My youngest daughter is two weeks shy of 13. In two weeks, she will leave her childhood behind her and take off on the exhilarating jet of adolescence, although in reality she is already at cruising altitude. She has grown an inch a month over the summer, and the expression of disdain on her face right now is older than 12-and-a-half. We have arrived a bit early for Mass, so we are sitting in the car, having the Mass discussion. This is a discussion in which I have several advantages: besides being the mother, I have had it three times before with her older sisters. I have summarized it to many other parents. I even dimly recall being cast in her role and saying her lines about 35 years ago.
“Why do I have to go to church? It’s boring. I don’t pay attention. The priest says the same thing every week. I already know it all,” says my daughter.
My turn: “Some parts are exactly the same. Some are actually different every week. If you listened, you’d hear something new.”
“I don’t want to go to church. I don’t want to go to confirmation classes. I don’t even want to be Catholic.”
“That will be your decision after you’ve gone to confirmation classes. Then at least you won’t be deciding in ignorance. For right now, we’re raising you Catholic, and you’re going to Mass.”
“Why? What’s the point? How do you even know there’s a God?”
“What do you think happens after you die?”
“I don’t know. Maybe reincarnation.” She floats a new theory, looking for a reaction.
I try another angle. “How do you think we all got here?”
“I don’t know. But how can you believe in God?”
“That’s called faith.”
“Well, I don’t have faith. You didn’t give me any faith!” she says, triumphant at last that something is my fault.
This tackles my motherly side, but it also exposes to my catechist side a large opening in her defensive line. I run for daylight.
“I can’t give you faith. It’s a gift from God. You just have to be open to saying thank you.”
The bells ring, calling the last-minute arrivals into church. My daughter sits leadenly next to me. As Mass begins, she neither sings, nor smiles, nor prays. These are the actions of hopeless dorks. I thank God for the three girls before her, who once sat the same way in this same pew, and who have taught me that this stage, too, shall pass.
I am an observant enough Catholic that I have usually read and thought about the Sunday readings before I get to Mass. But not this week. This week has been different. My husband was out of town for much of it, which always steals the wind from the sails of my routine. My college daughter had a housing crisis. We had a stray dog incident. I just hadn’t gotten to the readings. So my daughter and I are both surprised by the words of Luke’s Gospel.
“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’ The Lord replied, ‘If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you’” (Lk 17:5-6).
I look at my daughter. She is actually paying attention. “It’s what we were talking about,” I whisper.
She nods. To her further astonishment, the deacon proceeds to begin his homily with the words, “What is faith?”
The deacon discusses the levels of faith. At the first, shallow level, faith can be swept away by daily, ordinary circumstances. At the second level, faith remains rootless and can be yanked free of our hearts when we don’t get the things for which we pray. We assume we have been abandoned by God. It is only at the third level, when we are able to pray “Thy will be done” and trust that we will indeed end up in the right place, that we are in a faithful relationship with God.
Often that is the hardest prayer for me. When this very daughter was hospitalized for pneumonia, at only 11 months of age, I was afraid to say that prayer. “Thy will be done”—just like that? What if God’s will involved taking this baby? How could I risk praying for that unthinkable tragedy? Better not to pray, I thought. After a sleepless night at her side in the hospital, I finally held my grandmother’s rosary and surrendered to the Our Father. It was dawn. The sun rose pinkly, gently. My baby daughter got better.
But 12 years of health and happiness later, I am still sometimes haunted by that night. What if she hadn’t gotten better? Is my faith a function of blue skies and gratitude? Even blessed with a life about which no one could complain, I still worry. I still second-guess God at every turn. I still think I just might know better. My trust is conditional and leery. No wonder this daughter of mine sees no shining beacon of faith to follow.
The closing announcements shake us further. A well-liked parishioner has died; his funeral will be next week. He was the exact age of my father, 74, and I see in my daughter’s face that she is making the connection between this funny, joking man at church, who was somebody else’s grandfather, and her own beloved grandpa. He is vulnerable to the same fate. A real sadness envelops her as we leave the church. I can sense her working the puzzle out. Mr. Kelly has left us, but is he really gone?
As we drive home, my daughter turns to me. Her face is lit with innocence and trust, and she says, “Well, I guess we all needed to hear that Gospel, didn’t we?”
I guess we did.