Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Hey, Parents - Leave Those Kids At Home: Part 2

Not as easy as it looks.
A few weeks ago we posted about the importance of bringing young children to Mass. As parents of two young children, we understand that this is easier said than done. It's difficult to remember your convictions about bringing your toddler to be in the Real Presence of Christ when she's squealing, squirming, or, at worst, screaming.

There is a temptation, after a particularly stressful streak of Sunday Mass experiences, to formulate ways to compromise with these tyrannical toddlers. The line of argument may start like this: "My toddler misbehaves at Mass. I want to continue bringing her to Mass because I think it is important. Perhaps if I compromise and bring some distractions to Mass, Sundays will be more bearable for all of us..."

The compromise may go further. Let's say you decide to make a "Mass goodie bag" for your toddler, with all her favorite toys. Dora dolls, Thomas trains, princess books, dinosaurs, SpongeBob, and all the other things kids like these days. You do it with your toddler to get her all excited about Mass. You designate it as "the Mass Bag" and explain that it's just for Sundays, which are special days after all.

Let's suppose this trick actually works. You never have another outburst during the Consecration. The goodie bag has the simultaneous benefits of allowing kids to be in the Lord's presence and maintaining quiet. Problem solved. In the words of Bob the Builder, "Can We Fix It???

The problem is, Bob and friends have nothing to do with the Mass. This is where we'd like to develop our previous post a bit more. It isn't just about bringing your children to Mass. The Mass is not playtime; it is an opportunity for catechesis (really!). As a commenter pointed out last time, toddlers are at an ideal age for religious instruction. They catch on to these things more than we adults might realize. The point of bringing children to Mass is not simply to teach them to behave and sit still for an extended period of time. It is to instruct them in the Faith and introduce them to Christ and His saints.

At the same time, we also feel that parents must meet their children where they are. We're not necessarily against the "Mass bag," as long as its contents are sacred and point children to Christ. At this stage, little ones learn primarily by touching and manipulating objects. Although we've seen families with 2-year-olds who can sit through Mass with no catechetical objects, our own children do best when they have a book to look through or other appropriate object. But it is important that the items we bring to Mass are a reminder of why we are there to begin with. Fun and quiet an activity as it may be, coloring a picture of the latest Disney princess does nothing to instruct our children in the Faith. It simply distracts them from their surroundings, and the Mass becomes mere background noise to their Disney fantasy world.

That being said, finding beautiful and sacred items for toddlers and preschoolers can be a challenge. We dislike the tendency to animate the truths of the Faith with cartoons and other "toddler friendly" products (although we do have a soft spot for Tomie dePaola). Why? Because toddlers really are capable of more. Beauty is a transcendental, and its universality does not exclude children in diapers.

We thought we'd share in this post some items that we've found, and would love any suggestions from our dear readers. After all, parental support is always welcome in these matters!

Images from "The Saving Name of God the Son"
  • Board Books (for children who revel in shredding paper): The Saving Name of God the Son, My Golden Book of Saints, My First Bible Stories (dePaola), Our Guardian Angels
  • Picture books with real paper: St. George and the Dragon, The Nativity (Ruth Sanderson), A is for Altar, B is for Bible,  Saints: Lives and Illuminations (Sanderson), Lucia, Saint of Light (Hyde), The Monk Who Grew Prayer, The Holy Twins: Benedict and Scholastica, The Weight of a Mass, My Path to Heaven
  • Prayer Books/Bibles/Saint Books: The Young People's Book of Saints, Illustrated Catechism for Little Children, Jesus, Make Me Worthy, The Cathechism In Pictures...Pretty much anything from the FSSP Publishing Company!
  • Toys/Stickers/Coloring Books: We've really been impressed with these coloring books illustrated by Katherine Sotnik. There are several other options for coloring books at AquinasAndMore. Although there are Catholic lacing cards for sale on the Internet, it would be easy to make your own with sturdy cardboard and beautiful Catholic images from Christmas cards and calendars. Speaking of calendars, the Saints and Feasts Sticker Album at the FSSP's publisher also looks really beautiful. Building a collection of holy cards is another quiet way to teach your children about the Saints and give them something to do at Mass (our daughter loves sorting her holy cards into men/women/dragon slaying saints during the homily)

If you take time to look around online, you can find beautiful Catholic books and other products that are suitable for Mass. We are of the mind that beauty is the most important factor with young children. Although proper instruction is also key, we would prefer our preschooler page through a version of the Bible with beautiful illustrations to doctrinally-correct cartoon versions. We believe that exposing children to beauty at a young age is a crucial step in catechesis.

