-changing calendar. Sunday Mass stands like a rock in the river of our family’s life. It stays the same – steady, solid and strong – while we rush by it, fast-flowing and frenzied. Sometimes we bump up against it, irritated at it stubbornly blocking the path of what we had planned for the weekend. Sometimes we cling to its sturdy strength when the rapids are racing around us, grateful for a moment’s rest to catch our breath.
But each Sunday I eventually discover that I’m grateful we’re there, again. Even when we’ve flunked the Time Trials, botched the Nursery Negotiations, caved on the Bribery Battles, and stand ready to lose the Donut Debate, I still find that God finds us there. Some small moment arises – a line from the priest’s homily, a stranger’s smile at the sign of peace, a favorite song that makes my boys clap their hands – and I fall in love with church all over again. I cherish, the tiny treasures I turn over in my mind when I’m pacing the back of church with a restless boy in my arms. An encounter with an older couple sitting behind us – the ones I thought we were bothering the whole time – who smile warmly at our kids and remind us how quickly the small years pass. And while we are on vacation, the surprise of stumbling into a church service and finding that our kids pay attention the whole time. A car ride home when a voice pipes up from the car seat to declare that he “really liked when that baby got baptized today.” It’s good, even when it’s hard, to be here.
That’s why we take the Sunday morning squabbles in stride. It’s good to be here, even when it’s hard to be here. For us and for them – it’s a fight worth fighting.
Laura Kelly Fanucci is a Catholic wife and mother of two who writes about faith and family life at Mothering Spirit. She is a Research Associate with the Collegeville Institute Seminars at Saint John’s University in Minnesota.