Sunday, December 2, 2007

Holy Season

With our power and technology, our instant communication all the time anywhere and our huge stores of knowledge and information virtually at our fingertips, we become more and more insulated from the vicissitudes of life and nature. Famines are in remote places, plagues are (mostly) a thing of the past. We berate ourselves if after a fire, tornado or hurricane, things are not returned to normal, better and renewed, within a year.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was recently complaining, "There is something about western modernity which really does eat away at the soul." But the issue is not Western, it is modern. All across the globe as societies become wealthier, they become more urbanized, and they become more isolated from the happenstance of weather and fate. It inescapably builds our confidence and erodes our humility.

As adults, we become wrapped up in thinking ahead, contingency planning, preparing for the best and worst. These steps are part of what allows us to be successful. These are also activities that do not come naturally to children. Cause and effect are a relationship that only becomes apparent to them over time as are the concepts of responsibility and outcome.

Children don't know any of this at first and it is part of why they experience life with an intensity that is hard for adults to recapture. Visual intensity, sense of smell, emotional intensity. We older ones have become accustomed to the emotional buffetings of the world, so accustomed we no longer notice them. Like the noise of a train near a house; when you first move in it's a constant distraction and within a month you don't even realize it's there.

For children everything is new and fresh. Life is full of wonder, terror, awe, and magic.

We approach the holy season, a time in the year when most of the major religions mark some of their most pivotal events. Behind the liturgy and the traditions, behind the barrage of commerce, behind all of this is an invitation to renew the ties of our own lost sense of wonderment and celebrate that wonder with our children. A time to re-explore the primal sense of reverence, awe, and incomprehension.

As a parent I take every opportunity to try and remind the kids as they grow older to look at things with fresh eyes. It is a delicate balance between imagination and practicality. How do you distinguish being open-minded (good) from being empty-minded (bad)? It is so much easier when they are younger.

But not always. Some years ago when my youngest was about six years old, we were living in Britain. As I had lived in England as a child in the sixties as well as in the seventies, I had my own list of places I remembered as being especially fascinating; Madame Tussaud's, Stonehenge, Tintangel.

Late in November the kids had a three-day weekend and so we headed off to Devon and Cornwall. Tintangel, though actually a twelfth century castle, is the reputed location of King Arthur's court. It is an inspiring site: many ancient, weathered walls and buildings precariously perched on a steep headland jutting dramatically out into the Atlantic and overtopping a mysterious grotto of wave-gouged caverns.

The day we visited started out cold, wet, grey and overcast. By the time we reached Tintagel, though, it was only intermittently sprinkling us and, with a fresh steady wind off the Atlantic, we were treated to periodic outbreaks of blue sky. It was what counts as a beautiful autumn day in November in England.

We had explored the various walled areas of the castle and had crossed over to a mesa-like protrusion, rising with sheer walls of crumbling rock a couple of hundred feet above the crashing Atlantic waves but topped with a three or four acre patchy grass field. As we clambered up over one of the ridges to get to this field, of a sudden, a very large grey and silver-white seagull, gliding on the wind, banked and alighted on the ridge not fifteen feet in front of us. He perched there, a depthless black eye cocked towards us, teetering somewhat in the 20 mile an hour wind rushing over him, pushing down on us. As you looked up at him on the ridge line, so close, swaying in the wind, bright blue sky behind him studded with huge dark clouds skidding by, it was impossible not to feel the magic of the moment.

I was helping my six year old who was very focused on his handholds and feet gripping the rock. I leaned over to him and whispered dramatically, "Look up there. Do you see it? Do you think it might be the spirit of some ancient knight of the round table, returned to guard Tintagel?" My little engineer looked up at me and said "It's a seagull, Daddy!"

Some lose their innocence earlier than others.

So in this holy season it is a time when we should consider pulling ourselves out of the routine and the mundane. It is so easy to get wrapped up in squeezing in that one last project at work, the last business trip, the last Christmas shopping trip. So easy to accidentally convey to our children that it is all tactical, mechanistic, and, well, ordinary.

Regardless of the specifics of your religion, how do we as parents create an environment where these emotions of awe and reverence can be acknowledged and celebrated?

As the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass tells us, it is a matter of practice.

'I can't believe THAT!' said Alice.

'Can't you?' the Queen said in a pitying tone. 'Try again:
draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.'

Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said: 'one CAN'T
believe impossible things.'

'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen.
'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day.
Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things
before breakfast!"

There are so many good books that pivot on a sense of wonder and awe. Sometimes it is all in the words, sometimes it is in the plot, sometimes the character.

The King James Bible is full of some of the most wonderful language, often times so far beyond real comprehension that the focus is all on the majesty of the words. For example, from Isaiah Chapter 6:

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon
a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.

Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain
he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with
twain he did fly.

And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the
LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.

And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried,
and the house was filled with smoke.

The following is a list, eclectic in the extreme, of books that might help bring a sense of wonder and awe and the holy to your children in this holy season.

Picture Books

Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Helen Berger Highly Recommended

Christopher's Harvest Time by Elsa Beskow Recommended

A Small Miracle by Peter Collington Highly Recommended

King Midas and the Golden Touch by Charlotte Craft and illustrated by Kinuko Craft Recommended

Carl's Masquerade by Alexandra Day Highly Recommended

Because I Love You by Max Lucado and illustrated by Mitchell Heinz Recommended

Silver Packages by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet Highly Recommended

The Whales' Song by Dyan Sheldon and illustrated by Gary Blythe Highly Recommended

A Time to Keep by Tasha Tudor Highly Recommended

Oscar Wilde's the Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde and Elissa Grodin and illustrated by Laura Stutzman Recommended

Independent Reader

Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie and illustrated by Scott Gustafson Recommended

The Nutcracker by E. T. A. Hoffmann and illustrated by Roberto Innocenti Recommended

Norman Rockwell's Faith of America by Fred Bauer illustrated by Norman Rockwell Suggested

The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis Highly Recommended

The Holy Bible Illustrated by Barry Moser Recommended

Young Adult

Holy Terrors by Janetta Rebold Benton Suggested

Hieronymus Bosch by Hieronymus Bosch and Larry Silver Suggested

The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan Suggested

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