Recently [which was actually last summer as I just found and edited the draft of this post that I'd saved along with my many other still half-digested ideas] I was talking with several different Catholic couples we know who have children, and we all talked about the challenges of raising children who can hold in tension a strong Catholic identity and a sense of place in our contemporary culture. At home in the world, but not of the world.
Here are some scattered thoughts that surfaced from our wandering conversation…
We focused largely on the innumerable challenges posed by a postmodern culture that radically de-centers and devalues the claims of timeless truth by transforming truth into values. In postmodern parlance, values are not universally true and binding realities, but only present biases, cherished ideas given authority by a culturally-bound present generation that, at least for now, holds those ideas in esteem. One friend said it this way: While truth is discovered by the intellect and conformed to by the will (i.e. freely chosen because true, aka “Truth is Happiness”), values are created by the will and conformed to by the intellect (i.e. true because freely chosen, aka “Happiness is the Truth“). The truth becomes my truth, reality’s hard substance becomes soft plastic, and the meaning of happiness is entirely unmoored from any stable foundation.
Because the unifying dynamism capable of creating a moral consensus in a values-based society is no longer grounded in obedience to the given exigencies of “the True and the Good,” these irreconcilably diverse values must be guarded by the new meta-ethical truth, Tolerance and imposed by those whose will-to-power at any given moment bears the most weight. In addition, within our increasingly narcissistic, “selfie” culture, the erosion of a truth-based moral ground offers an intensely hostile environment for cultivating the hard virtues (e.g. chastity, self-sacrifice, marital fidelity) that all great societies require to maintain their productive vitality and cohesive strength. As an aside on this point, one person remarked that the loss of cultural cache for the virtue of chastity makes the battle to end abortion nearly hopeless, since abortion, so intimately linked to failure of chastity, really becomes the henchman of tolerance, the gruesome guardian of sex-without-consequences.
Lastly, when you weld this moral earthquake to an unstable adolescent psyche that is already looking for permission to self-define over and against any sense of unyielding truth, and then hook them into a steady digital diet that mediates a chaotic and fragmented worldview, you have the perfect storm.
While there’s no way I can here propose a robust alternative (though I have already recommended as one idea Esolen’s new book), I can affirm what a mentor once said to me,
If you can help them acquire a serene and non-defensive confidence in their Catholic identity, they will be free to engage the rest of the world without fear. But to give them that, you have to get it first yourselves! So the first ingredient in the recipe of good parenting is good parents.
Another way that I have thought about this task of planting deep within my children the Catholic seed is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry well known line in Citadelle,
Quand tu veux construire un bateau, ne commence pas par rassembler du bois, couper des planches et distribuer du travail, mais reveille au sein des hommes le desir de la mer grande et large.
“When you want to build a ship, do not begin by gathering wood, cutting boards, and distributing work, but rather awaken within men the desire for the vast and endless sea.”
If the “sea” is our Faith, then our greatest parental task is to awaken in them desire for God by filling their imaginations with colorful portraits of truth, goodness and beauty, and by constructing a domestic culture, an economy of love, that evidences the joyful freedom that comes to those who stand firmly on the serene Christ.
We agreed that parents cannot surrender their duty to intentionally and intelligently shepherd their children in a world filled with ravenous wolves eager round up shepherd-less sheep. Yes, we’re tired, busy, torn, challenged, weary. But can you conceive of a better recipe for greatness and holiness that does not require you to run off seeking a noble martyrdom in some far off land, like St. Francis once tried? Heroism is best achieved at home.
For this command which I am giving you today is not too wondrous or remote for you. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who will go up to the heavens to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?” Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?” No, it is something very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it. — Deut. 30:11-14
Busy, but never too busy
Parental shepherds, in addition to being informed by their faith, must have a well thought out plan, a “rule of life,” be consistent and steadfast, and make room for real time to get to know their children very, very well. I can affirm that the adage, children spell the word “love” T-I-M-E, is absolutely and infallibly true. I recall reading the stat from nearly 10 years ago that the average American parent spends less than 3 minutes a day in non-directive communication with their children, and thinking to myself: “Please Lord, not me!” It’s a struggle. But if we parents have any hope of wielding effectively the guiding staff and defending rod God has placed into our hands, we must take this role very seriously and throw a martyr’s love into our children’s lives. And waste lots of time with them.
I shared a quote from St Francis Xavier about those especially early years when the basic character patterns are set — “Give me the child until he is seven and I care not who has him thereafter” — and that sparked a lively conversation about what kind of formation those first seven years demand that will offer a child the basis for cultivating virtues. We agreed on the need to make virtue-building a priority, helping children gain self-mastery in age appropriate ways, rightly displacing self-esteem’s pride of place and supplanting it with self-respect, that inner rudder that roots self-confidence in moral character. The greatest graced gift we can help gain for our children is a stable moral character that orients them from within toward the Good God.
Saints of God, come to our aid!
It’s no easy feat, we fail often, but we muddle through it with confidence and perseverance. It must be done and it’s a work of pure grace doused with stinky sweat. Parents must beg God to have Joseph’s ability to dream, Solomon’s deft wisdom, Job’s “big picture” patience, David’s undaunted courage, Abraham’s driven single-mindedness, Moses’ bold meekness, Elijah’s fiery prayer and, above all, Mary’s trusting humility. Without such God-given, saint-witnessed virtues, splashed with copious grace to supplies for our own frailties in the face of so great a task, parents will falter. We need the mind of Christ to think our way through this world, and how grateful we should be that Christ has already shared his mind lavishly out with such a great cloud of witnesses!
Let me add at end this ramble one last point. Many of the “saints” we cling to as new parents aren’t the dead and canonized ones, but living ones in our midst. The many amazing parents and families my wife and I have been blessed to know over the years — I can see all their faces in my mind now! — have challenged us and given us great hope that, even in the midst of our culture’s septic swirl, a creative minority will arise threaten the New Normal with a New Abnormal; with children speaking into the future a Word that has been with us from the beginning. And serenely so.