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Ernie’s story left my children and me indignant. A golden retriever puppy, he’d been bought by doting parents as a birthday present for their 11-year-old daughter. Jon Katz tells the story in “Poor Little Rich Dog.”
“Girl and dog, growing up together — what parent hasn’t pictured it?” he writes. Getting Ernie completed the parents’ picture of the perfect family. The picture “included a four-bedroom colonial, a lawn edged with flowering shrubs, a busy sports schedule, a Volvo wagon and a Subaru Outback to ferry the kids around. A dog — a big, beautiful hunting breed — came with the rest of it, increasingly as much a part of the American dream as the picket fence or the car with high safety ratings.”
But Ernie grew up. The parents weren’t around to train him. The daughter, with sports and school as over-scheduled as her parents, didn’t try. Ernie chewed things, like shoes and furniture. He peed on the rugs. He ate the mail. He lunged at visitors and annoyed the nanny.
The family “let the puppy get into all sorts of trouble, then scolded and resented him for it. He was ‘hyper,’ they complained, ‘wild,’ ‘rambunctious.’ The notion of him as annoying and difficult became fixed in their minds; perhaps in his as well.” Now they mostly keep him outside or penned in the kitchen when he’s inside. “I’ve seen Ernie numerous times over the past two years. I’ve watched him become more detached, neurotic, and unresponsive. I’ve seen the soul drain from the dog’s eyes.”
There’s a difference between wanting to have a dog and loving dogs. This family had an image of themselves and their ideal life that included the ideal dog, but they couldn’t be bothered to care for Ernie in the way that might make him their ideal dog. So he’s miserable and they blame him for failing to meet what they think are their needs.
Only people who love dogs should have dogs. You may be asking what this has to do with the Church. There’s a difference, I think, between wanting to be a Catholic and loving Christ and His Church. You ought to want to be a Catholic, but only because in the Church you find Jesus.
Here, I think, many of us fall somewhat short. We do love Jesus and the Church as His Bride, but sometimes we instrumentalize the faith. We make it an instrument for getting something we want. We treat the Catholic Faith as this wretched family treats Ernie.
We parents do this. We fret about our children entering a seductive yet hostile world. We worry they’ll make “bad choices” and screw up their lives in a way they’ll never be able to undo. So we press church on them as a way of keeping them safe. I was guilty of this. We may also have an image of our children and our family as false as Ernie’s owners had. I think images of the ideal family — it’s what middle class Americans do, pursue images of the ideal family — drive many of us more than we want to admit.
On Sunday morning, our children can hear “Let’s go for our weekly attitude adjustment,” not “Let’s go meet Jesus.” They can hear, “You ought to be like this,” not “You ought to love Jesus who loves you.” They see that for you the Church is a means to an end. They know you believe it, but they also know you’re using it. If they don’t want the same end as you, and they won’t, being kids, they may well reject the means. We can see the soul drain from their eyes.
Aiming at Heaven
C.S. Lewis dealt with this in the chapter on hope in his Mere Christianity. He explained that history shows that the Christians who did most to help this world, starting with the Apostles, were the ones most concerned with the next world. “It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this,” he adds.
Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”; aim at earth and you will get neither. It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters. Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining there is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more — food, games, work, fun, open air.
This offers a lesson for parents. Aim at Heaven. Don’t drag your children to Mass because it’ll save them from the world or make them better or turn them into the kind of children you want. Bring them because you love Jesus in the Mass and in His Church, and make sure they know that for you Jesus is the end, not ever a means. Weirdly, you may then get the child you want.