Last winter Pope Francis visited the Roman parish of St. Joseph. One of his remarks there was eagerly snatched up by social media: "Babies cry, make noise, go here and there. But it annoys me when a baby cries in church and there are those who say he needs to go out. The cry of a baby is God's voice: never drive them away from the church!"
Being a mother of five children, I've had my share of those who say my baby "needs to go out." A friend of mine was once asked to leave with her baby--by the priest, during his homily! And sure enough, there are times when an inconsolable child needs a change of scenery so other churchgoers can have a little peace. But children belong in church. Let's bring them on Christmas, the day when God's voice actually became the cry of a baby. Let's bring our older children too, who, crying in their pre-adult way, sometimes protest having to go to church. Let's bring our children to church over and over again, so we all remember our story, our place as beloved children of God.
Pope Francis reminds us that "the cry of a baby is God's voice." Considering how much I crave silence, it is with great wonder and gratitude I realize how much I love to hear crying babies and noisy toddlers at church. And I don't mean I just love to hear other people's children cry, making my rambunctious brood seem comparatively docile. No, I mean squalling children help me pray.
This has not always been so. The change has come over me gradually, catalyzed most recently by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Over a six-month period, I made the Spiritual Exercises with a generous and patient Jesuit priest as my guide. Among the many surprises I encoutered in the Exercises was my growing appreciation for crying babies.
The Exercises are organized into four "Weeks" of varying length, consisting mainly of daily repetitions of hour-long prayer exercises. When the Spiritual Exercises are prayed in the traditional way, during a thirty-day silent retreat, the First Week actually does last about seven days. St. Ignatius' "19th Annotation" to the retreat, however, provides for people like me to pray the Exercises over a longer period of time, in the midst of daily life. Thus for me, the First Week grabbed hold of me for well over a month. Since the focus of this Week is sorrow for sin, that meant a long, hard end to winter for me, immersed as I was in considering my own weaknesses, my tendency to be a little afraid of the absolute goodness of God.
My prolonged contemplation of sin and weakness was, unsurprisingly, painful and humiliating. What I didn't expect was the quiet joy God also gave me during this time--the joy of being cared for. Time and again my daily hour of prayer led to imagining myself as a baby, sometimes docile, more frequently willful. In quiet moments, I was one of those contented, serene, radiant infants I've seen in the arms of peaceful parents. I believe God proposed this image to describe how he provides for me. As I considered dark times in my life, I began to see a pattern: in restless, anxious moments, my temptation is to scorn dependency and to rely only on myself. When money is tight, when personal relationships are edgy, when the house is drowning in clutter, panic sets in and I am easily convinced If I Don't Take Care of This, No One Will. I've never seen a baby act this way.
Babies cry to alert their caretakers they need something: attention, food, comfort, sleep, clean diapers. Under healthy circumstances, babies have an expectation of a caring response. They cry out; a parent responds. They are never angry or resentful that they cannot provide everything for themselves. They are content to rely on the providence of their parents. The Lord tells us,"As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you" (Isaiah 66:13). The Scriptures remind us over and over we are the children of God, the God who will never forsake us (see Isaiah 49:15, Psalm 27, Luke 11:13).
After all those weeks of praying as an infant in the arms of my loving Father, the cries of babies resonate somewhere deep within. Pavlov would be proud to observe my new instinct to pray upon hearing a baby noise. Happy coos and squeals are an invitation to prayer; relentless screaming and soulful cries remind me of my fitful neediness. Incense and bells may be more conventional, but a child's voice is my new prayer trigger.
And what better laboratory than a packed church for testing this prayer stimulus? The louder the better, as far as I'm concerned. Children of the world, unite! Do you sense a moment of profound stillness? Pierce it! Can you detect a reverent pause? Tear it wide open, and bring us to tears as we confront our own infancy, our own awesome dependence on our heavenly Father.
In the pews I see parents fretting, sweating, straining every nerve to control their children and still try to appear piously aloof to the concerns of the flesh. I was that parent just a few years ago. Maybe I'm just plain tired of policing the pew, or maybe I'm learning a new lesson. Babies will cry. Toddlers will wrestle. Children will speak, sing, yell, tear hymnals, and kick the pew in front of them. Strive for order, yes, but also embrace the wildness of youth. Like it or not, our souls also know chaos, longing for the peace only Christ can bring.
I look forward to Christmas Eve and Christmas services, and I look forward to the crowds of churchgoers. I want to sit next to young families and hold their children--but probably that would be creepy? I will keep my hands to myself, I guess, and hope my fellow parents will consider this: please know how glorious your families are, how compelling the sounds of inattentive or lively children. Thank you for coming to worship God our Lord, and for helping me pray.