Trying to bring children up in the Faith makes me realize just how much, more than words, example of life is necessary.
Saying grace before meals was something that neither I nor my wife grew up with. After we got married it was a habit that we both struggled to acquire, but eventually we got there. Who knew something so simple could take so much effort? Perhaps the greatest obstacle to overcome was human respect. “What will people think of us making the sign of the cross and praying before eating?”; “we will stand out”; “what will our families say?”… All these ideas echoed in our heads, as if pleasing others (or being accepted by them) was more important than giving thanks to the Lord. However, one’s brokenness and insecurities (especially if they are of a psychological nature) do not disappear overnight, and all one can do at times is to simply “face the beast”, putting the matter into the Lord’s hands, hoping He will strengthen our resolve.
Little did we know later on how much those observing eyes of our little daughter were taking in. As she grew she slowly started to try to start to cross herself when we sat down to eat (she’s almost got the gesture completely figured out), and with time she learned to mumble in her own little language something in which one can make out “Bless…Christ…Amen.” When her brother came along, in the beginning she would point an accusing finger at him, as though to say “look, he isn’t saying grace” (I think she’s now come to understand that he’s too young). When we had relatives over or were visiting them, she would look at them and not cross herself until they did as well… Saying grace has become something so second nature to her that if we do happen to forget she’ll remind us.
I can’t remember when she started going to the holy water font by herself, but I’m sure that she saw us do it over and over and realized that it’s something you do when you enter a church. She still hasn’t realized though that you’re only supposed to do it once and not keep going back to the font over and over to splash holy water on your forehead (no matter how many times we shoo her away from the font). The same with genuflecting – she has now started to genuflect when entering a church (though not all the time). It was quite curious to see her in Wells’ cathedral this past week walking around genuflecting every few steps (until she finally realized that there was so much space that running was better…).
How do children come to understand? What associations does she make in her mind to identify things as “religious things”? “Amen” is her word to identify “religious things”. If she sees icons, images of saints, or crosses she will say “amen”. She knows what books are, but if she sees our missal or breviary she won’t call them “book”, but rather “amen”. When she saw Wells’ cathedral from the outside she said “amen”, and then on another day she saw a church of completely different architecture and also called it “amen”. How does she know to distinguish? And what does “amen” even mean to her?
Examples of passing on the Faith aren’t only to be done with “pious gestures”, however important they might be. The spirit that gives them meaning must be cultivated and must become second nature to all of us. Examples of thanksgiving, of kindness, of forgiveness, and also of discipline. These things are a normal part of the upbringing of children I guess, but as Christian parents we have the obligation to give them a supernatural meaning, to help them see their life through the eyes of faith.
Obviously as she grows older she will need to be taught the meaning of these things, but the important thing at the moment is that good habits are developing at an early age. Hopefully as her brother grows he will learn not only from us but from her as well. In the meantime, their eyes are on us, for we are not parents for our own sake, but for Him who made the heavens and earth…