toward a hands-on sort of faith

IMG_1218      My two-year-old son really, really loves Jesus.

For what it’s worth, Si attended a year of Catholic preschool and was given all the loving indoctrination the experience can provide (aside: if you can find a school run by nuns, it probably deserves your consideration.  The sisters at Our Lady’s were saints in-the-flesh; it is hard to imagine more gentle, caring, and well-educated teachers).  School, however, is not what inspired his love.

The object of Si’s adoration is the small infant Jesus from our nativity set.

He was originally more interested in the nativity livestock, and what two year old wouldn’t be?  The animals are familiar, action-oriented, and inspire both of my sons to make gleeful barnyard noises (had they been written after a visit to our home, Psalms 98 and 100 would almost certainly have requested a “blessed silence” unto the Lord.) Eventually, however, the animals, and also the men, the woman, and the angel had been examined and arranged, and I asked the boys if they remembered what this story was about.  Neither was sure, so we embarked on the tale of long ago and far away.

I introduced Mary and Joseph–a couple traveling, a baby soon to be born, and no place to stay (one would think that no words more horrifying than “no rooms in the hotel” have ever been spoken, judging from my five-year-old’s reaction; we travel a good deal, and this was one piece of information that he could relate to–and yet, couldn’t).  Then the magic of that night–everything amiss, yet everything according to plan–and the wonder of a baby born to bring hope to a hurting world.  The kids were captivated and I felt some of their awe, myself.  This is a story of beauty and power; from the miracle of faith to the chance for renewal even when all seems lost, these are themes that speak to us still.

And since the day I told the story, Si only has eyes for Jesus.

Or, more accurately, he has eyes, arms, fingers, lips and occasionally teeth for Our Savior.  He carries him around in the palm of his hand.  He kisses him.  He places the baby in locations where one can imagine him watching the fascinating activities of a day in the life of an almost-preschooler.  And occasionally, my orally fixated younger child places the plastic version of the infant son of God into his mouth entirely.

Fortunately, this happens infrequently.  When I am at home, we give Jesus a bath, put the nativity set away for a time, and talk about taking care of our bodies and respecting our things.  Last Monday, however, I wasn’t at home, and our sitter, a salt-of-the-earth, Christ-loving woman in her 70’s, was so scandalized that she put the baby “someplace safe, where Si can’t get at him.”  In the busyness of the dinner transition, I forgot to ask where that place might be; we found Jesus three days later–and his manger, too–in witness protection behind the key basket on a high shelf.  (A Christmas song for our time:  “I found Jesus on the high shelf.”  Trout Fishing In America could sing it.)

I confess that I find Si’s relaxed relationship with this Jesus-figure both disturbing and liberating.  I have no memory of an easy friendship with this baby, but of course there was a time when I might have greeted the Christmas story with the same glee, the same innocence, the same blissful possessiveness.  And, also certainly, there is a great deal in life that must be respected.  Our bodies. Those of others.  Rules.  Property.  And, to an extent, religion.  Is not “deserving of respect” an inherent part of what constitutes sacredness?  On the journey to adulthood, we must each develop the restraint, care and gentleness to live within these boundaries.  It is our job as parents to assist our children in these tasks.

I wonder, though: what happens when we put faith “someplace safe” so that a child “can’t get at it?” Mystery is part of the beauty of the religious experience; do we lose that in encouraging–even cultivating–a spirit of easy, unintimidated familiarity with faith?  Can we let things be a bit more relaxed, that we might walk more closely with God?  Is it ok to hold the cross?  To rearrange the nativity?  To handle the sacred stones, inspect the prayer mats, examine the makings of the menorah?

Gilbert Chesterton encourages us in this direction, saying “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”  For my children, that love affair has begun. I can only guess where it will lead . . . but I wonder if Si, in seeking God’s presence at 30, will in some vague way remember the heft in the hand of a tiny friend he called Jesus when he was nearly three.