Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church
25 February 2000
25 February 2000
The Spiritual Development of Children
Fr. Tom Brosnan
I wanted to thank Annie Buzzard for inviting me to be here tonight with all of you and the gracious hospitality of Father _________.
I’m asked to speak about the spiritual development of children – something I know next to nothing about -- at least not academically. I am not a social worker or psychologist. I don’t have any children and having to deal with a school of 330 kids and a CCD program of 650 I’m glad to be free of them for a few days. Over the years of celibate priesthood I often thought about how wonderful life would be with kids. But any lengthy stay with friends who have kids makes me think twice.
My own history and the reason I’m here this weekend is because I’m an adopted person. I was born illegitimate, a bastard, in 1953. My mother quickly relinquished me into the closed adoption system and after six months in foster care I was placed with my adoptive parents in Brooklyn where I lived with them and my mother’s parents until I entered the seminary. I was ordained a priest in 1981. In 1984 I was sent to Korea by my bishop to study Korean language and culture and worked with the Korean Catholic community in Flushing Queens for 15 years before being named Pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Brooklyn two years ago -- a parish which would be considered inner city, made up of mostly Hispanics -- mainly Dominicans and Puerto Ricans.
Annie asked me to speak about the spiritual development of children. She mentioned something about how I might suggest to teach them values and valor. I must warn you that I don’t think you will come away this evening with any blueprint about how to teach values. And for all the programs out there these days about inculcating values, I have no desire to inculcate anything. As for valor – now that’s a more attractive prospect. When Annie said the word valor I immediately thought of someone young, no more than a girl really, who in her short life exemplified valor. Perhaps you share with me a certain wonder at the figure of Joan of Arc (that recent silly movie notwithstanding). But Joan was illiterate and never had the benefit of a values-based education (poor thing). In Mark Twain’s novel about Joan of Arc. Incidentally about ten years ago Ignatius Press reprinted Twain’s book of which he himself said it was his greatest work. I had never known Mark Twain – the consummate agnostic wrote a book about Joan of Arc let alone knowing he considered it his greatest work. I confessed to a friend of mine who has taught literature on the college level for years about my ignorance of such a book. She looked at me quizzically Was it a satire? she asked – she never heard of it either. Well at any rate it is no satire Twain sees Joan as the greatest woman that ever lived why because she had valor. The wonderful line repeated throughout the work after Charles is crowned King and Joan places her banner in the sanctuary someone objects what right has your banner to stand next to those of nobility. It has born the pain, Joan says, it has earned the honor. Now that’s valor – to earn honor. And where did she learn about valor? From her spiritual experience, her private revelations, her voices.
When George Bernard Shaw wrote his famous play St Joan he was not out to promote religiosity. Much in line with Freud who had written his Future of an Illusion during the same period, Shaw thought religion a crutch. Yet the play is beautiful and surprisingly perhaps unintentionally spiritual. When Joan is on trial and questioned about her voices the English judge looses his patience: “Don’t you know,” he shouts “that those voices come from your imagination?” And then in a stroke of genius Shaw has Joan look up in humility and answer “Of course.” I would dare to say that’s one of the greatest apologies for Christianity in modern times. Of course the voices come from the imagination but does that make them any less real. The fact of the incarnation is so real that god assumed everything he redeemed even the imagination that he comes to us in any and all ways open to human experience. The imagination, dreams, the spiritual life of children. Did you hear that story of the family with a young boy and a newborn who had one of those intercoms placed in the baby’s room. One night the parents lying in bed hear their son over the intercom talking to his baby brother. Tell me what it was like being with god before you were born. I’m starting to forget.
If anything education manages to do, especially values-based learning does, is to block the imagination, block the creative spirit, suppress that energy that seeks to invent and deafens us to those inner voices. The monks used to have a phrase something to the effect that life in the monastery was meant to teach a monk how to hear in aure cordis to hear with the ear of the heart.
It is clear that children have a rich and profound spiritual life if we measure spirituality by the attention we pay to things invisible. Bernadette at Lourdes or the children of Fatima those at Medjugorje and at Garabandal in Spain. They say the pope is about to canonize Jacinto and Francisca, the now-deceased children who experienced the apparitions of Our Lady in Fatima in 1917. They say the boy will be the youngest person ever to be made a saint. And that’s unusual because holiness has long been associated, nearly always equated, with moral choices, making the right choice even at great personal sacrifice. It is unclear if children until a certain age have the ability to freely choose right from wrong to make such choices, at least, in a heroic manner. Perhaps the pope is opening they way for us to understand that holiness, the spiritual life, has also to do with our openness to the invisible dimensions of life as much as it has to do with our capacity to live in an ethical manner.
Such openness to the spiritual does not have to be supernatural in its origin. It can be something quite ordinary or humanly odd. José Maria Escrivá de Balaguer who started the famous movement known as Opus Dei wrote about an early childhood experience. He and his brothers would walk over a mile to school each morning from their rural home in Spain. One morning they awoke to snow covered roads. As they began their journey José noticed footprints in the snow. But they were footprints of a shoeless man. He was captivated by the thought of a man walking barefoot in the now. He could not control his curiosity and broke away from his older brothers and ran and ran until he caught up with the man with the bare feet. He was a Discalced Carmelite who told the youg boy that he made a promise to imitate Jesus in his poverty and so walked always barefoot even in the snow. Escrivá was completely transported by the experience. The episode took hold of his imagination. He said his vocation to become a priest began in earnest that day.
I believe a true spirituality leads to self-identity. This is the journey of every human being – to come to the knowledge of who he truly is. Selfishness you say. All that navel-gazing stuff that makes for the me-generations of our times, you counter. Finding themselves in drugs and sex and greed and embarrassing their families in the process.
Maybe, but I’ll rest my case on one of the daughters of Mt Carmel for which your parish is named. The great Teresa of Avila you no doubt know was a mystic. Teresa received ecstatic experiences of divine intimacies, she was immersed in the divine presence. When asked how others might come to such joy she didn’t tell them how to pray for ecstasy. She didn’t outline a routine of what she did so others might hope for a similar outcome. She didn’t tell people that their morality was what was preventing them from such joy. Instead the mystic Teresa said this: “for never, however exalted the soul may be, is anything more fitting than self-knowledge.”
And what happens when that search for identity is thwarted in one way or another?
A priest once told me how he once visited a home for emotionally disturbed adolescents in Brooklyn. It was St. Patrick’s Day and as he walked into the house he heard someone singing that incredibly beautiful ballad Danny Boy. The young man singing had his back to the priest. He sang beautifully the priest said and when he had finished the priest went over and slapped him on the back, thanking him for such a beautiful rendition. The young man quickly turned revealing an Asian face. The priest instinctively laughed. I thought you were Irish the priest said. The young man’s eyes filled with tears and he shouted back in anger I am Irish. My name’s Michael O’Brien.
John Courtney Murray the American Jesuit once wrote about identity. He said that “the complete loss of one’s identity is, with all propriety of theological definition, hell; in diminished forms it is insanity.”
Now I’ll risk saying something that might offend. I believe that true Christianity is not primarily about living an ethical or moral life. Yes, there are rules and consequences once one professes the Christian faith. But morality is the byproduct of faith not its essence. True Christianity is first and foremost a relationship with the divine, an openness to the spiritual realities that enter our lives day after day. I believe that morality is not the equivalent of religion, that ethics is not etiquette, that to be a Christian is not necessarily to be a nice guy or act like some 19th century Victorian gentleman, and Santa Claus is really not the incarnation of a god weighing the scales of naughty and nice. Now I know this doesn’t do much for you all who are trying to raise your kids the best you can and desperately looking for allies like church and school to help control them and keep them out of trouble. And I really don’t care if the ten commandments -- of whatever rendition -- are placed on the walls of classrooms, because I don’t think for a minute they’ll bring a more peaceful atmosphere after all they cause havoc even before they’re hung up. And as far as prayer in public schools goes – how many are aware that we have catholic schools precisely because there was at one time prayer in public schools. But it was protestant prayer unacceptable to catholic sensibilities and we started our own schools. According to the Law St Paul wrote of himself I was perfect. But the law does not have the power to save. Even though you may not believe me I want to suggest to you tonight that your profound desire for your children is not so much that they learn values but that they experience the joy of salvation – the knowledge and experience of seeing themselves as sons and daughters of God, unique in creation with a personal identity and destiny.
The heading on Peter Steinfels weekly column in the New York Times read last week “Lincoln was profoundly influenced by his family’s religious faith although he did not share it.” Lincoln the most spiritual and mystical of our presidents who moved by some providential force was not enthralled with religion and he was technically a pagan, never baptized. He was, all his life, consumed on a deep level by the ugly fact that his mother was a bastard and the suspicion he probably held about himself that Thomas Lincoln was not his father, but that h was the product of an adulterous affair. He did not attend his father’s funeral but wrote this to a trusted friend about his mother’s obscure origins: “I’ll tell you something but keep it a secret while I live. My mother was a bastard, was the daughter of a nobleman so-called of Virginia. My mother’s mother was poor and credulous…and she was shamefully taken advantage of by the man. My mother inherited his qualities and I hers. All that I am or hope ever to be I got from my mother, God bless her. Did you never notice that bastards are generally smarter, shrewder, and more intellectual than others? Is it because it is stolen?”
