Showing up empty-handed

We were at Mass. Christmas Mass, in fact, but that doesn’t really matter. I felt, as I do every Sunday of the year, that we had arrived unprepared.

If I only had one more week of Advent, I could have gotten into the proper frame of mind and organized an acceptable habit of preparedness. If only I had a bit more time, we could have done more. But at least most of the family was there. And that was not nothing. It’s certainly not the inevitable thing to be taken for granted, that I once thought it was. 

Being there doesn’t feel like a bare minimum, these days. It feels like everything possible. That’s not because it’s so incredibly hard to show up for Mass. It’s really not. It’s just that I’m so much more aware than I used to be that any preparation I might do is mostly for show, and doesn’t mean much to anyone besides me. Being there isn’t the minimum; it’s the only thing, the only thing I have to give the Lord. 

When I was a new parent, it really was very physically challenging to get all my little ones minimally ready for church. I had to start very far in advance to make sure everybody had a full tummy and a fresh diaper (and more packed up just in case), presentable clothes and shoes, clean hands and face, tidy hair, and toys and books to occupy them but not distract other people. People who aren’t parents may not realize just how much physical and metal labor it takes to make such a simple thing work, especially if you’ve been up all night the night before taking care of those same children. It’s just a lot of work, and it’s exhausting (and that’s before the hour-long gymnastics session even begins).

There’s a reason parents are always carrying so many bags. You need to bring a lot with you, wherever you go. 

Then, as your kids get older, there is less physical, hands-on labor involved, fewer supplies to carry, but getting them to Mass involves a different, more complex and nuanced kind of work, which is just as exhausting in its way. You must work to teach them what to do, how to follow along and engaged, how to pray, how to think of God as a loving, welcoming Father, but also to take seriously their own responsibility to avoid sin, to repent when they have sinned, to approach the altar with humility.

That’s a lot of work, too, and it’s harder to tell when you’ve accomplished it. When a face must be washed, you wash it, and then it’s clean. But when a child’s conscience must be formed, it’s not only a continuous process, it’s very easy to do it wrong, and hard to tell when you’re doing it wrong, and, when things are clearly going wrong, hard to tell if it’s because of what you’re doing, or because of some other influence entirely. It’s just hard.

Well, you try showing up at Mass without some of your kids. Try showing up and knowing that some of your kids aren’t there by their own choice, after being raised by you. This takes no work whatsoever on your part, but it’s the most exhausting of all. 

Literally exhausting, as in, it takes everything from you. You stand there and you are left with nothing, nothing but yourself to drag before the altar and present to God. Here is what I have to show, Lord: Just me. Just my helplessness; that’s all I have. All I have is my mouse strength, my pale shadow, my feeble heart, my shallow breath, my almost-nothing. My failure, which is nothing. Every time I go to Mass now, this is what I bring: Pure uselessness. 

It’s so hard, it’s easy. All you have to do is show up. What could be simpler?

It wasn’t wrong, to be so busy and burdened before, when my children were all young. Somebody had to do it! Things have to get things done. Somebody had to carry all those loads.

But hiding at the center of all forms of human labor is a core of pure uselessness, and it’s good to know that this is so. Because sooner or later, no matter what it is you do, that’s all that will be left: Just you and your helplessness. This is what we all have to present to the Lord. It’s easy to convince ourselves there’s more to it than that, but there isn’t. 

We don’t go to Mass because of what we can bring to the table. I know that. We go to worship, and we go hoping to receive. They say that, when you find yourself empty handed, what’s when God will fill you up. That is what they say! Now we find out. 

A version of this essay was originally published in The Catholic Weekly on January 19, 2022.

Photo by Thomas Vitali on Unsplash

Liked it? Take a second to support simchajfisher on Patreon!

12 thoughts on “Showing up empty-handed”

  1. Simcha, I think this is authentic Christianity right here. True poverty of spirit.

    The beginning prayer and the final prayer of the Christian life is one and the same: Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a poor sinner.

