Models & Moderators: Parenting to Pass on the Faith

In writing and speaking about the life of the domestic church, I often encounter a version of the following question from earnest Catholic parents: How do we effectively pass on our faith to our children?

It’s certainly not a new question. We’ve been collectively working at it for centuries. Many read the story of St. Monica’s actions and prayers on behalf of her wayward son Augustine with a knowing sympathy. But not all similar stories of parental faithfulness through history have produced the same end. We hear many times of children coming of age, leaving the Church, and losing their faith in God.

I have witnessed flawed responses to this disheartening fact. There are well-meaning individuals who sincerely want their children to develop a relationship with God and love for His Church as they walk toward adulthood. Because of this desire, they strive after a “system” or “formula” that will ensure this result. Catholic parents can so often fall into a problematic mindset of religious “box-checking”. We can easily forget that our children belong to God, and that He—not us—is directing their journey. We are asked only to be faithful (not perfect) stewards of HIS children while they are under our guard.

With this foundational truth in mind, I want to offer a life-giving framework (not a system) for how we may go about being parents who are stewards of God’s children. How can we be faithful in our responsibility to pass on a knowledge and love of God, while ultimately leaving our children in God’s hands.

I would like to adapt the marvelous “Teacher’s Motto” established by British educator Charlotte Mason (1842-1923): “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.”[1] I would offer that spiritual formation (religious education) is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life. Let me explain briefly what Mason meant by these terms. The atmosphere is the environment, that which individuals take in and absorb all around them just as one breathes in a breath of air. What is part of one’s atmosphere becomes part of oneself. Discipline has to do not with aspects of punishment (as some may attribute the word), but rather with the formation of habits. And finally, the “living” component refers to the life of ideas. I would offer that we Catholic parents are called to both model and moderate these three vital elements in our domestic churches.

Let’s look first at being models of the faith to our children:

  • Let us consider the atmosphere that we cultivate in our own individual lives as parents and/or as spouses. Is our faith life one that exudes the fruits of the Spirit? Do we walk in peace and order as we experience both joys and sufferings in our lives, or are our lives chaotic and lacking healthy rhythms?
  • Next, we should look at our habits. How do we practice our faith? Have we made prayer, the sacraments, Mass, etc. primary habits in our daily and weekly lives of faith? How do we habitually respond to others? What are our reflexes when we encounter suffering or difficult things?
  • Finally, need to consider whether we are filling our minds and hearts with the living ideas of our faith. Have we settled for unimaginative or “packaged” explanations for our faith, or have we dug in ourselves to the original sources of truth in Scripture, the Catechism, and primary church writings and documents? Are we spiritually and intellectually curious people who take joy in discovering for ourselves God’s truth wherever we might find it?

Now let’s examine our role as moderators of these vital elements in our children’s lives:

  • First, we must consider the atmosphere we parents create in our homes. What family and faith culture are we cultivating in the lives of our children?  What are they taking in to be part of themselves and their lives of faith as they would take in breath?
  • Second, we are to provide habit-building opportunities for our children. How are we helping them to practice their faith? Have we made space for building the habit of prayer gradually as they grow older? Have we considered how to replace the bad habits of their lives (vices) with the opposite good habits (virtues)?
  • Third, we are to be spreading living ideas of faith before their minds and hearts. Have we thought critically about the books we allow to form their understanding of the faith? Have we offered them watered down ideas or ready-made answers for their questions? Or have we put in their path the most beautiful and well-articulated ideas of our faith and respected the minds God has given them to discover truth, whereby learning to love the discovery of it?

At best, I’ve laid out a skeletal framework here; but these ideas and questions should hopefully lead us toward a deeper and more life-giving consideration of what our true role is as parents in passing on our faith to our children. I believe that God would have us take heart in what He has made us capable of doing and experience peace in what is ultimately in His hands.

[1] Mason, Charlotte M. 2017. Home education. p. XI

More Present Than the Pain

“Life is pain, highness!” replies Wesley with a hardened expression to his sweetheart in The Princess Bride. While the melodramatic exchange between Wesley and his love takes place on-screen within of a comedic fairytale, sincere words of such despondency have been uttered up and down the centuries, from ancient to postmodern times. Life involves great pain, and one does not need to look far for suffering.

I recently heard this sentiment expressed during a conversation between Bishop Robert Barron and Alex O’Conner, of Cosmic Skeptic. Toward the end of their moderated discussion, titled “Christianity or Atheism?”, Alex made the comment that suffering—not evidence of God—was the most obvious phenomenon in our experience of the world. For that reason, he said that you had to start with the question of suffering, from which he has not found a path to evidence that God exists. Bishop Barron disagreed with that metaphysical starting point, explaining that there are various problematic philosophical conclusions to which it might lead.  

