“If parents who are from the nobility want to offer to God in the monastery one of their children, who is too young to take personal responsibility, they should draw up a document like that described above and, as they make the offering, wrap the document with the child’s hand in the altar cloth…
Poor people may make the offering of a child in the same way. If they have no property at all, they simply write and offer the child with the document in the presence of witnesses.”
–The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 59
What does it mean to offer a child to the work of God?
When I first read this chapter two years ago, I was taken with the image of a child’s hand grasping the document written by his parents, promising him to the community, to the life of monasticism, and making a covenant he can’t possibly understand, his hand wrapped in the altar cloth.
Of course, the thought of what parents chose to do in the 6th century—offering a child’s life to a monastery, giving up rights to that child, both as a kind of tithe, but also as a way to feed less mouths and gain religious “approval” (from God? from the church?)—is disturbing. From our free-thinking, individualistic society, we can’t possibly grasp the culture of the Benedict’s time, what it meant to live in poverty. Or, what it meant to live under the authority of the church.
So I won’t really go there. When I read this passage, I just kept seeing my boys holding the life (the promises) my husband and I are writing for them, their boy hands wrapped in the altar cloth.
Both my boys are blankey types. They would prefer to have their blankets with them wherever they go. Although August is able to go to school and church without it, if there’s a new, scary event happening for him, you bet his “Bup” is in hand and it’s the only thing keeping him from an emotional breakdown. Brooksie has loved his blanket since he was five months old and every time he sees it, he throws his body into it, rubs his face in it.
Last Saturday night while Chris and I ate dinner at some supercool hipster French bistro (records playing through the speakers!), we talked about the boys, and I whispered across the table the secrets my heart prays for them, what I hadn’t mentioned to Chris till then. I’m convinced that we are always writing the document, this desperate offering to God on our children’s behalf.
The question I’m asking myself is what promises I’m making with the life I’m living in front of them. Am I writing for them a future of compassion, of community, of love for the most broken and most vulnerable? Or am I writing a future of the love of comfort, of success, of self-obsession? Am I teaching them to love things more than people? Am I teaching them to live in fear of the approval of others?
This is picture I keep seeing: As their little tired bodies lie back against their sheets, as their eyes roll backward, their cheeks relax, as they sink into the secret place their minds go in the darkness, they hold in their hands the words I’ve written for them that day: the commitment I’m making on their behalf to the God I serve. And in their hands, the blankets they love, wrapped around their hands, like altar cloth.
See, on the altar is the sacrifice, the grace offered from a merciful God. Yes, each day I write for them a future: some of it sweet and good; some of it broken and failing. But covering their hands, covering my attempts at mothering, at committing those sweet lives, is the grace that covers my hands as well, my tired body pressed into my sheets at the end of the day, the future my parents wrote for me and the promises I’ve made and broken and continue to walk in. All of it grace; all of it wrapped around our hands.
All of it sealed on the altar where Jesus breaks and pours out again and again.