What you have as a heritage, Take now as task; For thus you will make it your own! Goethe, Faust
The following is a fairly verbatim exchange in my effort to catechize (train up in matters of faith) the boys. I use the catechesis here. It’s long and very Reformed – an emphasis on God’s sovereignty and human depravity – so the boys have these great Reformed buzzwords – glory, sovereignty, covenant, sin – rattling around in their brains. Bracing stuff for little blonde examples of the law of entropy. Still, we soldier on:
Me: “OK, next question. Richey.”
Richey: “HOLY. . . . GLORY.” In an excess of enthusiasm he likes to blurt out words that might, vaguely, be answers.
Me: “No . . . ok . . . just . . . wait for me to read the question. Ready? What happened to our first parents when they sinned?”
Richey: Tilts his head back, rolls his eyes up and tries to look thoughtful. “ummmm . . . THEY BEHAVED INPROPRIATE.”
Robby: “NO RICHEY. THAT’S NOT IT. INSTEAD OF BEING HOLY AND HAPPY, THEY BECAME DISOBEDIENT.”
Me: “Hey, that’s pretty good Robby. Here’s the answer. Instead of being holy and happy, they became sinful and miserable. But disobedient is darn close.”
Richey: “AND PROBABLY A LITTLE STINKY.”
I kid you not. Exact words. And just like that the conversation devolves into a discussion on Adam and Eve’s bathing habits, which raises a very fair question. Why try, always awkwardly, to catechize the boys? How could these old stories, this strange belief in first parents and expulsion from a mythical garden, be of any help to them?
As I was noodling on this post I read a Wall Street Journal review of Munich Airport by Greg Baxter. The reviewer notes, “The novel is about the inevitability of suffering, about the purity and rightness of suffering in a world where the ‘perception of misery’ – in other words the true understanding of existence – is obscured by illusions of comfort and abundance. [It] is a clear-eyed gaze at the abyss that lies beneath modern society.” Sobering words, those. And true. And they beg for a response or they just sit there, stark and unyielding, inviting perhaps despair or rage. All catechesis (in any form) is an effort to provide the stuff from which our children (and we) can construct meaningful responses to these words, so that they are not the final word.
Consider My Name is Asher Lev. In it Chaim Potok tells the story of Asher, a young boy who is both a brilliant artist and a member of a traditional Hassidic Jewish community. His parents are mystified by Asher’s artistic drive. It seems to control him, bubble up unbidden, an urge maybe from the stira achra, the side of impurity. The Hassidic tradition, in Potok’s rendering, does not provide the channels for Asher to use his gift. He is foreign in his home and community and, to some degree, to his parents. In desperation, they send him to train with a famous Jewish painter, hoping Asher will use his gift in a way that is consistent with, or not opposed to, their beliefs. “Create your own forms, Asher,” the mentor counsels him about his paintings and perhaps his faith. In the end, Asher chooses not to leave his tradition but, rather, to paint from within the tradition, using its forms to convey new meaning to old truths.
In the end, I catechize to give ‘forms’ of faith to Robby and Richey, the stuff from which they can interpret themselves and their world. Yes, it’s occasionally awkward. No, we don’t do it every week, because frankly it feels like a herculean effort at times to hoist myself from a comfortable chair to corral the boys. (Candy helps. Seriously.) But it troubles and worries me greatly that the ‘forms’ they hear most often ‘train them up’ to consume and pursue pleasure as life’s end. I remember the catechesis of my grandparents’ lives, shaped and molded by these creeds. I want the old ideas, not just my imperfect grasp of them, to be part of their little forming souls. There are times I feel like Augustine who said, when he finished On the Trinity, “I have said this not in order to say something, but in order not to remain altogether silent.” At least, that’s where we start. Where we go – Adam and Eve’s likely need of deodorant, for example – is part of learning what it means in our time “not just to speak the same thing, but to say the same thing.” It’s rarely boring.
Back to the opening exchange and the possible relevance of creeds that seem, at first blush, remarkably irrelevant. Being ‘sinful and miserable’ is not an arcane, dusty idea cooked up by perpetually grumpy old men. It is a clear eyed assessment of the human condition. It is the observation in the Wall Street Journal. We are not where we belong. We are not home, really, though we have hints of home that startle us at times in the form of joy and longing. I want the boys to learn about ‘sin and misery’ – about a lost paradise and the long slog of history in which God is both imminent and at times painfully absent – because I think it’s true. And as they grow and experience sin and misery firsthand they will recognize it as part of a broken world, not the world as it was intended to be. If that’s true, then the “abyss that lies beneath modern society” is only part of a story that doesn’t end there. There’s another chapter. It is a sudden, unexpected proclamation: “I bring you good news of great joy.” I want them to know that ‘form’ most of all.
*Robby and Richey, 8 and 7 now, were designated Thing 1 and Thing 2 when they were about 5 and 3. We were in a Dr. Suess phase in our reading and had just finished Cat in the Hat. The two characters who helped the Cat (a rather creepy character when you think about it) destroy Sally and her brother’s house were named Thing 1 and Thing 2 and rendered as two, little blond boys. (I think they were boys. You never really can tell with Dr. Suess, whose stories I love but after reading always wonder if he was sniffing glue.) At the time, Richey was newly super-mobile which meant that within moments of them both entering a room, there was a grape smashed in the carpet, the dog limped out and toys littered the floor, as if a Toy-R-Us volcano had erupted. They were (and are) Thing 1 and Thing 2 in the flesh.