Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Cradle Christian


When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these."
- Mark 10:14

Ten minutes before the service starts the tall wooden doors at the front of the church swing open, and a priest hurries through. He is pounding down the aisle in full stride, and as my one-year-old daughter spots him, she squeals in recognition and holds out her hand. He whirls around to face her.

"Shhh!" he hisses. "Be quiet."

And with a swoosh of his robes, he is gone.

My daughter drops the hand she was holding out to him, and looks up at me, confused. She doesn't understand why this man she was so happy to see wasn't happy to see her.

I don't understand, either. Nor do I understand why I am sitting here, a Christian and a feminist, in the hard wooden pew where I sit every Sunday with my extended family -- three generations of churchgoers all in a row -- allowing a man in clerical garb to rebuke my young daughter.

I look over my shoulder and catch one last glimpse of the priest as he moves into the narthex in preparation for the procession, safely ensconced in a world of candles, prayer books, and vestments -- a spiritual world, a world of the mind.

I shift in my pew. I live in a world of the body. My spirituality is twined with flesh, with bodies that bleed and birth and nurse their young. That is the high calling of motherhood: a demand that we learn to negotiate the spirit world while remaining firmly rooted in our earthly humanity.

I glance down at my daughter. She has recovered from the encounter, now flipping through a Bible with her chubby hands, but I have not. This isn't the image of the church I want to give her, that we allow men in fancy dresses to tell us we're not welcome -- for being women, for being flesh, for being noisy, for being young. I tuck a wisp of hair behind her ear.

I could leave. The door isn't that far behind me, I could make it out before the first chord of the opening hymn. I could walk out and not come back until my daughter is asleep...or until she is two, or twelve. Or never. I roll these options around in my mind as the congregation reaches for hymnals.

But I don't want to leave. I want to stay right here in my pew, with my daughter, a visible symbol of the messy realities of life. I make up my mind: we will not disappear. We who are steeped in the blood and milk of motherhood are not going to hide ourselves to make anyone else more comfortable. That's not the example that Jesus set.

Weeks after the encounter, my husband and I are still talking about it, about all the ramifications of our daughter being told, effectively, that she is not welcome in the house of the Lord. We talk about leaving the church -- the church where our daughter was baptized, where we were married, where I was baptized.

But in the end, we decide to stay. This priest, this representative of the church, is not the church -- the church is the body of Christ, a phrase I resonate with, as a mother, now more than ever. I have been a part of this particular congregation, this branch of the body of Christ, long before this priest showed up; and I will continue to be a member of this church long after he has gone. He is not the church. Christ is the church, I am the church, we are the church. Alive and messy, wholly flesh.

Because isn't that the point of this outrageous story I claim to believe? That divinity chose to enter humanity, that God himself was born as a tiny, squalling, infant human being? I am certain the baby Jesus cried in the temple, and wet himself and spit up on his mother. And Mary held him to her chest and kissed the folds of his soft baby neck, because she was his mother and that's what mothers do.

I often feel like a trailblazer, carving out my own hallowed space as a conservative Christian, a feminist, a mother. But the space isn't solely my own, and the path I'm on isn't new. It is an ancient path, woven through centuries of faith -- marked out by the footsteps of mothers who worshipped their God and raised their children, together, two halves of the same whole. I don't need to blaze any paths; I just need to walk the one I am on. One step at a time.

Acolytes light candles, the choir lines up in shuffling sections. The organist slides into his console, and the congregation begins to sing. The crucifer lifts his wooden cross high as he begins the processional around the church. But my eyes aren't on him. They are on my daughter, as she raises her eyes to look upon the cross.

She follows the processional around the sanctuary, her gaze never leaving the carved crucifix as she sings the hymn in words that are still all her own. On the last verse she throws both arms up over her head in high praise, a flagrant little Pentecostal in this Episcopal congregation, and my mother and I smile because we're the ones who taught her to do that.

At the end of the collect her tiny "Amen" resounds in the cavernous church, later her enthusiastic "Peace!" brings smiles from those seated nearby when we share the Peace of the Lord. I don't know if she thinks she's saying "peace" or "piece," and I suspect her enthusiasm stems from the fact that she thinks she's asking for a piece of something yummy to eat. But it doesn't matter: at a year old, she's learning the liturgy, the legacy we are passing down to her.

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," the celebrant reads out at communion, and my daughter turns to me and waits for me to make the sign of the cross over her. All this she knows, she has internalized, from week after week, month after month, of the same endless liturgy. The liturgy, the legacy, of the body of Christ.

"She's going to be a cradle Christian," I whisper to my husband after she folds her hands for the Lord's Prayer. I don't even attempt to hide the pride I know is showing in my eyes. Except she's never slept in a cradle. She hated the beautiful cherry-wood cradle that we bought to match our bedroom set when I was pregnant with her. Perhaps we need a new term. We make our way up to the altar for Communion, and I kneel down at the rail with her in my arms. She holds her hand up to the chalice bearer, my father, and he smiles at her as he tips the chalice to my lips. "The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation," he says to me. Then he turns to my daughter. "The blessing of Jesus be upon you," he says, resting his hand on the top of her head. She laughs, and snuggles into my arms.

