Advent is the perfect time for beginning, or beginning again. We need a new beginning. It’s natural for parents to worry about their children’s development, but today the situation seems both hopeless and especially acute. I won’t go into the particulars—you know them very well, as we are recounting them to each other at an increasing rate in our rants online; their incidence seems to be accelerating.
Suffice it to say that we increasingly observe detachment from reality and a frightening disorder. But we may not realize that in response to this crisis, a growing Rationalism looms.
What is Rationalism? It is the habit of mind that trusts our efforts, causing us to imagine that we can impose order on the chaos that results from no longer acknowledging objective truth. The chaos we deplore is an effect of choosing Will over Reason, or, to put it differently, of believing that one can will the reality one wants, without reference to a Truth that exists outside oneself. But Rationalism, which tries to resist this tendency, is in itself only a movement of the will. It is not an attraction to goodness, nor is it a quiet acceptance of anything outside itself; it explicitly refuses to accept anything as a gift.
Moral ideas, Michael Oakeshott tells us, have become a “dry and gritty residue which chokes us as we try to take it down.” Rationalists preach “an ideology of unselfishness and social service to a population in which they and their predecessors have done their best to destroy the only living root of moral behavior.”
Things have come to a point now—after centuries, and not decades as some suppose—that the moral capital that predated Rationalism has been spent; we are left only with wishing for good homes without being willing to make the sacrifice of living in and building a happy home ourselves; we forget that it is by living the old ways that we restore the old ways.
“Order and Wonder” is the phrase I came up with to answer the question, posed by an indolently curious stranger, of what curriculum I used in my homeschool.
I was trying to stress that the curriculum didn’t matter as much as the home and its rhythms. I was thinking of how to convey the idea of an ebb and flow of life according to a pattern outside of oneself—i.e., a hierarchy, including the hierarchy of being itself, to which we can’t help but seek to correspond and reflect in our daily life.
For it is the ground and source of being that gives us a transcendent reality: God. We hear much about the words Truth, Goodness, and Beauty; it might be a good idea to briefly explain this idea—being—which is oneness, truth, and goodness.
The ancients had worked it out this way (and Scripture confirms it with God telling Moses, “I Am Who Am”): that which is has being, and has no parts or predicate. It is a unity: God, or the transcendent One. In this One there can be only truth, with nothing that can detract from it, no lie or absence of truth; and there can be only Goodness, with nothing bad, which would be an absence of good, and no longer a unity. These ideas of God are not parts (for God is Being, whole, One), they are identities. We can say that that which is One is True, and Good.
Goodness is being good. And for us this means the moral life.
The question immediately presents itself with a burning urgency: how do we give this to our children?
Because we are all Rationalists now, living in a rationalistic age, and all suffering from not being able to enjoy good and simple things as gifts, but always in search of more complex policies and programs, our temptation is going to be to outsource this quest for goodness (or moral development) in our children to experts, be they holders of theology MAs or Instagram accounts.
The anti-rationalistic—or reasonable—alternative, which I propose to you here, is to try to recover the past.
Goodness was expressed systematically in The Ten Commandments and in what are termed the Four Cardinal and Three Theological Virtues.
The Ten Commandments are the revealed Law of God, to be taught, as Scripture constantly reminds us, and learned by heart. The Seven Virtues are the classical formulation that outlines the moral habits of good persons.
These expressions, one Hebrew and one Greek, reflect the same correspondence to objective reality. We teach our children the Commandments even when they are quite young by saying “Never lie” (the 8th) and “Don’t hit your brother” (the 5th). When they reach the age of reason, children should certainly learn the Commandments by heart; doing so helps immensely with making a good Confession and with staying on the right path when clear thinking eludes them.
I will briefly—perhaps too briefly—describe the Seven Virtues:
The Three Theological Virtues are gifts, infused in us in the life of grace. They are faith, hope, and love or charity.
I will focus on the Four Cardinal, or human, virtues which are acquired by effort:
- Prudence, the queen of virtues: the practical knowledge of how to act in a given situation. According to John Henry Newman, Prudence is virtually synonymous with Conscience, which is something we can hardly credit, since today we think of conscience as that faculty that gives us excuses to do what we ought not to do. However, conscience is the faculty directing acting rightly when action is required—it is not abstract knowledge at all.
- Justice: giving everyone his due, including God and oneself; being active in a community in which the common good is pursued.
- Temperance: Self-control, the ability to master the appetites and keep them harnessed by reason.
- Fortitude or courage: the doing of what ought to be done, overcoming fear for the sake of the Good.
These are habits, to be lived and learned—at home. Mother and father from the earliest days impart the life of virtue. Affection and love make the lessons possible. From infancy the child experiences a growing awareness of others and their needs, and this life together instills prudence, a grasp of reality, a reliance on memory and offers the experience for its formation.
The home is the School of Virtue. Mother, devoted; Father, protective. When others raise the children, it shows. For who else will gently and lovingly, with stability, correct, even if it’s difficult? Where do the children find an intimate example of choosing to do right, other than from their parents, whom they observe closely, and whom they look upon as God when they are little?