Our children are capable of sacred beauty. They are created to enjoy it in Heaven, and we parents should give them as much of a taste of it here on Earth as we can.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Family - University, Monastery, Kingdom

Mont Saint-Michel

Everybody knows what a family is, right?  After all, we have all come from a family and we all belong to one, in some manner.  A family is "people who live together."  That, at least, is the way that we are programmed to think of family.  Of course, this has led to so many of the issues that we find in contemporary society today.  I am not especially interested in engaging in an apologetics here.  The relevant contemporary issues should be pretty obvious, however, and keep them in mind (and please feel free to comment below).

Despite the fact that the family is something distinct, primordial  and fundamentally relevant to each one of us as human persons, we really do not know what it is.  This is unsettling and startling. I think there are two reason for this lack of a straightforward definition.  First, the family is mysterious because it is so rich and deep.  An inquiry into its depths is irretrievable.  Obviously, this is good.  However, there is another reason as well: modernity has cloaked the essence of what a family has traditionally been understood to be.  It has to.  It has no choice.  It could not function otherwise.  It would perish if the familial was re-realized.  Naturally, this is also to say that the family and thinking attentively about the family is revolutionary: a revolution back to nature and truth.

This reason, by the way, is why I am not interested in addressing apologetics here.  The problem comes before contemporary issues.  Today's issues are merely symptomatic of the deeper tension.

So then, what is a family?

The family is a university.  It is more of a university, in fact, than most "universities" out there.  Indeed, it should be the family which informs the universities of today.  The family is a true whole, composed of persons who are dedicated to knowing what is True, Good and Beautiful, together as a community.  In order to celebrate our families, we must take this task seriously.  This is why it is so important that we read to our children, that we read together as spouses.  We should also take on family projects together.  Aside from ensuring that our families have a liturgical topography to their year, we should also seek to build and grow together.  We should seek to learn a language together, study music, history, art etc.  Imagine each Sunday all listening to a period of music together, moving from period to period each week, following the history of music as a family.  Each member of the family would participate in their own appropriate way: the baby would listen, the children could talk about their experience of the music and the adults could make their own suitable contributions.  Of course, you could do this with any subject.  This would not be homeschooling, per se.  This would be living a rich communal life together, regardless of the children's ages or schooling arrangements.

The family is monastic.  In the same way that the university should stem from the family, it is the structure of the  family which should (and does) inform the monastic life.  This may seem odd.  The word "monasticism" actually implies solitude, after all, a singular experience of transcendence. And yet this experience always takes community. Genuine personhood is discovered in community.  The familial structure is the most basic example of personhood realized in community. This is why the family is the best analogy, one frequently used by the Fathers of the Church, for the Trinity.  Needless to say, the family needs to pray together (I would actually stress the importance of the Liturgy of the Hours as a top priority in this regard over even the Rosary, so do both).  On a larger scope, it is the responsibility of the family to follow the contours of the liturgical year.  This is not just church business, that we celebrate and are reminded of when we go to Mass.  Our families must be saturated by the liturgy in an organic manner.  We must eat, speak, act according to this Reality.  In the Middle Ages, people contemplated how the Christian should walk...we should have this same attitude.

The family is a kingdom.  Perhaps this truth of the family is most frequently forgotten.  We live in a culture without kings.  We may even have difficulty distinguishing between king and tyrant, though they are true opposites.  Meanwhile, we have high expectations of our fathers and husbands, though our expectations are utterly undefined and vague.  Fathers and husbands, by vocation, imitate Christ the King.  They must be kingly.  Wives and Mothers are queens and are called to possess all of the strength and grace that that position entails.  The family is political.  It is the fundamental political unit.  As such, it has a political sovereignty that must be protected and a political responsibility to the rest of culture and society.

