The Divine Hours of Lent

I am not a fuss-budget…or I hope I am not, anyway…about kids and how easily we let them make holidays out of holy days. Making parties out of events is part of the magic of childhood, not to mention one of its great virtues. Beside, by definition, holy days are “Feasts” in the rhetoric of the Church, a naming that itself would seem to imply at least some degree of “party,” even for somber dates like the feast day of some poor saint or martyr. But fuss-budget or no, I had an attack of restiveness last week; and I have chewed on it ever since.
We were visiting out of town and in a church where we had never been before. The pastor did what is common practice in many formal services nowadays, and invited all the children in the congregation to come join him at the chancel steps for a few minutes of conversation and instruction. Afterward, they were all to go on downstairs to Children’s Church. Before they went downstairs, however, they were to have a few, special minutes of their own with him. The theory here is that, if nothing else, such a public time with senior clergy will help children gain some sense of ownership over the whole business of “real” church.
In theory, I think that approach is a sound idea. In actuality, it usually appalls me. That is, I am appalled by how the attendant adult congregation gets all wrapped up in whispering about how cute the children are, in tittering at their innocent responses to the pastor’s questions, and almost in patronizing the children for their innocence in scratching an inappropriate itch or smacking an annoying friend or simply getting up and wandering back toward the pew and mother from whence they had just come. My theory is, in other words, that we do this more for the amusement of the adults and the satisfaction of an abstract theory than we do it for the religious formation of our children. It’s a minor issue, perhaps, and it only bothers me passingly as a rule…except it bothered me far more than that last Sunday.
It bothered me because, it being Lent, the pastor asked the children gathered around him, what Lent was [they didn’t know] and what it was we were waiting for. They, every single one of them, knew to answer to that one: We were waiting for Spring! When that answer proved to be, while correct, none the less not the desired one, they tried again. Finally, one little girl said, “Easter bunnies?” rather tentatively; and the whole two steps-full of children clapped and laughed and called out their approval of this solution to the problem. At this point, the pastor more or less gave up. Making no more than a cursory attempt at tying Jesus to bunnies, he patted two or three of them on their heads and shooed the whole crew on down to Children’s Church.
It has been said…biblically, in fact…that out of the mouths of babes and children shall the truth come. It came for me last Sunday. Sanctimonious kids programmed to spout religious doctrine on command are scary to me, because they usually make scary adults. Totally secularized kids, while generally more charming, can be scary as well; for they may never be tempered and seasoned by engagement with the holiness of life and creation. But the scariest of all, I decided last Sunday, are the children who, being reared without lived religious instruction, grow up thinking that the forms, rhythms, and patterns of religion are religion. They are the scariest because they can grow up to become adults who never, ever perceive their own souls’ sterility…much like many of the adults we all know, in fact.

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