25 July 2010


I have a weird sense of humor. Sometimes I find it amusing to pretend that everything is OK and that I’m totally handling my life, as opposed to my life totally handling me. A neat by-product of this exercise in personal amusement is that a little charade every now again can actually make me feel surprisingly competent, maybe even temporarily sane (behold, the power of self-talk!).

I recently ran again across the term sprezzatura, which in its original sense (a la Castiglione) has fake-y connotations. But the definition suggested by the context had more to do with doing something difficult, doing it well, and making it look easy. Wiktionary calls sprezzatura “The art of doing a difficult task so gracefully, that it looks effortless.” You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? Unto each woman are her own difficulties, and each difficulty presents the opportunity to respond with grace or to, well, throw a tantrum.

I’ve been thinking about this lately as I muster the troops for church. The church behavior situation had reached a fairly manageable point. Then we moved. Then we had another baby. Since then, I’ve been referring to my church attendance as “worship wars,” “the Sunday circus,” etc. We’ve discussed this here before; you know how it is. As the action rages and ebbs, there are glimpses of victory, but the skirmishes continue.

So: I can stumble into the narthex looking as dragged-out and desperate as I sometimes feel by that early juncture of a Sunday morn, or I can smile and ask that first-time mom, with genuine interest, how her baby is doing. Likewise, I can allow my frustration during the service to be broadcast loud in exasperated posture, or I can arrange the children and strategize the in-church guidance to be as minimally distracting as possible under the circumstances. (I know; sometimes there are circumstances beyond our control. Recently, I hauled out a two-year-old who was repeating, none too quietly all the way down the center aisle, “Don’t ‘pank me! Don’t ‘pank me!”)

When you hear a flawless performance, you know that it was preceded by hours of practice and thousands of wrong notes. When you behold the work of a Renaissance master, you know that beneath the familiar masterpiece are the scratches of a dozen sketches. When you encounter an elegant argument or a worthy poem, you know that for every extant line, at least twice as many were discarded.

As it is in the other arts, so it is in the art of childrearing. For every manner that’s remembered at Grandma’s house, for every instance of good behavior in the grocery store, even for every time that they remember to put their clothes in the hamper—in short for every occasion on which they fail to act like the fallen little creatures that they are—there’s a backstory of blood, sweat, and tears.

Taking large quantities* of young children to church by oneself is difficult. Everyone already knows that. What everyone doesn’t already know is that there’s also deep joy (sometimes immediate, sometimes eventual, sometimes ultimate) in taking large quantities of children to church. And of having large quantities of children, in general. There’s a masterpiece in the works—a majesty well-concealed in these small unruly people, who are after all no mere mortals. Right now the melody is marred by many a wrong note, and the portrait is lost in the scribbles. But one day—oh, one Day!—the glory of this humble and humbling endeavor will be revealed. And it will be dazzling.

*I know, I know—with only four, I’m an amateur. But I keenly feel what we often say hereabouts in bemused bewilderment: “There are just so many of them…”


Melrose said...

Reb. Mary all I can say is: THANK YOU!!!

I have a very dear friend and sister in Christ with 6 kids...I thought of her today as my 4 yr old swung between two pews, my 7 mo old laid on his back next to me kicking his legs, sucking on his toes and singing his own version of a hymn while my 2 yr old laid on the other side of me all stretched out like he was laying on the beach. But here's the thing...every week I get mad at myself and think: This week, oh this week we will practice until my kids can sit for HOURS, HOURS I TELL YOU! WITHOUT MOVING! THEN, next Sunday they will behave! They will sit with their hands folded, sit when I sit, stand when I stand, hold their hymnals, etc etc sigh. I'm lucky if I can get my 4 yr old to say just ONE measly part of the liturgy or fold his hands for TWO seconds without swinging on the pew in front of him.

No mere mortals after all...thanks be to God.

Melrose said...

I forgot to mention that this friend with 6 kids has children that sit when she sits, stands when she stands, and keep their hands folded the whole service...and yes I've witnessed it for almost a whole year straight. I'm thankful I have her example to remind me to keep trying.

Dakotapam said...

I'm a mom of six who have four who behave like those "really good kids" Melrose describes above. Of course, at 14, 11, 8 and 6, I would hope so...the twinfants need a little baby wrangling, and there is but one of me. We are a mission congregation. Sometimes (blessedly) complete strangers sit behind me...and I think they might faint if I turn around and hand them a baby...I have crossed the aisle to hand one to a friend!

