Fr. Tom Bartolomeo
The pregnant season, Part Three
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By Fr. Tom Bartolomeo
December 23, 2013

There is nothing alive more dependent on its kind than humankind. By comparison nearly all other living things at birth function well on their own although they may require for a short time the protective care of their parents. Fish swim without coaching and many animals learn to get about in a matter of hours or days. Man, however, cannot walk for several months or speak intelligibly for years. Much of man's progress is clouded in mystery as is his future. So much rests on his education. Take anything else for granted but not a developing human child.

By nature a newborn child wants to learn. Why he touches everything he can and puts all sorts of things in his mouth, his most responsive organ at birth. He may often seem distracted darting from one object to another while he explores his surroundings. He is never bored, uncomfortable but never bored. There are so many interesting things to explore, touch, see and hear. He innately recognizes the actions and reactions of others and mimics their behavior. Smile and he will smile, but speech requires not only mimicry but comprehension and he must learn how to respond properly. Here the mystery begins. Parrots mimic but can not understand what intelligibly exists beyond the sounds they make, otherwise parrots would make their own music, so to speak.

The child's intellectual education begins with his mastery of sight, sound, smell and touch, and he mysteriously connects these experiences with the sounds of human words associated with them. He begins to think in abstractions and form words himself. He recognizes that he can extend his power of thought through language and rapidly learns a large number of words associated with real objects and real people. Soon he learns to play and enjoy the control he can exercise in his environment, and he remembers. At this stage of his development his inquiring mind is at play – incessantly asking "Why?' – as long as his environment is not threatening and he can freely confide with others: ideally those who should know him best, his parents. His art of mimicry ordinarily depends on his parents from whom he learns what is happy and good or wretched and evil in the world. He doesn't quite grasp the meaning of good and bad but understands it effects. He may take a lifetime to comprehend fully the meaning of good and evil.

Maria Montessori described the child's 'divine gift' in her book, The Absorbent Mind. She devised an educational system which enhances the emotional health and mental development of the child, not dominate his development – a world centered around family, mother, father and other siblings, the natural social order of parents and children. Parents alone are uniquely qualified to establish mutually beneficial relationships with their children without the confusion or 'mixed signals' others may bring to their education, no matter how well intentioned they may be. When the child's growth and learning are disproportionately relegated to others in the absence of his natural parents – to other children, neighbors, counselors, teachers and later on, to employers and various bureaucracies – the child and the emerging adult may lose his personal bearing in the world unless he has a strong grounding. Without consistent parental modeling and instruction he will devise his own set of rules and behavior, sometimes with peers who may be as awkward as he dealing with other people and situations. Children raised by a working single parent have a particularly difficult environment to deal with.

Most parents are genuinely concerned about their children's welfare and future and may not recognize the breathe and depth of their potential influence. The parents' influence can not be measured or appreciated fully by anyone other than their children whatever parents think of their preparedness, knowledge or skill. That does not matter to their children. What matters – what no one else can give their children – is their singular parental attention in the ordinarily daily routine of life. Is there any better definition of love than "to pay attention," being attentive to the ones you love including God? The child knows this instinctively even the teenager. "You never listen to what I say," is a warning parents should attend to. Whatever parents think standing on that mountain above their children the gaze of mom or dad from where they are is felt. Let it be the gaze of Our Lord we hope in and our gaze in return. Some, perhaps most parents, however, may feel inadequate to the task and would rather relinquish their preeminent position to experts, clergyman like me, for instance, or teachers of religion and the like. That would be a wrong decision. We are essentially interested bystanders who can, maybe, help the child understand himself and his relationship with the important people in his life. Whatever expertise or talent clergymen, teachers and baby sitters have we are not 'flesh of their flesh' or 'bone of their bone' as Adam saw in Eve in the story of creation. (Genesis 2: 23).

