Including Henry
by by Betsy DeRuff

One week after our first child Katherine was born I opened the New York Times and saw a stark picture of three starving children in Angola. Perhaps we've all seen puctures like this -- holle faces. nothing but skin covering small bones -- but this time my reaction was different.

        I burst into tears and couldn't stop. I wept for the children, and I especially wept for their mothers. What would it feel like to look down at your hungry children and know you couldn't provide for them? Becoming a mother meant something more than I had imagined. I was suddenly connected to mothers all over the world. Three and a half years later I found myself weeping because I couldn't care for Henry, my eighteen-month-old son. He was outside the chapel crying, and I was at the altar crying. I had brought my children with their trusted baby-sitter to a church service where I was assisting as a seminarian. Moments before the Eucharistic Prayer the presider whispered to me that if my children continued to walk around and talk they would have to leave. Henry moved towards me at the altar saying, "mum, mum." His words and actions sealed his fate; he was quickly removed from the rest of the service by his baby-sitter.

        As I heard his cries from outside I also heard the presider's words next to me: "You made us in your image, male and female, and taught us to walk in your ways. But we rebelled against you, and wandered far away; and yet, as a mother cares for her children, you would not forget us. Time and again you called us to live in the fullness of your love."

        I wept at the irony. The image of God as mother who cares for her children contrasted with my inability to care for my son. For the first time I felt agony and grief in carrying out my call to the priesthood. It meant I could not rush outside and comfort Henry as I longed to do. I was also embarrassed to be weeping without anything to shield me from the congregation.


        Days and weeks later I spoke about this experience to other mothers. My friend who is Roman Catholic said, "If I brought my children to church all I would do is run around after them. This would be distracting for others. I wouldn't get anything out of the service, and I doubt the children would either."

        Another mother said, "I want to concentrate and have a peaceful experience. It's a personal and private thing for me. In fact, I don't even like going to church with people I know. I prefer to go alone so I can pray, look at the stained glass windows, and listen attentively."

        It was then that I became aware that not all people think about children and liturgy as I do - in fact, I was surprised to find out that not all mothers feel the same way. I want to respect other points of view and honor the need for contemplative prayer, but I would hate to leave children out of the service in order to achieve this.

        Children can be a gift to a worshipping community. I love watching Henry, now two and a half years old, at Eucharist. He earnestly and patiently reaches out his hand for almost the entire Eucharistic Prayer and begs, "bread, bread." After he receives both bread and wine, and while the other people are receiving, he wiggles out of my arms and walks up to the Table. He has a favorite priest, M.R. Ritley, whose vestments he tugs at signaling that he'd like some more please. M.R. usually looks down, smiles and offers him more bread. He then runs back to me and sits on the floor to enjoy his bounty. These are holy, grace-filled moments. I can't help but believe he will grow up with the experience of abundance, with an expectation of asking for more and receiving more of the mystery of Jesus.


        Hand outstretched, Henry experiences the liturgy as a feast. Jurgen Moltmann, a German theologian, distinguishes between liturgy as feast and liturgy as ritual. Liturgy is a ritual when a relatively closed group, after years of practice, has drained the meaning out of the liturgy, and only empty ceremonies and symbols remain. But as a FEAST, the service is closer to an unsolemn and open game. A ritual is disturbed by anything unexpected, but the feast is open for spontaneous ideas and for accidents coming from outside. There are no disturbances in it, only surprises. Strangers can participate in the feast too.

        For a feast, only the framework is planned in advance. What happens depends on the participants themselves. The feast therefore opens up the traditional elements of the celebration and makes room for spontaneous and creative contributions.

        A ceremonial model corresponds to many people's liturgical experiences. We find it difficult to believe that spontaneity, surprise and lack of full control will mediate God - after all, these characteristics closely resemble life outside of the church - ordinary life. But liturgy as feast creates a context in which we can learn to trust this experience. Children help us because they model meeting God in a daily experience. As Louis Weil, Professor of Liturgics at the Episcopal seminary in Berkeley, says, children don't put on a religious mask. Their full, uncensored expression is a constant reminder that God loves us as we are, without pretense.

Betsy De Ruff is a Seminarian at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley. She will graduate this May and is a candidate for Holy Orders. She is married and has two young children. [Betsy is now an ordained priest, with three young children, and heads St Gregory's Children's and Families Ministeries. 1/2000]



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