For a good while about two solid years, in fact, when she was six and seven, only one thing was as constant as her reading. It was the question she asked every time she started a book:
“Is this a true story?”
She once wondered to me about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. When she absorbed the inevitable bad news, she was a bit disappointed, but nodded as if her suspicions had been confirmed.
“I didn't think so,” she said,” because you couldn't have a factory made of chocolate. It would melt.”
After months of this, I was starting to feel bad for her because the answer to her question was always no. I began to detect frustration. It was clear that she was thinking, “Well, why should I care about it if it didn't really happen?”
One evening, she trotted out to the front porch where I sat on the swing with my own reading, held up a book, and demanded, “Is this a true story?”
I was ready, without even looking up, to give the usual answer. But then I caught sight of the picture on the cover: a little girl with brown hair in old-fashioned clothes, clutching a doll in her arms.
Finally. My heart lifted and I felt as if I were about to tell someone they'd won the lottery.
“Yes,” I said, “This is a true story.”
Her eyes widened and she gasped.
“It is?” She couldn't believe it.
I nodded and told her about Laura Ingalls Wilder, and that when I was just a little older than Katie was then, my parents had taken me to the spot in Missouri where Laura lived as a grown-up and where she wrote these books about her very own life.
This news this good news got Katie terribly excited, and she confided that she'd suspected this one was “real” because “the writer's name is Laura, and so is the little girl's.”
I've thought a lot about my daughter's obsession with the truth of the stories she hears and the yearning it expresses.
She seemed to be saying to me, “Why bother? Why waste your time on something that's not true?”
Over the past few months, I've had the chance to read a great deal about Catholic saints. The effect of such intense research is, depending on your mood and your sense of self, energizing, humbling, or just depressing. Immersed in the lives and sacrifices of the likes of Francis of Assisi, Vincent de Paul and Frances Xavier Cabrini, one has essentially two choices: Be inspired and do something or feel like the ridiculous self-absorbed middle-class faux Christian that you are.
But aside from that, I was confronted time and time again by the plain fact that all of these people did these things: traveled the globe, plunged themselves into the lives of poorest and sickest they could find, built schools and hospitals that still exist and serve, and prayed until their knees bled for one reason: They knew the story they'd heard was true.
Now, compare this to the way we “believe” today.
We live in a culture in which choosing a religion is just one more marketplace activity, with shoppers, when you get to the bottom line, using the very same critereon for faith as they do for a couch: Is it “comfortable?”
And since I have spent so many years of my life dealing with adolescent Christians, I have to think about them too, the children of the church-shoppers, absorbing the messages they're taught by their parents' indifference to the content of faith in preference for how pleasantly it strikes the senses.
They can't imagine giving their lives over to building something solid and beautiful for God. They honestly don't see the sense in sacrificing anything, much less one's whole life, so that others might know this story.
We can try to blame the secular world, but that's not really it. It's our fault we who have been charged with telling the story of the man Who was God, Who forgives us, Who died and who rose from the dead.
We've taught and lived it, not as if this story was vitally true for every soul on the planet, but as if it were just one more pretty tale among many. And they listen and conclude, “Nice, but why bother our lives with it, if it's not true?”
But if you know these children, you also know that in their hearts, it's not enough. They know that if nothing is really true or real, maybe they're not either, and that leaves them frightened and empty.
And so they wait, hoping that someday there will be someone to approach, who can turn to them and meet their aching questions at last, confidently delivering the Good News: This story you've heard? Yes this is the one that is true.