I stir awake in the middle of the night to the sound of crying. I am sleeping in in the basement of my brother’s house, where my niece’s little stuffed animals and pink princess attire litter the floor.
I am exhausted from the late night of my brother and sister-in-law’s housewarming barbecue, so it takes me a bit to come to. Eventually, I pull myself out of bed and follow the crying.
As I approach, a little head suddenly pops up over a low dividing wall. It’s my three-year-old nephew. He jumps back in fright at first, but once he recognizes me, he takes up an even more heart-wrenching wail. I quickly shuffle to him and ask him what’s wrong.
“I wan my milkeee!” I hear through the sobs. Translation – he wants his chocolate milk sippy cup, a profound crisis for a three-year old who day and night clutches his chocolate milk close to his heart as if losing it would be the end of him.
I find his sippy cup and carry him upstairs. I rummage through the cupboards, find the Nesquik mix, clean out his bottle, and mix up some more. Then I put him back in his bed with his milk and blankee and he drifts to sleep. I return to the princess’s palace and lay down to try to get a bit more rest. Crisis averted, sleep… interrupted.
I never sleep well in an unfamiliar bed, so the next morning, Sunday, I wake up early. The two dogs instantly rush to me for their morning greeting. I brew a cup of coffee with the Keurig machine and wait for the others to get up: my brother, his wife, and their three kids who are five, three, and one.
Our plan is for the whole family to go to Mass, so I help pick up from last night’s party while simultaneously aiding in the team effort to hold, entertain, and watch the kids before we leave. My parents soon arrive, and we all pile in to two cars.
When we arrive at the church and walk through the doors, my brother and I admire the towering ceiling and beautiful stained glass. I point this out to my niece as we take up our strategic “kid-proof” positions in the pew. My parents guard the left flank, while my brother and sister create a barrier on the right along with the newborn’s car seat. I am in the middle, mostly taking care of my niece Olivia. We are ready.
Mass begins, and I hold my five-year-old niece as I point to the music I am singing from the hymnal. She is interested for about five seconds, and then goes to my mom for a fruit snack and some blank drawing paper. For the next fifteen minutes we quietly practice writing her first and last name.
At Mass, our family spectacle must look more like controlled chaos than worship. Books are dropped, pews turn in to arts and crafts tables, kids cry and laugh, and hot wheels race along imaginary streets. Sometimes I sit with the kids when I’m supposed to stand. And, sometimes, I pay closer attention to making sure kids don’t tumble to the floor than to hearing God’s sacred words.
At one point, unprovoked, Olivia utters in a hushed voice:
“The…the baby Jesus, he died, and then….and…and then he saved us.”
I lean toward her and whisper, “Yes. He grew up and died. But what happened after that?”
“He…he went up into the clouds.”
“That’s right, to heaven!” I quietly reply. “Who told you that?”
“My mommy did,” she says.
“Jesus is the best, isn’t he.” I say. “Do you like Jesus?”
“Yes, I like him,” she replies with no hesitation.
Until this visit to my brother’s house overnight, I don’t think I realized the commitment it takes for a family of five to go to church on a Sunday morning. My brother and sister-in-law are both going to college online. He works full-time. She’s with three kids at home all day; changing diapers, mixing Nesquik, making hot dogs and mac & cheese, getting her kids into art and gardening and games. They are busy, which makes going to church a big undertaking. Back in Chicago, all I have to do is wake up, head out the door, and walk three minutes to the chapel on campus.
It’s a great gift to be able to pray at Mass in silent attention. But, in the chaos of my brother’s young family, I see an equally beautiful form of worship. Worship in the form of retrieving dropped toys and helping with arts and crafts in the pews. Of filling sippy cups and hearing a five-year-old child talk about Jesus. In that worship, I see my brother and his wife answering the call, “let the children come to me.” In their daily dedication to their kids and family, there is goodness and a deep, hidden holiness in their everyday lives.