by Eric Hollas, OSB
Not surprisingly, we don’t host a lot of little kids at prayer in the Abbey church. On any given weekday it’s faculty, staff, students and people from the guesthouse who occupy the visitors’ section of the choir. But children? Not so many.
But on a Sunday we do get a sprinkling of infants and toddlers, and we know they’re there because they make their presence known. Few of the toddlers can resist the urge to run free-range up and down the expansive brick-paved aisles. Still others quickly discover the bouncy accoustics. Designed to blend the voices of us monks as we chant the Psalms, those same walls amplify the cries and screams of even the littlest tyke. Because we monks aren’t used to those kinds of noises, we can find it all disconcerting. But then again those same little voices remind us that we were all kids once, and if we live long enough we could very well revert to that uninhibited state in our dotage.
A week ago Saturday Fr. Anthony preached on the gospel passage from Matthew 19 in which Jesus told the disciples to let the little children approach him. Naturally I’ve thought of that episode as an encouragement to be as innocent and trusting as a child. After all, Jesus taught that a lack of such innocence will bar passage through the gates of heaven.
But Anthony pointed out a variant of this. Whether we like to admit it or not, kids aren’t always the most focused participants in the liturgy. His comment immediately brought to mind the only sermon I ever heard preached by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was filled to the gills that Sunday, and I guarantee that no one can now recall the passage from scripture about which he preached. However, everyone of us remembers the infant who screamed and cried through his entire sermon. We all squirmed in our pews, and most had to wonder just how long Cardinal O’Connor could go before he lost it.
Finally he conceded defeat, paused, and pointed out the obvious. “I’m sure everyone can hear that screaming baby. But I just want you to know that I’ve heard worse comments on my preaching.” With that the tension melted and the congregation dissolved into hearty laughter. And that’s all any of us remembers from that Mass.
Obviously Jesus must have noticed that some kids ran around and played and yelled as he tried to preach. How could he not notice as he taught a crowd of 5,000, outside? The disciples certainly noticed, and they wanted to shoo the kids away. But Jesus didn’t; and perhaps that’s because he saw those kids as a metaphor for all the needy and troublesome adults who would someday show up at the church door. Such people sometimes destroy our peace of mind. They have needs that make us uncomfortable. Worse still, they seem to be the sort of sinners who shouldn’t be sitting next to me or even close to me. After all, on more than one occasion I’ve given thanks to God that I’m not at all like them.
Sometimes I forget that church pews were first installed not to seat the strong but to support the weak and the ill. They’re the ones who cannot stand through a long liturgy. Ironically, Jesus came to save those very people. He came to save those physically and spiritually weak people who’ve come to church in hopes that Jesus will give them rest and healing. That’s when I recall that if I’m spiritually whole, then I have no business taking up valuable pew space. It would be better to cede my spot to the spiritually poor and sick.
It’s on those occasions that I remember the words of Jesus about little children. Little kids sometimes seem over-eager for attention and more than willing to assert their need for help. Unless I become like a little child and admit my own need for Jesus, then I don’t belong in the pews with all those people who do.
Sometimes a church service — like the Church herself — can be a little too chaotic for my tastes. But not so for Jesus. Cardinal O’Connor closed his comments on the untidiness of a screaming child in church with one question that was rhetorical rather than open for discussion. “Isn’t this what it’s all about?” As much as I hate to admit it, he was probably right.
Note: The photos show the interior of the Abbey church. Designed by the Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, the hard surfaces of the concrete walls and brick floors are especially good at amplifying little voices, and the pews easily convert into playground equipment. At bottom is the baptistery, where by now thousands of infants have made their debut as church criers.
Fr. Eric Hollas, OSB, is a monk of St. John’s Abbey and Deputy to the President for Advancement at St. John’s University. He blogs at A Monk’s Chronicle. Reprinted with his kind permission.