US Catholic Faith in Real Life

How to pass on the articles of faith

By Tom McGrath | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Years ago, I learned a lesson about passing on religious faith during a golden summer while my family was on vacation. My daughters were young, about ages 3 and 6, and we were staying with my wife's extended family in a spacious summer home just a short walk from Lake Michigan's beautiful shoreline.

One sunny afternoon I went to get my daughters up from their naps so we could head down for a day at the beach, but they weren't in their beds. And they weren't in the living room or the kitchen or on the deck. I began to worry, knowing that the lake was just a half block away. I was about to call out for them when I heard familiar whispering in Aunt Marie's room.

Sitting on the edge of the bed was Aunt Marie, with Judy and Patti plopped on either side of her. Marie was holding a well-worn prayer book jammed full of holy cards. The girls' eyes were wide with curiosity. I listened in on their hushed whisperings. "Now, this is your great-great-grandmother's," said Aunt Marie, holding a prayer card in her hand. "She died just a few days before Dennis was married. She baked the best bread and cakes and was always one for helping a sick neighbor or someone down on their luck.

"And this one's from old Mrs. Clancy. She was a great help to our mother after Father passed away. And here's a prayer card for Father Sheehy. He was a wonderful priest. He went off to the missions in Bolivia. He always spoke so lovingly about the people there."

As she talked, she'd hand off a card to the girls. They'd hold them reverently in their tiny hands, looking at them front and back. "And now let's pray for the people I promised to pray for," said Aunt Marie. The three of them bowed their heads as she began a litany that included neighbors, troubled relatives, poor souls in purgatory, shopkeepers, the congregation of nuns who taught her years ago, and deceased family members. As always, she ended her prayer with, "God help the sick."

I left them to their prayers and stood out on the deck appreciating the fine day. In a few minutes the girls came dashing out, towels in hand, eager to go to the beach. We were a motley caravan traipsing down to the shoreline with plastic rafts, inner tubes, beach chairs, and blankets.

The waves were high that day, and I watched as Aunt Marie and Uncle Johnny walked the girls into the surf, hand in hand, laughing as the waves crashed into them. Clinging together, they stood, holding one another up as the currents pushed and pulled them. They were safe, hanging on together.

Faith is all relative
I was on vacation, so I didn't give it much deep thought. But the image of them holding on to one another in the turbulent lake stayed with me, and it stays with me still as a moment rich in meaning and depth because it contains so many elements I believe are essential to passing on a living faith.

The extended family is where life is lived fully and passionately. Children often get their sense of what life is all about in interactions with extended family. These are people who are connected to you, have claims on you (and you on them), and would even die for you. You place your own story in the context of this larger story. What's life all about? What do we believe in? What do we stand for? Who am I? All these questions get answered first in light of your place in your larger family.

It's true that children can hear and absorb from others the truths that they become oblivious to when spoken by their parents. As a manager, I know this is true in the workplace as well. I've learned to send employees off to seminars to learn from others what I could probably tell them because they're more likely to believe something when they hear it from an "expert." Likewise, we parents know that a beloved outsider can impress truths on our children that they would dismiss from us. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, godparents, and valued family friends can have a major impact for good on our children.

Close relationships with extended family members are major sources of strength that many American families are losing. When I watch recent immigrants-for example, Hispanic families-I observe the obvious importance of the grandparents, especially the abuelitas (grandmothers), in nurturing the faith of the youngsters. This can be done directly through instruction but also (and probably more powerfully over the long haul) through the subtle, everyday interactions between grandparents and children.

Another factor that made the incident at Lake Michigan so powerful and illustrative is how naturally the lesson evolved. Praying while poring over her prayer book was a normal event in Aunt Marie's life. She was letting the girls in on an activity of great meaning that was part of her day. This was nothing put-on or showy. It wasn't someone saying to herself, "Let's devise a lesson in prayer for these kids." Rather, she was inviting them to an experience of her daily life.

As is typical with those who have attained spiritual depth, Marie naturally desired to give away freely what was given to her and what she had come to treasure. Part of the lesson my daughters learned that day was that it's a good thing to pray for others daily; this is something a respected person eagerly does.

