Friday morning, I flew into church at 7:59 a.m. for 8:00 holy day Mass, trailing a widely-spaced gaggle of little ones–the last one wailing. With Christian out of town, I was single parenting, and it was also the last field trip day of the summer, with speech therapy thrown in for good measure. We’d left for church with the van packed for the day but no cell phone, because I couldn’t find it.
Did I mention I was the pianist for that Mass?
There is a certain poetic symmetry in this. After all, for every action in the universe, there is an equal and opposite reaction, right? The feast of the Assumption in 2004, while I was on retreat with Jeanne Cotter, was one of those transcendent moments that stays with a person.
The tenth anniversary of that transcendent moment?
Long, loud toddler wails filled the church as I strode up the aisle, retrieved the keys to the music closet, and got out the microphones, trying not to meet the eyes of any of the parishioners. I got the mics set up in less than a minute, by which time three of my children were sitting quietly at the end of the first row of the music area, and the last–the wailing one–was coming up the aisle with a friend from our choir. I announced “Immaculate Mary,” and off we went. By now, however, Michael had escalated to that catch-breath crying. You know, the kind that is beyond all self-control.
And he was sitting underneath the hanging microphones. The ones you can’t turn off.
Mid-phrase, I waved at Michael to come over to me, thinking he’d hug my leg until I finished the opening hymn. No, no. This child began climbing. In the middle of verse 2 I had to break off the left hand to haul him up, because otherwise I was going to derail altogether.
Luckily, he calmed down once he was on my lap. I didn’t even try to stand up until the Gospel.
Father started his homily by introducing the topic: Mary, motherhood, the importance of the mother-child bond.
“Look at Kate, this morning!” he said, sweeping a hand in my direction. “Her child followed her around the church, crying for his mother. You cannot keep a child away from his mother. The mother, she is so important.”
Never once have I envisioned myself being invoked as a homiletic example. And if I had to choose a time to focus on me, this would not have been it.
But Father was right. It was a very apt illustration. And everyone laughed.
Michael spent most of Mass on my lap at the piano. Once he settled down, it got steadily harder to play. He reached for the keys. He pulled the hair on my arm. He wiggled his bottom down my legs, then grabbed my arms and used them to haul himself back up. Have you ever tried to play the piano–think “type,” it’s the same idea–with a child pulling on your arm? I found a lot of wrong notes in the piano that morning.
Finally I had to banish him. My friend took him onto her lap. By this time–mid-Eucharistic Prayer–he tolerated it. “But he wouldn’t look at me,” she said.
By the grace of God, even epic pastoral musician fail moments can make way for moments of grace and transcendence. When it was all over, Father met us in the prayer garden outside church. This priest, from the Ivory Coast, spent a semester here when I was full-time liturgy director, and he’s been coming back to the States almost every summer for over a decade to cover our pastor’s vacation. We had him over for dinner this summer, and he blessed our family. It was more than a hand motion; I could feel the blessing descend. I have never felt that before, but I felt it that day in my kitchen.
I felt it again in the prayer garden outside our church, as he blessed each of my children in turn and we said goodbye for at least a year. And I was grateful for the reminder that ceremony and solemnity are not, in the end, as important as the love that underlies them.