Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth. — 1 John 3:18
My grandfather once wrote me a letter when I was in college that had in it what I considered at the time to be a strange piece of advice. He said,
If you want to be good, to acquire virtue, you’re going to have to fake it for a while before it can come from the heart.
I recall thinking, how can it be a virtue if it’s fake? But man, he was right on.
My wife really gets this with our kids. Her philosophy goes something like this. If we’re going to instill in them an appreciation for the value of hard work and shared responsibility, then give them consistent chores. If we’re going to instill in them an appreciation for patience as a virtue, give them tedious tasks to accomplish. If we’re going to instill in them an appreciation for the virtue of gratitude, then have them write thank you notes or call their grandparent to say “thank you” for every gift they receive.
Me? I say, talk about it. I am more likely to give a lecture on the etymology of the word respect to my child who has just disrespected a sibling, while she says, “Give him push ups! Have her clear his place and wash his dishes!”
And she’s unquestionably right.
Eating with Love
I grew up in a family that generally did not practice the together at table family meal. As a result, I liked to eat alone, fast and quickly move on to the next thing. Eating was utilitarian. I recall my grandmother chiding me for “scarfing and running,” and calling me to slow down, appreciate the food that was “made with love,” and enjoy the company and conversation at table. For me as an adolescent, such an idea was pure torture.
When Patti and I married and had our first child, she introduced me to the nightly “family meal.” This novelty was for me a daily inner thrashing. I wanted to “scarf and run,” though I was never quite sure where I was in such a hurry to go. Then we had our second, third and fourth child, and the tradition grew and continued on relentlessly. It was, for nearly ten years, like a daily beating having to sit in place, be a model of paced eating and patient conversation for, and with, my children. But slowly, ever so slowly, I noticed a change in myself. The urge to flee lessened, and a certain delight began to seep in.
One evening, nearly ten years into this daily ritual, I recall siting down for dinner and — to my amazement — feeling no inner resistance at all. It was like the back of my inner loathing was broken and my heart of stone had become a heart of flesh. Now nine years after that day, I can say I have never once again felt the urge to flee, and now love the family meal. I was saved as a father by doing the will of my heavenly Father, healed by the baptism of sweat (cf Matthew 7:21). I have my wife to thank for inspiring that change, for challenging me to perseverance, for being the Sacrament of grace for my conversion to table fellowship. And my children one day will have her to thank for shaping in them from the very beginning the beauty of mingling food and family fellowship; the habit of communion. And I will add here that I am convinced one cannot really “get” the joy of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass if one cannot “get” the joy of the sacrifice of a family meal.
Atheists who pine for God
Another story that again makes my grandfather’s point.
I watched a documentary years ago on Pope John Paul II, and at one point they interviewed a woman who grew up Catholic, but had later in life become an atheist. She was reflecting on her Catholic upbringing in the 1950s, the nightly family rosary, the devotions, and especially the Sunday High Mass and Sunday evening Benediction that marked her family’s weekly routine. Then she recounted a remarkable experience she had while on a business trip to Moscow. She said she was touring the various historical sites, and happened into a Church where Vespers was being sung. As she walked in, she found herself overwhelmed by the sweet haze of billowing incense, the bright blaze of colors splashed on the icons and the rich harmonies that resonated deep in her memory.
I found myself lost, forgetting where I was and even who I had become over the years. I was again a child bewitched by this alien world that took me away from my godless life. When I came to my senses, I looked down to see that my shirt was sodden, drenched with tears as I had been weeping. I had no idea! And strangest of all, I found myself aching, pining for a God I didn’t even believe in. It was disconcerting, but I just couldn’t shake it. I was so close again to faith, it was etched from my youth into my body. But when I woke up and remembered who I was, where I was, I knew I still could not believe. And it hurt, because how I wish I could…
How much of a whole parenting philosophy is found in this view! And a whole school of catechesis that refuses to succumb to a hyper-intellectualized pedagogy or apologetics, but rather incorporates and even privileges the performative and embodied aspects of formation over the cognitive and conceptual. Not setting them at odds, or succumbing to dumbed down faith, but setting belief in a regime of homey and doable praxis that infests the details of life and the center of the guts. You can’t just give someone a book or a CD or a podcast. You have to give them a way of life, a way of doing, a strategy for being in action. Jesus is not so much the Truth about the Way to Life, but the Way to the Truth that gives Life. It’s why, as a elderly priest once said to me,
If you’re going to get people to stick to the faith you have to give them a faith that sticks to their ribs and their guts. The practice of Catholic devotions like novenas, holy cards, the daily rosary, meatless Fridays, Stations of the Cross, miraculous medals, patron saints, the sign of the cross, the morning offering, Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction were always the glue that kept people coming back and that injected their faith into the thick of daily life. They may have been sometimes sentimental and sappy, but they struck and made faith tangible. When we abandoned those and got too whitewashed, too heady and wordy, we also jettisoned the glue that makes faith stick. Pop culture also gets this need for “sticking power” ideas, though, instead of appealing to people’s better angels like we try, they too often call out the base passions to make not better people but better consumers. We have to be able to compete.
Heady and wordy? Sounds like me!
Let me leave you with my own written summary of a lecture on liturgy given by the Protestant cultural theorist, James KA Smith. It captures some very powerful insights and makes my point well.
To change your heart, move your body. If it’s true that practice makes perfect, then it’s ritual repetition that perfects desire, it’s affectively, imaginatively charged liturgical praxis that fuels the pre-conscious momentum of your whole life toward some particular set of goods. It’s not the abstract ideas of a culture that form us in the guts as much as the habitual practices of our culture. Cultural praxis is a form of liturgy, and liturgy, broadly defined for our purposes, is a ritual that enacts our ultimate concerns, forms our loves, orients our deepest visceral desires. And these deep regions of human consciousness are what shape 95% of our waking decisions and actions; so if you want to redirect 95% of someone’s day give them new goods to desire by giving them a new set of habits, things to do, move their bodies toward that good. Nike’s right, Just Do It… to help give shape to a culture Christianity must propose a robust cadre of formative liturgies, both in church and away from church. If too much emphasis is placed on faith’s cognitive, cerebral data to be processed by means of critical, higher thinking and logic — crucial as these are — and not on setting the inner affective, pre-conscious, imaginative, intuitive, second nature compass, then most of life, which means most of our reflexive decisions, will be unaffected, unformed by faith. Christian liturgy’s power to form is not primarily focused in a twenty minute sermon that conveys a set of persuasive arguments, but rather in the rich panoply of idea-saturated sights, scents, sounds, movements that again and again and again infest our inner core, that bypass our abstract cognition and settle in our knee-jerk judgments, our instincts, our flesh and bones and carve out fresh neural pathways that lead straight to the Kingdom. Faith, and the myriad liturgies of faith, must offer a way of embodying belief in imaginatively rich, rhythmic, daily practices that relentlessly orient life toward God and his Kingdom at the deepest levels of consciousness. These must make one’s living faith feel just like that moment when you find yourself startled, arriving at home from work in your car and asking yourself: “How the heck did I get here?” The answer? Not because you thought carefully about it as much as you felt the fire deep in your bones; a fore that was kindled in the liturgies of life…