Meeting this challenge, parent to child, may be difficult as was the case of Moses' relationship to the children of Israel wandering in the desert after having escaped from slavery in Egypt. 'Free at last' they were introduced to the Ten Commandments establishing their relationship with God and with each other. They had lived, however, in a pagan society for four hundred and thirty years, had adopted its heathen practices and once set free rebelled many times before reaching the promised land – similar to a parent's strained relationship with an adolescent. Moses had to forcibly deal with them, and many died in their rebellion. He could not leave them alone for any extended time without their reverting back to their old habits. Their children's children, however, traveling over the course of forty years in the desert were more obedient but obeyed Moses blindly. God fed them daily and gave them a cloud to follow to their destination. In their dependence on Moses' guidance, however, they had not developed a personal understanding of and relationship with God who demonstrably cared for them. Moses in his farewell speech to the children of God addressed the issue directly telling them that the Ten Commandments and all the other statues of law God had given them they could have understood for themselves had they not slavishly followed his lead:
    For this commandment that I command you today [he said] is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deuteronomy 30: 11-14 ).
The word of God is especially in a parent's "mouth" and "heart, so that you can do it." You may object, I do not know my faith well enough or God's commandments. Our fathers in the faith, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not have the advantage we have or the advantage the children of God had in the desert – the Ten Commandments as our guide. Yet Abraham and his progeny knew the law of God in their hearts and spoke personally of their relationship with God as "the God of Abraham" and not simply the God of their commandments which implies compulsion. Admittedly, Abraham may have readily shared his thoughts and heart with his children as they worked side by side managing their livestock together. Parents today can still share their work at home with their children in the ordinary routine work at home. Most children would relish mowing the lawn with their dad or shoveling snow, sharing their interest in the work or whatever else comes to mind, and a opportune time for dad to discuss more personal matters with his children. What once may have been a lonely chore may become an opportunity to share matters of faith and morals, parent to child, in the course of their daily experiences for their mutual benefit. Even in the case where 'the word' of God may have been forgotten – this exchange, parent to child and child to parent, may revitalize the faith and morals of the parent while strengthening the faith and morals of the child. "It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it," Moses said. (Ibid.). It also bears repeating, that "the child is father to the man" and mother to the woman in their shared faith. For their part, children can often identify what is true and good better than we grownups can. What does it say to your children, however, when you do not have these conversations with them? Who will fill the void, and what will be said? Do you believe sending your children to a Catholic school or religious education classes is enough?

Mom and Dad, think of all those chores and special projects you can share with your children – not as commands but as invitations. "Daughter, would you like to help me prepare dinner?" This will require a reorientation of family life where communal relationship matters most. In this contentious world the most vulnerable among us, our children, often retreat into isolation while mom and dad say, they are just too 'busy.' Lives are scheduled nearly 'round the clock,' work, travel and ad hoc meetings away from home. We impersonally invent programs for everything including religion believing that all we need is the right formula to achieve success or to raise a family while our children live in the periphery of a make-believe world with their smart phones, videos, and the anonymity of Facebook relationships.

This season of the year is truly pregnant with life, recalling the birth of Jesus. The hope of mankind contrary to all human wisdom choose to be born as the most vulnerable of our kind, as a child. More mysterious than the birth of any child, the Apostle Paul tells us "he emptied himself and took the form of a slave being born in the likeness of men" ( Philippians 2:7 ) with whom God choose to deposit his power "to men of good will." ( Luke 2:14 ).

© Fr. Tom Bartolomeo

 

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Fr. Tom Bartolomeo

I am the founder and director of the Families For Families Retreat House, a refuge for anyone who wants to rethink his or her life in a quiet non-demanding environment in an historic house c.1709 when life was less complicated. I am also and primarily a Catholic priest having been a college and university teacher, business-owner and executive among other things. I received my Bachelor's and Master's degrees in English literature from Saint John's University, Jamaica, New York and completed post-graduate studies at Kansas State University. Contact me at FatherTomSays@gmail.com.

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