Did you know that “face” and “presence” share the same word in the Hebrew of the Old Testament? A priest—Father Eric Sternberg of St. Cecelia Parish in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin—shared this fact with some young moms on a recent retreat I attended. In speaking to us about prayer and seeking the Lord, he emphasized that, to meet God, we must approach Him face to face.
That happens in prayer, but, truly and physically, we are given an earth-shattering encounter with Christ in the Eucharist during every Mass and hour of Adoration we attend.
The Eucharist is not iconographic of Christ—it is Christ. His face looks out at us from the hands of the priest at the consecration during each liturgy. Do you see it?
Real talk: sometimes I don’t. And it’s my own fault.
The Mass and My Mess of Distractions
It’s not that I don’t believe in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. Although this truth is the deepest of mysteries, I have faith that it is the truth nonetheless. I believe it with all my heart. How could I not, when our Savior told us this explicitly?
But sometimes, I forget.
I forget that Jesus is standing before me, showing me all his love all over again, week after week during Mass.
How is that possible?
Turns out it’s easier than I ever realized.
My children are beautiful. They are perfect blessings and I’m thankful for them every day. But if toddlers can be considered specialists at anything, it’s attracting all of the attention in a room to themselves. They are tiny, sticky attention magnets.
We moms are good at multitasking. We’re good at wrangling the two-year-old before he destroys a hymnal while whisper-screaming at the three-year-old who keeps trying to leave the pew. We’re good at opening a desperately needed snack for the kids (with minimal crinkling noises) while picking up the coats they’ve knocked to the floor. We’re good at managing distractions before they become too bothersome to the people around us.
This is a noble and holy effort—this shepherding of tiny humans so that they can be part of the Communion of the Church. This is something parents are made to do, difficult as it may be.
That said, work is work. It is a cross that we bear in our vocation—yet another way we give less to ourselves so that we can give more to our children and their participation in the world.
It is not easy to be a parent of small children at Mass. And yet our work doesn’t end with the distractions while we’re there, does it? We are called to be present despite them.
Am I Seeking God’s Presence?
This is not to say that our struggle to draw spiritual nourishment each week is something we can simply set aside. It is most certainly not easy to fully participate in Mass—it’s not easy for anyone. Everyone carries their cross to the liturgy. That’s the way it’s supposed to be: Christ asks us to lay down our crosses at the altar and rest in Him.
But we aren’t so good at that. We resent our crosses and, as we carry them begrudgingly to church on Sundays, we are tempted to let them distract us. It’s all too easy to feel pestered by my children during Mass and let my mind focus on that inconvenience instead of what’s happening right in front of me.
Jesus told us that his “yoke would be easy and his burden light,” in part, not because it really is easy to live as a Christian in a fallen world, but because it becomes a lot easier if we truly believe he carries the load with us. When we focus too deeply on what’s difficult, we fall into the trap of lamenting that difficulty. We turn our faces downward to focus on our own effort and away from God.
And it isn’t just the kids, right? Given a structured hour each week to spend in quiet, following ancient rituals over which we have no control and deprived of our chosen distractions (our smart phones, a book, whatever), our unchosen distractions become louder.
Left unchecked, our minds fill with complaints (“Why isn’t my husband holding this kid right now?”), questions (“What is on my calendar for tomorrow?”), and random thoughts (“I hope I switched the laundry before we left this morning…”) and suddenly, that hour is over. Jesus is back in the tabernacle, the motions have been gone through, and we return to “normal” life.
But that’s not was Mass should be. We all know that, in our heart of hearts. It just takes discipline to keep our faces turned to God throughout that encounter—to seek His face and show Him ours in return.
When we do look up at Him—to give thanks for His love, to give glory to His might, and yes, to ask for His aid—the load really does become lighter.
Give It Up
Okay, you might be thinking, this is all well and good. I feel sufficiently guilty for not seeing Christ’s face in every second of the Mass each Sunday. But what am I supposed to do about it?
The first thing is, don’t feel guilty—we all do it. God knows it. He loves us anyway.
The second has to do with a phrase that is, admittedly, infuriatingly vague: we have to “offer it up.”
What does that even mean?
To be honest, I’m not sure if it means the same thing for me as it would for you. But here’s where I’ve landed with it.
Suffering—even small, seemingly petty suffering, as torture by toddler may sometimes feel—is not inherently bad. It is painful, yes. It is frustrating. It can be infuriating and heartbreaking. But it invites us to grow—to see beyond ourselves and our own pain and understand, on some infinitesimal level, the pain the Christ endured to save our souls and bring us home to the Father’s house.
Each moment of distraction during Mass or pain in daily life is an opportunity.
It is an opportunity we can use to our detriment, by focusing on our own hurt and drawing our attention downward to the harsh reality of this life.
It is also an opportunity we can use to our benefit, by checking our negative feelings and pausing to recognize that, yes, those feelings are valid—but Christ endured worse at no fault of his own. He humbled himself exclusively to suffer the greatest pain, just so he could bring us joy and fulfillment in the Kingdom.
So when I struggle to lift myself out of the noisy, irritating messiness of managing young children at Mass, I am going to try very hard to physically turn my face toward God. If only for a fleeting second before I have to reach out and grab one or both children, I am going to gaze at the face of Our Lord and say thank you before I turn back to the work of this world. Because in truth, I know that this work, especially, will be so fruitful. I am going to catch myself turning down toward distraction and negativity, and shift the direction of those thoughts upward—to prayer, to opening my ears to the homily in whatever snippets I can catch it, to resting in the silence of a beautiful moment in God’s house.
I am raising future saints. And, for at least an hour out of every week, I get to do that in the presence of Jesus himself. What better help is there than that? Even if I hardly hear the homily and stumble through the Gloria because I’m expending most of my brain power monitoring two toddlers, I am seeing God’s face and He is seeing mine. I am bringing Christ under my roof and he is holding me tight.
Treated respectfully and pondered thoughtfully, that’s more than enough fuel to last even the most exhausted mom a few days or a week, isn’t it?