Our families are the antidote to the society in which we live.  We will never overcome the enemy or prevail in our battles that we face in this culture as individuals.  Even before ourselves, we must look to our community, which, in a radical way, begins with our families.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Book Review: YOUCAT

I am naturally skeptical of the tendency to divide Catholic things (liturgy, books, prayers, etc.) into youth/teen/adult categories. While I appreciate the efforts to evangelize the youth and speak to them in a language they can understand, I also think that catering certain aspects of Catholicism (most notably, the Mass) to "special populations" like teenagers may strike some teens as condescending. It may also encourage unnecessary divisions between age groups. Even more important, it's easy to compromise important traditions and aspects of the Church's rich history when we try too hard to make Catholicism "relevant," to any group.

But that's another post. I only mention this to drive home the point that I was REALLY skeptical of the YOUCAT when it first came out, not only for that reason, but also due to several critical reviews I had already read. These criticisms made three basic arguments:
  1.  The YOUCAT's pictures are inappropriate.
  2.  The YOUCAT has quotes from questionable figures like Luther and other heretics/non-Catholics.
  3. The YOUCAT is downright heretical.
Suffice it to say that I was hesitant about this new text. I really only bought it because I belong to a  Catholic women's discussion group, and it was on the reading list. I'm very glad that I belong to said discussion group (and not just because of the good company). Reading the YOUCAT has been a refreshing reintroduction to Catholic teaching. I've found it to be a clear, concise, and engaging exposition of the basic tenets of our Faith, with quotes from Catholics and non-Catholics alike to bring those tenets to life. Personally, I like reading quotes from Luther and other figures, some of whom were not even Catholic. Take this one from Peter Sellers: "The closest thing to a father confessor is probably a bartender." If reading lines "like that" from people "like that" in a work of catechesis is offensive to you, the YOUCAT might not be the best choice for spiritual reading. Personally, I like it.

"They quoted me in the YOUCAT??!!"
 That being said, I don't like everything about the YOUCAT. The photos bring back horrible memories of those "GOD LOVES YOU" religion books from third grade. And the stick figure at the bottom corner of the page is perhaps not in the best taste (although he is entertaining). On a more general level, I do wish that the YOUCAT was not strictly marketed to youth, since I think adults could benefit from reading it just as much as teens and young adults - particularly Catholic adults who are in a period of religious struggle.

I haven't read the whole thing yet, and I certainly haven't dissected every theological argument presented. However, halfway in I can say that reading the YOUCAT has been a pleasant surprise, cheesy photos aside.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Catholics Are Strange

It struck me today, as it often does, how strange we Catholics are. We honor the bones and incorrupt bodies of long-dead saints; we receive the Body and Blood of God at Mass; we have weird devotions to several of that God's physical qualities, including the shoulder wound of Christ, his five wounds, and the Sacred Heart, which is the solemnity we celebrate today. Tomorrow we honor Mary's Immaculate Heart. We Catholics simply refuse to accept the tendency to dichotomize body and soul, as their unity is the very nature of the sacramentality that saturates our world.

Of course, the origin of all this strangeness is not ourselves. This is the way God has revealed Himself. How odd that the Creator would find it important to reveal something as seemingly insignificant as the sacred nature of His heart. That God should reveal Himself in such a way is strange - and wonderful in its strangeness. That the physical heart of Christ can be a means of drawing us closer to Him is remarkable and mysterious.

Someday we hope to honor this strange devotion by enthroning the Sacred Heart in our home. This is a beautiful custom that is especially appropriate for Catholic families. You can find more information at this website.

As the wonderful folks over at New Liturgical Movement note, the tradition of honoring the Sacred Heart and Immaculate Heart is an ancient one. God has always revealed Himself as having a heart, even before the coming of Christ. On these great feasts, we are thankful for our religion and all its strangeness, and pray that our own hearts may "burn within us."

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Family in a Specialized Culture

Frederick Cotman; "One of the Family"
"Do not be bullied out of your common sense by the specialist; two to one, he is a pedant."
-Oliver Wendell Holmes

It seems pretty evident that the family is essentially counter-cultural in today's society.  This claim, if true, does not bode well for our culture, given that the family is the microcosm of society.  We all know what happens when a body's cells are in conflict with the body as a whole.

