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Betsy Kneepkens: Mass, mealtime show the beauty of imperfection

According to my family, whom I am beginning to believe, I am a terrible cook. I can make cereal, anything out of a can, or warm restaurant leftovers.

It is not that I am burning or under- cooking everything, I just don’t understand which spices to put with which foods. I try to follow recipes, but I typically get bored halfway through and just guess at what I think the dish needs. I know this is a “recipe” for disaster, but I can’t seem to help myself. I mean well, and I eat almost everything I make, because it tastes fine to me.

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

I will not claim complete hopelessness, because my children do say that I make good sloppy joes, french toast, dinner buns, and potato salad. The problem is you can’t serve these dishes for every meal, although I would if I could. Since I don’t follow a recipe, these dishes’ flavor seems to change a bit each time I make them. Apparently, the taste is similar enough that I get few complaints about these four dishes.

My lack of kitchen abilities does cause a little turmoil in our household. I often hear requests to go out to eat or proclamations that there is nothing in the house to eat (even though the fridge and pantry are full), and I frequently listen to litanies of other mothers that cook better than me. These conversations have been going on for years.

I know one of the most important activities a family can do is eat together at least a few times a week. My family tries to do that as often as possible. I have never heard any studies suggest that the food served must be tasty for the family to thrive and grow together. Even when the dinner meal is deficient, there are advantages to having this special family time. The benefit is not necessarily measurable, but unity happens within the family, and stability is established.

At our house, the food served might leave a lot to be desired, the table might be set wrong, and the decor and ambiance may be judged by some to be dull and unimpressive. However, I am confident that there is still great goodness that flows from the experience and time eating together.

I share this not just because I believe there is value in the family dinner experience despite the unappetizing food. Rather, these conditions help me better understand why I have taken a liking to other situations as well. What I mean is, for the past few years, my children’s activities have taken our family away from Duluth many weekends of spring and summer. Not being near our home parish, we have had to rely on churches in the Twin Cities. We often depend on to find a Mass that works in our schedule. However, we have been down to the Cities enough times that I have found a couple of parishes in which I now feel endeared.

I think my attachment to one particular St. Paul church has lots to do with why I don’t feel doomed due to my culinary inadequacy. There is a great beauty to imperfection, and my last visit to that parish eloquently illustrates why I now feel a particular attachment to it.

Simply, it was a 95-degree St. Paul Saturday in early July, and like many old buildings, the church has no air conditioning. To bring in the fresh air, the janitor opened the tiny windows at the bottom of the tall stained glass windows. As one could imagine, this airflow was not adequate, so instead of fans, the janitor placed several loud floor dryers strategically around the outside of the pews.

To make matters even more attractive, English was not the native tongue for this priest, and his Hispanic accent called for added attention. To help one remain even more focused, I believe Father chose not to use a mic during his homily, to create a feeling closeness to his congregation as he strolled the front part of the sanctuary. For all practical purposes, I spent most of the homily trying to hear and understand what the priest was saying and conveying that message to my daughter.

There were no instrumentals for the songs, and the cantor was a volunteer who sang sincerely but not necessarily in key. It seemed that each person participated in the songs, prayers, and responses. I truly sensed an attitude of engagement.

The parish confession time started an hour before the service, with the lines remaining throughout the Mass filing back to the vestibule most of the time. The two associate priests did not appear to rush through their confessions to reduce the backup, giving those coming to them the time they needed — and a slight distraction on the side of the church.

The church was filled with an array of people apparently from varying backgrounds and ethnicities. Everyone arrived on time and stayed to the end. The collection was not rushed, and the parishioners listened graciously to a missionary sister’s long talk about her work in Africa at the end of Mass.

This Mass was extremely imperfect, and I loved it. For me, the imperfection is what makes Mass at this parish so beautiful. The place was dripping with humanness, desire, and a deep love of our Lord. Attention was given by parishioners to the details that matter. I embrace imperfection because I am imperfect.

I do appreciate beautiful music, well-delivered homilies, and air conditioning, but not having these nuances available can more readily bring clarity to what is happening at all Masses I attend.

With that said, I know my family should have a mother who gets the whole meal right with tasty food, gorgeous place settings, and decor that enhances the eating experience. However, the fact is I don’t have those skills. My hope is that trying to be creative and use mealtime as a way to express my desire to bring our family together will be enough to help strengthen and encourage stability in our family.

Imperfection is humbling and can remind participants what is important. I know I experienced that in the St. Paul church. I only hope my children feel the same way about my kitchen someday.

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.