It’s amusing to observe the contradictions apparent in the comparison of materialism versus spirituality, but it’s not amusing for long — because there’s more involved than a game. Each man caught in the embrace of materialism is a soul in danger of hellfire, and each soul is infinitely precious to God. For those of us who are parents, the challenge is terrible indeed. We have placed in our care for a few short years precious immortal souls who belong to God, whose destiny is an eternity in and with God, and who depend entirely upon us for the formation of a way of life that will lead them surely to God. And woe to us if we fail in this charge.
Who would blame a child who runs headlong into the path of an onrushing truck if his parents have failed to warn him of the perils of trucks? And who would blame a child who fires a loaded gun, killing his friend, if his parents have failed to warn him of the perils of guns? Then who shall blame a child whose soul turns eagerly to the noise and distraction of worldliness, if his parents have failed to show him that love and peace and beauty are found only in God?
“It were better for him if a millstone were hung about his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” That is Christ, speaking of scandal. And the scandal of the neglected souls of children is manifest all about, in their confusion and delinquency, and of children grown up to adulthood in their godlessness and immorality.
“He who abides with me, and Iin him, he bears much fruit; for without me you can do nothing.” That is Christ, too, speaking of the spiritual life. No need to argue more about imitating saints, nor look any further for a reason we should start now, in their earliest years, to show our children why, and, as best we can, how one sets about trying to be a saint.
There’s no difference in terms of time in souls. A child’s soul is not, although we may think of it that way, a “child soul.” Sin, not years, makes the differences in souls, and the only variation between the spiritual life for a child and for a grown-up is the means of communication. Although children are taught with simpler words and ways, the end of the teaching is the same. And if this seems too good to be true, and far too easy, remember, “Whosoever does not accept the kingdom of God as a little child will not enter into it.”
It Begins With Loving God
So it all begins with loving God, and learning how He loves us. That he is loved by God is very easy for a child to believe. He’s hungry to be loved, and it’s a hunger God planted in him. His reaction to the knowledge of God’s love is perfect faith. It’s no accident, nor is it a matter of taking advantage of his emptiness of knowledge. The virtue of faith is his at the moment of Baptism, infused into his soul by the Holy Spirit. What we see happening in our children when we introduce the revelation that there is a God and He loves them is inevitable. It’s the first movement in them of the divine virtue of faith responding to the word of God. It slips into the life of a child so easily, without fanfare or excitement, that we hardly notice that it has happened.
He’s very little, and one day it’s time to tell him. We pat him dry, after his bath, and kneeling there, loving the marvel of his neat little body, we say, “Stephen, do you know who made you?”
“Who made me?”
“God made you, Stephen.”
“Oh.” And he stops, and thinks, and confirms it. “God made Stephen.”
And the gift of faith is at work. If one can say that God waits for things, then God has waited for this since forever. It is the beginning of why Stephen is here. “To know God . . .” And he trots down the hall to his crib, a different child that night because now he knows who made him. Many wise men may know many more things than Stephen, but may not know who made them.
When you tuck him in and say, “Do you know why God made you, Stephen?” he will hardly ever answer, “No.” But almost always, “Why?” And you tell him, “Because He loves you.” And Stephen knows the most important thing in all the world.
I asked a little boy of two and a half, “Why did God make you?” and he gave me such a look — didn’t I know?
“Because He wants me!” And he laughed and laughed. Such a joy, to know one is wanted.
This is security, the first and last and only real security. And we must make it so real for our children that they will look out at the world from the snug safety of God’s love. They must know that He loves them as though they were His only love, and that they need not fear the dividing of His love because it’s indivisible. It is like the flame of a candle, which will light another candle, and another, and another, and still burn as before. Nowhere is there more love than this. This is all love, it never changes, and they may turn to it from the middle of sin or sanctity and always find asylum.
A little boy of four told me, in great excitement, “You know what? God didn’t make me like you make a house. You know how He made me? He just thinked, and there I was. Like this. . .” And he stood very still and blinked his eyes once, the best way he knew to express in physical terms how God made him. Just to think, and make a little boy. What could be more wonderful?
For a child to learn that he is loved and wanted is pure delight, but to root it deep in his soul takes care and practice, and we must teach him to delight in it often.
“God made you, dear, ages before He put you on this earth. You were in the mind of God so long ago that even Mother cannot tell you when it was. Always He knew you, always He wanted you, and because He knows all things, He knew when was the perfect time for you to come so you could do what He has planned for you.”
It’s easy to take these beginnings for granted, but if we would stop to consider them as acts of great supernatural significance, we would learn much faster to appreciate the vast potential waiting to be developed in the souls of the smallest children. Children believe with simplicity because, along with the other gifts of the Holy Spirit at Baptism, they possess the gift of wisdom, so different from the book-learning we think synonymous with wisdom.
Father Walter Farrell, in his Companion to the Summa, says that to question the simplicity of God’s omnipotence, His ability to create a man or a universe out of nothing, is as ridiculous as to hold that a man may not move through a fog without punching it with his fist. This child’s acceptance of the most staggering acts of creation is precisely the acceptance that Christ said will qualify us for Heaven. Understanding the meaning of grace, and faith, and revelation, and their supernatural effects in the uncluttered souls of children, it is utter absurdity to hold that “in all fairness,” a child should be left untaught until he is old enough to decide what to believe for himself. It’s not only an absurdity, but a consummate mockery of the Holy Spirit.
Still, to be honest, one must admit that the word God is really only a word, so far, and what children love is not the word, but the love. I suppose one could substitute any word for the word God and they would love being loved this way just as much. So we must make Someone, not just a something, of God. And quite without realizing it, we have arrived at the beginning of catechism.
It’s a bit of a jolt to start thinking in terms of catechism so long before one absolutely must. Poor catechism, maligned and mossy with dreary associations. But if we apply ourselves seriously to teaching our children the spiritual life, one of the greatest challenges is the dare to turn catechism into the happiest of all their studies. It should be. It could be.
Perhaps the reason it hasn’t been so far is that we mistake it for an end, not a means. It is as though, reading the recipe for a cake on a printed page, we should decide that it’s all very dull and never bother putting it together and making the cake. There’s a great difference between reading the directions and eating the cake. The bone-dry definitions in the catechism are as essential as the recipe for the cake, but if we put them together with imagination and enthusiasm, and add love and experience, then set them afire with the teaching of Christ, His stories, His life, the Old Testament as well as the New, and the lives of the saints, we can make the study of catechism a tremendous adventure.