As adults there are lessons to learn even from our very young children.
My five-year-old daughter, as children often do, recently gave me a piece of art she had created. It was the words of “The Lord’s Prayer” in fancy lettering — or at least it was fancy in the imagination of a five-year-old. In fact, most of the words were squished up towards the top half of the paper, many were misspelled, a few letters were backwards, and if she hadn’t told me what it was supposed to say I’m not sure I could have figured it out.
When children give us artwork, parents always gush over it, saying how much we love it before putting it on the refrigerator in a prominent place. These little mementos of childhood are special to us not because of the quality of the work, but for what the work reveals. A child’s drawing is a true gift, a generous act simply because they love you and think the gift will make you happy. The motivation underlying the gift is not cutesy kid stuff; it’s quite serious.
When my daughter gave me “The Lord’s Prayer,” it was especially moving because it showed that she’s thinking through her relationship with God in a deep, meaningful way. It doesn’t matter what the words look like, the point is that she spent time in quiet contemplation, prayerfully crafting a beautiful visual expression of her faith.
My boys have a children’s version of the items used during a Mass. They also have child-size priest vestments. Occasionally, they get out the play kit, dress up, and lead a grand procession around the dining room before settling down to sing their alleluias and begin Mass. They jumble most of it. They remember some of it. For a long time, I thought the pretend Mass was just a game, but the more I thought about it, the more I began to see it as another form of something like my daughter’s drawing. The boys play the game because they’re serious about the Mass. They’re exploring it and re-living it in their imaginations because it’s a meaningful part of their lives. They see the priest and want to be like him. They watch people receive communion and want to imitate it. They’re displaying a sincere religious impulse that, as an adult, I should honor. It isn’t childish, what they’re doing, it is mature and worthy of respect.
I’ve been thinking about all this because the feast of St. Agnes is coming up on January 21. My wife and I love Agnes so much that we named one of our daughters after her, so her feast day is a big deal in our family. What people may not know about Agnes is how young she was when she died. Around the year 304, a curious crowd gathered in the court of a powerful Roman prefect. Before him stood Agnes, 12 years old. By today’s standards, just a child. In that day, girls of that age would be pledged in marriage to older men, and when a Roman nobleman asked for her to marry him, he probably wasn’t expected to be turned down. Agnes did turn him down, though, because she wanted to dedicate her life to God. Her determination was fierce — this was no kid’s game she was playing. In fact, she continued to refuse marriage even after the spurned older man reported her to the authorities for the crime of being Christian. She continued to hold to her faith even as the crowd watched the prefect question her. She continued to trust in God even as an executioner led her to be burned at a stake.
Children are small, but they have big hearts. They play and seem to engage in frivolous activities, but all their games and thoughts, even if they display a youth still in the process of maturation, are quite serious. They cannot quite sit still in the pew through Mass but their faith may be stronger than anyone else in the building. I’ve seen this time and time again with my own children, and also noticed it in the stories of very young saints like Agnes.
Children, I’m quite confident, ought to be taken seriously, not only for their own sake but also for ours. As an adult, there are lessons to be learned even from our own young children. Where an adult might be capable of justifying a departure from what we know is right, or cynically compromising, children hold to the truth with sincerity and tenacity. A child never accepts a half-truth, and a child has sincere and honest responses to what they believe. This results in great strength of character.
In her dependence on the supernatural, Agnes was able to claim her freedom to make her own choices and she had the courage to hold to them. Her motivations were pure and her convictions uncompromised. She was like a child offering to her father her best piece of artwork – a very serious gift.
Agnes, the patron saint of innocence and purity, is an epiphany. She’s a walking revelation that, as any child knows, God deserves to be loved with every ounce of our heart. My own children have shown me the same, also revealing how members of a family cling to and love each other.
It’s time for adults to move past the self-centered, compromised habits of adulthood that we’ve fallen into and grasp simple truths we ought never have forgotten – those who love see most clearly, and innocence holds hands with wisdom. This is what my children, and St. Agnes, have taught me. A handmade drawing, a martyrdom, the attempt to re-create a Mass — it’s all very serious.
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