Thursday, October 01, 2009

Column: Augustine and teens

I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me earlier to look to Augustine - given his early life, I imagine he knew quite a bit about what teen-aged boys might be up to! Then again, I'm hoping my sons don't go down that road. The comment that the proper fruit is sincere love - even of an enemy - took on a bit more of an edge earlier this week when a theological disagreement landed in my inbox.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 1 October 2009.

Of course there will never cease to be poor in the land; I command you therefore: Always be openhanded with your brother, and with anyone in your country who is in need and poor. — Dt. 15:11

Why is that the really hard questions come when I am in the midst of making dinner? I can count on it not being algebra — I can factor a polynomial and chop the carrots at the same time — it’s the metaphysical questions that trip me up.

I was juggling steaming pots, fresh bread and pasta sauce when Chris wandered in and leaned against the counter. “I’ve watched it twice,” he sighed, “and I’m still sad,” he said. What on earth has he been watching, I wondered. My irrepressible son’s tastes generally run to comedy, not weepy dramas.

“I have a refrigerator and a bed to sleep in,” he began. He’d been watching a video that put a real face on poverty for him. Kids without beds. Kids who went to sleep hungry. And it made him sad.

I was at a loss for what to say to him, how to comfort him, or even whether I should comfort him. Platitudes rose and fell in my mind. I wanted him to know that it matters that he cares, even if, on the global scale, what he could do might seem not to matter. That such poverty is something that may not be fixed here and now, in this world.

I have to admit that St. Augustine is not the first place I turn when I’m looking for advice for raising teenaged boys, but perhaps I should consult him in this regard more often.

In his “Exhortation on the Psalms,” I found a lifeline. Augustine suggests how we might respond to what we hear in God’s word and see around us: “The proper fruit is good works, the proper fruit is sincere love, not only of a brother but even of an enemy. Spurn no suppliant: if you can give, give; if you cannot, show yourself affable. God crowns the interior act of will where it finds no means of outward action.”

So I told Chris that even when it seems that there is little he can do, he should do all that he is able, “if you can give, give” — but that it was most important that he not give up either his feelings of distress for others or his desire to help. He grunted — he’s 13 after all — and offered to set the table.

I was left wondering if I said enough, or even too much. Most of all I was astonished at the reach of my son’s heart, and the realization that he was setting an example for me. An example of a love that could not be confined to my kitchen.

Pope Benedict XVI began his recent encyclical, Caritas in veritate, by pointing out “Love — caritas — is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace.”

In Chris’ troubled heart I could see such forces at play. It was a powerful sermon, preached all unknowing over the sink by a teenaged boy to his mother.

In the end, dinner got on the table and Chris seemed content with my answer, but a part of me still wished his worries had been about algebra. Not for his comfort or mine, but because I, too, wish there were not children in the world to be worried about.

O God, what will you do to conquer the fearful hardness of our hearts?…
You must give us your own Heart, Jesus. Come, lovable Heart of Jesus. Place your Heart deep in the center of our hearts and enkindle in each heart a flame of love as strong, as great, as the sum of all the reasons that I have for loving you, my God. Amen. — St. Claude La Colombiere, S.J. (from Hearts on Fire: Praying with the Jesuits)


  1. I have not read an encyclical in quite a long time. Both the Bible and the Catholic Church have always called me to work on issues of social justice. It's the primary lens through which I interpret the message.

    Your son is lucky to have a mother who consults Augustine and encyclicals when helping him process the world. I'll have to remember to consider those sources as I raise my two teenage boys.

  2. Kathryn - this encyclical might sound themes that call to you....or to your sons.

    And I can use all the help I can get sometimes on the kid rearing front :)

  3. Oh I read it even before I commented. It was interesting but then my eyes started rolling back. Many, many people outside the Catholic Church don't understand the emphasis on social justice.

    I may give it another go but it got really dense in the middle with references to Vatican II and Pope Paul VI. I was around for both of those but my church history is not solid.

  4. I find I have to read most of those kinds of texts in bits to avoid eye glazing, or missing a really good tidbit -- and with other references around!