Attending a religious service with a small child can be a beautiful, uplifting, inspiring, and a very, very stressful experience.
It’s been a while since I’ve done it and I have to say after today I’m not in a hurry to do it again soon. Last time, in fact, Hawkeye was not yet fully walking and could be easily contained in my lap. Now he’s a hefty toddler, with his own strong opinions and desires, an insatiable curiosity about all objects and determination how to use said objects to make as many different noises as possible. Within reason, most people are kind and give a wide lattitude to todder antics in a service and some congregations actively encourage their inclusion.
Even with the full support of the staff, however, St. Patrick’s Cathedral doesn’t feel like the place to indulge a toddler while you bathe your inner spirit in the stream of angelic choir music.
We attended the Choral Evensong in the Cathedral which was then followed by a small private Christening service in the Lady Chapel.
The place is terribly grand and imposing. And it echoes massively. Even little baby feet on the tile or metal grate bounce off the cavernous walls. To his credit, Hawkeye did very well for much of the time. Early on he was fully into the spirit of the respectful silence, shushing me back and miming talking to me with no sounds. But after a while the inevitable toddler fidgeting won out. Did you know that paper (the programme) can actually make a lot of noise in the hands of a toddler? I stayed very close, including keeping my seat during the standing portions of the service so I could be eye level with him for better communication. However, this wasn’t enough and the people around us were kept entertained by repeated comments of “Sit, daddy! Sit!” during these periods, even once accompanied by Hawkeye shuffling over to one side of his own chair to make more room, patting the space and saying “Sit, daddy. More space here!” (For the record, daddy did comply but he was immediately ordered to stand up again, because toddlers are fickle creatures.)
I spent much of the time alternating between actively trying to encourage him to be quieter, tensely waiting for whatever game he would make up to amuse himself, and trying not to laugh out loud at his more charming antics. Eventually the fidgeting became too difficult to manage and I spent the second half of the service walking up and down the exterior isles of the Cathedral, exploring the rear, and even going outside briefly. He wanted to jump on the metal grates along the edges of the seating area and he even briefly headbutted me in the teeth when I tried to stop him from jumping up and down, in full view of the staff, on the brass plaque on the floor marking the burial spot of Dean Henry Dawson (the last person to be buried within the Cathedral, in 1840). Honestly, the service, for the most part, was wasted on me as I could not split my attention sufficiently and only a handful of sentences from the sermon permeated my consciousness, and that’s because we had wandered very close to the front of the Cathedral at that point.
The staff were very kind and understanding and one lady in particular let us sit at the foot of a statue at the back while Hawkeye checked out the brightly coloured flyers she gave us from Sealife and the Tayto Park.
To be honest, it went as well as could be expected from a two and a half year old, but it still felt like the longest service I could remember. This was followed by a shorter small service in the much more intimate (but no less echo-y) Lady Chapel where we honestly didn’t even try to contain him as long as he stayed relatively quiet. The back of the Chapel became a little kids’ playground with toddlers climbing up and down on the kneeling bench and ducking back and forth under the brass rail next to we were sitting. Thankfully (for us) by this point the twins who were being Christened also had had enough and the noise they made at the front of the congregation overshadowed any noise made by the rag tag collection of kids at the back.
Despite all this, there was a beautiful moment in the middle of the Evensong Service where Hawkeye wanted to be picked up and for a (much too short) moment he wrapped his limbs around me and rested his head on my shoulder. The choir music soared over and around us. And honestly, all the stress was worth it to be able to be present for our friends and experience that brief moment of peace between just the two of us.