Thoughts on a Catholic Child's Library
by T. Renee Kozinski
Where does literature fit within a person's growth in faith and education as a Catholic? The truth is that a person learns in every moment of his life, and the saint 'learns God' in every moment. So, it is not really a question about when we should be learning, but rather how, and with what materials.
There is a problem inherent in the idea of 'stimulation' and being 'well-rounded.' People think that children have to know an endless amount of facts and information about the fallen world before they are educated into a specifically Catholic worldview. But the study of worldly history, literature, science, etc., should come later, as one's imminent preparation for being a soldier of Christ in the world. Perhaps that is why the sacrament of Confirmation comes at the end in childhood.
The whole reason for studying worldly history and its literature, of course, is not to satisfy curiosity, but to evangelize more successfully, and to learn to think about and love God more. Finally, it is part of being 'watchful,' as Christ commanded. We have to be 'as wise as serpents' and that means we have to know what the serpent is up to. We have to understand the world in both its good and bad aspects. But when? When to teach that? In the teens? But, then, it depends on the teenager.
There is a sense in which the saints have come to a point of retreat from the world and worldly things, including books. This is the point of spiritual maturity. Perhaps it is like a return to childhood, but a 'spiritual childhood,' a 'second naiveté.' Think of St. Jerome, who had an extensive library and then gave it away when he realized that nothing was worth reading except if it was about Christ. Or think of St. Thomas, who read so much, pagan writings included, but only as a means to defending the teachings of Christ. And then at the end of his life, after meeting Christ mystically, he declared all he wrote to be mere straw.
But this, a grown up saint's retreat, is different from properly sheltering and educating a child to be a warrior for Christ. I think that this is the thoughtful, independent choice of a mature Catholic. Thus, I think there is a time when the classics and the study of philosophy can be very valuable before such a decision: understanding the development of thought, in order to evangelize, or effectively to defend the truth. As for formal study of the trivium and quadrivum, this should perhaps come later in a child's education, towards the adolescent years, in the 'analytical' stage as recommended by Dorothy Sayers.
Children having a wide range of good books of the '11th century spirit' is a good idea, as long as there is a diversity of such material to reach each child's peculiar temperament and interests. This will allow them to build a Christendom within their imagination with which to go out and deal with the world. This is a very good idea.
A valuable distinction can be made between 'extrinsic' and 'intrinsic' teaching that is, things we learn by being taught directly, and things we learn by intuition, by the imagination. For instance, the Catholic Faith can be taught by memorizing and discussing the Catechism. This is quite objective and what I would call 'extrinsic'. It is exterior to the soul, and must be taken in by the will and the reason and applied within the soul. On the other hand, the Faith can be taught in parts by the child modeling his parents' behavior, or perhaps by serving at the altar over a number of years. This kind of teaching is slower, less detailed and orderly, but far more powerful in that it becomes the very rhythm of the soul, transcending, in a sense, one's discursive reason. I believe good literature falls also into this category.
A great Catholic story becomes a moving image, a model for the soul, and it seems to root itself in the soul deeply because it enters through the imagination. This is precisely why movies and books are so powerful for good and for evil especially for the young. Yet God created the imagination, and so it is a profound part of our existence. It is essential that it be developed richly and deeply, for it forms a basic part of the spiritual life. St. John of the Cross's poetic writings show this powerfully.
What makes a great Catholic story? First of all, the lion-like, majestic character of the Church comes alive to us when we realize that She always looks for the Good in many sources. Unlike the narrow-minded Calvinist or Muslim, the Catholic mind has ever plumbed the vast endeavors of human and divine history. Thus, St. Thomas plumbed the depths of Aristotle and Plato; the desert monks endeavored to save the great libraries from the influx of barbarians.
Anything good, anything noble, anything which coveys the Lord, however dimly, belongs to Christ, and thus to His Church. There are many great stories that are Catholic, but have no theological content in them. I am thinking of Le Morte d'Arthur, King Lear, even Aesop's Fables. These, imperfect as they are, speak toward the Truth. How does one discern this? It is in looking at the theme, the main bloodline of the story, the 'why' of the work; also, the context of the story is important. For instance, The Sword of Shannara, a popular fantasy work with a similar plotline to The Lord of the Rings, is not a Catholic novel. The theme pointing to redemption within suffering is not present, even though it may be an exciting story. The Lord of the Rings is a Catholic novel because it is imbued with the 'sense of Christ'; the work is essentially a treatise on the spiritual life of the Catholic: the temptation, the suffering, the courage, the aid of the supernatural, and the hope of the Beatific Vision.
There are also many novels which could be considered imperfectly Catholic, but whose thematic matter is too dark, or plays on mature themes unfit for children, even for the high-school level. I think of Graham Greene's novels, or perhaps Bridge over San Luis Rey.
Some plays, like those of Shakespeare, are fruitful catechisms for young people, especially under the guidance of a tutor who can help them through the work to see clearly the Catholic lessons that otherwise may be lost.
Some literature that could be considered great, with deep Catholic themes, may yet be tainted with Protestant ideas. These I believe can be useful, but again must be read under a tutor's guidance; otherwise, the powerful ideas in these books are received in the imagination and the soul through Protestant eyes. Then again, such could actually prove to be an inoculation against these Protestant ideas.
At a young age, there are many books which can be great teachers in and of themselves, and which pose no danger to purity, modesty and to the formation of a young Catholic imagination and soul. These stories should be enjoyed first, so that the innocence and joy of childhood can run its true course. When the young person begins to learn about adult life, as he must, the books with the darker and more controversial themes, and perhaps those with some extra-Catholic contexts, can be brought in as aids, if prudence and counsel dictate. Until such a time, limiting a children's library of books to those that convey only purity, innocence, and the beauty, goodness, and truth of the Catholic Faith is wise.
The final end of our existence is to love God and to "know as we are known": the Beatific Vision, the "flower" of heaven, as Dante describes it is where, as Augustine says, our hearts will be at rest. Thus, like the contemplative, we see the created order as stepping stones to union with the Creator. Good literature develops the imagination, fertilizes its soil so that the seed of the love of God will not be sown "on rocky soil". Thus, great effort and care on the part of parents to provide a library suited for this purpose is part of providing a Hosea's Hedge for their impressionable children.