A mother ushers her handful of small children into church on Sunday morning.
She sits down in their usual pew, but then stands back up to swap places with her husband. She settles into the aisle seat for easy escape.
The toddler climbs into her lap and tugs on her veil.
She wonders how long he will last today.
The Mass begins.
Her children look like angels from the shoulders up to the casual viewer in the back. But the mother sees their legs kicking at each other out of sight, and hears their whispered threats.
She whispers one of her own: No donuts.
Apparently today is the preschooler’s turn to be escorted to the narthex. The feisty four year old stomps her foot, winds up her arm to send her missalette flying, and begins that high-pitched whine that pierces the reverent silence of the church.
The mother scoops her up and begins the long walk of shame.
She swiftly steps past rows and rows of pews, in and out of the colorful rays of light from the stained-glass windows, to the shadowy narthex.
Though her pulse is racing, she prays to maintain her calm demeanor. She keeps her eyes downcast to avoid the glances of the other parishioners.
The rest of the Mass she spends hovering near the doors of the church, straining to hear a word of the Gospel over the noises of the child in her arms, whispering the prayer responses among the whispers of comfort for her restless daughter.
When the communion line forms, the mother steps in at the very end, now with a child in each arm. The toddler couldn’t bear to remain in the pew without her.
She wipes the beads of sweat off her forehead and she kneels to receive our Lord, lowering a child to each side of her.
Then she stands and makes the long walk back to the narthex.
The priest raises his hand for the final blessing, and the mother raises her hand to sign herself over and around her children.
They shift, heads bump, and the deafening crying finally begins.
The mother hastily escapes the building and sets her children down in a plot of grass outside the front door.
Hands on hips, she sucks a lungful of fresh air through gritted teeth.
She is weary to the marrow of her bones. Her eyes brim with tears threatening to spill over. As she exhales, she tips her head back, the brim of her nose pointed toward the sky, and tries to blink those tears away.
The other parishioners begin to exit the church, and the mother tries to look busy.
But an elderly man waltzes right up to her: “I remember when mine were that age.”
A mother with teens follows behind him: “They will grow out of it… you’re doing a great job.”
A familiar face surfaces next, a friend who wrestles her own children many a Sunday: “I just want to give you a hug.”
The mother doesn’t understand their kindness.
She was hardly able to pray. She held on to her patience by a thread. She didn’t feel like a good mother or a good daughter of God.
She sees herself with different eyes.
She sees her struggles, her weaknesses, her failings.
But they see her love.
Her love for these children who test her patience. Her love for Our Lord, to whom she brings her children week after week. Her love for her vocation which despite all its challenges she wouldn’t trade for the world.
The mother sometimes forgets that these sacrifices, these moments of pouring out her entire self, are an act of love. What she sees as a failing is actually the great accomplishment of her life.
She was judging herself based on her level of success at keeping her children quietly seated in the pew for the duration of the Mass.
But these people, with their kind words, were sent to remind her that’s not how God judges her.
He judges her by the love in her heart when chaos breaks loose, her compassionate response to the unpredictable needs of her young children, her fortitude in continuing to seek him first and bring her family to him too.
But most of all, he judges her with grace and mercy.
Her husband walks through the doors and scans the parking lot to find her. “You okay?” he asks as he wraps her in a hug.
On his heels comes the parish priest: “You are a beautiful mother,” he pauses to say on his way by.
And, with bags under her eyes, her hairstyle in disarray, sweat streaming down her face, her husband by her side, her children running circles around her, and a whole lot of love in her heart, she truly is a beautiful mother.
Though it may be a long time before she’s able to make it through Mass without leaving the pew to calm an antsy child, her walk is never a walk of shame.
It’s a walk of love.