I admit, I can be impatient with the gradual, almost invisible course of spiritual development. Even though my research is into how liturgical practice forms us into Christian people, when I take my two- and four-year-olds to mass, I assure you, I can be every bit as frustrated and harried as any other parent in the building.
Every so often, though, something happens to remind me of what I really believe – that the spiritual development of my children is something that the Holy Spirit does for them, the work of grace, and not my work; they cooperate, but I do not coerce. In the scorebook of the spiritual life, I doubt I even deserve an assist.
Thomas finds mass particularly trying these days, and we rarely set off without him explaining to us (not terribly politely) that he does not want to go. This morning, we were taking my dad and stepbrother with us. My stepbrother had already figured out that Thomas has a tendency to get into trouble, and when we walked into the church and Thomas headed for the font, Uncle Q quite reasonably guessed that pools full of water were a terrible temptation for mischievious four-year-olds.
“No, Thomas, come back here,” he began.
“Leave him alone, he knows what he’s doing,” I broke in. “Remember, he does this every week.”
While Thomas was leaning over the low boundary to wet his hand and make the sign of the cross, my mind flashed to the work of sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss. Human ritual behavior, he hypothesized, was an education for the body, intended to give us the abilities we need to accomplish our goals. Included in these goals were those of spiritual communion with the divine, which Mauss believed required the cooperation of the body. Mauss introduced the Latin word “habilis” to describe the outcome of ritual practice: the ritual practitioners become “people with a sense of the adaptation of all their well-co-ordinated movements to a goal, who are practised [sic], who ‘know what they are up to’” (Mauss, “Body Techniques,” Sociologie et anthropologie, p. 108).
Thomas may not know or do all I would like him to do at church (God knows he does plenty of things I wish he would not do!), but he “knows what he’s up to.” I heard a radio program a couple years ago in which a guest expressed wonder that anyone would say of three 3-year-olds playing together that one was Catholic, one Muslim, and one Jewish. But in their familiarity, comfort, and interest — even in their frustration — with their respective ritual traditions, those identities are emerging.
As for me, I get frustrated with the gradual and invisible course of my own spiritual development, too. Experiences like this one, I trust, are the Lord’s way of offering me hope that someday, I, too, will know what I’m up to.