The child knows instinctively that his parents’ (just) chastisement springs from love. (See Hebrews, 12:6: “For whom the Lord loveth, he chastiseth; and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.”) In Little Britches, Ralph Moody remembers: “ I always loved him more after he had scolded me than I did at any other time.”
In the family we have the opportunity of ordinary time spent together with affection, humor, and even suffering along with (and at the hands of) those we love—and a willingness to ask forgiveness when things go wrong.
The home is the right place for this education. But the education happens because of what the home is. Aristotle reminds us that the home is a place of a certain kind of activity, for the benefit of the household as a whole (not just the children): pursuing interests, making things grow, being artistic in the medieval sense of taking natural objects, working with them in a creative, competent way—not for money-making but for enrichment and unity of life.
Virtue grows in this soil. The child sees the mother telling the truth even at the cost of human respect; he sees the father go out of his way to pay a debt; he sees older siblings sacrifice comfort for the baby; and he sees the toddler being asked to lie still while being changed! And he is asked to do hard things as well.
In this way, before he is able to learn the Commandments by heart, he has acquired a unique experience and memory of virtue. The cost of remediating the loss of this early experience in the home is so high that it can only be paid by much suffering.
Besides uniting activity, the home offers rest and peace. Different from mindless “de-stressing” or mere entertainment, rest is that quality of active receptivity that brings us into the presence of the Transcendent, the Other, God.
On Sunday, there is rest. Work ceases; time is offered to God in worship, celebration (usually quite humble), and a quieting of the striving attitude that we keep up during the week. This rhythm, this acceptance of a hierarchy of time, is the Order that brings the gift of Wonder. It is here that we encounter the One, the True, and the Good in the (often humble) Beautiful, for Beauty is the radiance of those transcendent qualities, necessary so that we, material beings that we are, may be drawn to them along its rays. Beauty is Christ.
What Advent Really Is
And that brings us back to Advent. Just as we have forgotten what the family is, we have forgotten what this quiet liturgical season is.
It’s a time of Mary, she who receives the Good, True, and Beautiful without in any way possessing any negative value herself. The world can’t conceive of the opposite of activity without assuming there is passivity. Mary’s is a completely alive and fruitful reception. In Advent particularly we ponder her role. If we skip this season and go straight to Christmas, we skip her, losing our connection with the human nature of the Son of God.
For our children to receive an education in Goodness, we must make the most of this season—not with more activities, expert opinions, or talking, but by living it in simple traditions and in union with the Church’s liturgical guidance.
Recently, I’ve realized something about conversion, mine and some of the others I’ve heard of in the past few years. Back before secularists realized that they needed to eradicate all things Christmas, we learned traditional carols in school. We knew nothing of Christian doctrine; it wasn’t taught, naturally, due to the touching devotion to the separation of Church and state. But we did sing certain songs. For a compression of prophecy, Scripture, philosophy, and theology, I give you lines from the final verses of Hark the Herald Angels Sing (just as one example among many):
Now display Thy saving pow’r,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
This is the subliminal catechesis I, and others, received, before ever picking up the Gospel. This is why, when I did, I already knew that a gift had been given.
But now I know very few Christian families who sing Christmas carols with their children, or whose schools sing them. Now it’s all Jingle Bells and that irritating snowman which are unimpressive enough in themselves, but the replacement costs would be astronomical, for who would be able to teach what the traditional carols bestowed with poetic, melodic, and harmonic beauty?
The wonder of Advent is supported by its order. The Sundays bear down upon us with the necessity of lighting their candles. We must rise to the occasion. Newman advises: “Strictness is the condition of rejoicing.”
Kallistos Ware tells us: “Christmas is not an abrupt and irrational intervention of the divine, but a culmination of a long process extending over thousands of years.”
For us parents, each Advent is the culmination of the years we have lived, making our household suitable for remembering and learning to love what St. Bernard called The Shortened Word (Romans: “a short word shall the Lord make upon the earth”). In place of the volumes about Christ that would, as St. John assures us, fill the whole world if written down, we have on Christmas Day the Infant himself, the radiance of the Word.
The nativity scene, or crèche, displayed in the home, the church, and the village bestow wisdom on child and great theologian alike who kneel there, each year gazing in wonder at the image of God made man, on the straw in the manger, his mother and foster father adoring him. Even the animals somehow know who he is.
Do we want our children to be good? To know God’s Law and to be able, as Scripture admonishes us day after day in the Liturgy, to follow it, keep it in their hearts, and receive its gift of flourishing? To grow up Catholic and remain so, with God’s help?
This season in which we prepare for the Incarnation will be the means. St. Thomas Aquinas promises: “whoever diligently and piously considers the mysteries of the Incarnation will find a depth of wisdom so great that it surpasses all human knowledge.”
The Liturgical Year is that Order and Wonder—that curriculum, if you will—for this encounter. Without the family quietly living this reality at home with simple traditions and preparations, beginning again each year at Advent, faith—and with it goodness—will disappear from the face of the earth. We need Christ revealed in this—and every—year of grace given to us by our Church.
Author’s note: This essay is based on a talk delivered at St. Catherine of Siena in Great Falls, Virginia.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Christmas Tree” painted by Albert Chevallier Tayler in 1911.