The best seats at a boxing match, dog show, or Broadway play are the worst seats at Mass. I'm still not sure why, but almost everyone knows it. As an altar boy I used to notice that even at a 7 A.M. weekday Mass with only two people in attendance, the first eight pews would still be empty. If Mass were said in the front seat of a sedan, most people--my wife and me included--would try to sit in the trunk.
But this Sunday we were running late. In the car, we invoked the usual excuse--that lateness is inevitable when you're herding three small children--and took comfort in the knowledge that we do our best, usually arriving early, even if only just before the last-minute rush.
Arriving early is actually something we do advisedly, because every minute at church is 60 seconds off the clock for how long we can go on being there at all. There is no scientifically documented length of time a family with small children can stay at Mass before a father's arms, which have been wrestling with the one-year-old since the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word, must fall off like termite-ridden tree limbs in a windstorm. Or before a mother's rage, on hold since the earlier struggle at home over whether the five-year-old has to wear those tights, explodes in a bout of raving, howling fury. Or before a toddler jumps onto a nearby parishioner's lap to play with her tropical-fish earrings. But it is as obvious as a smelly diaper that a barely contained chaos is lurking within you, your spouse, and your lovingly dressed offspring--and about all you can do is remain mindful of the fact.
There are those who say the chaos cannot be contained. At our church, they and their children take up positions in a long noisy corridor at the back. The corridor is separated from the church proper by a wall of glass, so these parishioners and their wailing, toy-throwing, relay-racing children can watch the Mass. They can also listen to it, because the priests and readers are miked into a sound system that carries to the corridor. But for me, standing in the corridor is like barely being at church in the first place.
So when, on the Sunday in question, we came in late, there was only the briefest preamble in the corridor before Cynthia and I agreed we'd either find some seats or, God forgive us, leave. Through the glass we spotted a short row completely open. It was, of course, way up front.
We might have taken a pass and headed to the bakery for muffins and the paper, but it was Lent and it would have been sinfully picky to leave simply because the only seating available was too close to the altar. So at the next opportunity we walked in, carrying one child and dragging two others.
Arriving we realized the altar was only about ten feet away, without so much as a kneeler separating us from it. And, positioned as we were to the side, we soon became aware that our faces and every move were now visible to about four-fifths of the congregation.
Immediately our three-year-old son gave me a great smile, openly amazed that we could get this close to the action. Then, in plain view of everyone, he began walking with a silly high kick toward the altar, ready to join the priest, greet the altar boys, and, who knows, deliver the homily if necessary. With his little brother in one arm I reached out and, like a first baseman scooping an errant throw from third, elongated myself by sheer force of will to grab him by the collar and make the necessary play.
It seemed like the whole church was waiting for us to signal when to stand, kneel, sit, and chime in with the correct choral-like response. Usually at Mass one just gives in to the group mind of words and gestures, so even if you lose your place, you're doing the right thing at the right moment. But up front you have no one's cue to follow.
When the basket came around for the collection, we were first to receive the handoff and had exactly 1.2 seconds to produce a contribution as hundreds of faces again turned innocently in our direction. Unable to locate the check we had written in the car, I gave the usher a dumb look and handed him back the empty basket.
After communion we bolted. Though nothing terrible had actually happened, we felt as if we had just been marched naked through the town square. It was several minutes in the car before we could even mention in civil tones how we are never, ever going to do that again.