Friday, December 09, 2005

bed time stories

(Another post in the "it's about time" category)

Several months ago, I went on a little Amy Wellborn shopping spree, buying books for myself and the family. For myself, I splurged and got her devotional, A Catholic Woman's Book of Days. I do not read it as regularly as I would like to, but whenever I do read it, I am always happy that I did. These brief meditations are ideal in that they make you think, and lead to contemplation and prayer, but they don't require a Herculean effort. Reading this book is like having spiritual dessert. (This is one of those things I will never understand about myself -- you'd think with so much positive reinforcement, I'd get into a good habit, right? Somehow, it hasn't happened yet.)

But the subject here isn't the Book of Days, it's the Loyola Kids' Book of Saints, and the companion volume, the Loyola Kids' Book of Heroes.

Like all of Amy's writing, these books are written in a direct, conversational tone that is friendly but never patronizing. Each saint's story is just a few pages, making them the perfect length for a bed time story. We have a routine of reading a story each night before we say our family prayers together and tuck the kids into bed. All three children listen to the stories intently, because each is about a real person who really did these amazing things. Some of the stories are very sad, some are exciting; all are tailored to the audience, but nothing is white-washed. Amy's not afraid to talk about suffering, something most saints are intimately aquainted with, and something most kids these days have no concept of.

I admit, we often don't get to read a story because bed time is running late, and we go directly to the prayers. But the children will ask if they can "have a saint story," and when each story is over, they always ask who the next saint will be. When we first started reading these stories, the kids were unsure as to what exactly was going on. Like all kids, they are suspicious that we are going to make them work when they really don't want to, and these "saint stories" sounded suspiciously close to "church" to them. But now that they've actually heard some of the stories (a lot of the stories!), they look forward to hearing more.

One of the nicest features of these little stories is the questions that Amy asks. After one or two stories, the kids are accustomed to this now, and they understand that there will be questions and things to talk about when the story is over. One of the best nights we had was when we read about St. Hildegard von Bingen, and I was able to find a recording of some of her music in my vast CD collection.

Since the saint stories are grouped thematically rather than by time or place, we're getting quite a good overview of history and geography as we read the stories straight through. I think perhaps the best thing of all is that both DH and I are learning about some of these people for the first time, ourselves.

I heard DH telling DS1 and DD this evening how important it is for them to know about the saints. I didn't catch his entire argument, but the part I did hear centered on their need to choose a patron saint for their Confirmation names. Since our parish now practices the Restored Order of the Sacraments (pdf), DD will be confirmed in 3rd grade, and DS1 will most likely be confirmed at the same time, when he is in 5th. (DS1 was in the final year of 2nd graders to make their First Communions separately from their Confirmations.) DH spent weeks reading through the lives of the saints before deciding on his Confirmation name. It was made more difficult for him, of course, because he was coming to the task completely "cold," with very little prior knowledge of any saints. Our kids should have it a lot easier when it's their turn.

But there's an even better reason to know about the lives of the saints, I think. These people are our brothers and sisters in the Church, and hearing these ancient (and some not-so-ancient) stories is just as important as hearing stories about parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles when they were growing up. In the same way that our personal stories foster that sense of belonging and connection within the family, saint stories encourage that feeling of belonging in the Church.

I know a lot of people have problems with Catholics "praying to" the saints; they think that we're worshipping people who've died. That's not it at all, but I'm not sure how well I can explain this. When we pray to a saint, we are talking to them and asking them for intercession with God -- we are asking them to pray for us. Think of the last line of the Hail Mary: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners... That's it in a nutshell. The only "power" a saint has is to intercede for us, to put in a good word for us with the Big Guy, so to speak. We always think of asking for intercession along the same lines as asking for help or advice from a living person you respect, trust, and admire. Sometimes the kind of help you need is better provided by a saint than by, say, a mom, especially as we get older.

So by introducing all of these wonderous people to our children, we're giving them a lifelong resource. Of course they don't realize it now, and if they're anything like me, they'll settle on just a few saints they regularly ask for prayers from. It's difficult to understand how vast the Communion of Saints really is, but when you think about it, it's pretty awesome. Thousands of people spanning the centuries, and all of them standing behind us, ready to help.

I hope that by introducing our kids to this idea fairly early in their lives they can avoid some of the alienation and isolation that naturally accompanies growing up. We're part of something much bigger than our own family, and you're only ever alone if you choose to be.

My kids are almost-9, 7, and almost-5, but very articulate and with excellent vocabularies, and they have no problems understanding these stories. Amy says these books are written for middle school children, and that sounds about right to me. You can buy these titles at Amazon, but it's better for Amy if you order directly from her; I encourage you to do so, here.

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