Church gets grown into! My now 14 yr old was the cause of me leaving church in tears many a Sunday during seminary...and he was my only one!

I do sometimes still have to pinch. And often, our service folders have tanks and cannons sketched on them, but, for the most part, my children participate in worship. 4 years ago I would have had a different comment.

Be of good cheer...

HappyFox said...

This post and the "Churchmomship" one are awesome! They give me hope. :) We may only have two, but they're two years & seven months - 'nuff said. I CAN say I've gotten to the point where I'm not in tears anymore when I have to leave the service. (The social isolation aspect of motherhood was unexpected & one of the hardest things for me to deal with.)

Elaine said...

Your post sparked memories. My dh is Catholic, and attends his own church, so I, too, was a single church mom. One Easter when the kids were little, he joined us at church and, due to the Easter crowds, we had to sit smack in front. It was both a Eureka and Duh moment. They could see what was going on, so they behaved better. Wow. It also enabled me to hiss, "The pastor can see you," which usually worked. I clearly remember sitting in our usual spot with tears rolling down my cheeks. I was newly pregnant, wondering how I could manage with 4 kids under 6. (I know, a mere amateur) Of course, it all worked out, and for the most part I have that lovely amnesia that time provides. Except for the time #2 barfed just before the service started. I hustled him out, plus his younger sister. (He had thrown up on her shoe, but it was a jelly shoe) Thank goodness we were in the pew adjacent to the side door! I have no idea how the other kids escaped (I think maybe a kind member sitting behind us was involved). The moral of this story is that I survived mainly intact and now those little ones range in age from 25 to 31. And the little barfer sits in church, in front of course, with his wife and their two little girls.

Katy said...

Yes, this is an encouraging post to read on Monday morning. We have an older couple who have "adopted" our family to help out on Sunday mornings, especially when my dh is organ subbing. My 3 year old can sit through the whole service (varying behavior, depending on how the week went); my 20 month old can sit through the sermon hymn--then we go to the nursing room, to sit and listen to the sermon quietly. He plays with blocks, I nurse #3. Then we go back for communion.

Last week there were 3 (!) birthday cakes and 2 nights staying up past 9. (One of the very few cons of living near family--too many birthday parties.) This most definitely contributed to poor behavior yesterday.

@Reb. Mary: My inlaws remember my (now 22 year old) BIL being carried out yelling "Don't spank me! Don't spank me!" followed by a looong and extremely loud "NOOOOoooooooo," as his dad carried him out and away to his punishment. He was the last-born and least responsive to discipline (in an absent-minded, not rebellious way). It's encouraging to me now to see 1) everyone laugh about it now and 2) how he turned out to be a great kid.

@Melrose: We practice sitting still in my lap often (that and the whole "obey me now" thing). Consistency is not my strength :( Which is probably why my 3-year-old is not potty trained.

Rebekah said...

Ah! I really, really needed "sprezzatura"! Thank you!!

Reb. Mary said...

Melrose: yes, all in good time.

Dakotapam, we're glad to have you around to remind us that there's light at the end of the tunnel!

HappyFox: Strangely enough, I had more of those tear-filled Sundays with one and two babies than I do with four. (Not that it doesn't occasionally still come to that!)

Elaine, :D

Katy, Sometimes I really, really hate birthday cake :P

Rebekah, I'm planning to chant "sprezzatura.....sprezzatura..." next Saturday night for sure. (And probably every day in between, ha.)

lisa said...

I heart this post. Thank you.

MooreMama said...


Words of wisdom, today. Now out of my head, please. :)

Hannah said...

Elaine, one professor at Concordia (a colorful character, although sadly someone under whom I have had no classes) said the same thing about location of children in church. Not only can the pastor see them when they are in front, but they can see the pastor instead of (to put it politely) the behinds of the people in front of them. :)

Anonymous said...

After years of sitting in church with a baby (13 total) I can attest there will come a day that you will hear the sermon again! Many Sunday's I went home in tears and thought "And why did I go to church I didn't hear anything" but I knew that my children did and I knew the example I was setting. Now my youngest is 7 and I can tell you what the sermon was about and I actually get to participate. I remember the frustrations but mothering is important even on Sunday mornings during worship - the rewards will come and I promise this too will pass. Debbie S.