Two Sundays ago I berated my kids for not altar serving according to my standards. I didn't ask the good parenting question, "What happened?" or "How did that happen?" I simply scolded them for what went wrong.
I would like to defend myself and say that I had been pushed into irritability by the bad behavior of their little brother during all of Mass, but I have no excuse for my approach to their minor mistakes in the service.
You can imagine my contrition once both of them started to cry, and my husband stared in disappointment at my harsh tactics. And I certainly cannot say that Christ was pleased with me; I felt the opposite - that I had given in to the sway of my own imperfect, merciless judgment.
After the awareness of my meanness settled in my chest and began to swell uncomfortably, painfully, I apologized all the way home for my critical words and unjust assessment of the situation, but I could see by my husband's stern countenance and my children's red, droopy faces that I had ruined the day, Sabbath day.
When we got home I made an excuse to go to the grocery store. I roamed the aisles searching for treats for my kids, probably another false step, but I was trying to quiet the spirit of criticism that I had now turned on myself in full fury by getting something special for them to cheer them up and help them realize how badly I felt about it. I was a terrible mother that day, and I felt it keenly.
I passed a short, stocky, grey-haired gentleman in working clothes going down one aisle. I smiled weakly by way of greeting. A little while later, I met him again.
"So much to choose from," he said, or something like it. "I'm just wandering around."
"Yes, and so much of it junk," I replied. "And I'm being very naughty - I'm tempted."
I went to gather some really rotten-for-you chips that were on sale, and coming back through a little causeway cutting down three aisles, I met the gentleman again. Honestly, it felt like he was waiting for me.
"See how bad I've been," I said, slightly embarrassed that I was indeed indulging my inclination for unhealthy snacks. "I got all these chips."
"Ah, well," he said. "It happens to all of us."
"Actually, they're for my kids," I rambled on. "To say sorry. I haven't been a very good mother today." My eyes filled up at this point. It was coming, and I don't remember whether he actually asked what happened, or I read the question in his sympathetic eyes, serene clean-shaven face and his stillness.
"Well, we went to church this morning and...well, my kids made some mistakes at church, and I got after them...a lot. I made them both cry. I feel terrible, and now I'm buying all these treats just to say I'm sorry, like a peace offering."
"Sounds like you just needed to get away and think about the world for a while."
"Yes," I replied brushing away my tears. "But thank you! Thank you for listening to me and letting me get it off my chest," I meant to push on, feeling silly for crying to a stranger.
"No problem. Listen, I've been a dad for a long time now, and I've made many mistakes. But kids are pretty resilient...as long as it's nothing too traumatic."
I took a deep breath and let it go. "You're right. Yes, they are."
He smelled like cigarettes but felt like an angel of good will sent to shore me up, help me move on.
"Thank you so much for listening," I repeated, tearing up again. "It means so much. Thank you. Really. Thank you..."
He gave me a little nod, and I took the long walk away from him down the cookie aisle, all the while feeling that God had reached out to me through this person.
I forgave myself for a bad day as I walked away. Glancing back at him as he scanned over product like any normal person, I realized how important our little words of encouragement, our patience, and our smiles are to each other. They make a world of difference. They lift up the sad, confused, and imperfect. The gift of our time, hope, and kindness is a delivery of God's love to each other, paying it forward through eternity. I mean to be that angel of good will, especially to my beloved children, just as an unlikely middle-aged, working man with a faint perfume of cigarettes was to me on a given Sunday.
Meditation from Catholic Catechism for Adults:
We unite ourselves to Christ's redemptive work when we make peace, when we share the good news that God is in our lives, when we reflect to our brothers and sisters God's healing, God's forgiveness, God's unconditional love.