The lesson was delivered in terms of relationships, commitments, love, and service. It wasn't about who put on the best act at being holy but about the lives people lived and the ways in which their faith illuminated those lives. There was nothing grand or theoretical. The lesson was simple and concrete.

Yet the content was far ranging, embracing all aspects of life. Marie prayed for everyone she encountered, from the grocer to the pope, from the newest child born in the family to the older folks lingering near death. She prayed for people taking driver's tests, a nephew hoping for a promotion, or a neighbor awaiting the results of medical tests for cancer.

There was no place and no part of life that went untouched by grace or was not offered up to God's healing touch. No moment of Marie's day and no part of her heart were outside the gaze of God. The content of Marie's lesson was: Everything belongs in God's hands.

During this show-and-tell, the girls were exposed to a number of lessons. First, Marie's old prayer book was a longtime companion. They knew that she was walking with them down a well-traveled path. This prayer time happened daily. The prayer cards they held in their hands had vivid pictures of Mary, Jesus, the Holy Family, and Archangel Michael victorious over Satan. The words and the pictures were both evocative and rich. The litany of prayers focused on people and events that were concrete, specific, and real.

The lesson wasn't a lecture; it was a joyful invitation to "come and see." My daughters were being offered not only information but also a way of living that leads to the abundant life Jesus promises. Marie offered an interactive experience wherein she let the kids see, touch, hear, and "handle the goods." Her own enthusiasm and sincere faith were perhaps the biggest lesson of all. Faith is spread not by teachers but by witnesses.

When we all went down to the beach, the girls got an additional lesson. The waves were high and could be dangerous. But Aunt Marie and Uncle Johnny were there to hang on to. In fact, grabbing hands and hanging on, they could walk straight into those waves, laughing and rejoicing. Together, we survive.

Today, years later, Marie and Johnny are a bit wobbly on their feet. Just last Sunday my daughters were escorting their great-aunt and great-uncle up our front stairs as they came to celebrate another family gathering. And though, this time, Marie and Johnny were leaning on my girls for support, I know that the girls will lean on the strength and character of these, their elders, throughout their entire lives.

I feel grateful that my girls have been exposed to faith lessons from so many of their extended family members over the years. Occasionally I'll hear young parents complain about having to spend time visiting relatives. They talk about the situation as a burden rather than an opportunity. And from a distance, I cannot judge. But I hope they are not being too quick to eliminate valuable relationships from their child's life that can be crucial to the child's future faith.

It may have been stifling in the old days for families to spend every Sunday at Grandma's. But have we eliminated a valuable element of our own lives and the lives of our children by all but cutting off ties with extended family members?

Real-life lessons
Almost everyone agrees that religion is best nurtured at home. But too often we make the mistake of thinking that we need to import classroom methods to teach these lessons. This is odd because teachers are doing all they can to employ real-life lessons in the classroom. They know that such real-life lessons are the ones that make the most lasting impression on students.

My wife, Kathleen, who teaches math to seventh graders, is constantly trying to devise ways to bring real-life examples to introduce and illustrate math principles. For example, she'll have her students work in teams on such projects as investing $10,000 (with imaginary money, of course) in the stock market.

At a seminar about how to help students retain more of what they learn, Kathleen received the following list. I can't vouch for the accuracy of these percentages, but the principles are surely true.

People retain:

10 percent of what they read

20 percent of what they hear

30 percent of what they see

50 percent of what they see and hear

70 percent of what they say

90 percent of what they do and say.

That last statistic is good news for parents who make the effort to introduce faith to their children. Any efforts you make to communicate your faith to your children are bound to deepen your own spiritual life in the process.

Understanding how children learn to grasp complex concepts will help you foster development of your children's faith. Children move from the simple and concrete to the more complex and abstract. For example, it's only when a child learns what it feels like to "fall down and go boom" that he or she can go on to develop an understanding of the concept of gravity.

Likewise, having regular experience of a family meal can be the prelude to understanding the Eucharist. Or experiencing forgiveness and acceptance after hurting another family member can lead the way to understanding the theology of repentance and redemption.

We do not approach the study of faith with a blank slate. We bring our life experiences as the raw material from which to build a human faith in a God who became human. Our children's earliest brushes with the holy and the sacred, experienced in ordinary, daily life, become the building blocks for developing an adult faith.

In Magical Child (Plume, 1992), his groundbreaking book about child development, Joseph Chilton Pearce established that all higher knowledge grows from and depends on early, concrete experiences. He wrote, "All thinking arises out of concreteness, which means out of the brain patterns resulting from actual body movements of interacting with actual things."

Thus, a child learns what Mom means by "Hot, don't touch" as a prelude to grasping laws of thermodynamics. Likewise, a child gains clues about God's faithfulness by experiencing a parent's reliability, or about God's mercy when siblings offer forgiveness when the child says, "I'm sorry."

Too often we think of religious education as a mysterious process that takes place at church or later in life. The truth is that the foundation of our children's later faith is being laid in the day-to-day life we share with them today.

God's fingerprints
Christians tend to look for these signs of God in the world we inhabit. Some faiths believe that the world is evil, that we should try to become pure spirit and turn our backs on the world. But Catholics believe that the world is good and that through our daily interactions in the world we can come to experience the divine.

Seeing clues to God in the world is what theologians call the analogical imagination. Believers who have analogical imagination tend to emphasize the similarities, rather than the differences, between God and creation. Everything that exists is a metaphor for God. This is a particularly Catholic way of looking at life and creation. There's a family resemblance between creation and the Creator. In everything that is, God shines through. Saint Bonaventure said that "everything shows the vestigia Dei--the fingerprints and footprints of God."

I like that, the thought that everything has the fingerprints of God all over it. Even you and I bear the fingerprints of God. God is that close to us.

Jesus knew that we learn to see God's reality by analogy. That's why he used parables: The kingdom of heaven is like a banquet, like a woman who lost a coin and then found it, or like a pearl of great price that someone found in a field. The New Testament is packed with imagery pointing to God, helping to train our vision so we might see more clearly.

Father Richard Rohr says that this view-the analogical imagination-professes that there's no absolute distinction between the sacred and the profane. There is not natural and supernatural. There's only one world, and it's shot through with the supernatural. The analogical imagination, in Rohr's view, gives one a sense of belonging to the universe. And, as it turns out, God sent the son to validate that God is present among us. The most radical experience of creation revealing God is Jesus.

So now it makes sense to me that when I was growing up, many people had Mary altars and holy water fonts in the home. Our Polish and Slavic neighbors brought their Easter baskets to the church to be blessed on Holy Saturday. We had a Sacred Heart statue on the dashboard of our car; we made the sign of the cross at the sound of sirens; and we knew that God lived in our home-walked our halls, sat at our kitchen table, and watched over us as we slept. My fingerprints may have been on the refrigerator door, but God's fingerprints were all over the house.

Thus, our experiences within the home, in our earliest and most formative relationships, are the first clues to who God is, who we are, what the nature of the world is, and what's expected of us. And parents greatly affect their children's capacity to see God-for good or for ill.

The face of faith
I taught high school religion for a number of years. It was a real laboratory in which to study the development of faith in young people. Because of the variety and importance of topics we'd discuss in class, I came to know and understand a lot about the freshness and tenderness of the faith of these young people.

Teenagers may appear not at all interested in the spiritual aspect of their lives, but I learned that just the opposite is true. Faith meant a great deal to these kids, and they were struggling to make sense of their world and how God fit into it. I came to believe that, at heart, we're all interested in the central questions about faith, about God, and about our moral purpose in this life. The kids often resisted and rebelled against established religious practice, but they were, each in a unique way, very taken up in the quest for a relationship with God.

In my scripture class one day, we got to the section in Matthew 6, where Jesus instructs his disciples to pray the Our Father. I was waxing eloquent (or so I imagined) on the wisdom and simplicity of the prayer, about how Jesus had really made it easy for us to pray by including so many human concerns: daily bread, gratitude, forgiveness, and avoidance of temptation. I emphasized how Jesus had helped us in prayer by addressing his words not to a distant, omnipotent, and hidden God but to "our Father." I went on and on about how radical a concept it was to see God as our Father and what a joy it is to be able to approach God that way.

As usual, while I taught, my students were doodling, surreptitiously doing their math homework, passing notes about an upcoming dance, or staring blankly into space. But I noticed that Mary was upset. She had a scowl on her pretty, young face and was grinding her pencil back and forth, making a thick, black mark in the margin of her notebook.

After class, I tried to connect with her, but she brushed her way past me. As she left, I said, "Hey, I'd really like to know what's going on. Did I say something that upset you?" She kept walking.

I learned to be alert to such a reaction in class. I also learned something of why people who do pastoral work over a long period of time most often operate from compassion rather than dogma. Frequently, seemingly harmless topics I brought up in class could set off a "depth charge" in one of the kids. And sometimes I was privileged to hear what was going on in those depths.

I recognized that something from class had deeply affected Mary. She was clearly in pain. Yet I couldn't imagine what had caused it. After all, I'd been talking about Jesus' most welcome news: that we could approach God as a loving father.

After school, I ran into Mary. I pulled her into a classroom and said, "You're upset. What's going on?"

She sat for a moment looking down, tears welling up in her eyes. Then it came: "You wouldn't want to say the Our Father if you had a father like mine."

I sat in silence, awareness beginning to dawn on me. She poured out a story of a man who had emotionally abused her and her mother for years. He was a man apparently full of fear and hate who attempted to control everything and everybody in his life. He was openly unfaithful to the mother, harsh and demeaning to his daughter. He ridiculed her every success; he told her that she looked ugly and that no one would ever want her. It was amazing to me that after hearing all this, she could function so well in school and in life. She was a delightful young woman. Yet within her I could now see the pain, the block of solid ice in the core of her heart.

I was angry at her father for taking so much away from his daughter: her sense of self-worth, her trust, and her ability to open up to life. And I was terribly angry that he took away her ability to see God as good and loving. In her mind, God the Father would be like all fathers (or at least like her father): aloof, untrustworthy, vindictive, demeaning, and jealous.

Parents' spiritual task
Like all human beings, Mary was seeking God by using what she had to work with. Jesus understood this. He said, "How close am I to you? Here, how about as close to you as this bread you eat?" What's God like? God is like the good shepherd who seeks out the lost among his flock. God is like a man who threw a banquet and invited people from the highways and byways. God is like a father who stood on a hill, longing for his errant son's return.

But sometimes these natural pointers to the divine, these clues, get twisted. Hearing Mary's story helped me understand why Jesus said it would be better for a person to have a millstone tied to his neck and be thrown into the sea than to spoil a young person's ability to see and understand who God is and how God loves us.

How important is family life in preparing the ground for faith to grow? Victoria Lee Erickson, a professor at Drew University, says, "All we ever need to know in life is learned in families before we get to kindergarten." This is as true of faith as it is for learning our colors and numbers and how to say please and thank you. We are introduced to God through the workings of our analogical imagination. We see God not through abstract theory but by analogy in the traces we find in the here and now.

Parents have a great opportunity to provide those connections. We can both point to the clues and, through our loving care of our children, actually be clues to God's identity and presence. We don't have to put on a holy-roller act to achieve this. We simply do what loving parents do.

Our children learn about God when they receive tender care when they're sick. They learn about God's love when they see delight for themselves in our eyes. They get a taste of God's prodigious generosity when they wake up to find gifts from Santa under the Christmas tree. They're prepared to trust in the constancy of God when we are reliably there for them. They learn about God's wisdom when we show prudence in determining boundaries for their actions. In our mundane, everyday relating, we either reveal God or, as in the case of Mary's father, obscure the face of God from our child's sight.

The spiritual task of parents begins when they prepare a space for their child, not only in their house or apartment, but most especially in their lives. It begins when a mother (like Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist) hears the news that she is "with child" and when joy enlivens the baby within her womb.

The spiritual task of parents continues from the early days of receiving and bonding, through nurturing and coddling, through training and explaining, correcting and encouraging, consoling and connecting, and, at every stage, practicing letting go. The key is to live fully in each of these stages, alert, aware, and awake to your child as well as alert, aware, and awake to God's presence.