And suddenly I know what she is. She's a co-sleeping Christian. I grin, right at the altar. I love my new term, both accurate and alliterative. A co-sleeping Christian; a cozy, happy, snuggling little Christian. A Christian who I pray will absorb the faith as naturally as she sleeps in my arms, a Christian for whom the body of Christ will be as comforting as a mother's touch, as sweet as my milk on her tongue.

Elrena Evans holds an MFA from The Pennsylvania State University and writes the column Me and My House. She is co-editor, along with Literary Mama Editor-in-Chief Caroline Grant, of Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press 2008) and the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night, forthcoming from DreamSeeker Books. She writes for Her.meneutics, the Christianity Today blog for women, and lives with her husband and three children in Pennsylvania.

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Elrena, again this is resonating for me in all sorts of ways. There were many Sundays when Mariah was little when I felt as if I shouldn't have come to church--not so much because anyone rebuked me or her, but because keeping her quiet kept me from enjoying the peace and quiet myself. Still she and I are both glad I persevered. And I notice that in your story the crucifer, the priest, and the organist are all men. In my church they have often been women (we've had two women rectors, our organist is a woman, and so are many of our acolytes, crucifers, vergers, chalice bearers, etc.) I have always been grateful for that change in my church, as it's helped both Mariah and me "see" ourselves in the church.
Libby, thank you so much for your comment! We also have a woman priest, a woman organist, and women as crucifers in our church, but the day I wrote about in my column, everybody happened to be male. And I think that only served to reinforce the alienation I felt, sitting there with my daughter. I had a pastor tell me once (a woman pastor) that I should never feel the need to take my children out of the service, even if they were being noisy. She said that you never know when God is going to use a child's smile to touch someone in the congregation, someone who otherwise might not meet God in the service. I try to remember that; I thought it was a lovely way to look at children in the context of the church.
Elrena, what a lovely piece. I relate in so many ways. I remember the days of having my own co-sleeping Christians make lots of noise and messes in our Episcopal parish. I can encourage you, from the trenches, that now that they are preteen and teenagers, they have found their own strong faiths and places in church. In fact, they literatlly have their own place, as both teens have started a teen bible study for youth group members at our church. When my oldest was two, we went to the communion rail one Sunday and she leaned way over, looking down the row towards the approaching priest. "Here comes the Body of Christ!" she shouted. Almost everyone chuckled. I beamed. She really was listening after all. And still does.
When we took Maya to synagogue for the first time, she ran around the pews and had to touch everything. And she's not gentle, so bibles were thumping to the ground and yalmuke became Frisbees. I was embarrassed - it was an especially small congregation that night - but the other, older kids grabbed Maya by the hand and sat her down with them so she'd feel like a big kid. And she hummed along for the songs (her own tune, of course) and swung her feet and looked happy. And that's when I realized how important these ties that connect people are - regardless of what name you use to call G-d. Plus, I don't know about what happens after Church, but after Friday Shabbat services there is cake and wine - which she thrilled to discover!
Martha, thanks so much for the encouragement. It really helps to be reminded that I'm not, in fact, the only person in the world trying to balance my faith and motherhood, and I love hearing stories from people with older children who have "been there" and survived it! I love the story about your daughter, that is just precious. And Becca, I think you are exactly right -- these ties that connect us are so very important. That's one of the reasons I've tried to keep my children in the service with me, so they can be a part of that community. And I think it's awesome that the other children at synagogue were able to make that connection tangible for Maya!
particularly powerful was your insight about not being a trailblazer, that the path we try to keep is one trodden by generations of faithful mothers. it feels less lonely to think in those terms, that the clouds of witnesses include so many thousands of women that have worn the shoes we now wear. bless you, too, for making the decision to stay. thank you for an essay that found me exactly where i am today.
Thanks so much for this piece. I have been struggling with church since I became a mother. I also have issues is many public places where people look at you like you are crazy if your child is, well being 18 months. When my daughter Sarah was three years old she said hello to a man standing in line behind us in Target and he did not respond at all. He just looked away like my child was some kind of irritant. As far as church it is quite challenging when you want to participate in service and your children are not welcome in the place where ALL should be able to come in and be able express themselves unto the glory of God. I even went to a church where the motto was "The family church serving the family of God" and I did not feel welcome at all. People always gave me the "look" whenever I had to exit the sanctuary to feed, diaper, or just take the baby out. I would try to sit on the end, but it didn't work out all of the time. I have not allowed these experiences to deter me from worshipping my God, with my children in tow. I proudly carry my bible along with the Dora backpack into the church and I do not even flinch when my baby cries or dances around when no one else is moving!
Elrena! What a beautiful column. If only the church were filled with people who thought like you! How different the world would be -- how different girls' and women's experience of the church would be -- if it was! This is so wonderful . . .
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