Because his mother is an Episcopalian but his father does not belong to an organized religion, Nicholas was not baptized as an infant. My congregation welcomed him with the Prayer of Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child, and everyone treats him as a member of the church family, but he will not join the church officially unless/until he makes that decision for himself. In The Episcopal Church, all Christians (regardless of denomination) may receive Communion, but young children don’t receive until they’ve taken a class. A person who is not receiving Communion may go up to the altar to be blessed by the priest instead; an adult doing that indicates it by crossing her arms over her chest, but with young children it’s generally assumed that they get the blessing rather than the bread and wine.
Nicholas is two-and-a-half years old and has been attending church with me regularly since he was just a few days old. He doesn’t want to go to the nursery, and anyway I enjoy having him with me during the whole service, distracting though it can be. So far, I’ve done very little explaining of church rituals, just let him soak up the experience and watched him slowly start to follow along with some of the behaviors.
Yesterday we had a visiting priest. Maybe she thought Nicholas was older than he was, or maybe he just looked very confident that he was supposed to receive Communion. I was preoccupied with prayer and didn’t realize that he was holding out his hands just like mine until I saw him putting the bread into his mouth.
Well, what can you do at that point? I guess I could’ve said, “Spit that out! You’re not holy enough to deserve the Body of Christ!” and caught the wad of half-chewed sanctified bread and…what? thrown it away? eaten it myself? handed it back to the priest? That whole line of action felt obviously wrong. What Would Jesus Do? He wasn’t all that keen on rules. He welcomed everyone, especially little children. He was always looking for opportunities to teach people.
When we got back to our pew, instead of kneeling to pray as I normally would at that time, I whispered to Nicholas, “Let me tell you about that bread you just ate.” He looked very interested. I said, “That is a special bread that was blessed by the priest. Communion is about the time when God sent Jesus to live with the people and teach them. Some people didn’t like the truths that Jesus was telling and decided to kill him. He knew that this was going to happen, so the night before he died, he had a special dinner with his friends. He broke the bread into little pieces and gave everybody a piece and said, ‘When you eat bread, remember me.’ So we have this ceremony to remember Jesus and the things he taught. It is important not to take the bread unless you understand and are very serious about it.” Nicholas listened carefully. I felt astonished that I hadn’t explained before now. I mean, part of this story is recited by the priest every time, so Nicholas has been hearing it…but without the context, how was he supposed to understand? In hindsight, it’s remarkable that he didn’t demand to share the bread before!
This actually was the second incident that morning to prod me into taking a more active approach to religious instruction. Earlier, we’d had to leave the church for a little while because Nicholas wasn’t behaving appropriately: He lined up some hymnals on the pew and was walking on them and wouldn’t stop when I told him to, and he was nagging me in a louder and louder voice to “Do the Limbo!” with him. Of course, we’ve often had to step out of church when he’s been making enough noise to distract people, and when he was a baby I very much accepted it, but gradually I’ve been firmer in my expectations of appropriate behavior. These days I stop right outside the door, get down to his eye level, explain very firmly what he was doing that was unacceptable, and ask whether he is ready to behave properly. If not, we sit quietly in the parish hall for a while until he is ready. Sometimes I feel angry that he’s done such an inappropriate thing (he doesn’t step on books anywhere else!) or that my worship has been interrupted, and I try to manage that anger by praying to open myself to God’s peace.
Yesterday, after a few minutes of quiet sitting in the parish hall, Nicholas said, “Mama, tell Cinderella.” I said, “No, I am not telling stories now. I am praying. While I wait for you to be ready to go back into church so I can pray with the people, I am praying by myself in here.” Suddenly I was slapped upside the head with the realization that I had never told my child that praying was something he himself could do! (I mean, I encourage him to pray along with everybody in church, but that’s different from praying on one’s own initiative.) I said, “You could pray, too. Tell God some things you are thankful for, or some things you are sorry for.” Immediately he bowed his head and said, “I am sorry I stepped on the books.” A few seconds later, he hugged me and said, “I will do better now. Can we go back?” Yes! I don’t really know if he was “really” praying, if this was any different for him than all the other times he has regained his composure and known when he was ready to return. But it led me to realize that it’s been a long time–maybe a year–since he’s responded to stepping out of church by continuing to be rambunctious. When he was a baby, especially when he had first learned to crawl, rambunctious behavior often meant that he was having an active spell right this moment and needed to “blow off steam” instead of sitting quietly; it wasn’t his fault that it happened to coincide with my scheduled worship time. I got used to that and didn’t notice that he wasn’t doing it anymore, that now being removed from church quickly “resets” him to more appropriate behavior. For all I know, he’s been praying for and receiving peace for months now!
This isn’t just about religion. It’s about teaching in general and about being aware of my child’s growth and readiness. I don’t want to “burn him out” on exploring whole areas of life by piling him with too many facts and rules and making it sound like I know all the answers and there’s nothing left for him to discover…but sometimes I may not be explaining enough. Nicholas is accustomed to church, is picking up on some of the routines, but it all could be more meaningful and even useful to him if I tell him more about what’s going on and why it is worthwhile.