  2. Thanks for your blog. I’m a former Catholic turned current Catholic after I could no longer take the Christian Nationalism being passed off as religion in the church my wife grew up in (and still attends) and where my teenaged children went through their equivalent of the sacraments and still attend youth group. My kids are fine I think since if I have done anything as a parent it is to teach them to trust their own instincts and not to trust everything said from a pulpit, but my wife after 20 years of sanity appears to have gone full QAnon after a voice she believes was God told her to vote for President Trump in the 2020 election, that Democrats were going to be exposed for human trafficking, and then that we’ll never know who really won the election, but we know that Trump is President (seriously) in Heaven. Even before the Trump nonsense I knew I had to leave a church that was willing to forgo Christianity for some kind of twisted American nationalism (Country before Doctrine), historical revisionism (Black people were lucky to be slaves to White Christians), and all around gay-, feminist- and public school-bashing. Anyhow I don’t know how Trump or politics managed to take over much of the evangelical Protestant church (not to mention wide swaths of the Catholic Church), but somehow a few years ago I managed to find a nice, dynamic, “normal” Catholic parish where I knew I was home. Sometimes the wife and kids will attend Mass with me, but a lot of the time I am sitting alone, wallowing in self-pity. Every once and a while though, I do managed to see beyond myself, and find the Mass uplifting, inspiring and life changing. I do wish I had the sense of shared faith at home and occasionally experience it with my kids, but I also know if I don’t have an anchor to the Church, I have nothing. I appreciate reading from Catholics who seem to understand that life doesn’t have to be perfect and working out our faith with fear and trembling can be hard and can sometime even suck. Thanks for leaving out the candy coating of Catholicism.

  3. This is beautiful and sad, and really resonates. I am in the young kid/pregnancy stage of it all. The bags, the prepping, keeping them entertained. I try to teach them to kneel and face forward during Mass, but really keeping them quiet in the pew is the main goal. My time in Mass, like all my time, is devoted to forming and correcting my kids– when am I supposed to form and correct myself? A moment of quiet, I feel empty and lethargic. I am never deeply prayerful, my old prayerbooks are positively soporific these days. Motherhood has exposed so many faults and sins, but not the energy to address them, and the empty fatigue I feel at Mass reminds me of this every Sunday.

    1. I’m right there with you — “motherhood has exposed so many faults and sins, but not the energy to address them” and being reminded of that every Sunday. Thank you for sharing, and I wish I could give you a hug and watch your kids for a morning so you could have an uninterrupted Mass sometime (hopefully this doesn’t sound too creepy from an Internet stranger!) I was at Mass one Sunday a few months ago with my five kids by myself (husband was on a retreat) and had such a hard time just making it through; an older woman sitting behind me told me afterwards that I had a beautiful family and that I was doing a good job and I just started crying. It’s just so, so hard, and it has been for a while. So again, I’m right there with you, Julia.

  4. This reads to me like Mother Teresa, Simcha! She was convinced that she was the weakest, most useless person there was, and that was why God chose her to work through. Despite my own lip service of claiming uselessness—despite my own real growth in humility since I became a Christian—I know I don’t really believe it yet. Not completely. There’s still a piece of me saying “I can do it, I can figure it out, and I can figure it out better than that loser.” Reading about the core of pure uselessness inside us all is a great reminder to my “voluble self” to shut up. (Perelandra reference, just in case you haven’t read it.) Thank you for your useful uselessness. Now maybe I will try again more heartily for a couple of hours before I need to repent again.

    I’ll say a prayer your kids go back to Mass, too. Lord have mercy. Thank God for Jesus.

  5. I realize this is a separate issue, but I’m wondering if anyone else is experiencing this. Since the pandemic, Mass has often become a near occasion of sin for me. It upsets me when fellow parishioners don’t comply with mask and social distancing guidelines during times of high community spread, and I sit there fuming. It seems like it defeats the purpose of going to Mass. I wish I knew how to handle this better.

    1. I hear you 100%! Things got better in my world when general mandates ended, and only one weekend Mass was masks required, so that people who didn’t want to follow precautions didn’t have to, and they could be that way without imposing it on anyone else. That said, I no longer go to weekday Masses except before dawn on Wednesday mornings, because it truly is a near occasion of sin for me to get to Mass and find it taken over by people who not only don’t mask, but who think that it’s perfectly okay to completely ignore social distancing, too, even in a mostly empty church. I used to go every day, so I really feel the pull, And right now the best I can do is resolve for Lent to pray morning or evening prayer In place of the Mass I would ordinarily have gone to at that time.

    2. You’re not the only one. I have all but given up on our local parish, since the priest has been, practically since the beginning, complaining about how he “personally hates, no, detests” wearing masks, and then spins it as “Well, masking can be a spiritual discipline,” and says it is highly recommended but doesn’t wear a mask himself hardly at all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *