Church. I’m sorry to say this, but I don’t like going to church. Mostly I don’t like going because church makes my family look bad, it brings out the worst in us. It exposes us as the loud, messy group we are; it puts all of us on display for the congregation to see and to judge.
I rarely go. Instead, on Sunday mornings I opt for the hot room of Bikram yoga; ninety minutes of meditative exercise and quiet reflection.
Joe usually takes all five kids on his own, and I suspect he secretly leaves his wedding ring at home so he can capitalize on all those sympathetic smiles he gathers like dollar bills in the collection basket. But during our Saturday night date the evening before, I was halfway through my French martini when he asked if I could skip yoga just once and go to Mass with him, it being Lent and all. He mentioned how the kids ask for me every week; he claimed church just doesn’t feel complete without our entire family. (This, folks, is what’s called taking advantage of a mother who is under the influence of alcohol.)
Stupidly, I agreed. And so yesterday, seven Cariello’s went to 10:30 Mass.
We got there around 10:27 and hurried through the double glass doors and down the side aisle. Jack was at the head of our line, and he insisted on choosing where we sat. Every ten rows or so he would stop, survey the long wooden bench, and loudly declare, “NO! Not THIS ONE!” while six Cariello’s piled up behind him. Finally, at approximately 10:31, he picked seats way up front, about three rows from the altar.
Once we sat down, I looked over and saw the hem of Charlie’s favorite football jersey hanging below the sweater he’d hastily thrown on because I asked him one hundred million ninety nine times to change into something a little more appropriate than a shirt advertising Tom Brady. I also noticed that somehow, in the shuffle to leave the house, Rose’s hair didn’t get brushed and her fine blond locks were tangled around her head like a knotted halo.
This week, it seemed like the whole church was dressed in green for St. Patrick’s Day. Where do you people get all these shamrock- y outfits? It was as if the entire congregation turned Irish overnight. The best we Cariello’s could—unintentionally—pull out was Henry dirty green winter jacket from Lands End. And he wears that every day, so it doesn’t really count.
Something about the light in church forces me to notice every wrinkled shirt, every creased collar, every butter stain on my kids’ clothes. Even worse, the sunlight slanting through the stained glass windows seems to beam directly into each of their ear canals, exposing weeks—maybe months—of neglect with the q-tip.
It’s hard to feel particularly spiritual under such circumstances.
You can kind of tell the people who don’t go to church that often because, well, they sort of changed a bunch of things. Like, the words that I grew up reciting as a small girl wearing black parachute pants in Wingdale, New York are different now. Joe smirked over at me as I struggled to keep up and figure out the new verses. (I feel this is a good time to introduce the concept of irony: a man who lures his wife to church under the pretense of religious commitment, but then spends most of the hour making fun of her.)
(Yes, Joe. I know. One of these days you’re going to start your own blog and tell your side of the story. But until then, cyberspace is my oyster and you, dear husband, are my pearl of inspiration.)
As my own Irish luck would have it, I drew the short straw and wound up sitting squashed between Henry and Jack, perhaps the two worst churchgoers in all of Catholicism. Four-year old Henry is probably the loudest person I’ve ever known, and Jack, well, I probably don’t need to go into a whole lot of explanation about why Mass is difficult for Jack. The clanging bells, the need to be still, the idea that the Communion host represents someone’s body. None of this goes over well with a literal boy who has autism.
As Jack rifled through my purse, Henry belted out “Where the man who naked? Why he covered up?” I glared at Joe, asking what kind of church do you take them to every week with my eyes, and he gestured to the statues of Jesus, covered in deep purple velvet for the Lenten season.
Just then, Jack held up a Chapstick and shouted, “Why do you have THIS?” before applying it liberally to his lips, his eyelids, and his ear lobes. “Do I smell like a CHERRY?” I longed for my yoga mat, for the deep hush of the hot room and the freedom to stretch and bend.
Then, in between the first and second reading, the best thing possible happened; Henry fell asleep. In the warm church he curled up on my lap, started to suck his thumb, and closed his blue eyes. (And blissfully, closed his mouth as well.)
In the quiet space between Jack’s stimming and rocking and yelling out page numbers in the song book, I thought back to a time when Joe and I went to church in Buffalo, when we were a young married couple without children. A few pews ahead of us sat a father and his teenage son. The boy had wild, curly dark hair sticking straight out from his head, a dirty ski coat, and a sullen expression. He looked surly and, well, greasy. I remember vowing I would never let my son walk out of the house like that, how I would have made that boy take a shower and slick down his unruly hair; forced him to put on something other than a stained jacket.
But when the time came for the sign of peace, where parishioners offer each other a handshake, this father turned towards his gangly son, heartily embraced him with both arms, and exuberantly told him, “I love you.”
I’ve thought of that moment every now and again over the years, and sitting in the church with my own disheveled children who were not wearing green but were wearing a football jersey, I realized this memory has stayed with me for a reason. It has stayed with me as a reminder that church is not a place for judgement or shame, but a place of acceptance and belonging. A place where you watch your children grow through the years of sweet cherry Chapstick and knotted hair and dirty jackets.
That, indeed, families are messy, but our love for one another endures things like ear wax and autism, stimming and what song are we on now.
When it came time for communion, I stayed seated, holding Henry’s sleepy warm body on my lap as Joe and the kids filed by me to the center aisle. As each of the four children passed us by, they stopped for a moment to pat Henry’s head and smile while he dozed and dreamed. Rose gestured to the family behind us and whispered, “This is my baby brother”, as she caressed his fuzzy brown crew cut.
And just then, I thought about how church can sometimes bring out the best in a family.