The Brood: Performance Art

by Holly Mohr

Mass is hard with kids, right? Everyone knows that. Plenty has been written about how difficult it is to get kids to church (lost shoes, explosive diapers just as you’re walking out the door, existential crises and misplaced prayer books), how challenging it is to get them to “behave” during it, etc.

But the hardest thing for me is not the kid tasks. It’s finding the courage and the focus to actually pray. And if I’m honest, that’s a challenge for me at Mass whether my kids are there or not.

There is something distinctly performative about liturgy, especially the liturgy that is the Catholic Mass. There is a “proper” way to speak, sing, sit, kneel, even look (though we often deny that last one).

Many of these expectations are why people value Mass, and I get that. There’s something enormously comforting, even something pedagogically important, about praying the same prayers at the same time, in the same order, as people have prayed for centuries. It is a privilege to be nestled inside a tradition that has nurtured and challenged generation upon generation of people. I deeply value being part of something bigger than myself, something more consistent than my own moods and proclivities.

At the same time . . . I can’t help but wonder more and more . . . why does the Source and Summit of my faith happen in a way that makes me feel so damn uncomfortable?

Now, okay, okay, I already hear the arguments in my ears. I know this is a paradox. Catholics believe that in Mass we are standing before the very Glory of God. That requires reverence and awe. The Real Presence of the Eucharist calls us to bring our very best, maybe even to look our very best, right? I get that. There’s something to it.

But . . . But I also can’t help but push back a bit. Shouldn’t the reality of God-among-us call for our deepest authenticity? Wouldn’t God-among-us call forth our brokenness, our awkwardness, our joy and our wonder?  

I have mixed feelings about this, I really do.

I lead Catechesis of the Good Shepherd sessions, a Montessori-based religious ed program for young children. It happens in a place we call an “atrium,” which is meant to be approached as sacred space. We ask everyone, children and adults, to remove their shoes before entering. We teach the children an “atrium walk,” an “atrium voice.” We encourage joyful silence in order to make room for contemplation.

But we also give them time and space for their own “work.” At a certain point in the session, each child goes and gets a work mat and finds the materials they’re called to that day. From there, they configure their little bodies in whatever shape and direction proves conducive for engaging their work more fully. There comes a time when they are uninhibited by “proper form” and become engrossed in the flow of their own work and prayer.

In Mass, I have a hard time getting to that place of flow. We have prescribed responses, and those responses work on us. The responses give us a language of prayer, which is amazing and useful and beautiful. But I find that saying prescribed responses over and over again also runs the risk of shaping a prescribed heart within me. If I’m not careful, I begin performing a recital before God, rather than opening myself up in vulnerability and truth.

When Catholics get together, we often whisper about our struggles with prayer.

In every RCIA core team, small discipleship group, Young Adult Ministry I’ve ever been in, there is inevitably a discussion of how difficult we find it to be real with God. There is almost always a point at which someone confesses that they’ve realized they’re not bringing their whole selves to God, only the “tidy” parts. In my experience, it’s very common for us Catholics to think we need to “dress ourselves up,” (including our thoughts, feelings, hearts and realities) before we can pray. And the problem is, if we only bring a gussied-up version of ourselves to God, it means we’re not really bringing ourselves to God. So much for faith in the messy, crucified, impoverished rebel who can take the worst of anything and turn it into new life.

But is it any wonder? Our church forms us, not only by the propositional maxims it passes down in formal texts and classes, but in every action we perform together. Week after week we self-police and we police each other. Stay in your pew! Don’t move a muscle! That’s too much noise! Is it any wonder we pass on a rigidity and an inauthenticity in prayer before God?

Our liturgy is beautiful, and I do believe the Eucharist is the Source and Summit, the fount of grace. But if I want to pass on a living faith to my children, one that is about wonder and awe before God, trust in the vulnerable Suffering Servant who is our Savior, and love for both self and others, I need to get a lot more intentional about how I’m teaching prayer, especially prayer in church.

Yes, I want my kids to participate in Mass. Yes, I want them to know the “right” words to the prayers and when to kneel. But I need to want that so that they can have rich internal resources. I need to want them to learn the “right” prayers not because I think God only listens to the “right” words (much less because I’m afraid of what the people around me are thinking about our behavior), but because those words produce a common language, and a common language is a treasure. I do not want them to learn to perform. I do not want them to learn to be preoccupied by the judgment of anyone around them. That means I need to get a lot more intentional about my own attitude in Mass.

Right now, I still experience liturgy the way I experience a Mahler symphony at Heinz Hall: gorgeous, well-orchestrated, meaningful, but performative. I experience it as a place where I hold my breath and hope we look okay. I still save my praying (and my exhale) for the second I get outside the door.

It’s way past New Year’s, but I’ve got some new resolutions: enter the doors of the church with courage. Courage to bring my values with me, the ones like joy, openness, authenticity and compassion, especially toward my children. Stop being embarrassed about our noise, our wiggles, our imperfect clothing. Allow my children to teach me how to be real before God. Learn how to pray in Mass.

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