I knew it was going to be a bad evening as soon as I saw them. The mom and her 3 ~ 4 year old came up the aisle. She moved to the right, but he decided he wanted to go left. They went left.
We're in the parish hall, on folding chairs. The small church is getting crowded, and the last remaining Mass there is the Saturday Vigil Mass. Tonight and next weekend, it had been relocated to the parish hall as well - perhaps because of out-of-town holiday guests.
The mom and her son sat in the front row. The procession started, and three altar servers (two were mine) and the priest came down the aisle and went up on the platform. As the priest did the opening prayers, the little boy left his mother and crossed in front of the platform toward the right, teasing his mother: will you chase me, or won't you? How far can I go? The mom stayed put, not wanting to make a scene, not wanting to interrupt the priest. The priest finished the prayer and then said, "Aiden, go back to mommy. Now!"
I died of embarrassment for her.
I've seen her before, at the daily Mass. I had started to go on Fridays in the spring, and through the summer. I wanted to keep it up, but haven't been able to. I think she has a younger child, and she likely attended Mass after dropping this one off at preschool.
Mom retrieved Aiden, and kept a firm grip on him for a bit. But little children being little children, he was squirmy and heavy and restless and active. She had her hands full. At one point, he had to go to the bathroom. The ladies' room is on the right side. That's where I always sit, because I had to go there twice myself during Mass, with Mary. Since she was on the left, and not wanting to cross during the readings, she went all the way down one side and up the other. I've had to do that, too. That's why I always sit on the right. After the potty break, they had to retrace their steps.
I watched her take him out the side door at least once. My heart ached. I've been right there, too many times. Mary was some trouble tonight during Mass - the biggest problem was that she desperately wanted to fall asleep, and that just doesn't work for us later on in the night. She did some dancing in the side aisle, too. And climbing on the folding chairs, and bumping the lady in front of us. But it's so different now. Now, I have perspective. Now, I have two (mostly) well behaved boys on the altar serving Mass. Now I have two (mostly) well behaved girls sitting nicely in the pews (folding chairs). Now I have a 6 year old, who sometimes can be difficult, but who is still 6, and not 3.
Nothing compares to a three year old boy. Nothing.
The last straw was when I heard the flapping of little feet running up the right side aisle. I should have known it was him, but I was actually more focused on praying right then. Had I been paying attention (to what I should not have been paying attention to), I could have looked back, seen him far outpacing his mother and stopped him when he got to me. Instead, he streaked past me, rounded the corner and crossed in front of the altar, just as the priest said, "... fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink."
NOBODY did the response. We were all so distracted by this little boy, who kept on running over to the left aisle and down, where a woman did stop him and engage him until his mother could get to him. And she did exactly what most mothers would do at that point: she quit. She scooped him up, got her purse and left.
I almost chased after her. Had I been on the left side for once. Had I not had Mary and Peter to worry about. I prayed so hard that she had only retreated, that she had gone to the back and that I would see her again during communion. That I could give her a hug after Mass and tell her it was going to be OK, that she's a good mom, that he will mature, eventually.
But she was gone.
And so I tell you, whoever is reading this and needs to hear it. Don't quit. Retreat, yes. Surrender, never.
I have spent countless hours in the backs of churches, in vestibules and hallways, even outside if the child was really noisy. I have endured thousands of unkind looks, thoughtless words, and unhelpful suggestions. I have had to leave Mass before it was even begun, and spend the entire time straining to hear what was gong on in an attempt to participate. It is so easy to convince yourself that's it's not worth it. What's the point of going? I heard nothing, you think. My only prayer was that God would prevent me from murdering my child. I committed all sorts of sins against charity while dealing with this tyrant. Better to just go home and go to bed.
But God doesn't expect miracles. We are required to attend Mass and to participate to the best of our ability. God knows what we can and cannot do. God wants us to offer Him our obedience. No prayer of ours, no matter how devoutly said, can equal an act of obedience, especially when that obedience requires supreme fortitude.
Don't get me wrong. The goal is to participate fully in the Mass. The goal is to not be distracted by the antics of your little guy - or anyone else's for that matter. The goal is to have antic-free children. We call them mature adults. And don't think I look down on families who choose to leave little ones in the nursery or at home instead of suffering through Mass. I'm not demanding all mothers be super-heroic every Sunday. But no matter what arrangements you have, at some point, you will be stuck with a difficult child during Mass. And what will you do then?
I remember those days, sitting on the cold, hard floor of a vestibule, unable to hear what was going on, lamenting my situation, wanting just to leave, thinking it was not worth anything for me to be sitting there, pinning down my naughty little tot, getting angrier by the minute. And there was one thought I clung to: I will not let this child deprive me of the Eucharist! I needed those graces, more than anyone else in that church, I promise you. And so I stayed. I hunkered down, I waited for the communion hymn, I stole peeks through the door to see when the line was winding down, and I made my (often) grand entrance, rushing quickly down the aisle before my kid could even realize what was going on and start screaming about it.
Don't give up. It does get easier, generally by the time they're 10. God wants you, as you are. Go to Him. Receive the Eucharist.
And realize that there are probably many mothers right there who feel your pain and wish they could take it away, even just for that once.