This past year, my wife and I developed a delightful habit of “Monday’s with Eli.” He is my soon-to-be 5 year-old grandson. He has a nearly 4 month-old baby brother, whose time in the womb was the occasion for our weekly baby-sitting duties. With my retirement, his presence was a new challenge to “find things to do.” He is an energetic boy, bright, with quick interest in almost anything around him. Our duties took us on long walks in the local arboretum, visits to the local dam, a train-yard, and countless forays into the woods across the street. There have been lots of hours with my train sets.
To give an accurate picture of this weekly discipline, you have to bear in mind my health. I’m slowing down (a lot). I can get lost in my thoughts, my reading, my writing. Left to myself and the noise of an ADHD brain, I could easily become a grumpy old man. But how can you be grumpy when someone is enthusiastically intoning, “Grandpa!” and following it with words of wonder? He is saving me.
There were several very serious moments that followed one day’s conversation when Eli began asking questions about what it meant to be old, including the notion that old age meant that death would come. “Will you die, Grandpa?” “Yes, I will, Eli.” He became tearful and pensive. In time, the information was assimilated and we moved on to the next joyful project.
I have contemplated his future just as he has contemplated mine. My readers know just how critical I am of contemporary culture. I do not imagine my grandson will be magically protected from its insanity. Neither, however, do I waste time imagining tragic scenarios for his life. With regard to the future we have two things: knowledge of the present-tense goodness of God that providentially works through and in all things for our good; hope in God who has promised to preserve us in His goodness. Within and through all of that runs the Cross.
It is a fearful thing to witness the Cross in the life of your child, no matter their age. Well did St. Simeon prophesy to the Mother of God, “And a sword will pierce your own soul, also” (Luke 2:35). We are “co-sufferers” with our children (and grandchildren). More profoundly, Christ (and His mother) co-suffers with them as well. This is the definition of our life in this world.
By the same token, the Cross is also our hope. It is only in the Cross that the resurrection of Christ is revealed to us in this world. Despite persecutions and every kind of trouble, the Church remains and the resurrection is made manifest in the triumph of beauty, truth, and goodness.
Part of the American Dream traditionally was to want a better life for your children than you had yourself. It created the false expectation that a “better” life consisted in money and health. In truth, such things are not the circumstances that improve our existence. That false expectation belongs to the religion of modernity (not Christianity). There, the promise is that wealth is the solution to the problems of the world. It is said that Americans “vote their pocketbook.” It is unheard of that someone could sell us suffering and want.
For the most part, our culture demonizes suffering and sees poverty as an enemy (that we have yet to vanquish). Christ’s repeated and dire warnings regarding wealth are most often used only as opportunities to suggest an increase in alms-giving. It is rarely the case that we hear clear explanations of how the love of money is the “root of all evil.” Orthodox Christianity is unusual in our present time for its emphasis on robust fasting and prayer. The services and prayers of the Church (with the constant honoring of great-suffering martyrs) serve as constant reminders of precisely what it means to take up the Cross and follow Christ.
And so, the question that rests in my heart, and should for us all, is, “How do we help the young that God has given us to endure the world that lies before them?”
The first thing that occurs to me is that we do not raise them with the expectation that the world is free of suffering and sorrow. The question is how to nurture someone in a manner such that they acquire the virtues required for suffering and for the suffering of those around them. Sadly, our culture markets comfort, convenience, and, anything that removes suffering. In a healthy, integrated culture, there are many things that help a parent in the formation of virtue. Our culture, unfortunately, is integrated around a pleasure principle. With no other guidance, our children will likely only acquire the virtues that are best suited to being a consumer.
Epitaph for Modernity: I came, I shopped, I died.
The second thing that occurs to me is that none of us can raise our children without help. The communities in which we dwell – family, school, church – are essential parts of a child’s nurture. Indeed, studies show that children gain most of their social sense and information from other children – a fact that many parents discover with shock and dismay. A question of these supporting, primary communities is whether they are places that support people in their suffering and sorrow. Do they nurture the virtues required of the Christian life or are they incubating self-centered shoppers?
G.K. Chesterton wrote:
The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.
A difficulty in our present world is that we are confronted with distorted versions of our Christian selves. Various critical theory paradigms, for example, draw on selected and isolated virtues, only to turn them on the older world and destroy it. Compassion can be a deadly thing if it is not grounded in a worldview that comprehends suffering.
We do not, and cannot, control the world. We can nurture children and surround them with healthy communities, but the adversary is always present. Much of the suffering of a parent is found in our helplessness. That helplessness is a lesson in grace. Either God preserves us or there is no preservation. Either His providence is trustworthy or we have no hope.
But we do have hope. The hope is not a promise that in our lifetime all will be well. Rather, our hope is in the Cross of Christ, the crucified Savior. Our hope is the faith that the crucified Savior has united Himself to humanity, and to our children, in particular. He will not leave them nor forsake them. Even if they journey into hell, He goes there with them (Ps 139:8). This is the hope that Hebrews says is an “anchor of the soul.”
This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil (Heb. 6:19).
This hope is grounded in the work that Christ Himself has accomplished and which abides in the world even now. It is the hope that “makes us not ashamed.”
A final word: stand with Mary at the Cross. Ask her to teach you how to bear the mystery of the sword that pierced her soul. She is every mother just as He is every child.