Generations of Faith
Thomas Howard on Giving God Grandchildren
My two “children” (now 37 and 35) both went away from home on the same day, about twenty years ago, one to Exeter Academy, the other to Harvard, neither of which institutions can be said to be a fountainhead of orthodox Christian zeal. The fly in that ointment is that our household was (and is) an orthodox Christian household. We were all Anglicans then; three of us have long since been received into the Roman Catholic Church.
Deo gratias, all four of us are still practicing Christians. This remark does not indicate where any one of us stands in the sanctity sweepstakes, but at least we go to Mass, and say our prayers—although I should in all candor say that my wife, the mother of this family, lives in the very presence of the Most High, and I suspect that the other three of us depend heavily on her faith, fortitude, wisdom, love for God, and prayers.
There is a question implicit in this account of things, namely, “How will they do out in the big world?” Your children begin to arrive at some point after your marriage, and the enormous question looms as to exactly what you are going to do about family Christian nurture.
It is not a new question. I don’t know what Adam and Eve did by way of trying to get Cain and Abel to say their prayers (they had no law, no prophets, no psalms, no Gospels, no Pauline epistles, no Church). Back in that protohistoric silence, what do you say to “God,” whoever he may be? Anyway, as we all know to our discomfiture, somethingwent wrong with that family’s prayers.
As history cranked on, and a “people of God” began to be formed, the record was not a very encouraging one. Everyone’s children seemed to go off the rails at one point or another. Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David—whom shall we adduce as the model parents who “succeeded” with their children? Of course, the encouraging thing is that people’s children did, in many cases, return to the Faith, and, beyond that, this “people of God,” namely Israel, did last, in spite of all. And they are still with us, Sennacherib, Xerxes, Antiochus Epiphanes, Titus, Hitler, and a generally wicked world to the contrary notwithstanding.
The problem has been a conundrum for Christian parents also, from the beginning, it would appear. For one thing, the early Church was bedeviled before it got out of Square One with a luxuriance of heresies that would make the tropical rainforest look withered and sere, and we may with reasonable confidence assume that somebody’s children went capering after Eutychius, Marcion, Apollinarius, the Montanists, and the rest of them, not to mention those who went frolicking into the general Dionysian romp that was abroad in every city in those days of the Caesars.
Church history is not much more comforting. Like Israel, the Church lasted, thanks to our Lord’s promise about the very Gates of Hell; but as far as Christian families carrying on from one generation to the next, the record is spotty. Even the martyrology is blotted with the records of some saintly couple’s son going whoring after the pleasures of the world, the flesh, and the devil (often to return presently and himself to become a saintly abbot or hermit or wonderworker).
But none of this dash through religious history quite tells us what to do in our own families. I know mothers who have read the Bible and Bible storybooks to their babies while the latter were still in the womb. I don’t know whether it “works,” but it sounds like a good idea to me. (My daughter has her unborn tots listen to Mozart.)
Once the children are in their bassinets, cradles, prams, and strollers, what should we be doing by way of readying them for life in the big bad world into which they will be boosted one fine day, willy-nilly? Different religious groups come at the business in different ways.
The Hassidic Jews, the Amish, the Dukhabors, and others tackle the problem by having, in effect, sealed communities. Household life, dress, daily religious observance, the circle of acquaintances—their entire world is lived behind walls that are not to be scaled by MTV, rap, public schools, cinema, or even the ordinary “modern world,” which, by the standards of any primitive Judaism or Christianity, is nearing the bottom of the Gadarene slide.
But most serious Christian parents, be they Orthodox, Catholic, or Evangelical, find that the whole matter tends to elude formulas. Most certainly any guarantees are out of the question. Some of the saintliest people I know have scapegraces, knaves, and caitiffs amongst their offspring. On the other hand, I know one Catholic couple all ten of whose children, now long since married and themselves parents, have followed along the track of godliness with admirable ardor. But a record like this leaves one gasping, and sending up fevered prayers for one’s own family.
One melancholy datum should be included here: It seems to be a stubborn and universal phenomenon that the second generation always presents problems. By this I do not mean that each family is going to find trouble with its children. But if you read the history, not only of the ancient churches, but of every single splinter group, sect, and cult that has ever been cobbled up in the effort to achieve purity, you will find, with tedious iteration, the observation that the community, whoever they may have been, had trouble keeping the thing pure after the first generation.
