Maybe I Really Am Living With An Angel (A Mercy on a Monday Post)

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Rocking new-to-her polka dots

It was last December when I read the post that kicked off this exploration of mercy. This post, specifically, in which Rory Cooney suggests that we have a bad habit of substituting confession for actual mercy. I thought, “Wait…there’s more to mercy than confession?”

Then I thought, “Maybe I’d better dig into this a little more deeply.”

And here we are. For three months, I’ve deliberately avoided the subject of forgiveness and reconciliation, because I want to get to the heart of what makes “mercy” something we live, not something we do twice a year at a communal penance service.

But Julianna had her second confession a week ago, and I realized I do have something to share about this most familiar aspect of mercy.

Julianna approached her first confession, last November, with the same unbelievable, adorable excitement she approaches everything. But we haven’t gone since. So a week ago I said, “Christian, we’ve got a free day. Let’s all go over to confession this afternoon.”

Julianna Reconciliation KitAnd only then did it occur to me that Julianna was going to need some serious review. I admit I groaned inside. You just can’t comprehend what a chore it is to teach Julianna anything at all. Plus, Saturday afternoon confession is the real deal, not the tweaked-for-time-management communal penance form they use for First Reconciliation.

And then, of course, there’s the examination of conscience.

I have an allergy to “helping” my kids identify their sins for confession. It seems to me to void the whole thing. How can repentance be authentic if it’s directed from the outside?

And yet I couldn’t think of any way around it. I could just imagine Julianna doing that adorable side-to-side walk into the confessional and regaling Father with stories about how they didn’t have a fire drill or how Sophia the First finds a big giant baby.

Katfish Katy 3So early that afternoon, we sprawled across my bed and talked through the sacrament. I tried to guide her through an examination of conscience without telling her things outright. But to do that, I had to direct her toward the sins I’d seen her commit. So I started thinking about it, and after a blank couple of moments, the truth smacked me in the back of the head:

This girl doesn’t sin.

Yes, all right, she and Michael occasionally fight over a baby doll.

And yes, she’s manipulative and self-centered—the manipulation and self-absorption of young childhood, which isn’t exactly confession material. It’s not a sin until you’re doing it with intent, which she isn’t.

Besides, you can’t think of her conflicts with the world without being reminded of a dozen times she’s tried to comfort someone else who’s upset.

I tucked that little moment of awe in a corner of my heart and went on with the process. And an hour later, on the way to church, I was reviewing the procedure with her again…because that’s what it takes with Julianna…and Christian turned toward me with a bemused look on his face. “You know what?” he said. “It just occurred to me. She doesn’t really…sin!”

As parents, we’re painfully aware of our children’s failings—because we’re constantly correcting them, and all too often because they so closely mirror our own.

I’ve spent so much time focused on alphabetization and reading comprehension and addition/subtraction, it never occurred to me that I truly was living in the presence of something amazing.

Among the Down syndrome community, the fastest way to evoke an eye roll is to tell a family member that their kids are “angels.” Our kids are not perfect. They can be stubborn and manipulative, and exceptionally resistant to learning the skills that allow human beings to live in harmony with each other.

But it occurs to me that perhaps we are too close to our struggles to recognize the gift of mental and emotional simplicity for what it is. It’s hard for a mama who got straight As without really trying to deal with a kid who can’t—not struggles to, can’t—draw the simplest connections between academic concept and reality. It’s hard for a mama who has spent so much time and energy trying to bring the faith down to a practical level to accept the fact that one of her children is never going to “get” the connection.

And yet for the past nine years, Julianna has been quietly living out a much simpler form of mercy, right under my nose. And I never even realized it.

I now realize that I need to spend as much time watching and learning from my child as I do trying to teach her. Because she does “get” it. She “gets” it on a level so fundamental that it went right past me. And in the end, her approach to mercy might well be the one I most need to learn.

(For more “Mercy on a Monday” posts, click here.)

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Down Syndrome and the Sacramental Year

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Julianna Reconciliation Kit

We didn’t have Christian’s phone handy to catch the squeal of excitement when she realized this was for her!

It’s That Year for Miss Julianna. Second grade.

If you’re not Catholic, you may not know what I’m talking about. But second grade is a big year, involving firsts of two major sacraments: Reconciliation and Eucharist.

In other words, it’s crunch time for this mama who’s been convincing everyone she knows what she’s talking about in teaching faith to kids. Child #1 did his sacramental prep work at school, so Christian & I only had to support the process. Child #2 is in public schools and there’s not time to do it in one hour a week at “church school.” So the prep work is all on us.

And then there’s that extra chromosome, which has implications for the “age of reason.” The idea is that kids should be capable of understanding what they’re doing before they receive the sacraments. (Well. Officially receiving the sacraments, that is. I learned that a good friend of mine, who happens to be a priest, served himself Communion well before he was supposed to, too. I take hope from that.)

I had some anxiety about whether we’d get resistance about having Julianna receive the sacraments this year. Her conceptual understanding is spotty, to say the least. On the other hand, who ever really understands? Even as adults, we receive the Eucharist with a sliver of belief and a hair of understanding, and all the rest is shaky faith. We only know that it changes us. That it fills some place inside, that we are incomplete without. That we hunger for it.

The Eucharist is very, very conceptual, but to Julianna it looks concrete. You hold your hands up, you have the host placed in your hand, you eat. Same with the cup.

But before First Eucharist comes First Reconciliation. And Reconciliation is all conceptual. How do you explain the concept of sin to a girl who answers the question “What did you do at school today?” with: “Good!” Let alone figure out how to surmount the difficulty of getting her to have a rational conversation with a priest without Mom or Dad there to act as go-between.

We have a new pastor this year at our parish, so I laid out the situation. He was very open; he gave me the go-ahead, and so now we’re deep in preparation work. It’s high time. I’ve always whispered in the kids’ ears about what’s going on at Mass, trying to help them connect with something that is over their heads, but let’s be honest. When you have four kids and one of them participates loudly and keeps herself occupied, it’s easy to let her do her thing and focus attention on the wigglers, the movers, and the shakers, who sometimes think church is a boxing ring or a LEGO construction (more accurately de-construction) lab. But that means she draws the short straw in faith formation. And when that same child has to have your help counting out every math problem, and every reading comprehension worksheet is a painstaking process, the your time and energy is often exhausted before you ever get to the point of doing faith formation at home, either.

But as with all things in the realm of parenting, when Mom and Dad decide it’s important, it happens. It’s happening now, and she’s so excited about it. I’ve been going through her Reconciliation book with her, a page or two at a time. I can see the big picture in the lessons, but I know when I was a kid I couldn’t, and if I couldn’t, then Julianna has no chance. She’s game, but she’s just along for the ride.

So it was like Christmas for both of us yesterday morning when the religious ed director walked into choir warmup and handed us a box that said ADAPTIVE RECONCILIATION KIT. I had to abandon my leadership role for a couple of minutes to get the box open and see what was inside. Julianna latched onto a set of picture cards to illustrate good choices and bad choices, and for a while, even at Mass, she wrapped her arms around that box and just hugged it.

It’s a good set, very visual, with a simplified act of contrition in pictures and “I’m sorry” cards” and an easy-to-read picture book that boils down the concepts and the procedures to their essence. We spent some more time with it yesterday afternoon. And now, at last, I feel like we’re on our way.

Updates to come as the year goes on.