"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Toddlers in the Mystical Body

Happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception! The Blessed Virgin Mary under this title is the patroness of the United States. This also happens to be the name of our local parish, as well as the name of our university's chapel. And, of course, this solemnity (which celebrates Mary's own conception free of sin) is a holy day of obligation. Given that we are at a Marianist university, it's also a university holiday! So I was excited that Jeff, Maia and I would all be able to go to Mass together. Normally on Mondays I've been going to Mass with the Marianist priest/brother community at Our Mother of Good Counsel Chapel at 6:55 a.m. I would have slept in, but Maia woke me up at 5:00 a.m. by yelling at me in her sleep to give her dinner.

Anyway, Jeff and I had some debate about where and when we ought to go to Mass. Often on such holy days we've gone to the university service since this is our normal spot for daily Masses. But a noon Mass didn't seem like a good idea with Maia-not to mention that she knows how to escape the university chapel. In addition to this, we sometimes don't feel comfortable taking Maia to Mass on campus because, well, she's sometimes loud at Church.

So our parish today had two options: 8:15 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. Of those two, we figured Maia would probably be better behaved at the morning option. If we had expected Maia to blend in at this Mass, however, we were wrong. For some reason it didn't really occur to me that not everybody gets off for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The attendees of this Mass basically fit into two categories: 1. the students of our parish school and 2. retired people who don't work and hence could attend a Mass at this time.

Because the students comprised the majority of the main transcept, we sat in a different spot than usual. All was fine in the beginning. Maia was quietly playing with her doll, pretending the kneeler was a balance beam, eyeing Father Satish, and, at one point singing (almost inaudibly) "Yankee Doodle Went to Town." At one point, however, Maia decided to walk down the balance beam to the end of the pew and try to escape. Even at nine months pregnant, I managed to catch her before she made it to the sanctuary. After this, Jeff and I switched spots. When she next tried to escape, the man (an older gentleman) behind us informed us that there is a cry room in the back of the side transcept.

Now, we are perfectly aware of the location of the cry rooms in our Church building. We've been members of this parish since before we were married, long before Maia was born. But I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about cry rooms. Sometimes, parents seem to use them as excuses to let their children run around as much as they want. Occasionally, they are a relief, and we have used the cry room in several instances. But in general, I wonder why we expect that some members of the Mystical Body of Christ belong behind glass if they can't be perfectly silent. Toddlers are part of the Church, and toddlers will be toddlers. Removing them from the Mass setting as a rule is certainly problematic, and removing them when they are creating very little disturbance just seems unnecessary. In my sleep-deprived spark of anger, I wanted to tell the man he should consider joining a monastery. Of course, that would not have been a very Christian response. So - after fantasizing about having glass rooms where we can contain people who want absolute silence at Mass - I prayed to Mary to keep me from sin during the Eucharist in honor of her.

What happened is that Jeff ended up taking Maia to the cry room; he felt obligated to do so after the man suggested it. Once there, she promptly started crying and screaming. Appropriate, isn't it? She was actually more audible with the increase in volume than she had been in our pew in the side transcept. So I went back there and retrieved my family after Maia's promise that she would behave if we took her back to the pew. Jeff and I were both frazzled, however, and we stayed at the far end of the pew, away from the man behind us. I wouldn't even let Maia retrieve her baby doll, which she had left at the other end.

Anyway, I realize that I live with a toddler and am used to the distractions she brings. I value daily Mass without her, just as a I value Sunday Mass with her. It is nice to have a quiet setting in which to pray. But at the same time, my Mass experiences in Kenya prove that children (including toddlers and babies) don't NEED to be separated from the rest of the Church. I sometimes think it's the declining American birthrate that enables us to be so distracted by the small noises of children during services. But then again, I know some cultures (all European, I believe) have traditionally kept children home from Mass. So I have mixed feelings, and I don't want to be a distraction for others. But I do wish that people wouldn't glare at my husband, my toddler or me. And I wish they would leave our decision to go behind glass to ourselves with a slightly higher tolerance for the musings of toddlers, who are, after all, members of the Mystical Body of Christ.


