We were at Mass.
Christmas Mass, in fact; and I felt, as I always do, that we had arrived unprepared. If I only had one more week of Advent, I could have gotten into the proper frame of mind and organised an acceptable habit of preparedness.
If only I had a bit more time, we could have done more. But Christmas is Christmas, ready or not, and I was left with the thought that at least most of the family was there. And that was not nothing. It’s certainly not the inevitable thing to be taken for granted, that I once thought it was.
Being there doesn’t feel like a bare minimum, these days. It feels like everything possible. That’s not because it’s so incredibly hard to show up for Mass. It’s really not. It’s just that I’m so much more aware than I used to be that any preparation I might do is mostly for show, and doesn’t mean much to anyone besides me. Being there isn’t the minimum; it’s the only thing, the only thing I have to give the Lord.
When I was a new parent, it really was very physically challenging to get all my little ones minimally ready for church. I had to start very far in advance to make sure everybody had a full tummy and a fresh diaper (and more packed up just in case), presentable clothes and shoes, clean hands and face, tidy hair, and toys and books to occupy them but not distract other people.
People who aren’t parents may not realise just how much physical and metal labour it takes to make such a simple thing work, especially if you’ve been up all night the night before taking care of those same children. It’s just a lot of work, and it’s exhausting (and that’s before the hour-long gymnastics session even begins). There’s a reason parents are always carrying so many bags. You need to bring a lot with you, wherever you go.
Then, as your kids get older, there is less physical, hands-on labour involved, fewer supplies to carry, but getting them to Mass involves a different, more complex and nuanced kind of work, which is just as exhausting in its way. You must work to teach them what to do, how to follow along and engaged, how to pray, how to think of God as a loving, welcoming Father, but also to take seriously their own responsibility to avoid sin, to repent when they have sinned, to approach the altar with humility.
That’s a lot of work, too, and it’s harder to tell when you’ve accomplished it. When a face must be washed, you wash it, and then it’s clean. But when a child’s conscience must be formed, it’s not only a continuous process, it’s very easy to do it wrong, and hard to tell when you’re doing it wrong, and, when things are clearly going wrong, hard to tell if it’s because of what you’re doing, or because of some other influence entirely. It’s just hard.
Well, you try showing up at Mass without some of your kids. Try showing up and knowing that some of your kids aren’t there by their own choice, after being raised by you. This takes no work whatsoever on your part, but it’s the most exhausting of all.
Literally exhausting, as in, it takes everything from you. You stand there and you are left with nothing, nothing but yourself to drag before the altar and present to God. Here is what I have to show, Lord: Just me. Just my helplessness; that’s all I have. All I have is my mouse strength, my pale shadow, my feeble heart, my shallow breath, my almost-nothing. My failure, which is nothing. Every time I go to Mass, this is what I bring: Pure uselessness.
It’s so hard, it’s easy. All you have to do is show up. What could be simpler?
It wasn’t wrong, to be so busy and burdened before, when my children were all young. Somebody had to do it! Things have to get things done. Somebody had to carry all those loads. But hiding at the center of all forms of human labor is a core of pure uselessness, and it’s good to know that this is so. Because sooner or later, no matter what it is you do, that’s all that will be left: Just you and your helplessness.
This is what we all have to present to the Lord. It’s easy to convince ourselves there’s more to it than that, but there isn’t.
We don’t go to Mass because of what we can bring to the table. I know that. We go to worship, and we go hoping to receive. They say that, when you find yourself empty handed, what’s when God will fill you up. That is what they say! Now we find out.