Here Lincoln acknowledges his identity, he shows himself no novice in the spiritual life. The many acts of valor that he performed, the decisions he endured – remember he was responsible for the deaths of 625,000 Americans – was born at great personal sacrifice. Perhaps one could argue that if he were practicing some organized religion he would have made better decisions, but this is to miss the point – hi heroic virtue lies in his perseverance despite the lack of support and in such gives witness to what a believer must conclude were the presence of invisible allies – ministering angels.
I suppose you have to tell your kids stories about valor in order to open them to the possibility of becoming valorous. But you too must be open to surprises. Sort of like the story that begins an ends the novel by Graham Greene The Power and the Glory. If I remember right the novel opens during the Mexican revolution when the church was being destoyed and priests were being killed. A mother is reading to her children: two young girls and an older boy. She is reading them some overly pious account of the martyr-saints and how they courageously shouted the name of Christ when their persecutors killed them. The boy is bored by the saccharine stories when there’s a knock at the gate. It is a priest looking to hide. The mother takes him in. The priest’s been drinking. He’s a whiskey priest the boy’s father tells him as he spits on the ground. But it’s the whiskey priest, the one who has failed to meet the glorious challenge of martyrdom that ultimately, in some unforeseen way, engages the boy’s imagination. And at the end of the novel -- I can I never read it without getting chills up and down my spine -- the boy hears another knock at the gate and a voice desperately whispers I am a priest. “But before the man can say his name the boy has opened the gate and pressed his lips to the priest’s hand.”
About five or so years ago Cardinal O’Connor of New York did something quite remarkable. He sent a priest to the graveyard that surrounds Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in lower Manhattan. The priest’s task was to locate the remains of one named Pierre Toussaint. In the 18th century Pierre Toussaint, a Haitian slave traveled with his master’s family from Haiti to New York. The young Pierre was placed as an apprentice to a hairdresser where he quickly became the best known and most sought-after hairdresser for the elite and rich. His master returned to Haiti on business where he suddenly died leaving his family in New York bankrupt. His master’s wife called Pierre in and explained that she would now give him his freedom, but first he must go and sell the jewels she entrusted to him so that her family could survive a bit longer in the manner in which they had become accustomed. Pierre never sold the jewels but returned them the next week to his mistress. Instead he began to take the money he earned as a hairdresser and pay his mistresses’ bills. After a long day at work he would to his master’s house, change into his household slave’s clothes and serve his master’s family the food which he himself had purchased. On her deathbed his mistress granted him his freedom. Pierre became on of New York’s greatest philanthropists. He married and adopted the orphaned daughter of his wife’s sister. He became the largest contributor to the construction of what is today called Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. On the day that the church was to be dedicated Pierre arrived at the doors to the church only to be refused admittance because of his color. Cardinal O’Connor’s priest found Pierre Toussaint’s remains. They were verified and then transferred from the long-unmarked grave on Mott Street to the crypt of the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral to the vault under the main altar reserved for the Cardinals and Archbishops of New York. Where did Pierre learn how to be so valorous. Some say he began every day of his life as a freed slave by attending Mass at St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street, sitting in the back of course where I imagine he must have entered into his inmost being to hush the rage and calm the anger.
When Bruce Willis, the child psychologist in the recent movie The Sixth Sense, begins talking with the boy he is genuinely trying to help him with a problem he considers in his in professional opinion to be quite serious. The solution as far as Willis is concerned to the boy’s stated problem of hearing dead people talk to him is not to run away in fear but to stand and listen. That’s a wonderful example of valor. And the boy does it and his fear is gone. But the beauty and cleverness of the film – and it is ingenious in this – is that the boy was always doing it and further he taught Willis how to do it to – to be open to the unexpected to be open to the invisible realities to read the signs of the times, to begin the painful process of separating illusion from truth. The Sixth Sense is a movie about illusions and truth – and in this sense it is a movie that’s really about that old Catholic doctrine of purgatory, the place where we are at last purified of our long held and favorite illusions and we come face to face with the truth.
I would want to leave you with that tonight – that morality values ethics of course all have their place in human development – but far more important is that rich and fertile place sometimes called imagination where a child learns far ore than we can ever teach him. I guess what I’m suggesting is that you talk to your children about the reality of purgatory – now that sounds esoteric – about the need to be courageous and yes valorous in facing the scary demons of life, slaying the dragons, answering the call to embrace who we truly are.