I expected this to happen last year, when my oldest daughter left for college. After all, one of the first things I let slide in college was going to Sunday Mass, or even faking going to Sunday Mass, which I had perfected in my last year of high school (tips: don’t hang out anywhere you might see friends of your parents, and bring home a bulletin.) But my oldest found a Saturday evening Mass with music she liked and still attends regularly, even adding her hard-earned minimum-wage dollars to the collection. She has made me happy and proud to be such a good mother.
So what do I do with my second oldest, a senior in high school who has been accepted by the college of her choice and will leave in the fall, who has been confirmed and co-teaches a kindergarten religious education class, and who faked sick three Sundays in a row until finally admitting that she just doesn’t think she buys this Catholic jazz? Scratch that bit about being a good mother.
My first reaction was the typical as long as you’re under my roof, you’ll do what I say approach. But interestingly enough, it was my husband, whom my children see as the stricter parent, who questioned the wisdom of force-feeding faith. It’s not as if she were a young child, he reasoned with me. She made the choice to be confirmed as a Catholic last year. Now the decision really is hers, if we practice what we say we believe.
And there it is. It is so much easier to believe things when they pertain to other people’s children. How many parents I have counseled to let their young adult children find their own way, to be patient and hopeful, that as parents all they can do is model their faith by the way they live their livesI should listen to myself! But this is my own kid, and I find my heart is breaking.
When we finally talk, my daughter is angry. Perhaps the recent revelations of sexual abuse by priests have fueled her doubts. Certainly the hypocrisy she perceives in supposed people of faith who conduct themselves as people of hate violates her idealistic sense of justice. I have no good answers for these indefensible human acts. I understand her doubt, because I have been there. That, alas, she cannot see.
I wonder how many other people see me as she does: upright, strong, committed perhaps to a fault, faithful without doubt. It is my veneer. She doesn’t see that I wrestle with some of the very same issues she does. In fact, as much as my oldest may get her unquestioning Mass attendance from me, my second oldest may get her discomfort with the zealous from me. I have seen her squirm at Youth Days in the face of boundless hand-clapping, Hosanna-shouting energy, as well as when an acquaintance peppers her conversation with holy ejaculations (It’s a beautiful day, praise God! Praise God in Heaven!!), and so do I. I just hide it well. She doesn’t see it, or believe that I could possibly understand.
And of course part of me doesn’t understand. Life without the Eucharist seems a barren place of despair to me, and I have to remember that her denial of the sacrament is not permanent. She assures me, at the end of the conversation in which we establish that we will not force her attendance at Mass, that she is not closing any doors. She believes something, even if she doesn’t know quite what that is. She still wants to work at the soup kitchen, and I am relieved that her sense of social justice, always a bright light in her, seems undimmed.
Perhaps she will find God in other places. I hope that perhaps someday a whiff of the smoky incense she once carried into church as a young dancer will remind her where she truly belongs. Perhaps an Angelus bell in a distant city will help her regain her sense of comfort as a Catholic, or the face of Christ at a soup kitchen or her love for ritual and poetry will call her back. Perhaps a future crisis will give her her own pair of spiritual ruby slippers, which will click her way to the altar as she realizes that there’s no place like home and that our church is a place with room for flaws and doubt and darkness, as well as plenty of faith and light for people with struggling minds and suffering, loving hearts, just like her.
For now, her empty place in the pew each Sunday is one of those sad thorns among the lovely roses of motherhood. Praise God.