A boy and his father sat beside my husband and me in the visitor center at the Alamo last weekend. The guide pretends the father is a hero of the Alamo: “Let’s say you’re Jim Bowie. You’re married to the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in town. You have thousands of acres of land, plenty of money. Then the government of Mexico is taken over by the dictator Santa Anna. Suddenly you no longer have land or money that can’t be taken by him, since he has suspended the constitution. All you have left is your wife.”
“I think my dad would like to be without the wife, too,” piped the boy.
Ouch. The father’s face froze. The guide soldiered on to relate a famous Alamo legend: that 26-year-old Major William Travis, realizing that the Mexican assault would almost certainly end in death for the Texans, drew a line in the dirt and asked each man willing to stay and fight to step over it. All but one did.
“I would have got out of there,” muttered the boy.
Does it surprise you that a kid might wonder what on earth would possess someone to give up their life for such a cause? “Youth demands the heroic,” Catholic Worker cofounder and saint-in-the-making Dorothy Day often quoted. We have no shortage of heroes today, whether present-day martyrs or the everyday heroism of married couples who hang in through tough times. But it must be hard for today’s kids to sort out true heroes from the many fleeting “celebrities” whose nonsense floods the Internet.
So it’s up to us to lift our kids’ sights, to help them see that life is not about amassing things or amusing themselves. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas suggests parents say to their kids, “ ‘You . . . want to be part of a worthy adventure. You want to have something worth dying for.’ It’s awful when all we have to live for is ourselves; that’s what the gospel reveals to us.”
This month Catholics go out of our way to remember our heroes and heroines: our official ones on All Saints Day, November 1, and our own beloved dead—our unofficial saints, if you will—on All Souls Day, November 2. Many of our saints were people who indeed had found “something worth dying for.” Followers of Christ, after all, have been dying—and living—for the faith from the time of the apostles into our 21st century.
Sprinkling saints’ stories into a child’s universe can help widen their horizons, engage their religious imaginations. Stick to books that actually tell kids stories about the real people, not just brief holy-card portrayals, unlikely to inspire. The saints are people on fire. Kids need stories that do them justice. (See our list of good saint books chosen by the editors.)
Children deserve to know that giving one’s life for others is still in style. Dorothy Stang, a 73-year-old Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, was murdered by two Brazilian gunmen in 2005 because of her support for poor farmers battling those exploiting the rainforest. Mother Teresa spent her life caring for the dying in Calcutta. Maximilian Kolbe stepped up to take the place of a husband and father chosen for starvation in a Nazi concentration camp. Dorothy Day invited a homeless woman to sleep in her small apartment and was never the same.
Kids are the original idealists. We sell them short if we don’t enlarge their imaginations past texting and video games and other fluff. They have their own relationship with God to develop—a God who asks us, in the words of poet Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
—by Catherine O’Connell-Cahill from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the 2010 and 2011 General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association. Here’s a sample issue.
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