“One, two, three, four, five . . .” At my family’s gatherings, before we pray, we count-off. When I was a kid, counting off was quite the exciting feat. “How many are here this year?” I often wondered. Will we make it to fifty? (Often, we did)! It was also always exciting to hear an expectant mother counting off for her child. It was the first moment that the entire family welcomed the soon-to-arrive baby into our circle of joy and love. As a child, there really was no greater view of my family than when we gathered, hand in hand, in a circle that sometimes expanded across two rooms, counting-off one by one, giving thanks for the gift of life and each other. It was, and still is, the perfect prelude to the blessing of our meals.
As I got older, the excitement of the family count-off has often drifted toward longing—longing to see those who had left us too soon and could not be with us that year. It is impossible to look around the circle and not remember those who are no longer with us here on earth. I miss holding my Nanny’s hand, the grumpy sigh of my Great Uncle who was more than ready to eat, and seeing our young cousin slyly grinning at her other cousins as each person took their turn counting off. Although not with us, their presence is still felt, their memories shared.
Pope Benedict XVI once remarked that it “is in the family that children, from the tender age, can learn to perceive the meaning of God.” For me, the great family count-off, as I have named it, was and continues to be where I have found the meaning of God. Holding the hands of family members who do not always share my beliefs, of those who have wronged my immediate family or have been too harsh towards my children, or of those towards whom I have been too cold or with whom I have yet to connect—each family member has afforded the great gift of understanding God’s limitless love for his children. Remembering those whom we have lost over the years, those who have not joined us because of work, or those who feel as if they no longer belong, has taught me how to reach beyond myself in extending mercy and love, just as God does when he yearns for his children to return to him.
It has been at the count-offs that I have learned what family looks like when God is at the helm—peaceful, joyful, full of mercy and grace. And there has been no greater joy than to see my own children smile during these count-offs for I know that they, too, are learning a great deal about God and his family. So, mothers, whatever your family’s rituals are, hold them dear, for they are true and powerful moments in which you and your family invite the presence of God into your midst. And if you don’t have any rituals yet, don’t worry—all you have to do is count-off, and you will find one—1, 2, 3, 4, 5 . . .