Elder Brother gets into the mystical act…

A few days ago, I wrote that Buster, while recovering from the flu was waxing mystical. Amusingly, I got some unhappy emails from some Christians who suggested that I was an unfit mother for encouraging my son in his musings by letting his thoughts and reasonings go where they would, rather than snapping the whip and making him recite the old Baltimore Catechism while I bopped him repeatedly on the head with a bible.

I wish I were a better Catholic, and a better Christian, of course, but I think Buster has more than ably demonstrated his rather precocious and generous understandings of God’s mercies and mysterious ways in the past, and I have no worries that he will drift into “heresies.” The fact is, with few saintly exceptions (and Buster is no saint) most Catholics will step a foot outside the lot markings of our inheritance (Psalm 16) now and again and many will even wonder if they believe at all. As I had written in the previous piece, I have no trouble with my kids treading the deeper waters, as long as they have their eyes on the shoreline; I know the Lifeguard is watching. And of course, I’m watching, too. That’s my job. It’s also my job – having warned them that a hot stove can burn and a hot date can, too – to let them discover some things for themselves, even if the process of discovery brings them to exotic or tempting or even dangerous places. Once they stop holding my hand to cross the street, trust and prayer become my two infinitely powerful weapons.

Catholicism is a religion that is best suited to young children and mostly-mature adults. Young children “get” the possibilities of the supernatural. They “get” mysticism and. They “get” that “God is everywhere,” and that bread and wine may be changed, materially, into Flesh and Blood. While a little one may occasionally be heard in chuch singing “happy birthday to you,” when she sees an altar server light the candles, children understand the hush and wonder of the mass, particularly if they are in an older church – one that still has stained glass windows and statues for them to contemplate while the gist of the mass goes over their heads. (People forget how instructive and useful those windows are, but that’s another post) Young and more seasoned adults “get” Catholicism when they have reached the understanding that everything is not about them – that there are things greater than themselves.

This is why Catholicism is worst suited to adolescents and teenagers – whether the temporary ones or the perpetual ones. When the world is all about your pleasure, your nails, your car, your finances, your boyfriend, your cellphone and your angst, it’s tough to focus on something intangible which involves allowing oneself to be vulnerable and wrong, and which also involves some pursuit. When you are not accustomed to hearing the word “no,” Catholicism can seem like The Church of No. When taking responsibility for your bad choices and mistakes is foreign to you, well the idea of “sin” and “confession” all seems so quaintly unnecessary. And we cannot forget that the church herself – and some of her reps – is often too slow to deal with her own faults and mistakes.

Sadly, because the church is idiotic, sometimes, in how it goes about dealing with teenagers – and because many parishes don’t have effective youth programs, and because too many parents think, “okay, we got the kid confirmed and had the party, now he’s on his own,” we lose a lot of teenagers who never find their way back, or only do so after being brought to their knees by the vagaries of life and the world. It shouldn’t be that way, but there it is.

My elder son is very bright – exceedingly cerebral – and also very spiritual, but he sometimes puts more trust in the things of the synapses than the things of the spirit, and he is wandering a little. While he is home from school he probably makes mass half the time – and he does so willingly – but at school there is no chance that he’s going to make mass. His campus has no chapel, and his warm bed and a late Sunday snooze-fest take precedence over worship, and I pretty much expected that would happen. I’m not happy about it, but I am not shocked, either. I was 20, once, too. Remember what I said about trust and prayer? All I can do is deploy those weapons in the hope that he remembers everything we talked about and taught, and the times when he himself tasted -as I know he did – the milk and honey.

The other night, in the middle of a blizzard, the Elder one stumbled into the house at 4:00 AM with his sweet girlfriend, announcing that they’d decided not to drive back to school in the storm. Good choice. While Sweet Girlfriend dozed on the sofa, he decided to talk religion and intellect – reason and faith. He began with a quick look at the miracle of Fatima – why, if the church has accepted Fatima as being “worthy of belief” have they done such a bad job of doing the things Mary asked to have done? Why, if hell is less a physical place than a state of being into which we cast ourselves – i.e. apart from God – did Mary show the children a vision of hell that seemed right out of Dante?