Emily Hunter McGowin said...

When Ronnie was first hired at our current church, we were given the "grand tour" of the church building. Everything was fine until we were shown our version of the cry room.

The words of our new pastor, who is a transplant from the south like us, were as follows: "This room is new to me, but I think its great. This means we should never hear a single disturbance from a child in our services. There's just no reason for it."

I'm certain I couldn't keep my jaw from dropping, but I had to work pretty hard to keep my mouth shut.

I agree with you completely. Certainly, we don't want to disturb others unnecessarily. But, treating children like their insufferable nuisances is unacceptable, too. I appreciate your reflections.

Theologian Mom said...

Thanks for the sympathy! I do worry that I'm just being insensitive to others, so it's nice someone agrees.

Clara said...

It seems to me like there can be a balance. Of course the Church doesn't impose a Mass obligation until the age of seven, and while I certainly don't think a child should assist at her first Mass on her seventh birthday, there's some level on which babies and very small children don't necessarily *need* to be there. However, their parents do, and it's a pleasure for all of us to see families at church. And probably you want Massgoing to be part of your child's early life and memories. So a certain amount of tolerance for toddler noise is surely in order, and some people just need to get over it.

Still, let's not downplay the man's point too much. Mass ought to be quiet and outside noise, even if sometimes unavoidable, isn't a desirable addition. I'm actually astounded, usually, at how quiet people manage to keep their children in our Mass, and indeed during most Latin Masses at which I have assisted. But obviously before a certain age there's only so much you can do to train a child, and I at least am never much put out by the occasional happy yelp or the sound of a wailing baby being carried out. I guess the only time I do get annoyed is when it seems like a parent isn't particularly interested even in communicating to the child that Mass is a solemn (and silent) occasion. If a child is old enough to converse with you, he's old enough to have it explained to him that Jesus wants him to be reverent at Mass. To expect that he will then (if he is, say, three or under) sit silently and reverently in his pew for a full hour would be unreasonable. But he should at least be making an effort to be as reverent as maturity level permits.

In my last parish there was a woman whose 2-year-old daughter would talk almost constantly through the Mass. Because her mother was in the choir, they were always in the same pew or the one behind me, and it really did get irksome. Again, I don't think I would have been too bothered by the occasional whisper, scuffing feet, shuffling papers and so on. What really irritated me in this case, though, was that the mother, far from shushing her, would actually carry on the conversation with her daughter through much of the Mass! Usually the mother was whispering; the child was talking in a normal voice, and if she really started talking loud her mother would encourage her to lower her voice. Didn't make that much difference for those of us who were in the same pew, though, and while I appreciated the mother's efforts to explain the Mass to her daughter, I really would have preferred that she do that outside of Mass. And one of the things she should be told about the Mass is that it's not a good time for chatting -- a message that I never once heard communicated to her.

If *that* is the child's early experience of Mass, I have to wonder whether it's doing her more harm than good. Obviously she isn't learning to think of Mass as a particularly special time, for which special efforts at good behavior would be warranted.

Young children are still learning how to behave at Mass, and we should all be understanding of that, just as long as it seems like they *are* learning, and their parents are trying to teach them. The other thing that annoys me, though, is when people try to make similar "that's how kids are" arguments for six or seven-year-olds who won't be quiet in Mass. A two-year-old legitimately can't be expected to sit still for a full hour. A six-year-old of normal maturity, can. I was certainly expected to do that as a child, and I can recall a time when Church Behavior ranked right up there with Not Stealing Cookies and Being Nice To Your Sister as among the most serious moral requirements of my young life. And really, we were very quiet. So I know it's possible, and when I see a five or six-year-old talking, or roughhousing in the pew, I do star to think that perhaps the holiness of the Mass has not been properly impressed on him.

Anonymous said...

Only.in. America. Seriously. Only in America. (maybe Western Europe where the birth rate is even lower?)

