|Holy Water Font, St. John’s Abbey (photo by Nancy M. Raabe)
My parish used to take the water out of the holy water font during Lent.
Although they stopped doing that a number of years ago, I still remember the feeling of oddly-dry fingers on the way in to Mass that accompanied the stripped-down altar and the absent Alleluia.
I came to the Catholic Church incrementally, but part of what drew me in was the quiet, prayerful holiness of the Mass and the diversity of prayer practice in the tradition. My introverted soul craves quiet contemplation, longs to rest in silence and drink it all in. I remember the days when I used to arrive early to Mass just to kneel and soak it up, letting my soul stretch and reach upward as everyone was arriving. I felt I connected with God at every turn then, and when I left Mass each week, I carried the fiercely burning light of Christ at the very center of my being, so hot that I could physically feel it behind my breastbone.
In the Gospel story of Mary and Martha, I was Mary all the way…sitting at Jesus’ feet and hanging on his every word.
Fast forward to now, and I feel like it’s all passing me by. I’m exhausted. I’m surrounded by clamor and chaos, and it’s my job to restore order. I’m in full-Martha survival mode.
|Smiling on Mother’s Day…after Mass, of course.
Getting us all to church each week feels like an epic challenge, managed only by my most careful planning and hard work. I try to streamline Sunday morning as much as possible, but by breakfast, we’re often running late. We are never early (partly because we run late almost everywhere these days, and partly because getting to church early just means our little people have to stay put in the pews longer), but I wish we were on time more often.
When we arrive, we park and unload everyone, lugging them into church from the parking garage with the huge diaper bag stocked with distractions and extra clothes and diapers, praying that we will make it through the Mass without at least one child needing to be removed for tears or tantrums. We spend our time not sitting in quiet prayer, but bouncing, walking, whispering, shushing, swaying, pointing at words in books, turning pages, rescuing runaway crayons, preventing people from rolling on the floor, and trying not to be distracting. There are weeks when we spend the entire Mass out in the foyer with toddlers who are driven to walk, to climb, to talk about everything they see.
I know that’s how God created them. That’s how they experience the world – it’s what they do at this stage in their lives. They are too young to understand about sitting for that long, and we are outnumbered. We bring things to distract them, but the laws of toddler physics are inevitable: eventually, a toddler-not-in-motion will become a toddler-in-motion…and woe to the mother who tries to impede that toddler.
If we are in the foyer, I always sneak back into the church for Eucharist carrying whichever Sister is least likely to make a scene. The priest often makes comments in his lengthy post-Mass announcements about how people should stay through the final hymn, but we usually sneak out again.
When I was Mary, I always stayed through the final hymn. (Honestly, I even judged other people for leaving before the final words had been sung.)
Now Martha is in charge, and she knows that sometimes, we need to cut our losses and get out of there as quickly as possible.
By the time we reverse our arrival process, stuffing the coat-clad, frustrated children back into the car before grabbing lunch quickly in our attempt to make it home before nap time (so we can collapse when the children are sleeping), I’m often in tears, sweaty with exertion. I’m exhausted from the struggle of managing it all. Sometimes my arms are actually shaking from the physical effort of keeping it all together. Most weeks, I only know what the readings are if I managed to read them ahead of time (as the chances of my absorbing much of what is said are low).
Parenting on Sundays sometimes feels like as much work as all the other days added together.
My friends who are not churchgoers wonder why we do this every week. If it’s so hard, why are we putting ourselves through it? Surely God would understand if we came back in a couple of years when everyone was better able to handle it?
God would understand, yes. But it’s not God I’m worried about.
I’ve written before about how I think it benefits our little ones to be in church with us, but when it comes down to it, I’m the one who really needs to be there. I need to dip my fingers in the font. (There’s plenty of water there now; it’s my soul that is parched.) I need to sing, even if I don’t remember all the words and can’t manage holding a hymnal (or am caught in the foyer without one). I need to lock eyes with the child that is challenging me most and say, “Peace be with you.” I need to encounter Christ. And in that one small moment after receiving Eucharist, I need to take a deep breath, look into the face of Jesus on the cross and say, “Yes.” Or maybe, “Lord, have mercy.” Or maybe nothing at all.
I need to be Mary again, just for a second.
Even if I’m struggling the entire time, in that one moment, there is strength to sustain me. I can do this for the rest of this day, for another day, for another week. I am not alone in my work of mothering these children. My work is God’s work. My children are God’s children. God loves them infinitely more than I do, and God loves them through me and in spite of me…and as long as I remember that, I cannot fail them entirely.
I’m so grateful for the gifts of their lives. I tuck them in every single night with a blessing and the words, “I’m so thankful to be your mama.” I’m working hard, and I’m learning to manage, and I’m a Martha-among-Marthas most days: capable, organized, and on top of my game.
But today, the Mary in my soul would really, really like to just rest quietly at Jesus’ feet and drink her fill.