Of Pink Bears and Spiritual Exercises

At Mass this morning I recognized the look in the eyes of the parents sitting in the pew in front of me right away. Young couple. Two active toddlers. Exasperated glances. Yep…been there done that.

We’re still doing that. Every Sunday finds our family of five sitting on the left-side of our church in the fourth or fifth row from the front. Careful to sit near the aisle as inevitably one or both of our youngest children will need to go to the bathroom, or be led by the hand to the back for a mini “time out”. Older parents used to give me the “smirk of understanding” when I was carrying a wailing Nolan or Jonah outside. Now it’s nearing my turn to do the same.

Sophie tucked her bear into her blanket on a songbook with my rosary. (Click image to enlarge)

Sophie, our daughter of three, has not had to have as many trips up the aisle. She’s content to play nursemaid to her bear or to a doll and hum along to the songs. This morning it was her bear, all tucked into her pink blanket and “napping” at the end of the pew. Sophie hummed along to each song and began her inevitable “countdown” so she could keep track of how close we were to the end of Mass. “Four songs left, dad” she said without looking at me while adjusting Bear’s blanket. She started counting down the songs each week in order to help speed things along I suppose. I had to do a mental check once to see just how many songs there were in order to assist her. The obvious songs are the opening (processional), the “Gloria”, the Alleluia, Offertory Hymn, Communion, and the closing (recessional). But she started to count the responses we give in song during the Eucharistic Prayers, and with a larger parish we sometimes take TWO songs to get through Communion, so I just rounded it to ten to begin each Mass and make adjustments on the fly. It works. Today during the acapella singing of the Sanctus she broke into the lyrics of “Super Trouper”. Apparently we really do listen to ABBA too much in the van.

This morning I remembered my vow to wear shin guards and steel-tipped shoes to Mass. Through the years my legs show the scars borne over weeks and months of having the kneelers slammed against them in order to give the younger children something to sit or stand upon. This morning Sophie got the big toe on my left foot with the kneeler. I’ve learned to suppress any yelps of pain through stoic eyes and tears. It’s part of the job. But I’ve often considered wearing a pair of soccer-style shin protectors under my slacks. No one would ever know, right?

During the offertory our priest will take a knee with a smaller collection basket in order to receive those brought up by the small children of our parish. Nolan never did this on his own but eventually would lead Jonah to the front. Now it’s Jonah taking Sophie by the hand each week so that they each may drop in a dollar, give Father Johnson a high five (Sophie prefers a fist bump) and trot back to our pew. A quick giggle and high five to Janell and I is given before the kneeler is slammed back into place against my right shin. You would think I’d learn by now.

A quick note about the offertory. I used to give the kids quarters each week. I switched to dollars two years ago when Jonah decided to stop ten feet short of the basket Father was holding and “shoot a three”. Thus ended the hard currency offering each week. I figured I’d go with dollars until he starts folding it into a paper airplane and floating it to the front of the church.

We’ve learned to conduct full-scale inspections of our children before we enter our church. Kazoos, army men, rubber bands, golf balls…all have been confiscated prior to dipping our fingers into the holy water and entering the sanctuary. I missed a Hot Wheels car once however. Nolan had snuck it in when he was little and wanting to avoid being caught (or suffering from guilt…we Catholics are loaded with it, right?) he slipped it to an under two-year old Jonah when I was bent over rubbing my sore shins. I caught a glint of steel out of the corner of my left-eye just as Jonah was preparing to launch it forward. I reflexively stuck out my right hand and caught it about a foot or so beyond its release point and a few feet before it would have struck the back of the head of the guy in front of us. Having caught it I finished the catch by putting my hand into my right pants pocket in one deft motion and stored it away. I didn’t think anyone had noticed as it happened so fast but after Mass I had several people behind us praise my catch. Other parents know.

Memories of projectile vomiting, wiping noses, Kleenex boxes, waving at friends, coloring books and more all came flooding back to me as I watched the parents and their two kids in front of me today. I admit to sitting at Mass on several occasions, moaning to myself that I was missing out on the spirituality, the message, the prayerful atmosphere each week. That I was costing those around us the same experiences due to my over-active children. (We do have a “cry room” at our parish but one or two trips to that room cured Janell and I of ever wanting to return. It is a loud, active petri dish. We still shudder when we recall that week.) We do on occasion “split up”. Janell will go to the 9am Mass and I’ll go to 10:30 or Noon, and let the smaller children stay home. This is also why we’ll take a weekend each year and attend a retreat for ourselves. This past March I attended a silent retreat for two days based upon Ignatian Prayer and the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius. But we also know that the years will pass quickly and soon it will be just the two of us each week. So we pray, bear it, and go through our own spiritual “exercises.”

Today’s gospel reading was from St. Luke and ended with my favorite piece of Scripture.

Much will be required of the person entrusted with much,
and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more. – (Lk 12:48)

In other words: to whom much is given much is required. I sat ready to soak in the sermon since it is a favorite subject for me. But as Father Johnson delivered his homily on the subject I felt Sophie putting her pink bear and blanket on my knee and tucking her in for her nap. I didn’t want to be distracted and prepared to move Bear off my leg and to the pew when Sophie giggled, looked up with her big blue eyes and smiled at me.

Message received Lord. I’ve been granted much. And much is required.

And on the day when it’s just Janell and I alone in our pew I’ll give the smirk of understanding to another young set of parents. And I’ll reach down to rub my shins, wiggle my toes, and smile to myself.

©2010 Jeff Walker. All Rights Reserved.


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