In the rest of the world, children are celebrated and the Mass is not some quiet, reflective, personal prayer time, it is about COMMUNITY. And when you have COMMUNAL events they tend to be loud.

It was extremely difficult for me to learn how to cope with noise in the Mass when I lived in Latin America. And then I came home and I couldn't handle the silence. I welcomed the humanity of the child's noise. So many immigrants leave the Church when they come here because they cannot handle the silence either. And how many American families quit? I know my sister became a Protestant over this issue. She needed support and the Lutheran Church helped her with her children.

Clara said...

But Mass is not first and foremost about community building. It is about Christ's sacrifice, and it is only when that sacrifice is the center of our Church life that we can build strong communities anyway.

Furthermore, it is not only in America that quiet is expected for Mass. Go to Europe, where it has long been the custom to leave children at home, when possible, for Mass. Though I can't pretend to speak for the entire continent, the Masses that I've been to in Central Asia were very quiet and calm. Or how about any monastery or convent anywhere in the world -- are you suggesting that they can't foster community in such places without people making noise during the Mass? Obviously that's ridiculous.

Actually, I think there's an argument to be made for leaving babies at home when possible. You wouldn't keep your restless child with you (hopefully) in a movie or a concert; isn't Mass more important and solemn than those events? Isn't intense concentration there at least as desirable? I've heard many priests lament that they find it difficult to concentrate on their holy office when there's too much noise from the congregation. And also, there are certain benefits to children getting the impression that Massgoing is a privilege reserved to those who are capable of behaving appropriately.

I think all those points are worth considering... but at the end of the day, the disadvantages probably outweigh. It's difficult for parents to fill their Mass obligation regularly if they can't bring their young children with them. And it's nice for children to grow up with early Massgoing memories. And it is pleasant to see them there with the rest of the community, and nice for families to go to church together. So I'm in favor of bringing children to church, and of people developing a tolerance for a certain amount of restlessness, but I also think it's important to acknowledge that tolerance for what it is -- an indulgence for the immature. Mass ought to be reverent, and even the very young ought to be told that.

Children are a blessing to our families and communities, and that being the case, we should feel a natural affection for them, from which should spring a measure of tolerance for their foibles. But do not make the mistake of turning that exception into a rule. Mass should be quiet, and the focus should be on the Sacrifice. Leeway is afforded to those who can't reasonably be expected to behave perfectly, but that's what it is -- leeway. And as children mature enough to understand, they need to be taught that Mass is a quiet time.

Anonymous said...

Clara: All I have to say is that when Silence becomes the sole focus we lose sight of what is really important. Jesus forbade his disciples from keeping children away from Him. I think that is a great starting point for us.

And, Clara, the future of the Church is Africa. And have you ever experienced an African Liturgy?

Clara said...

Of course Silence per se isn't the focus of the Mass. But the children aren't the focus either, nor is the community. The primary focus is on Our Lord's sacrifice on the altar. And while I agree that the children should be brought to Jesus (as you'll see, I said I supported the custom of bringing children to church), it seems to me we should do more than just put them in physical proximity to Christ's Body. Presumably we also want to bring them to know and love Him, and in order to do that, they must learn to regard the Mass with appropriate reverence and awe.

Yes, I've been to Masses in Africa. There were a lot of children there, but I don't remember them being noisy or unruly; actually, I remember being fairly impressed with how painstakingly many of the mothers had obviously dressed their children, and with the quiet and reverent behavior of even fairly young children. Of course I can't say how representative the ones I've been to were of the continent as a whole, but if the point was supposed to be that people in Africa don't mind letting their children cry and chatter and wander around during Mass, I can only say that that wasn't my experience there.

You seem to be insinuating that I'm somehow anti-child, but I really think the difference between us isn't in how we view children; it's in how we view the Mass. Children are just little people. Their capacity for self-control is less than that of an adult, but they still have an implicit sense for reverence and solemnity. From quite a young age, they can perceive that silence and concentrated attention are a mark of particular respect or reverence. The best way of "celebrating" them is not to make them into the centerpiece of the Mass (which would be sacrilege), but rather to initiate them as speedily as maturity allows into the liturgical life of the community, which involves, among other things, prayerful attention at Mass. So yes, silence among the congregation is desirable, not of course as a goal in itself, but because this is optimal for fostering that kind of prayerful attention.

