By Sam Keyes
Sometimes having children is awful. Yes, they’re adorable, and they’re supposedly helping me grow in holiness, but there are moments when that is very difficult to see.
I envy those of you who have delightful little groups of children, ages magically spaced apart to facilitate usefulness, able to fall asleep or pay attention on demand, able to sit happily in church. At mass, my growing brood of three more often feels like an alien army sent to invade the sacred silence of the Church militant at prayer. If I’m sitting with them, there’s the constant struggle to keep them from attacking one another based on who gave whom unexpected eye contact, who stole whose crayon, who is sitting next to Daddy when they want to be by Mommy. Sometimes when I’m up front singing, we face the toddler’s constant desire to treat the distance from the congregation to the choir area as a canine speed challenge, with the sedilia as obstacles to be circumambulated in hitherto-undreamt-of patterns.
I should say that my current small congregation is delightful in its hospitality — to everyone, really, but especially to my children. Unlike other places where we would get the occasional “Let me know if I can help!” we now have fellow worshipers who actually step in and discern the need as it happens. They see the wandering toddler and step out to herd him. They see that my wife or I have to take the four-year-old to the bathroom, or give the six-year-old a stern talking-to outside, and they show up to help with the others. These are things that give a concrete sense of common fellowship and belonging. (Take note, those of you who think that welcoming young families just means having a cry room or a packet of coloring books.)
Still, having kids at mass is rough, and I don’t know that it’ll get any easier if we keep having more (which we will — we are predictably and stereotypically Catholic in that way). One way to cope, as our own Tim O’Malley recently discussed on the Square Notes podcast, is to realize that “active participation,” for those of us with small children, just looks different. We’re not going to be able to do the kind of intense silent contemplation that we want. We may have to step out. And this is part of that whole growth in holiness business that’s tied to the sacramental nature of matrimony. My life isn’t just a big romance between me and Jesus. My good has been tied to the good of this particular set of others.
Apart from that big picture judgment, there are real insights that come from this frustrating experience.
A few weeks ago, at mass, I was once again outside with my eldest. I was so angry at him for not even attempting to pay attention. He was coloring during the sermon, and I told him he would need to stop and stand up when it came time to say the creed. He didn’t. And then, as the prayers went on, he started randomly hitting his sister because she had a pencil he wanted. We ended up outside the door because the situation was becoming unbearable. I was so filled with anger and disappointment that, as he continued playing on the church steps as if nothing was amiss, tears filled my eyes.
By the end of mass, the situation was a little better, though I confess that I remained an emotional wreck for the rest of the morning. (It’s a commonplace principle of parenting that discipline doesn’t work when you get too emotionally involved.) But I did wonder if I had experienced something like God’s view of his children in all their wanderings and misdirection. To be sure, I don’t think God, as God, gets emotionally involved like I did. Yet from our end, the situation is not all that different. We don’t listen. We do what we want, despite gentle prodding after gentle prodding. We refuse the good rewards we are offered. We scoff at the overtures of self-giving love. We play around and act like it’s no big deal to ignore the most important things in the world.
Unlike me, God is patient. God is good. God doesn’t need us to pay attention to him but he keeps working at us anyway. He is lavish in his gifts, despite our sin, despite our impenitence, despite our inability to recognize the gravity of the situation. And yes, we ought to say, in some mysterious way, he is grieved by us. Certainly it is appropriate to say that the incarnate Son, in his humanity, is grieved. What it means for the Father, in his unchanging eternity, to be pleased or to be sad, is more than we can say. As C.S. Lewis writes in Letters to Malcolm, “We know that God forgives much better than we know what ‘impassible’ means.”
What all this suggests, maybe, is less that being a father will make me somehow divine, but that being a father may actually help me be a better son, a better child of God. I can, in all these frustrations and anxieties, “offer it up,” not just for the souls in purgatory, but for my own salvation, because I too am unworthy and yet loved more than I can ever fully know.
Dr. Sam Keyes serves as professor of theology at St. John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California.