"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Friday, July 5, 2013

On Overdetermined Selfishness and the Sanctity of the Youth

When I was looking through primary sources from the 1950s for my dissertation research, I came across the above ad, which was advertising a "Special School for Delayed Vocations." I had to chuckle that this was specified as "12th Graders and Over, 17-25." Just imagine that, age 17 was considered a "delayed vocation" to the priesthood. DH teaches seminarians, and, well, suffice to say that ages 17-25 are no longer considered delayed vocations.

At this time of the year, I'm often drawn to reflections on the sanctity of the youth. St. Anthony of Pauda, whose feast is June 13, died at age 35. St. Aloysius Gonzaga, whose feast is June 21, died at age 23. St. Elizabeth of Portugal, whose feast is July 4, was engaged in marriage at age 10 and married by age 17. St. Maria Goretti, whose feast is July 6, died at age 11. And of course, there's the nativity of St. John the Baptist, celebrated on June 24.

Our Catholic tradition affirms that even the youth can be holy; even children are chosen by God to do his work. Though the Church also celebrates the lives of saints such as Augustine and Paul, there is no requirement for a profound conversion as an adult, nor is it necessarily normative. Those exemplars give us hope that even the great sinner can become a great saint. But on the other hand, we also see that even at a young age, it is possible to make great sacrifices for God. Sanctity is not relegated to old age. And the dramatic conversion of Augustine is not superior to the constant contrition of Therese Lisieux. Both are sources of hope for us - that no one is too old to be lost, and that no one is too young to be found.

In our culture today, however, selfishness, rather than sanctity, is overdetermined. By overdetermination, I simply mean that there are so many contributing factors to selfishness that it is impossible to identify just one factor as causing selfishness. In fact, even if one cause were removed, the resulting selfishness would likely still remain. We Americans are teaching our children to see themselves as their first priority and to prize their perceived needs above the needs and desires of others.

It's no wonder then, that the youth tend to shy away from great commitments. If their whole world is about them, and they make a mistake in an important choice, their whole world will fall down around them. Adults sometimes feed the fear of commitment by suggesting that a wide variety of experiences and choices is necessary in order for youth to make the right decision in regard to the future. How can you know you are called to the priesthood if you've never dated a girl? How can you know you're called to marriage with that man, if he's the only one you've ever dated? How can you choose to stay in a convent or a monastery if you haven't traveled the world?

In the case of saints like Elizabeth of Portugal, Maria Goretti, Anthony of Padua, Aloysius Gonzaga, and John the Baptist, they knew that their lives didn't really revolve around them and that's what gave them the freedom to make big choices in accord with the will of God. Take Aloysius Gonzaga, for example. He was an Italian aristocrat, the eldest of seven children, destined to inherit his father's title as Marquis. Instead, he gave up the rights to his inheritance and left his life in royal courts to become a Jesuit. When the plague hit Rome, he cared for those afflicted and then himself died of the plague at the age of 23. Elizabeth of Portugal, meanwhile, was a princess engaged at an early age, and then married to a king. Even in her childhood she went to Mass daily and regularly practiced penance. Her husband, it turned out, did not share her morals, but she stuck to her pious practices and continued in kindness toward him, as well as constant ministry to the poor and the sick. We could say that she had very little "choice" about her marriage vocation, but on the other hand, she exercised her freedom in Christ by continuing to do God's will, even at an early age, and despite difficult circumstances.

We do our children a disservice if we make them think that their lives are simply about themselves and their choices. They will not be able to make and be faithful to big vocational commitments such as priesthood, the religious life, and marriage if we haven't been encouraging them to discern God's will at every moment, to live virtuous and holy lives. And we have to emphasize that the important thing is not having lots of choices , but rather doing God's will with the choice they've made or the situation in which they find themselves. That's fidelity, and it's a sign of our faith in God. We know that our lives are about us only to the extent that they are about God and our role in his kingdom.

Ideas for raising kids with a goal of sanctity, not selfishness:
1. Models - let the saints be models for your kids, especially young saints. Make sure that you and your spouse are models for the kids and that they recognize that sanctity is more important to you than the natural pleasures of life. Talk to them about it and let them witness your own struggles.
2. Family - teach them to think of others first of all in the context of the family. Help them to recognize that, as I'm always saying, "We're all on the same team, here!" It's good to make sacrifices for others and to contribute to the good of the family as a whole.
3. Encourage piety - give them good access to the sacraments, and let them see you making use of them, as well as other prayer practices, such as the Rosary or Scripture reading. Teach them the faith so these aren't uneducated beliefs.
4. Independence - let them make decisions and learn from them. Don't spare them the logical consequences of their actions. But also don't let them stress those consequences; don't needlessly exaggerate. Be positive about the opportunity that failure provides. Don't overwhelm them with restrictions that will foster rebellion.
5. Don't indulge them - you just can't let them have everything they want and request. If you can't say no to them they won't be able to say no to themselves either.
6. Delayed gratification - let them work for things so they see that the good things in life take time and effort. In many ways, sanctity is all about delayed gratification, seeking heavenly reward rather than earthly.
7. Commitment - encourage them to stay faithful to their commitments and responsibilities, whether chores, homework, or extracurricular activities.

Any other good ideas out there?

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