The Puritans in New England; Roger Williams; Mother Ann Lee Stanley; the Appalachian Holy Rollers; the Mennonites; the ten thousand fundamentalist splinters from mainline Protestantism: not a single group seems to have found the technique for passing fidelity, purity, and ardor along to its next generation without a lot of worldly flotsam floating away in the wake of the vessel.
That would be the big picture. But I would guess that James Dobson himself would never claim that if a set of parents followed every injunction in every one of his early books on child training, all would be sure to be well with the offspring. We mortals are shot through with the unhappy plague inherited from the Fall, namely, concupiscence, which is not itself sin, but rather the unremitting inclination to sin. None of us is immune, and, alas, neither are any of our children.
But all is not lost. We all know families where the Faith seems bright and vibrant amongst the second, and possibly even a third, generation.
There were six children in the family in which I grew up. Five of the six of us are now over seventy (the youngest is sixty-five), and all six of us are trudging along the Christian Way with as much ardor as we can muster, and all of us have made draconian efforts to pass this along to our children. There is, of course, a third, and now a fourth, generation abroad, and it must be said that in not a few cases, the Faith seems to have guttered out.
But what did our parents do—my own generation’s parents, I mean? They prayed for us, from the time of our conception. There’s one thing. They prayed together also—this in addition to having their own daily “devotions,” most faithfully, for the forty-some years of their marriage.
Neither of them, however, would have looked upon those exercises as having any sort of automatic efficacy. All of those prayers became incarnate in the life they lived before us. They loved each other, they loved us, and they loved God. None of us, I think, has a single recollection of ever hearing an ugly word pass between them. This may have been partly a result of their gracious, old-fashioned Philadelphia upbringing, in which courtesy obtained unflaggingly. But I am sure that both of them would have attributed any “virtue” in themselves (they would both have demurred at the word) solely to grace.
Civility was another ingredient in the household brew. Manners. Obedience. Courtesy. Respect for adults, beginning, of course, with respect for them as parents, but extending to friends of the family, neighbors, guests, and, for that matter, to any adult whom one encountered in any situation whatever. A certain reticence, and even a wholesome self-effacement (incomprehensible to the modern populace, I know) seemed to be in the very air of the household. Brawling, swaggering, mayhem, flouncing, greed, and self-advertisement, sometimes witnessed in other households, embarrassed us.
Of course we were taught the Bible and taken to church. It was a Protestant fundamentalist household, and so the danger would have been, eventually, an over-familiarity with Scripture that could easily have skidded into indifference. But somehow our parents managed to steer us clear of that bugbear.
Piety takes profoundly different forms from this in Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Calvinist households, but mutatis mutandis, the substance has to be the same: reverence for God Most High, and, sooner or later, some sort of embracing as one’s own this attitude towards God.
The whole question of maturing arises somewhere along in here, however. We can’t run hothouses for our children. They will wilt in the hothouse for a start; and they will most certainly be frozen by the icy air of militant unbelief when they hit Duke, Bowdoin, Sarah Lawrence, or Bennington.
There is a ditch on either side of the road here, however. On the one hand we find the hothouse (it’s in the ditch there: I have run myself into a mixed metaphor), and on the other hand we find the effort to anticipate the world of higher education by bringing into play the tactic of an abortive and self-conscious super-sophistication. Lots of trips to the Museum of Modern Art, and lots of Schönberg and William Walton, and dinner-table discussions of Heidegger, Camus, and Karl Jaspers. (I am wildly exaggerating here, but there are people who try this: One very famous earlier twentieth-century preacher—not Billy Graham—tried it, and it boomeranged.)
There is one glorious favor that we can do for our children, however, besides teaching them the Bible, taking them to church, and praying for them. Read Tolkien and Lewis to them. Over and over. This will suffuse their imaginations with the capacity to recognize, and to love, splendor, majesty, valor, courtesy, purity, fidelity, and, most of all, glory.
But we come to a sudden halt. James Dobson has written, I should think, almost all that can be written on the topic. For purposes of this brief effort, perhaps the best thing I can say is: love your children splendidly, and pray to God for them, most sedulously.
Thomas Howard taught for many years at St. John's Seminary College, the Roman Catholic seminary of the archdiocese of Boston. Among his many works are the books Christ the tiger, Evangelical Is Not Enough, Lead Kindly Light, On Being Catholic, and The Secret of New York Revealed, and a videotape series of 13 lectures on "The Treasures of Catholicism" (all from Ignatius Press).
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“Generations of Faith” first appeared in the July/August 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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