Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me…for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” I’ve suggested in an earlier essay that chastity is but the giving of due reverence to the goodness and the holiness of sexual being, male and female. A land where chastity—not mere abstinence, and not prideful scorn of the body—is honored is a land where men and women can flourish. Chastity clears the way for the innocent pleasures of ordinary boyhood and girlhood, and for those habits of gentleness, self-restraint, and farsightedness that prepare young people for marriage.
Now I’d like to examine what chastity has to do with Jesus’ embrace of children, and his admonition, that unless we become like those children, we shall not enter His kingdom.
In his Haus Ohne Huter, Heinrich Boll, the German Catholic novelist and Nobel laureate, describes a post-war Germany where more than buildings and bridges have been destroyed. Families have been destroyed: millions of young men who were fathers, or who might have been fathers, have fallen in the war, “heroes for the Fatherland,” as the Nazi letters to their widows say. Boll reveals for us the intimate thoughts of two boys whose fathers were among the dead. One, Martin, still lay in the womb when his father was shot dead by Russians in some unremarkable village a thousand miles away. There was no heroism in that death. The father, who hated the Nazis, submitted to a stupid command by a young and insecure officer, to infiltrate the village and report back. The village was infested with Russian soldiers, as was predictable, and he and half of his fellows were mowed down. Note: he wasn’t political, but a Nazi publication had greeted his work as the dawn of a new era in German lyric. So then, after the war, admirers came to call on Martin’s mother, to comfort her—though they brought no comfort—and to salve their guilty consciences. Martin hears in school that though the Nazis were bad, they could have been worse; the Russians were worse. He isn’t fooled. He hates his mother’s visitors. His mother hates them too, but allows them. On visitor-nights, Martin must sleep upstairs in the room of “Uncle” Albert, his father’s best friend. Albert too was on that disastrous reconnaissance mission, and when he came back with his dead friend Rai, he punched the officer in the face, a breach of discipline for which he spent six months in a rat-infested prison.
On such nights, Albert sees the boy to bed, wakes him in the morning, feeds him breakfast and sends him to school. Martin’s mother might not wake till noon. We aren’t told what happens downstairs during these visits, although Martin suspects, from what he’s heard at school and from his best friend Heinrich, that it has to do with “the union of man and woman.” Martin’s mother has money, but Heinrich’s mother doesn’t, so Heinrich has endured a series of “uncles,” men who shack up with his mother and (sometimes) provide a little income to keep the family going. Heinrich’s mother thinks of herself as a “half-whore,” and the current uncle, a filthy cad named Leo, takes advantage of her and beats her little daughter when no one is around.
In Martin’s mind there are various categories of “uncles,” the immoral but nice, the immoral and horrible, the “real” uncles by blood relation, and Uncle Albert, the self-sacrificing hero of the novel. Albert does not go to bed with Martin’s mother. He likes her and offers to marry her “for the sake of the boy,” but she refuses, saying, in that way some women have of getting at the truth by sheer illogic, that she doesn’t want to be a widow twice over—the Nazis and their “widow-factory” having done too much of that work already. So Albert cares for Martin, whom he loves dearly. He is a big brother to him, an uncle, a father—even a playfellow, as he and Martin and Heinrich often play soccer together.
It isn’t a perfect arrangement, not by a long shot. Boll is no sentimentalist. Neither Martin nor Heinrich has a father, and they both long for them terribly. Martin sometimes prays before bedtime that God would allow his father to enter his dreams. Heinrich must play the father in his own house; during the war the little boy fetched groceries and tobacco on the black market, and developed a head for calculating figures long before his schoolfellows knew how to add and subtract. Heinrich has to squeeze every pfennig, for the sake of his mother and his little sister.
“If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, who would stand?” That verse echoes in Martin’s mind. Martin lives amid terrible iniquities against the holiness of the union of man and woman, and therefore against the holiness of God and the holiness of children. Since Martin does not suffer the benefit of a modern education, he isn’t accustomed to filth seasoned with sugar and served up to children for “safety.” What men and women do is still a mystery to him, though a mystery filmed over with selfishness and shamelessness and moral frailty. In a stunning application of the words of Jesus, Martin imagines a great millstone hung round the neck of his friend’s “uncle” Leo, and Leo sinking into the sea.
It occurs to me that the devastation Boll describes is now commonplace. There are plenty of Houses Without Guardians, where children grow up without fathers, or with a series of “uncles,” or of “aunts,” or what have you, and there’s nary a hypocrite left, much less Uncle Albert, to shield the children from the worst of the evils. Germany should have been a land of marriage, and wasn’t; but some people, hardly prudes, still could conceive of what things should be like. They still revered the innocence of children. Our lands now feature the chaos of Boll’s Germany, without the war for an excuse. Our Martins do not wonder what it would have been like to grow up with their fathers. They see those fathers regularly, about once a month, sometimes with Aunt Rosie, sometimes with Aunt Laurie; and their resentment hardens into lassitude and boredom. They needn’t wonder what men and women do. They are taught its mechanics in school, they see it on television, they gape at it in magazines, they figure that that’s what the “single” mother or father does, and there is not the least suggestion of beauty or of complete devotion, not one intimation of eternity. Heinrich seethes with the knowledge of what his mother is, what the Leos of the world have made her be. Our Heinrichs are not so severe, because they are already compromised morally. We make sure of that. Lest a Heinrich look with dismay at our moral squalor, we invite him in to take part in it himself. Hence the eagerness with which our teachers seek to soil the imagination.
Children are peculiarly vulnerable to sins against chastity, and on some level they know it. Heinrich’s mother gave birth to his little sister against the wishes of the “uncle” who begot her; then the uncle disappeared for good. The next “uncle,” who urged her to “begin a new life,” but from the wholly inadequate position of a shack-up, begot a child, which he begged her to keep, but she insisted on doing away with it; and he too disappeared. Heinrich came to see that the “it” whispered about was a child, as he was, and that it had something to do with that man-woman union. His baby sister herself seems aware of the evil. She speaks three words: “sugar,” “Papa,” and “Leo.” “Sugar” refers to everything she likes. “Leo” refers to men in picture books who look mean. “Papa”—and she has never known a papa—refers to the men who look kind and friendly. Well should she see an enemy in everything Leo represents. Leo sleeps with the mother, but they will have no children; Leo arranges matters so that that will be quite impossible.
A land of chastity is a good and welcoming place for children. It is also a land where grown men and women retain that innocence of childhood. Here the German language gives us some fine suggestions. The Mother of God, and Mother of the Church—the epitome of maternal love, is die Jungfrau Maria: “the young woman Mary,” “the maiden Mary,” with the assumption of an identity of youth and purity. Chastity is, in Mary, infinitely fecund; and the meaning of the marriage day, German Hochzeit, High-time, is founded upon the virtue that she so beautifully embodies. The wedding is not an afterthought, not a party held five years after the fact. It is the culmination of one childhood, and the beginning of another.
Professor Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. A senior editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, he writes regularly for Touchstone, First Things, Catholic World Report, Magnificat, This Rock, and Latin Mass. His most recent books are The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ironies of Faith (ISI Press, 2007); and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press, 2010). Professor Esolen is the translator of Dante.