The Brood: On First Communions, Maybe

Lately, I’ve been brooding about communion. Specifically, the first one.

I don’t know when my youngest kids are going to get their first communions. I don’t know how my youngest kids are going to get their first communions.I don’t know if my youngest kids are going to get their first communions.

The trouble is, I haven’t brought them to church in five years.

I know, I know…tons of families don’t bring their kids to church regularly and yet manage to wrestle them through the whole first communion rigamarole for the sake of tradition, or to appease Grandma, or for the photo op, or, I don’t know, because it’s just what you do? Somehow, though, despite my worst best efforts, I am not those people.

It didn’t used to feel so complicated. I brought my older kids to church every weekend, and most of the time, I did so happily.

My husband, Ron, has been a church musician since shortly after our oldest was baptized. The first church where he served as the sole music director was this teeny little gem of a suburban parish less than a mile from our house. In retrospect, her days were numbered when we arrived there. The demographic had aged, and the parish itself was on the grounds of a retirement community.

We arrived on a wave of more traditionally-minded Catholic families that joined when a well-liked local priest replaced their retiring pastor. We were there for four lovely years. During that time, I was able to sit in the pews right next to the piano and shepherd my (as yet undiagnosed) neurodivergent youngsters with relatively few eye-rolls. Ron could slide into the pews next to us during the homily (always a squirmy time). I could even hand them off to a friendly mom to watch so I could sing in the choir or jump up for a quick “Ave Maria.” There were potlucks and picnics, and when our third child was born, the community came together to throw a lovely baptism party… just months before the parish was deconsecrated and closed for good.

From there, Ron followed that pastor to an urban cluster parish which at that point consisted of two churches a block apart in the city of Detroit. Those builidings didn’t have pianos with pews next to them, they had century-old choir lofts that were not childproofed. At that point I had three children: two in early elementary school and one toddler, and I was pregnant again within a year.

My oldest children never quite learned to behave (read “mask their quirks/general disinterest”) in church. Fortunately, when they were 7 and 9 years old the parish scheduled a convenient first communion class that took place during the early mass, so I was able to keep our “church” activities limited to one day a week. The class was taught by a couple of robed seminarians who seemed perfectly nice. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure they were sedevacantists. They had me special order educational materials from Pre-Vatican II and referred to my kids as “Master Weiler” and “Miss Weiler,” which I thought was adorably retro at the time. Knowing what I do now—that both of my older children have ADHD so obvious you can see it from space, meanwhile my son is possibly somewhere on the autism spectrum and his sibling, M, is definitely nonbinary, OCD, irreligious, and queer-–it’s a wonder they made it through this process without these old-school seminarians calling for an exorcism.

R and M both received their first communion with relative dignity: my son staring into space, thinking about anything but what was going on, M cringing in their white dress and veil, pale with anxiety: “Stop that!” I whispered. “Stop what?” “Stop looking like I’m leading you to the slaughter!” Oof. The things we do for the sake of our ancestors.

Nevertheless, we persisted. After the 2016 election, I struggled to feel comfortable in church, but we attended weekly until M’s anxiety became so disruptive that they couldn’t remain in the pew. With a toddler and an infant to complicate things, and Ron up in the loft where he couldn’t help, I gave up and took the “care of children and the sick” exemption from the weekly obligation.

M’s mental illness took a sharp slide starting around age 10, when panic attacks, OCD rituals, disordered eating, and suicidal ideation became daily struggles. One Easter Sunday I had left the kids with a sitter so I could cantor with Ron. As the organ swelled with the final hymn (Jesus Christ is Risen Today, natch) they sent me a series of texts confessing that they had done something terrible…followed by picture after picture of their body, striped with over 150 razor cuts.

They had multiple inpatient psychiatric stays that year, culminating in five months of residential treatment. When I visited them at one of the many hospitals, they came out to me as queer and told us that they didn’t feel safe at church as themselves. I couldn’t argue with them.

I have this thing where I can’t lie to my kids about important things.

After M’s treatment, I tried to return to church with the other kids, but it didn’t get easier. When 2020 hit, it was a relief to have an excuse not to try. Despite their dad learning how to live-stream masses as a means to keeping his job relevant during the lockdown, I didn’t watch streamed Masses with the kids because duh, they couldn’t pay attention to in-person Masses despite constant rib-pokes and the threat of public shame, why on earth would they do so when the Mass is on the TV that they know full well also plays cartoons?

Maybe, if my kids had seen in me what I saw in my parents growing up: how deeply they loved the church, how important it was for them to pass those traditions on to us, how their faith energized them and made them the loving parents they were…but they couldn’t. They couldn’t see it in me because it wasn’t there, I guess. I thought it would be. I thought I had chosen it. I thought I had cultivated it with years of catechesis and participation in the sacraments and volunteering at church and all the rest. I thought I’d done everything right.

I can’t lie to my kids about important things…even when I’m not using words.

After the pandemic, we never went back.

I never figured out how to go back.

I never figured out why to go back.

I didn’t want to. I didn’t miss it. And because it had never been a part of their lives–not that they remembered, anyway–neither did my kids.

Our third child is nine now, and our youngest is seven. They are both, “the age of reason,” as they used to say (or still say? Is it a thing?). My mother has asked about when they will be getting their first communions, so that she and dad can schedule a visit.

I have no idea. How do I bring them into communion with something I’m not quite sure they aren’t better off without?

I haven’t abandoned the church in its entirety. I still participate in the music ministry on holidays and special occasions. Our oldest chose to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, and although he is not sure what he believes in, exactly, he still participates as a lector. I am hired to sing at wedding masses frequently. I take communion…sometimes. Thoughtfully. Hopefully? Rebelliously. Nostalgically?

I used to love the Eucharist. When my third was born, I asked (during transition, when emotions run high) if Ron could get someone to bring me communion the next day, which he did. There was a part of me that just lit up with it. I believed it brought me into communion with Jesus Christ, with everything good in the universe–or I thought I did. Or I wanted to?

My life has been significantly less joyful since I drifted from the Church–which long-ago Theresa would point to as proof that I was wrong to do so. But did I lose my joy because I left? Or did I leave because I lost my joy?

The loss of my faith has not been the result of a single breach, but has been a death of a thousand cuts…like the cuts I saw on that Easter Sunday. A tiny passion when I expected a resurrection. A scourging, when I had been promised new life.

My little girls, though? They have joy. They have joy in each other, and in playing outside on sunny Sunday mornings, and in reading under the covers instead of bedtime prayers, and in making movies and drawing pictures with ultimate-cool-sibling M. They have joy, and humor, and worries, and sensitive, loving hearts that can’t stand to see suffering.

When they ask me about God, I talk to them about love, and beauty, and compassion, and gratitude, and tell them that to me, all that might have something to do with God. I tell them that sometimes I feel like maybe I’m loved in a way that’s beyond the love I get from them, and from their dad, and from myself, and that maybe that love is from God.

I tell them that some people believe that God wants to show people how much they are loved by coming into their lives in different ways, and one way our family and our ancestors believed God did that is through the Eucharist. The God of the Universe, maybe, became the smallest, most un-scary thing in the world…a bite to eat, a sip of wine, something simple and communal and lovely, something we could get close enough to touch.

Something, one day, we might share. Maybe.

Theresa Weiler is a writer/singer/speaker/seeker, and the co-founder of Weiler Creative Media.  She lives in metro Detroit with her husband Ron and four children. If you value this relatable content, throw a tip in her Venmo tip jar @realtheresaweiler. Follow Theresa on Twitter @Real_Theresa and on Instagram @realtheresaweiler

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