When I was a young Catholic, in my late teens and early twenties, I embarked upon a concerted effort to understand my faith.
You see, I was born in the 60's, raised in the 70's, and grew to adulthood in the 80's and I was a product of that age. Even though I went to Catholic high school and was raised by wonderfully devout parents, I knew next to nothing about my faith beyond Jesus loves me and Jesus loves felt.
Yet even then, I knew some basic rules, as taught to me by my parents, about how a Catholic should behave and I clung to that understanding. Although I didn't know much about my faith, I knew I wanted to please the Lord and so I clung tenaciously to "the rules" as I understood them. I understand now that my singular focus on the rules was in part due to my own immaturity and the immaturity of my faith. Yet, understanding some basic rules and choosing to live by them was the start of a maturation process.
I note with interest now that my journey to better understand Jesus and Catholicism did not begin with reading Thomas Merton or Aquinas or any other Thomas. It began with a silly novel. When I went off to college, my high school girlfriend and her family moved from Long Island to western Massachusetts. On a break, I went to visit her family. While there, I found a secular novel that recounted a NY Times account of the Miracle of Fatima. I was intrigued by the account as my familiarity with Fatima was limited to knowing that little old pious rosary ladies sometimes mentioned it.
On my return to Boston, I went to the public library to see if the account in the book was accurate. In my search for it, I read a book on it. It had terms and concepts in it that were completely foreign to me. I realized when reading it that I knew next to nothing of my faith and the why behind the rules I clung to, and I knew even less about Jesus.
I remember it vividly, my 19 yr. old self sitting at a big table in the Boston Public library, making up my mind to learn as much as I could about my faith. I checked out as many books on Catholicism as they would let me and I read. I read everything. For years I read and read and read.
By the time I was 24, I understood much more about my faith. But I hadn't lived it.
As I moved from youth to middle age with children of my own, my understanding of the necessity of mercy has grown. Without mercy, I am condemned. I still knew and tried to live by the rules. But none of us can simply live by the rules and hope to justify ourselves. It is grace alone that does that. It is the all too often unrequited love and sacrifice of our Savior that does that. It is the love of God that does that.
As a parent charged with passing on the faith to my children I sometimes wonder where to start. It is difficult to teach my children all I have learned about the faith, but of course I am trying. But as my children grow, I find that I feel the pressing need to teach the rules. For sure, I try to impart as much context as I can and as much WHY behind the rules as I can, but I know I have a limited time to teach them how to live, to teach them the rules and about the mercy and grace.
But I keep coming back to the rules. I think it takes a lifetime to understand mercy, but I feel compelled to make sure my kids understand the do's and dont's and as much why as they can understand. We have a limited time of influence with our children and my only desire is to be with them forever in the presence of the Lord.
Some may think that focus on the rules give short shrift to other important aspects of the faith. I worry about that too and of course it is a balancing act, but I still think the rules are important. They give you a foundation from which to grow.
I think of it like an apprenticeship. When you teach a youngin' a craft, you teach them rules. Before you do this, always make sure you do that. Never do that. Be sure to do it this way. You teach them as many WHYS as you can, but you teach them the hows first.
We do this with children anyway in all other aspects of their lives. We give them rules to live by, but we don't spend too much time explaining to them why they have to go to school or go to bed. Those are just the rules. As parents, we know that the 'rules' are there for the benefit of the children and that we impose these rules out of love.
The same goes for their religion. There is love in the rules, even if they don't fully understand it. Teach them the rules of the faith, teach them how to live. Say your prayers. Go to mass. Go to confession. Some things a reserved for marriage only. With God's grace, as they mature they will come to understand the WHYS. But without the rules, it is unlikely they will ever ask the WHYS.