I took Charlotte and Liam to Mass this afternoon. We were late, arriving just in time to hear the Gospel. The kids weren’t poorly behaved, but after about 20 minutes I let Liam roam to the deserted end of the pew and back, slowly. He was quiet, but mobile. I bowed my head neither at the mention of the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed nor during the Consecration. We didn’t shake hands during the sign of peace. I received the Eucharist in my hand, again neither bowing nor kneeling, and we left immediately after communion.
I went to Mass today with a little bit of desperation. I missed the Feast of All Saints because it was the day of my aunt’s funeral, and I missed Mass last Sunday because we were flying back from Texas. The kids and I are still sick enough that I could have legitimately stayed home. In the interest of the well-being of the community, maybe I even should have. But I woke up this morning knowing that I have a whole week ahead of me that I just can’t face without grace. It was a weird feeling, fairly novel to me, to need God, and to recognize it. And then to act on it.
So I took the littles to Mass. The Ogre and Sienna had gone last night and Lincoln was sleeping, so we headed off to Mass, late of course, because I had to stop four times and blow my nose on the way out the door. When we got there just as the Gospel was being read, the only available aisle seats were about a third of the way up from the back. I knew neither the kids nor I could stand the whole time so I swallowed my pride, clacked my way down the aisle in the heeled boots I had chosen with a stunning lack of foresight, and waited patiently for three minutes while Liam attempted to genuflect six times until he was finally satisfied that he had gotten it right. We sat down just as the priest was beginning the homily, which the three of us punctuated with sniffles and coughs. I just assumed that was why the lovely young couple in front of us occasionally darted a polite glance backward. Actually I felt really bad about our presence at that point, and hoped they weren’t being contaminated by our cold germs. Then, just as the priest was wrapping up, an inordinately large sniff brought to my attention the fact that something smelled.
When I tell you I’m congested, I mean man, I am so congested. I haven’t been able to smell anything for days. So for the smell to permeate my congestion meant that it was quite a stench. After sniffing for a few seconds, trying to get a handle on what the smell was and where it was coming from, I realized all at once that it was poop and it was coming from my son.
My brain adjusted for my nose’s handicap and guessed that this dirty diaper was particularly pungent and extending in a radius of at least three feet around us. Which meant the poor lovely couple in front of us were attempting to discretely discern where that smell of feces was originating, accompanied, no doubt, by the serene girl behind us to the right, the elderly couple behind us to the left, and the kind-faced gentleman a few spaces down.
With a sinking feeling, I reached into my purse only to have confirmed that my lack of foresight had eclipsed stunning and was rapidly approaching Promethean. No diapers, no wipes. If I left now to go home and change him, we were sure to miss the rest of Mass. Plus, the homily was ending and we were standing up to say the Creed. I had committed to this Mass. We were nearly in the middle of the Church. The kids were actually behaving well. And I really, really needed Christ. We were staying.
As I began to dip forward at the waist to show my respect for the Incarnation, I realized, horribly, that tilting my head forward would have the equivalent effect of turning on a faucet. And of course I had forgotten to bring Kleenex. So upright my head remained, staring straight forward at the altar like a brazen Kennedy or something. I felt horrible.
At that point, Liam began to wander toward the deserted left side of the pew, four or five feet away. I nearly grabbed his sleeve and pulled him back until I realized that with him went the stink. He was quiet, just standing at the edge of the pew, so I let him stay there. He ambled slowly back and forth between me and the end for the rest of Mass, no doubt serving as a visual distraction but also granting the olfactory senses of my long-suffering pewmates momentary reprieves. So I let him walk. Back and forth. Like a putrid metronome. I had to set fire to the remnants of my overscrupulous, judgmental, Gregorian-chant-loving, one-child-having former self to do so, but as the consecration progressed and I found myself struggling between the desire to bow my head and the desire to not drip snot on the back of the pew in front of me, the kid walking back and forth paled in comparison.
Of course, we didn’t shake hands with anyone during the sign of the peace. Charlotte tried to grasp the hand of the young man in front of us, but I lunged across her to block contact with a whispered attempt to explain that we were sick. I’m not sure he even heard me, because Liam materialized at my side just then, surrounded by his cloud of eau d’toilet, and the odor visibly registered on the poor kid’s face as he tried to cover it with a polite smile and a hasty about-face.
I’ve never put so much heart into the words, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the words and my soul shall be healed” before. There’s nothing like committing all the Mass infractions that used to irritate me in one single Mass while constantly attempting to keep my nose from leaking onto my face and carrying with me the stench of human filth to remind me that hey, pretty much, I’m not worthy. Ironically enough, though, it made it easier for me to feel the meaning of the Eucharist in a more visceral way than I have before.
I like going to Mass without kids, when I can really concentrate on Christ and pray hard and center my mind in the glorious mystery of the Eucharist. With my mind mostly occupied by snot and crap, there was no mystical soul-bending union with Christ happening. I couldn’t even show the meager respect of receiving on my tongue at the risk of exposing the rest of the Body of Christ to illness. And yet, as I reluctantly held out my hand for the first time ever to accept the Eucharist, I felt the absolute assurance of Christ. Not in some sort of St. Teresa-style ecstasy or anything…mostly I felt like He was laughing at the walking comedy of errors I had brought to Him and saying, “yes, this. For all this, for the frailty of the human body, the unpredictable poop, the head unbowed, the knee unbent, the child unstilled, and the heart, unwilling to be turned aside from seeking me, I gave my life. And this is what I ask you to give back — just yourself, all of you, as you are.”
We walked straight out the back door after communion, my heels loudly announcing our cafeteria-esque departure. As we genuflected at the rear of the Church, I could practically hear the words, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
The human condition is a messy, imperfect one, and it’s usually in the midst of the messiest and most imperfect times that we are capable of selfless love and genuine devotion. The Crucifixion was not a pristine, sanitized event. It was messy and horrific, marked by blood, sweat, dirt, and tears. We ought to bring as much reverence to Mass as we are able to, because we’re receiving God, who died for us. But we ought to be there, first and foremost, even if we’re late or under-dressed or with a crying baby, because we’re receiving God, who died for us.