Common Wisdom: Things Seen and Unseen

We went home to my parents’ house for Christmas. Most of the Christmases since the birth of our children have been spent with the grandparents, and they are so good at “doing” Christmas — at trimming immense, symmetrical trees, covering kitchen walls with Christmas cards and mantels and radiator covers with artificial snow, at piling up bright towers of presents, and at dishing out every kind of Christmas food there is — that I am usually relieved to keep it in the hands of pros.

We didn’t even get around to our first real Christmas tree until this year, and its resemblance to Charlie Brown’s made me smile. (The children, of course, thought it was beautiful, and beamed whenever they entered the room. Two-year-old Maria kissed it each night before bed.)

So Christmas at my parents’ house was pleasantly Dickensian, except for the one thorn-in-the-side: the local church. It was built in the mid-1960s, and it is truly hideous. It possesses not the warm, human ugliness of baroque-gone-overboard or ginger-bready Victorian, but the cold, barren ugliness of 1950s school auditoriums. The poinsettias huddling for warmth around the main altar looked unhappy and out of place. Christmas carols in that setting seemed like an outlandish primitive custom, almost an affront to good taste, like reciting the rosary before the Society for Ethical Culture.

I have never thought of skipping Mass because I might “get nothing out of it.” I know that what happens at Mass is real, and supremely important, and wholly independent of my ability to build to an emotional climax at each consecration. Still, human beings are bodies conjoined with souls, and Christ’s Church is a sacramental one, as He is an incarnate God. And so it is not very astonishing that ambiance, as the restaurant guides put it, does make a difference. Uplifting, awe-inspiring surroundings, for those of us on the lowest rungs of the spiritual ladder, are not to be sneezed at.

Most Sundays my husband and I bring the children with us, so that we can attend Mass together. Peter, at four, is getting quite bearable, when he isn’t poking his sister for the fun of making her scream. But two-year-old Maria usually has too much energy and too little control to last through the whole hour (and it is a full hour; our Redemptorists don’t skimp on sermons). This means that the annoying idiosyncrasies of this or that celebrant of the Mass bother me much less than they used to. I can seldom give 100 percent attention to the way Father so-and-so is embroidering the Eucharistic Prayer or purging the readings of his idea of sexism. Often I miss part of the sermon.

Spiritually speaking, this is part loss, part gain. I am often left hungering for what I have missed. Pacing with Maria down the long rectory hallway that adjoins the church, I follow the Mass in my mind’s eye. But this hunger is not such a bad thing. During the years before the children, I would often struggle, not always successfully, to keep my mind on the mystery taking place rather than on the annoying or enervating distractions of a given Mass.

And I feel specially blessed in our parish’s beautiful church building, rich in stained glass, saints’ statues and real votive candles. The reverential influence of all that display inclines my body to worship even when my mind is distracted by whether or not Maria is about to tear the pages out of the missalette.

Even when I am banished to the rectory hallway I find food for my soul, since our parish recently put up a beautiful series of religious reproductions along the walls. Maria loves the picture of the Child Jesus holding a little bird in his hand. (“Don’t squish him, Baby Jesus!” she admonishes him.)

In contrast, in my parents’ church on Christmas Day, I got to sample the Crying Room, which was even barer and colder than the church one viewed through its windows. And after Mass, when we tried to “light” one of the electric votive lamps, it wouldn’t switch on. The battery was dead or a connection loose or whatever, which didn’t surprise me. There were so few other signs of life.

Going to church with the children is something we are not always thrilled about, and periodically we experiment with alternatives, or try to think up new ones. But when I try to distract an antsy child by pointing out the stories in the stained glass, or when a little one wants me to hold her up so she can “pet” the feet of Jesus on the giant crucifix near the back of the church, or when we visit the charming Christmas crèche, with one of the shepherds holding his little boy, and one of the sheep nibbling the stable straw, I feel a great kinship with all those medieval peasants gaping at gargoyles and piecing together Bible stories from stained glass. I think of all the times my poor, feeble, wandering attention is brought back to the sacred by the painting of an angel or the gaze of a contemplative Madonna. And, knowing my own weaknesses almost as well as God does, I thank God again for sending us an incarnate Lord, a sacramental Church.


Ellen Wilson Fielding is a writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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