As a practical matter, babies do cry and young children get restless. Parents will have to set reasonable expectations and do the best that they can. Other members of the congregation, for their part, should try to exercise charity and not get too bent out of shape over minor distractions. As I've already said, there are many young children in my regular Mass, and I'm mostly quite impressed by their behavior. So I'm not some kind of child-hating philistine, but I just don't think we do kids any favors by letting their natural limitations diminish the reverence that the rest of us show and feel towards the Mass.

Sue Sack said...

Children, and "Screaming babies," are as much a part of the Body of Christ as the older man in the pew behind. Although I myself would never, and never did, tolerate my children acting totally outrageous, especially consistently, during Mass, I must admit that now I am delighted when I see little ones there in Mass, and simply smile in sympathy with their parents when they act up.
They are part of Christ's sacrifice also. They are part of being church, and they have as much a place there as I or you do.
We have numerous multiply handicapped adults who attend Mass regularly, some of whom have Tourette's and so make strange noises and fling their arms around. Should we confine them elsewhere also because they make some people uncomfortable or disturb their "prayer?" One must wonder what kind of prayer is actually happening if God can not be found in babies or the handicapped in one's own church.
Our present parish purposely does not have a cry room. As our pastor has commented numerous times, this is just to remind all of us that we are, from youngest to oldest, part of the Body, and we are all participating in this sacrament together, regardless of our capabilities.

Clara said...

It's interesting to me, Sue Sack, that you put "prayer" in quotation marks, as though you do not really believe that anyone could be doing anything in Mass more important than smiling indulgently at the adorable antics of the toddlers.

And it seems evident to me that you aren't following my concern here; you said that children are equally "part of" Christ's Sacrifice at the altar, but none of the congregation is "part of" the Sacrifice itself. That is the work of Our Lord; our part is to reverence Him, and to pray. A peaceful and quiet environment is optimal for this, as saints and mystics have long recognized. Nobody has suggested that we should make things as quiet as possible at any cost, but it's a legitimate concern.

Although the inclusion of many different sorts of people at Mass does make for a nice symbolic gesture, let's not carry this too far. If a person is unable, for whatever reason, to be present at the community's regular Mass (or not able to be present in the same room), this does not exclude them from the Body of Christ. What about people who are too ill to make the trip -- are they thereby excluded from Christ's Body? Of course not. If a person were to contract a highly contagious disease, it might be expedient to exclude that person, physically, from the regular Mass. Would he thus be excluded from the Body of Christ? Again, clearly not.

Similarly, if one person's presence in Mass causes a significant disturbance for the rest of the congregation, that person might be physically absent without thereby being cut off from Christ's Body. The Church recognizes various legitimate reasons for missing/leaving Mass, and if one's presence (or the presence of one's children) would distract the priest or the congregation to an extreme degree, it might be considerate to stay away. Again, this just seems to be a time for using common sense. Small levels of noise from young children should be cheerfully tolerated, but I think (and I find that many, including many priests I've heard from, agree) that children who are loudly wailing should be carried out. As for those who are diseased or mentally ill, it would really be a question of how great a distraction they really cause. Mostly we should err on the side of inclusion, but if a person were regularly shouting, cursing, wandering around the church, or some other highly distracting thing, it might be better to make some special arrangement for them other than depositing them in the middle of a regular Sunday Mass.

Since everyone here seems so concerned about "community", might I make a suggestion? One necessary component of community-building is recognizing the needs of the various members. Young children and their parents are community members, and their needs do count; realizing this, others should try to be tolerant of a certain amount of distraction at Mass. But many people obviously also feel that reverence and quiet are an important part of their liturgical life. Those people's needs should count too, and parents should feel some obligation to accommodate those needs as well as they can.