Kneeling at Mary’s Altar

“Did you know that in 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted for 12 hours?” asked Nathan, tugging at my sleeve.

“That’s so interesting,” I replied, guiding him toward his seat. “Let’s sit down now.”

“But I still have to tell you about the alien movie I watched last night!” He clearly did not want to sit.

“Maybe later on when class ends,” I said, hoping that would settle him. It did – for a moment.

“Why can’t I sit over there?” he continued. “It’s too cold near the window . . .”

This was the scene that often played out before religious ed class began eight years ago, when Nathan was in fourth grade and I had volunteered to teach nineyear-olds about the Old Testament and the parables—not ancient Europe, and certainly not aliens.

The students, including sandy-haired Nathan, were really a special group: inquisitive and kind, but this young boy’s autism made it difficult for him to remain seated and attentive. It was not unusual for him to ask random questions, wander the room during prayer, and tell me that Adoration was boring one week, then kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and tell me that he had just met God the next. Class was sometimes a challenge, but even when his attention was brief, I knew his faith was strong. In time, I prayed that it would flourish.

Those students and I bonded that year, so we chose to remain together in my Wednesday evening class as they moved into middle school and Confirmation prep. Soon, I watched as they all, including Nathan, were sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Some I continued to see at Mass, the grocery store, or a high school event, but not Nathan. Until one Sunday in late summer.

During the sign of peace, I glanced toward another section of the church, and there, next to his mother, stood Nathan, with that same sandy hair, but seemingly twice as tall as I remembered. After Mass, I walked toward them, hoping to say hello, and found him not in the pew but kneeling at Mary’s altar, head bowed. The boy who had trouble sitting through 10 minutes of Adoration now continued to pray long after Mass ended. When he rose and blessed himself, a smile spread across his face, and he opened his arms to me. Still full of questions, Nathan asked this time about my family and our summer travels, then shared his plans for senior year and a new part-time job.

Though I saw glimpses of that nine-year-old wandering through the classroom, this was now a young man I hardly recognized. It’s not that he just grew up. The faith he held as a child, though somewhat concealed by distractions and frustrations, flourished with an understanding of God’s love I rarely witnessed in others his age. I saw it in his eyes, in the way he spoke, in his gestures toward the altar and the reverence he displayed.

“I’ve changed a lot,” Nathan said, though that’s never what I had wanted.

“Not too much, I hope.” “Don’t worry,” he replied with a half-smile.

“I still like aliens.”