I saw something very moving at Mass today. I had taken communion and was in my pew, on the red leather kneeler, saying the prayers of gratitude and reconciliation that I say each Sunday. I was in my usual seat, bathed in the winterlight streaming through a stained glass window that depicts Simon of Cyrene taking up Jesus’s cross after he had fallen from fatigue on the long road to his eventual crucifixion. I usually bow my head and close my eyes as I pray, but this time I noticed something out of the corner of my eye: a woman struggling through the communion line, her little son resisting her.
At first I thought it was an example of petulance, but as I looked more closely, I noticed that he had Down’s Syndrome and that he limped, his right leg dragging a little. His hair was mussed, as though he had refused his bath that morning, and his face had a tiny streak of what looked like jam running along his jawline. She must have been in a big rush to get to Mass. I had seen her several times before – it was always just her and her son; I had always noticed how she held his hand so tenderly yet firmly as they entered and left the church.
This time, the little boy was struggling, in some obvious physical discomfort. His face had a grimace that spoke of pain and not peevishness. And his mother wore that mask of stoic worry that professional women must sadly affect to ward off patronising looks when they are with their children in public. Her eyes told the story of how her son’s discomfort touched her heart and broke it, quietly.
As she approached the priest and they both took communion, she had an embarrassing moment. Her son had trouble taking the host into his mouth. The wafer is an odd shape – a thin brittle disc – and he was struggling with it, rolling it over his tongue. He was aware that people had started to look at him and this worried him more, he grew red and a little agitated. His mother saw that he was struggling and her face dropped its mask, a quick succession of emotions dancing across it: fear, annoyance, self-consciousness and finally, caring concern.
At this point, a thirty-something man in a dark, well-cut suit behind her noticed the predicament of mother and son, and I watched him subtly plant himself, immobile and hold back the line – giving her a haven for the few precious seconds she needed to get the host into her son’s mouth, have him chew and swallow and then, after a reassuring word, hand in hand, they walked back to their pew. She looked up at the well-dressed man in gratitude, as she sorted her son out – he smiled briefly and with a little embarrassment. He wanted no gratitude. Her simply done the decent thing for a stranger who needed a private moment in a public place.
I think there are two simple lessons to be learned from this quotidian little vignette. A mother’s love and care for her struggling child is a mirror of the world. There is a reason we are moved by such scenes: because they are viscerally human. In her worry, fear, annoyance and eventual relief, there was always a deep love for this little flesh of her flesh. The gentleman who helped her was doing something very few people even think of any longer: the decent thing. He quietly and without being asked, helped her keep her composure and her dignity.
Her caring love for her son is really the love that should guide all of our actions to one another – it is the foundation for justice and wisdom. His decency and humility is a model of mutual support. Although this little drama only gave me a glimpse into the ephemeral feelings of two people caught in passing, I was struck by how powerful these little human things are: love, respect, dignity and decency.
These things may be human and emotional and fleeting, but they are the rock-solid base upon which a great society is built.