Before I go any further, I just want you to know that I know I am not the first person to give this advice. I am also fully aware it is the kind of thing you probably have mixed feelings about given the people who have probably told you this the most are your parents – a pair of people about whom most people have mixed feelings. Well, I have to say, now that I am a parent, I have had ample time to reflect on why certain phrases get used so often. With this one, it is because kids complain ALL THE TIME. Most of the time the things kids complain about are preposterously petty – things they could solve for themselves with even the slightest moment of reflection. I usually respond to such complaints with, “Ok, what do you think you should you do about that?”
That often is enough (because we have had the same conversation about the same situation so many times) to get them to think of a solution to whatever problem they are complaining about. Sometimes though, they get so frustrated that they just cry, scream, and grump around. In other words, they stop at complaining and let their problem keep them stuck. They will spend the whole day in that state when all they have to do is ask for help putting on their socks. While they are doing that, I also like to advise them that it is going to be hard to make friends if they keep it up. “People don’t like complainers.” Come to think of it, there is a lot of advice I give my children that I need to heed myself too. Hence, a story:
When I was nineteen, freshly returned from a summer living in a monastery, I was speaking with a few people after a daily Mass, and someone asked me what it was like going from the liturgy of a place like our home parish to a traditional Benedictine monastery where everything was done in Latin and chanted. In my carefully nuanced nineteen-year-old way, I simply said, “It’s better there.” I came to find out later that one of the people I was speaking with, who had been a mentor for me, found that infuriating. No doubt that came across as basically, “I think everything you’ve worked for and have here is a waste of time.” I would tell you that it was only a misunderstanding, but that would not have been true when I said it. I was still lacking in my ability to make nuanced judgments and to consider the feelings of other people – something I like to think has changed since then.
I had made a discovery of something beautiful and ancient. I determined it was the best thing, therefore everything else was not worth my time. As long as I stayed in the monastery, liturgically speaking, I pretty much kept the same attitude: the Traditional Latin Mass was the ideal, and everyone else who did not understand that just needed to think harder and they would come around. As long as I was in it, participating daily in an intense way in the monastic liturgical life, I could look at parishes around the world and think, “It could be so much better there.”
When I discerned out of monastic life, I had to answer the question of what I would do if I could not attend Mass in the way I had so grown to love. For probably ten years I went about my business assuming it would never be available to me again – and certainly not in its most beautiful form with all the smells, bells, and competent choristers. At a certain point I did find places I could go regularly, though if it was going to be all the time, it would mean changing parishes, driving 45 minutes away, and rarely seeing people from the community where my wife and I have the strongest ties. It was a problem I was having trouble solving.
After trying to make that work for a while and trying to figure out the best way to balance my desire to share my love for the liturgy with my children, yet raise them in a strong community where they would actually have a chance of forming long lasting friendships as they grow up in the faith, we determined that my home parish would be our best shot. I went through the mental exercise of trying to articulate what the ideal for me would be and determined that I would be blissfully happy if my home parish offered the Traditional Latin Mass once a weekend, but otherwise kept everything else going as it was. Recognizing there was very little I could do to make that happen other than complain to the people who could, I was content with going to my home parish on a regular basis, and every so often going to the traditional liturgy somewhere else.
Liturgically, there will always be things I think could be better – even at a place like my home parish, for which I have great affection. Given the decisions about most of those things are out of my hands, it is easy for me (and I suspect for others) to slip into just complaining about it. I tell my children all the time, “Quit complaining,” and encourage them to try to solve their problems on their own. Sometimes though, the answer for them, as for me, is that there are some problems you cannot personally solve. You have to resolve to live with and endure them, contenting yourself with the knowledge that you are controlling what you can control, and doing what you are capable of doing to pursue the good within your own competence. If you let yourself stop at just complaining, you might leave any number of good things undone, and never realize the possibilities that God might be opening up for you.
For the last year or two, my wife and I had been going back and forth over where we would attempt to dig in at a parish given the available options. We very seriously considered moving. Given the various goods we were trying to balance – parish life, liturgy, distance from school and family relationships – we ultimately decided we would continue praying about it and ask the Lord to guide us. Essentially, we were waiting for a sign that would tip us in one direction or another. Then, our parish got a new pastor.
I knew several young men from high school who spent time in seminary or with a religious order, and one of the things we always thought would be amazing was if one of us ended up being a priest assigned to our parish. I just never thought it would actually happen, but this time it did. It was exciting for any number of reasons for a lot of people. While I would not want to burden our new pastor by proclaiming that his appointment at the parish was the sign from God I needed to make a significant life decision, it did prompt me to reflect on how we needed to step up as a family. I would not want the responsibility of being in charge of a parish, but he has it now, and he is stepping up as a man and a father to do what is being asked of him. Something about the fact that he is in my age group brought it home to me that the time is now for me to do more than just tend to my own family’s spiritual needs.
After coming home from the monastery, my volunteer dream job always involved a melodramatic scenario where I get called up out of nowhere and put in charge of the altar servers – then I would go on a reading rampage to recover the knowledge I once had of all the minutiae I would need to drill in to the new recruits: cassock, surplice, thurible, candles, right thumb over left thumb (mercy over justice, boys), etc., etc. Now that I am married with three small children, I am not so sure I am up for that anymore, especially given the inevitable time commitment that might entail. So, in praying and discerning what “stepping up” might mean given our current life stage, I started searching for something that would essentially be a slight expansion of what we are already doing as a family – something that might have a positive impact on others at the parish, while not causing me or my wife to be away from the kids more than we can currently manage.
For us, volunteering an hour after Mass on Sunday for Children’s Ministry seemed like a slam dunk. After a year of trying to make the best of doing things at home (thanks, COVID), we were excited about the idea of having our kids be in person for faith formation with other children and families. Since we drive about thirty minutes to get to Mass already, having the Sunday option after 10:00 a.m. Mass made it easy to sign our kids up and, honestly, it is not a huge sacrifice to hang out and talk to a few extra kids about Jesus for an hour. So, in a modest way, that is how we are trying to step up. I have already started meeting some new people and deepening our ties with the community because of this, and we have not even started yet. I am excited to see what God has planned for our family and our parish this year, and I am ok with not knowing the exact plan. I am open to learning that what I think ought to happen might not be anywhere near as good as what God will make happen.
So, I guess I thought you would like to read about this thought process, and I am hoping you will think a little about what God might be calling you to do more of and complain less about. Those things might line up directly – that is, you might find you are in a position of influence to actually do something about which you normally just complain – or they might not. Either way, it seems to me, it will probably be better to find what seems to you like a doable way to contribute to the mission of your parish (or some other institution you are a part of), than to complain about something over which you might have little to no control. Who knows, maybe in the process of doing what you can, you will find you can do more than you thought you ever could. What is more, people might find they like being around you if you are helpful, and you might make some friends.