Good questions – ones that many Catholics have asked. When Mary said the whole world needed to be consecrated or the “sins of Russia” (circa 1917) would “spread” (as they have) throughout Europe and the world, why didn’t the proper consecration happen? Are we reaping the fruits of that disobedience even now? When Mary said, “read this letter to the public in 1960″ why was that put aside? Did the popes not do so to prevent a self-fulfilling prophecy, or because to do so would have deterred them from making reforms they deemed necessary? These are questions that nag many (and I wonder about them, myself, now and then), and they seem unanswerable.

My answers to Elder were two-fold: 1) no one ever said the church wasn’t a faulty institution full of people who fail. It has only survived for the last 2000 years because of the grace of the Holy Spirit. Were the Church of Rome simply a man-made cult being propped up by mere mortals, it would have dissolved long ago. God is merciful, indeed. 2) Perhaps Mary showed hell to the children in the way they could best understand it. God comes to us as He may be understood. Hence, Jesus was a Jew, to Jews. Had he landed in Jerusalem a chubby, smiling Buddha, well…I don’t think he would have had the same impact. And had Buddha been a Jew in China, same thing. These illiterate and ignorant Portugese children might have had some difficulty with an existential “hell” but they understood “consigned to flames of woe.”

“But then what about the creatures Mary showed them, the mutant creatures who seemed half animal, half man?” My son asked, “those are rather sophisticated images – it doesn’t work with your theory.”

“Maybe not, but the very “sophisticated” images probably reinforced for them the horrors of evil,” I answered. “And maybe it was a prophecy of genetic engineering, of those malleable, uncontrollable embryonic stem cells, which caused so much trouble for Parkinson’s patients in research.”

Catholicism has a tradition of faith supported by intellectual rigor. But I’m not the brightest knife in the drawer to begin with, and at that hour, well…

I know my answers did not satisfy him – but it was by then 5 AM, and little out of my mouth would have satisfied anyone. We talked more – about the theory some have that both Tony Blair and President Bush will convert to Catholicism when they leave office, about the possibilities some entertain that the current climate in the Middle East seems strangely similar to some interpretations of the Book of Revelation, which state that China and Russia will help mount a war against Israel. We talked about the controversial prophecies of St. Malachi and whether Benedict XVI could rightly be considered, “the glory of the olive,” and whether that might be because of his Benedictine name and mien (Olivetan Benedictines) or because his family has Jewish roots, or whether he might not be considered the “glory of the olive” at all, in which case Malachi’s whole debated prophecy falls apart. We wondered whether Pope John Paul’s hastily planned visit to Mexico City, in 1999, and his naming Our Lady of Guadalupe the “Patroness of the Americas” had anything to do with fixing the things left undone from Fatima, if naming December 12 as her feast day had any connection to the 2000 election, which finally “ended” on that day.

“That’s interesting,” my son said, “the image of the Guadalupe is the image from Revelation – the woman clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, guarded by angels. The crescent moon is the symbol of Islam. Now she is the patron saint of the Americas. Fatima was the daughter of Mohammed, who married a Christian and made her stand there, in Portugal. Is it possible that all of this is, after all, connected?”

He moved on from there. We talked until 7:00 AM, and about much deeper things – about the Angels in the Kabbalah, about Augustine and Aquinas and Chesterton and the Holy Eucharist, and about the human mind and the soul and whether the body/mind/soul complex is as interactive/intergrated as we believe. “Can you have mind without spirit – can you have spirit without mind?” he wondered. “Why do we need authority, when we have our own reason…”

We meandered through talking points about Terri Schiavo and Humanae Vitae, and the debates about using “heroic measures” to save a life. We talked about what John Paul the Great taught about the value of human life beign allowed to live to its natural end, no matter how tough it is to live or look at. My son brought a formidable and far-reaching mind to the debate, which impressed me and made me glad. But I finally went back to sleep at 7:30 hoping that, beyond all of that rigorous thinking, Elder Son would remember the times when – the mind quieted – he could hear the enticing whisper, the one that leads you into the desert and ravishes your spirit. In the end, they pack a deeper punch, and perhaps a more permanent one – than what Oscar Wilde (the deathbed convert) called “brute reason.”

“I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable.” Wilde wrote. ” There is something unfair about its use. It is hitting below the intellect.”