Here is just one example of this conflict on a basic level:

Engine problems? Call the auto specialist!
"Leave it to the experts" is a common mantra these days.  Images of a man desperately attempting to check a wild spray of water from the plumbing as the wife calls the plumber with a smile on her lips  come to mind. If something needs to be fixed, you take it to a specialist.  The car is taken to the auto shop, you call the plumber for the pipes, electricians deal with wiring, accountants with your money, lawyers with your legality, H&R Block with your taxes,  and the doctor with your well-being (usually universally). You send your children to public school for just the same reason.  If a criminal attacks you, call the police.

It is dangerous to try to do things that you are not "qualified" to do.  If you don't have a license or certificate, it is commonly thought that you cannot possibly do something in a safe and legitimate manner.  This is a very common attitude. Any other is thought to be purely irresponsible.  And indeed, should you trespass into the realm of specialties (everything is a specialty) for which you do not have some sort of license you are likely to be prosecuted or at least sued.

Complicated budgeting problems? Call the finance specialist!
But what is left to the father or mother of a family?  They don't have any legitimate expertise (or, therefore, soveregnty), over their finances, children, homes, and even their own persons (think self defense).  They cannot be anything more than facilitators in allowing a constellation of specialists help generate more strong individuals (not too many, mind you). These strong individuals can go on to be contributing (specialized) members of society. Of course, more often than not, permits, licenses, diplomas and certificates do not mean a thing about their recipient.  For a small fee, you can get many certificates for a variety of specialties.

Colicky newborn? Call the baby specialist!
What's really strange is that even parents are, in a certain way, expected to be specialists in their field. When we lived overseas in a college town without many married friends, we raised our daughter the way we thought was best, without the help or opinions of "specialists." Coincidentally, our parenting "style" included all of the fundamental elements of "attachment parenting" (now made even more famous by the recent article in the "Times"), including nursing "on demand" (what a horrible way to put it), and carrying our daughter in a sling. When we found ourselves in parenting circles, we were surprised and baffled to hear comments like, "Oh, so you like the Sears method," and "Ahhhh, the AP approach!" We scratched our heads and wondered why our parenting habits were associated with department stores and writing styles. We had no idea who Dr. Sears was, but as parents, it was assumed that we "specialized" in one parenting style or another, just like all helpless parents who need experts to tell them how to raise their children. Funnily enough, these styles themselves are often developed by parenting specialists with all the papers to prove their authority, from Dr. Sears to Dr. Ferber.

Trying to shed a few? Call a fitness specialist!
Society has always had (and needed) doctors, midwives, farmers, carpenters...But are these people only permitted to dwell in the confined sphere of their studies' focus?  And are we not also able to consider our health, make decisions about health without necessarily consulting or obeying our doctor?  Do we experience life in such a compartmentalized fashion?  Specialized movements are unhealthy and bad for the human person, a carpal tunnel syndrome of the soul.  Doctors should read philosophy.  Philosophers should study biology.  They don't need to get degrees in these other fields.  They need to study them to be more truly human and live a more authentically human life, to therefore be better doctors and philosophers.  We assume that our experts will be more knowledgeable if they focus only in one area.  But stepping back, how could this be?  Life is a whole.  Besides, a piece of paper is often easy to get, but it doesn't always ensure authority.

Don'y buy that beer until you've consulted a beer specialist!!
So why are these pieces of paper so important to society?  Often enough they have nothing to do with a deep and essential knowledge, a level of experience, an authentic wisdom or a superlative insight.  It's about protection.  They are paper shields for an overly developed, grotesque, overripe legal system.

The authentic family cannot function in such a system.  If it is fulfilling its function, it naturally resists it.

Why?  Because the family is a Whole, a Microcosm. We cannot be relegated to being secretaries for our families and our selves.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Anima Christi

The Institution of the Eucharist -Painting by Joos Van Wassenhove - 1475

The Anima Christi is my favorite prayer. I remember learning a sung version of it in 4th grade when my family lived in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our parish priest told us to always pray it after receiving Holy Communion, and it became a habit that lasted until today. This prayer has brought me much consolation, both during Mass and in my everyday life. It was played at our wedding and is imprinted in my mind forever.

