A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands, how could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he...
- Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
When I was about five, I was lying under a tree, staring into the sky, when, little by little, all the fresh-cut hay in the hayfield behind my home wafted mysteriously into the air, to a height of some thirty or forty feet. I can still see how beautifully, how peacefully, the hay blades swirled above, circulating gently for a magical half-hour, before returning to the ground.
Children, especially small children, are far more accepting of the unusual, the out-of-the-way, than are most adults. For children, quite rightly, assume that the reality of the boundless universe outside far exceeds their own limited experience — while many adults think they know it all, have seen it all, have done it all, and have it all under control, on the basis of no more than ten or twenty times the experience.
Naturally, this childhood openness is easy enough to squelch. Adults or, worse, other children, tell us what to think, what to believe, what is permissible and what is not. Soon, our infinite horizons are cut down to the narrow run of the everyday. Our natural gift for the extraordinary is sacrificed to a dull and surly prejudice toward the ordinary.
...which makes early childhood a uniquely privileged time for worship, especially for Eucharistic worship. The very fact that the person of Jesus Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity, is present in forms of bread and wine, is a stumbling block for most adults. Children are likelier to retain the sense of wonder which is conducive to awe — the “fear of the Lord” of which Scripture speaks.
In his novel Mr. Ives’ Christmas, Pulitzer Prize winning author Oscar Hijuelos wrote of the dying Eddie Ives, sitting before the Blessed Sacrament: “Looking at the altar he remembered another of his childhood thoughts: in the same way that the baby Jesus, the promise of the world, lay resting in His crib … so did the man Jesus, down from the Cross and awaiting his final resurrection, lay resting inside the altar, beneath the chrismoned cloth. He laughed, remembering how the slightest breeze from the church’s opened doors, rustling the altar’s cloth, had made Ives’ little heart jump: at any moment, Jesus would be coming out of His resting place and the world would be filled with miracles.”
…and I remember my own five-year-old self, sitting after Sunday Mass at my childhood parish on just such a breezy summer day, thinking of the loving Presence who was looking on my self and the world from out the darkness and quiet of the tabernacle. My own small heart found rest in the thought of a God so peaceful, so self-contained; in many ways, those fifteen minutes after Mass were the happiest of my week, my only lament that I was too young for First Communion.
Of course, by the time I received my First Communion, there were preparation classes and vocal prayers to learn and other children around and strange, stiff clothes to wear and people and noise and expectations everywhere. I wanted to pray; I tried to pray. But there were all these new, strange phenomena and there were relatives in town and we were going to a restaurant and....
After First Communion, things went downhill fast. Quiet time after Mass filled up with volumes of vocal prayer — some of it quite elaborate, in archaic language and printed in an heirloom prayerbook which I was somehow supposed to use, but not damage or wear out. I remember, in particular, something entitled “A Universal Prayer for all Things Necessary to Salvation” — which ran on for several pages and was exactly what it sounds like.
I’m not blaming my parents; often, time after Communion means a mad dash out of the parking lot, accompanied by talk of lunch or football or Dad’s griping about why he has to go to Mass, just because the kids are going. Indeed, even all that seems naive — to assume that there is a Dad, a Mom, a reasonably nurturing, non-abusive home, much less that anyone’s going to Mass. But that’s exactly the point: even among those whose lives are centered around their faith, especially among those whose lives are centered around their faith, how can we miss something so joyful, so vital, so obvious?
The sacraments are a miracle, the Eucharist is a miracle — and children are open to miracles. I’ll come out and say it: Children are natural contemplatives, at least in ovo. Scoff if you will. So your six-year-old can’t sit still at Mass — but she can spend hours lying under a tree, staring into the sky, or could, if time allowed between play dates and soccer practice.
Rather than blaming the child for restlessness at worship, perhaps we should reflect on what we’re doing wrong. Is Mass, for us, the mystical sacrifice of Calvary — or an adult expectation imposed from above, like the polyester clip-on bow-tie Grandma found so cute?
Indeed, is this adult expectation so distinct as to infantilize religious practice, to turn faith by force into something to be outgrown? Is our own worship awe-filled, struck with wonder and majesty at an infinite God sacramentally present, or is is a matter of appearances, of ideology, of routine, or even a total fraud, a deception we perpetrate on the children, for their own putative good, or to soothe our own consciences? In fact, is our whole world of adult demands, standards and expectations — even as regards our faith — force-feeding shallowness, extrovert behavior, peacelessness and lack of recollection?
Maybe children — maybe all of us — need a little more time staring into the sky. Maybe what we really need, adults and children, is more time gazing on our Lord in Eucharistic Adoration — not necessarily external action, absolute silence, formal prayer, stereotypically reverent posture, or an exact hour’s stay, but a chance to renew our way of being, absorbed in quiet communion with goodness and in the silence we share with those who know and love us best.
As John Paul II wrote in his most recent encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, “It is pleasant to spend time with him, to lie close to his breast like the Beloved Disciple and to feel the infinite love present in his heart. …. (H)ow can we not feel a renewed need to spend time in spiritual converse, in silent adoration, in heartfelt love before Christ present in the Most Holy Sacrament? .... The Eucharist is a priceless treasure; by not only celebrating it but also by praying before it outside of Mass we are enabled to make contact with the very wellspring of grace.”