However, aside from this philosophical line of argument, which is most important to such a discussion, there begs a vital experiential question—is suffering actually more observable than the presence of God? It is to the perception of this atheist; and, in fact, he is arguing that such a conclusion is objectively true. What would a Christian say? A Catholic? The question stayed in my mind for quite a while after viewing this discussion.

What would most people’s experiential knowledge reveal? Do people in general experience suffering more frequently than they experience the presence of God? Is the experience different for the average person who believes in God? Other than saints like Catherine of Siena who spent regular hours a day in ecstasy, would most Catholics agree with Alex O’Conner that they feel the presence of suffering more often than they do the presence of God?

About the same time, I was reading The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom with my Well-Read Mom book club.  Corrie wrote in that autobiography of her horrific experiences with her sister Betsie in Nazi prison and extermination camps after their arrest for hiding Jews and participating in the underground opposition to the Nazi party in occupied Holland. If we want to talk about suffering, we don’t get worse than Nazi atrocities. So, with this question fresh in my mind, I asked it of Corrie and Betsie as I read their incredible story. Did these women experience the presence of human suffering to a greater degree than they experienced the presence of God? No. Shockingly, No! I don’t think a reader could come away from Corrie’s account with any other honest conclusion. These women witnessed God at work in the midst of the worst kind of human pain.

But why this discrepancy of the human experience? Why does Alex O’Conner (and others with him) have one experience and the Ten Boom sisters (and others with them) have another perception? I certainly can’t draw universal conclusions about people’s personal experiences (or lack thereof) of God; nor can I make theological claims for why God seems to make himself known to some and not to others. But I can look at Corrie and Bestie’s experience and draw one conclusion quite confidently for myself. They looked with eyes of faith for God to be present in their suffering, and they saw Him.

If we start with the expectation that suffering is meaningless and devoid of God’s presence. Then, not only will we continually seek to avoid it, we certainly won’t look for God in it. And if we are not looking for Him, I doubt highly that we will see Him. What I saw over and over in the Ten Boom’s story, and what I see continually in similar accounts of so many faithful Christians, is that they look for God in all circumstances, especially in suffering. If “life is pain,” and we are averse to looking for God in it, then perhaps we modern Catholics may come to the same conclusion that pain is more present in our world than God. But if we look for God in all the pain, both small and great, that we are sure to experience in this life, perhaps we will discover to our astonishment that He is more present than the pain.

Give God the Whole

The liturgical year has circled round. We find ourselves once again on the Lenten journey, but probably not walking the same path. If you are like me, you might have started preparing for the season by thinking back to what penances and sacrifices you made last year. Often when I do this, I realize that the present holds something different, that the Lord is inviting me to something more. There is always a new work God wants to do in me and through me; and this new work usually requires more of me, never less. Why?

“Nothing less than the whole is good enough for God,” says one Benedictine nun toward the close of Rumor Godden’s masterful novel, In this House of Brede.

The temptation to think that we have arrived, that the spiritual life is all downhill from here is quite real. We often complete a difficult spiritual assignment and think to ourselves: Ah, back to the way things were before; back to my place of comfort. But it’s never back, is it? Indeed, we may try to return, but we find things changed…find ourselves changed. It’s as if we have been stretched and are unable to retract back to feel at home in our previous state and surroundings.

Sometimes this frustrates us. We were looking forward to returning to the place of comfort that we had remembered after the hard work of spiritual growth came to an end. We can forget that God was using that time of stretching quite intentionally, to draw us close to Him. And when we are with Him, beholding him, we are “being changed into His likeness” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

It’s then no wonder that we find the old comforts lacking, that the old places don’t fit as we imagined they would. It’s because we, in our new likeness, no longer fit in them. We have given God a bit more of ourselves, and we can’t go back to less. But we cannot maintain the status quo either. Once we have given more and have seen God transform that gift of self into such goodness, we suddenly realize that we have still more of ourselves to give, more of ourselves to be transformed.

The more God transforms our selfishness, the more we see our lacking areas of generosity. The more God extinguishes anger or hatred, the more we see the ways that we fail to love. The more the Father reveals himself, the more we see our poor reflection of that image. The more the Son makes real to us his sacrifice, the more we see how much we have to offer on the altar as well. The more we hear the Spirit’s voice, the more we recognize the noise around us and inside us that needs to be silenced.

The Lenten journey reminds us that we are in fact on a continual journey to heaven, and we aren’t ready for heaven until we have given our whole selves to God. During this Lent, embrace the knowledge that God wants more of you, that He ultimately wants all of you, and hold nothing back. You will have to give things up, but those gifts are investments in your eternal inheritance. You will be stretched beyond your comfortable spaces, but you will find new places made for you. As you offer more of yourself, more of yourself will be transformed. You will be changed into His likeness, one step closer to being ready to meet Him face to face.