No one really knows the origin of the Anima Christi, although it is commonly associated with St. Ignatius of Loyola, as he references it in the Spiritual Exercises. It is thought to have originated in medieval times, perhaps around 1300 A.D. Here it is, both in the original Latin and in translation: 

Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O Good Jesus, hear me.
Within Thy wounds hide me.
Suffer me not to be separated from thee.
From the malignant enemy defend me.
In the hour of my death call me.
And bid me come unto Thee,
That with all Thy saints,
I may praise thee
Forever and ever.

Anima Christi, sanctifica me.
Corpus Christi, salva me.
Sanguis Christi, inebria me.
Aqua lateris Christi, lava me.
Passio Christi, conforta me.
O bone Iesu, exaudi me.
Intra tua vulnera absconde me.
Ne permittas me separari a te.
Ab hoste maligno defende me.
In hora mortis meae voca me.
Et iube me venire ad te,
Ut cum Sanctis tuis laudem te
in saecula saeculorum.


Monday, June 4, 2012

"Hey, Parents - Leave Those Kids At Home": On Children At Mass, Part 1

"Jesus and the Children," by Lucas the Elder Cranach
There seems to be a great deal of debate as to whether parents should bring their children to Mass. We've always found this to be a surprising discussion, but it does seem to generate a great deal of dialogue.  We've encountered arguments opposed to bringing children to Mass from the pulpit and on blogs, espoused by both priests and parents.  The intensity of these attitudes vary.  Many take a defensive position and merely describe leaving youngsters at home as a viable option.  Others take on an almost dogmatic tone. Our focus, our vocation, is the domestic church and the principle reason for this blog.  We wanted to explore this issue and also provide a bit of encouragement for those weary parents who do decide to take their children to Mass.

All of the arguments against bringing young children to Mass seem to assume two basic points: 1. The children do not know what is occurring, so it is unimportant for them to be there, or  2.  Children are distracting and therefore harm the environment for others.

"Christ and the Children,"by Franck Kirchbach
We'll begin with the first argument. How could a child know what is occurring at the sacrifice of the Mass?  For the sake of argument, let's say that we are speaking of younger children, a one-year-old for instance. While it may be true that the child cannot rattle off the doctrine of transubstantiation, we would still like to say that knowing is an activity which requires development and an engagement  with the object of knowledge.  In order for the activity of knowing to be realized (especially knowledge of something like transubstantiation), the object of knowledge must become familiar and intimate. We believe that this familiarization begins much younger than the "age of reason."  My one-year-old is a blossom of potential flowering realization. Simple actions like pointing to the Eucharist and whispering Christ's name in her ear can awaken the mystery of this knowledge.

But lets put even this aside and pretend she does not know and simply does not have the faculty to know what is occurring at the mass.

So what?

What is essential is that Christ is present in the Eucharist. He is not abstractly present; He is not symbolically present. He is there, in person, actively engaging the congregation, whether they are asleep or awake, distracted or deep in prayer, married or single, young or old. He is there whether we know it or not. Even if we assume, then, that the toddler cannot understand anything about the Mass, we still hold that it is good for them to be in the Real Presence of Christ. The absolute, physical presence of God has an impact on those present. We have witnessed this effect on atheists, Protestants, fallen away Catholics, ourselves, and our babies firsthand.

Crazy medieval people
This may sound superstitious and overly simplistic to the modern mind.  If we were to meet a nice medieval Catholic, no doubt we would dismiss them as being merely superstitious. We enlightened moderns know that the medieval Catholics (as well as many modern "cultural" Catholics), were nothing but naive and superstitious, whereas our religious practice is based primarily on knowledge and intention. Images of excessive flogging and fanatical plague victims come to mind. But we wonder sometimes whether the traditional Catholic was much more invested in the things themselves then we are.  Perhaps they were much more imbued with a sense of sacramentality, something that seems alien to the non-Catholic culture in which we find ourselves. We believe that children, perhaps even more than most adults, also have this gift and ability to grasp the sacramentality of the Mass, whether or not they are able to understand it theoretically (who really can, after all?)  