My Elder son is a kind and good person, and he wasn’t hitting below the intellect – but perhaps he is at a stage where spirit and mind are less commingled than they are when one is younger or older. He would be the theology and philosophy professors most exciting find or their biggest nightmare. He was dwelling on infinity – on infinite possibilities – on the mathematics of mysticism. Music and religion and math, he mused, are at once language and means – avenues to God with unlimited possibilities.

No, he was not high. This is not a conversation entered into under the influence of a bag of Fritos. He’s always thought this way and engaged us in these sorts of talks. Our kids more than keep us on our toes! and not all things can be intellectualized.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • http://rightwingnation.com rightwingprof

    If I may say so, I think you sound like a superb mother — with a very good son.

  • Joseph

    A splendid post, Anchoress. I have been a little occupied with my own religious duties for a couple of weeks and it’s nice to return to read something so well done.
    /
    Young and more seasoned adults “get” Catholicism when they have reached the understanding that everything is not about them – that there are things greater than themselves.
    /
    I don’t think this is quite right, particularly of adolescents who are intelligent and have an independent life of the mind, as your sons surely do. What is more important is that young men and women lack certain essential information about how the world works, particularly about the capacity of life to disappoint.
    /
    In the less intelligent among the young this ignorance may drift into a pure self-centered hedonism, but that is due to the intelligence involved and not the age.
    /
    You can easily teach your sons your point of view about God [Catholic or not], as well as the mere arugmentative reasons for it, and so can the Church. What you cannot really teach them is the emotional
    why you have faith in that point of view.
    /
    What has struck me since my own adolescence in a completely secular, but not anti-religious, household, is that the general presentation of themselves and their views by believing Christians in this country is not very compelling to a young person with intelligence.
    /
    Even the conversion narratives [such as Thomas Merton's], which are the most emotionally engaging of all such readings, seem to lack some vital component in presenting the value of belief.
    /
    When I wanted to really understand why Christians were Christian, and, particularly, why Catholics were Catholic, only the British seemed to be able to make it clear: Newman, Lewis, Chesterton, Belloc, and Joyce had a depth and clarity, whether an orthodox clarity or a heretic clarity, that made the
    choice of Christianity, or of Catholicism [rather than retaining it as a habit from childhood] intelligible.
    /
    In the end, it was not my choice, though I read all these writers, and others, thoroughly. But I was left in no doubt that such a choice could be made by a person of intelligence.
    /
    There are still, I think, not many American Christians who could convince me of this had I not read those wonderful British authors.
    /
    To put the matter in more concrete terms, if you say “No”, you should be prepared with an intelligent answer for the intelligent question that any cheeky and intelligent adolescent will ask you, “Why not?”
    /
    How many adult Christians are willing or able to engage that question seriously and with the rigor that the impatient and knowledge hungry young demand?
    /
    You speak of your son being an exciting find for a theology and philosophy professor [I assure you he would never be a "nightmare"].
    /
    But the real question is would he be an exciting find for your very own parish priest?
    /
    Oh, by the way, if you went back and did a little work on this fine fragment of light verse–”had Buddha been a Jew in China”–you could really turn it into something that would have made the Chesterbelloc very, very proud.

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/emperoraf andy

    Bravo, Anchoress.

    And Thank You.

    –From a Protestant long eyeing Catholicism.

  • Piano Girl

    I would say that Buster & his elder brother are very lucky to have you as their mom. I’ve always been thankful that it is God who judges me, and not those who can’t read my heart & soul.
    *******************************
    “Amusingly, I got some unhappy emails from some Christians who suggested that I was an unfit mother for encouraging my son in his musings. . .”

  • pendell

    Sooo … people have been giving you grief because you haven’t been stifling Buster’s brain and putting him onto the Approved Thought tracks, eh ?

    I didn’t say anything, because I thought that it wasn’t any of my business to criticize how you raise your chilren. I still think that.

    Nonetheless, because OTHER people have rudely piped up, I feel compelled to say I believe it was wise of you to encourage your son’s intelligent speculation. None of us really “get” all there is about God, and the catechism isn’t so much a Summation of All Truth as it is a sandbox that demarcates very broad boundaries.

    Within those boundaries, there’s plenty of room both for questions and for answers.

    I have a hard time imagining a person being seriously hungry for God and not asking questions.

    Full disclosure: I AM a Protestant. But if God gave me kids I would hope to do the same thing with them as you are doing with yours.

    Respectfully,

    Brian P.

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