By Father Roch Kereszty
Special to The Texas Catholic
After outlining the ways an atheist can “get faith,” I will treat the challenges to a growing faith during various stages of life.
In the first stage of life, childhood, it is not so much the children who face the challenges as their parents, who must teach them two very important lessons. It is the parents who are challenged to nurture their children’s faith.
Although children should gradually be exposed to all the articles of the Apostles’ Creed, childhood is particularly suited to learning first of all about heaven and growing excited about its joys and beauty. Parents with a lively sense of faith will take advantage of their children’s fascination with heaven and feed their insatiable hunger for knowing as much as possible about it. Childish suggestions such as “you will always have new and exciting toys” or “you will always have your favorite food” would only undermine their faith later in life. For those children who were fed with cheap images of heaven will be vulnerable to the “enlightened” suggestions of atheists asserting that heaven is just the dream of unhappy people. Instead, parents and teachers can explain that the joys of heaven will be like the joys of a happy family where everyone is loved by God and by every “family member” of God.
They may also ask the children to do a little mental experiment to point out that only love enables one to find real happiness. Tell the children to choose between two different Christmas celebrations. In the first case, the children receive all the presents they have been dreaming of, but the parents behave cold and aloof and are indifferent to their children. In the second case, the children belong to a poor family with parents who cannot afford any gifts, but are loving, cheerful and close to their children. After some hesitation, I suspect, every child will choose the second alternative.
Parents must also help their children learn how to handle guilt. Contrary to what many may say, children do feel guilt from an early age. By the way parents handle a child’s misbehavior they teach the child how to handle guilt. Consider the following story about Murphy, the name I use for the typical boy or girl. Murphy throws a temper tantrum and smashes his plate on the floor because his father does not let him have a second piece of cake. One parent is “enlightened” and permissive. He tries to calm Murphy down by saying something like, “Don’t be so upset. Once you grow up, you will understand that so much sugar is unhealthy for you. Go now and enjoy playing. That will calm you down. I will take care of this mess.” Murphy is relieved, but deep down he is confused because he knows that he has done something wrong and should “make up for it” somehow.
A second kind of parent might respond like a drill sergeant who becomes enraged and spanks the child until his own temper tantrum has abated.
Finally, a third kind of parent—like God our heavenly Father—controls his anger and tells Murphy: “Go to your room and stay there until you calm down. Then come to see me and we will talk.” Thus, once both have calmed down, the father explains to Murphy why what he did was wrong, and tells him, “See, you made this mess and you cannot clean it up on your own.
But you must help me do it.” As Murphy works with his father, he becomes more and more aware of the wrong he has done. He apologizes, his dad hugs him warmly, and the matter is closed. In this way Murphy learns something about dealing with his guilt: God, his father, does not deny the reality of sin but with our cooperation sets things right himself, and warmly embraces us.
Father Roch Kereszty, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column will appear occasionally in The Texas Catholic.