The second argument folks make is that children are distracting to neighbors. In fact, not only do children distract other members of the congregation, but they also distract their weary parents who, in order to be good parents, need that quiet time at Mass. We can sympathize with this point a great deal more than with the first argument (which seems to us to be simply dishonest).  Often enough, our children are fairy tale creatures, and their ways are inevitably loud and draw attention as we desperately attempt to tame the beast.

This argument loses a lot of its validity if you cede the first point.  If you agree that Christ's true presence must have an impact on your children, then what you are really saying here is that you value the impact that the Eucharist has on adults more than on children. In this scenario, leaving the kids at home would be to sacrifice the benefit of the child's Eucharistic encounter for the greater good of an hour of quiet, calm parental meditation on the mysteries of the Mass, without having to worry about restraining the toddler and maintaining a distraction-free atmosphere in the church.

"Christ Blessing the Children," by Nicolaes Maes
 Honestly, we think this second point reeks of a particular breed of clericalism.  In this view, families are merely visitors, outsiders to the Church.  The only beneficial way to encounter Christ's Mass is the way that priests and nuns do - individually and in absolute silence and lack of distraction.  The father who argues that it is important to for him to go to mass without the distraction of his child has missed the whole point.  His child (his family) is his vocation, this means, his path to God.  His covenant with God is his marriage.  He will gain no benefit as a father  if he tries to leave his family behind and pray like a priest.  His religious path is in celebration of his family. We are meant to encounter Christ personally, always in community, and the family is a vibrant, primordial and essential dimension of this community.

For those of you who are still with us, take this as an analogy:  I have often been frustrated when I try to exercise.  My two girls lay in wait for me to get in push-up position.  One of them gets on my back, the other one likes to slide under me and hang by my neck.  How much better a Papa would I be if, instead of wrestling them off and confining them to their room, I simply loved them and got an even better work out by exercising with the challenge they provide. If I saw their presence not merely as a burden to my own progress, but as an opportunity.

There are so many more reasons to bring your children to Mass - so they can hear the Word of God and have the prayers of the Mass engraved in their hearts, learn to sing at Church, see their parents praying together (or working together to do so!). One of our happiest moments as parents was when we overheard our oldest daughter "playing Mass" in the bathtub at the age of 2. And it isn't only beneficial for children. The adults in the congregation are also surrounded by Catholic families who give witness to the domestic church. At the same time, having quiet time with the Lord is important, and parents who feel a longing for that should find a way to work it into their life, whether that is by attending Adoration for an hour every week or by going to daily Mass without the children once in a while. However, we do believe that attending Sunday Mass together is fundamental to the domestic church.

Families who make the decision to go to Mass together need to know that what they are doing is important and worthy. During our two-year stay in Belgium, where the Catholic population is anything but vibrant, we witnessed firsthand the cold and empty Mass without any children, Sunday after Sunday, and it is anything but spiritually uplifting. Belgian Catholics would come up to us after Mass like we were celebrities and thank us over and over again for bring our noisy baby to Mass. The priests would beg us to sit in the front row next time. In a time in which so many Masses are void of children in so many countries, this entire movement is immensely baffling.Yes, it is hard to bring young children to Mass. But parents who feel in their hearts that it is the right thing should be encouraged to follow that desire.

"Christ Receiving the Children," by Sebastien Bourdon
Mass will never be the same after you have children. As parents, we can either accept that or fight it. It certainly isn't easy to bring young children to Mass. We find that the most important thing is to try to place yourself in their shoes and work with them where they are. It's hard to know how much to demand of a one-year-old, and we spend many Sundays taking turns walking the back of the church. When our oldest hit the age of two, it helped to have some religious books, lacing cards, stickers, and holy cards to help her get through Mass. But in the end, there is no magic trick. In those moments of desperate pacing and social anxiety, it helps to listen to the words of Christ Himself: "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven."

Stay tuned for Part 2, which will outline some practical strategies for attending Mass with toddlers without resorting to Dora the Explorer and Bob the Builder.