Although it might be later by the time I actually publish this post, as I write, today is the Feast of the Holy Family. I always find going to Mass on this Sunday a bit of a rude shock. I mean, we only just went to Mass on Chrismas Eve, three days ago. I can clearly remember acting as a human straitjacket for my five-year-old in a stifling heat that no number of ceiling fans would dispel. The time that followed was filled with sugar and excitement and late nights and tears and tantrums, and, what’s more, the children have been misbehaving too.
It felt like a bit of a stretch to get everyone out of bed this morning to go to Mass. I know it’s wrong to feel that way. I do love Mass more than anything, deep down. Really, I do. I just don’t enjoy putting clothes on children and saying ‘shush’ for forty minutes.
I know some of you will be thinking “Why are you so strict on yourself? Surely God will understand if you don’t go just this once?”. This is a good question with a long answer, so perhaps it’s a conversation for another day. The short answer is that I know myself well enough to realise that the moment I start making excuses for not making the effort, it becomes a whole lot easier to not make the effort the next time and the next until I find I’ve stopped going to church altogether. I’m the same way with exercise. Plus, the children are watching (that sounds like a good title for a horror movie, don’t you think? The Children Are Watching…) and it’s important that they know that going to Mass is a part of who we are.
I just wish I could have called these noble principles to mind this morning as I tried to prise my reluctant three-year-old out of bed and convince my eight-year-old that ‘glacial’ is not the best speed-setting for his morning weetbix consumption. Mr Knightley had taken Matilda to 9am Mass early so that she could be an altar server, and it was up to me to get the remaining children clothed and in the car and to Mass on time. Harry was dressed and ready like a champion, his methodical nature is a godsend on mornings like this. I was even willing to overlook the fact that his outfit was the same one he’d been wearing obstinately for the past three days. Christopher Robin, as I mentioned, was performing some sort of tai-chi inspired slow dance with his bowl and spoon, but was dressed at least. Annie was barefoot in her pyjamas staring blankly at her breakfast like it was the last clue in the cryptic crossword. The twins were asleep in their cot. And it was five-to-nine.
So I started my sheep-dog routine, gathering bags and babies, rounding everyone up into the car. I had already decided that the pyjamas Annie had been wearing (a plain pink t-shirt and black Star Wars shorts) looked enough like regular clothes to get away with. There was no time. It was only later I noticed that she’d somehow managed to get vegemite stains down the front of it.
I read a lot of blog posts about the importance of dressing your best for Sunday Mass. I’ve written before about this desire of my heart. My children were not looking well turned-out this morning. Even the babies’ jumpsuits seemed grubby. Nothing about their clothing expressed respect for this blessed institution. But there was no time; there was no time.
Annie and Harry were putting their seatbelts on in the back of our van as Christopher and I organised the twins. “Annie, are you wearing shoes?” I call back whilst grappling with a four-month-old in a five-point-harness. “Yes, Mummy”, Annie responds in her sweetest voice.
And we were on our way, but we were oh-so-late.
As I was pulling into the church car park, I made some quick decisions. Unloading the pram and strapping the babies into it would take too much time. Christopher and I could carry a baby each. Let’s go, let’s go!
I pulled back the middle seats to let Annie and Harry out. Annie grinned broadly, “Actually, I forgot my shoes!”, she announced triumphantly, like it was the punchline to some wonderful joke.
I’m not sure I can properly describe the full extent of shouting and searching that followed. Annie alone remained calm and unruffled. We found one shoe hidden in the car. There was only one. I think this was a million times worse than if there had been no shoes at all.
I had two options. I could rush home to get shoes for Annie. This would make us abysmally late for Mass. We would achieve nothing more than a Drive-Thru Communion Service, if that. Or, in another failed attempt at ‘Natural Consequences’, Annie could attend the Holy Mass barefoot.
The Gospel reading had just finished as I sidled into Mass with my rag-tag posse of children and slid into the pew next to Mr Knightley. Annie remained unshod. If we kept a low profile, we might just get away with it. In a quick series of whispers and a fair bit of sign language (I believe I employed the international sign for ‘I wish to strangle my child’), I brought Mr Knightley up to speed with the situation. His response was devastating, his expression deadpan:
“We’re on Offertory.”
In theory, being invited to bring the gifts of bread and wine to the altar is a wonderful privilege, I really should have felt honoured that somebody had tapped my husband on the shoulder before Mass started and asked him to participate with his family in this special way. Unfortunately, the idea of parading my dirty, barefoot, misbehaving children down the aisle for all to see was not altogether a tempting one. The corner of my husband’s mouth was twitching ever so slightly. But I didn’t punch him. I had other problems.
When I took the babies out of the car, I forgot to grab their bunny rugs or wipes. I was a little distracted, you see. Now Daisy was in my arms, forcing her fingers into her mouth wrist-deep and bringing up little pockets of spew, like some deranged supermodel (I’m sorry. That joke is inappropriate, I know. But it’s been a long day for me). I only had a couple of tissues to work with and those tissues had to work very hard. I could sense the people in the pew behind me silently promising themselves not to shake my hand when it came time for the Sign of Peace and I didn’t blame them one bit.
When it came time for the Offertory Procession, I assumed a confident expression. Perhaps, if I smiled bravely and walked tall, people might not notice that my three-year-old was sans footwear. That aisle seemed a lot longer than usual. Father Jacob, flanked by Matilda and another altar server were miles away. After traipsing barefoot through the gauntlet of parishioners, Annie imperiously insisted on delivering her bowl of communion wafers to Matilda and not the priest. Father Jacob seemed to be struggling to suppress a snort of laughter. I didn’t punch him either.
The rest of Mass passed smoothly enough apart from the following:
- Annie and Harry had a rowdy disagreement as to who got to complete the maze on the parish notices helping the Wise Men to find Baby Jesus.
- Daisy got bored of trying to swallow her knuckles and decided to wail enthusiastically instead.
- Annie announced, for the benefit of all parishioners: “I’m hungry! I haven’t had any breakfast!”
- Poppy, well, Poppy made use of her nappy. She was, well, she was very thorough in this endeavour.
The final hymn was Joy to the World. I joined in lustily. As we prepared ourselves for a swift exit, I felt somebody grasp my elbow. It was Mrs Price Who’s Ever So Nice.
“I just wanted to let you know how much joy it gave my heart to see your beautiful family bringing up the gifts,” she said with genuine warmth. My heart melted a little bit. Mrs Price is almost old enough to be my grandmother. She has raised six children herself and is still grieving her beloved husband who passed away last year. Mrs Price chose not to see the unwashed clothes or exposed feet or complete lack of liturgical style. She saw a family trying their best despite all their imperfections, and loved us. In that moment, Mrs Price was God to me.
I opened my mouth to respond, but was interrupted by a loud yowling. Annie, it would seem, had stubbed her little toe on the kneeler.
And that, my friend, is why you should always wear shoes to church.