Archive for Beatitudes

AP & the Beatitudes: Blessed Are the Merciful

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

My children and I have continued our summer study of the Beatitudes.  How can we raise children who exemplify the virtues set out in the Sermon on the Mount?  Living a family-centered attached lifestyle will go a long way in helping us reach that goal.

How do children become merciful?

In a recent post I talked about AP and the first Beatitude:  “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, for theirs the kingdom of heaven.”   When we’re poor in spirit, we possess humility and a recognition that we’re nothing without God.  Growing up in an empathic, gentle home can help our children develop an authentic self-esteem that includes humility and trust.   A modest person has a healthy assessment of his strengths and weaknesses, and recognizes that we all need others in our lives for happiness and self-fulfillment.  Spiritual modesty allows us to recognize our need for God’s care and guidance.   I think the kind of trust in, dependence on, and surrender to God that we need to be poor in spirit may be easier for adults who felt cherished and cared for as small children.

The kids and I recently studied the fifth Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”  As we learned about what it means to be merciful, I couldn’t help thinking about some reading I’ve been doing in attachment theory.

Mercy v. Compassion

In Rosemarie Gortler’s book, The Beatitudes for Children, she describes the close relationship between mercy and compassion.  Mercy is similar to compassion:  they both involve a kind and forgiving disposition.  But mercy goes beyond our state of being:  it includes our willingness to act.  We can possess a sense of compassion, yet do nothing.  We can feel badly for our neighbor who’s going through a rough patch.  We can even really understand and identify with their pain.  We’re merciful when we’re willing to do something about it, even taking on their suffering in order to alleviate their pain.  So, we can think of mercy as compassion-with-action.  The most extraordinary moments of mercy are those that involve quiet and selfless action.

So how do we raise merciful children?  Well, we can’t order our kids to be merciful and compassionate.  They develop compassion only by being treated with compassion and by watching their caregivers treat others with compassion.   We have mercy on our children when we respond to their needs with a willing attitude and an open heart.   In attachment theory, a capacity for “empathy” is one of the measuring sticks of mental health.  The capacity to empathize means a person can put themselves in another person’s shoes.  When kids develop empathy, they not only recognize the emotions and needs of others, but they begin to regulate their behavior with great awareness.  Quite simply, they understand how their actions affect others and they don’t want to cause others pain.

We as Catholic Christians want our children to not only possess empathic feelings; we want them to feel compelled to act when they encounter others in need.  I read in one professional guide that when a child’s parents combine moral reasoning with acknowledgment of the child’s point of view, the child begins to develop empathy quite naturally.  Empathy continues to develop and can grow into “pro-social” actions directed toward the good of others:  “Empathy leads to concern about others’ distress or pain and generates intentional pro-social acts of sympathy and kindness.”  Douglas Davies, Child Development: A Practitioners Guide, 293.  Children who are raised in loving, warm homes in which their needs and feelings are respected and recognized are more likely to possess genuine love and compassion in adulthood.

If we want to raise children who are merciful they need to witness us treating others with mercy, too.  Children who admire and love their parents come to identify with them and absorb their values and attitudes, for good or ill. Davies, 292.  When parents model concern for a child’s siblings, relatives, and others in the community, the child will internalize the parents’ attitudes toward those in need of comfort, provisions, or time.  They see that such actions are not only important, but they have a roadmap in their minds about what you actually say to people in crisis or need, how you extend tenderness to others in pain, where you go to find supplies, and how to organize a community response to great crisis.  These are practical lessons that our children internalize:  They know it’s possible to make a difference and they have some sense of how you go about it.

Mercy v. Justice:   

In addition to demonstrating compassion to those in need, being merciful is also about extending forgiveness to others for their wrongs or debts.    Should our children receive mercy or justice for inappropriate behaviors?  Both.  Justice and mercy aren’t foes: They are both essential to wise parenting and indeed any kind of leadership.

Justice implies somebody “gets what they deserve”.   If God were only a God of justice, we’d all be in big doo-doo.  But his justice is always balanced by loving mercy.  He takes everything into consideration and tries to reach our hearts.   That’s what we need to do with our kids.  Extending mercy toward our child doesn’t mean we let them “get away with” things; it means we take everything into consideration and try to reach their hearts.

When justice isn’t tempered by mercy, cruelty can result.  I think this is where attachment parenting really shines.  Two of CAPC’s 7 Building Blocks are Empathic Response and Gentle Discipline.  Empathic response requires our willingness to understand and respond to our children’s needs better and also to accept the inescapable role of our own history in how we parent.  Gentle discipline involves looking below the surface of behavior to understand our child’s intentions when they are misbehaving.  We don’t punish; we guide.  This is mercy!!  We’re acting with mercy when we choose to go the extra step to search beneath our child’s behavior to identify his unmet needs, his frustrations, his unexpressed feelings.  We also recognize our own weaknesses, our own failures, and seeing the mercy of God for us in our smallness, we are compelled to have mercy for our children.   “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”  Hebrews 2:18.

In order to satisfy justice, the consequence for misbehavior doesn’t have to be physical pain (slapping, spanking) or rejection (grounding, time-outs).   Justice can be well-served through instruction and guidance.  If we fail to instruct our children in virtue and right living, we set up them for a lifetime of struggling with impulse control among other things.  Our children will never escape the consequences of their actions.  Sometimes these consequences are clear: When they’re cruel to their friends, they lose their friends; when they eat too much candy they feel ill.  Sometimes they’re more subtle:  When they resist doing their chores, they lose out on the satisfaction of being part of the family working as a team to accomplish a goal.  Our actions always produce consequences and young children need our leadership and guidance to understand this.  These consequences are part of the justice end of the mercy-justice scale.

We don’t have to wait for a big crisis to begin living a merciful life with our kids.  In small ways each day we can demonstrate mercy in our homes: bearing one another’s imperfections with love, extending forgiveness, and offering one another even small acts of compassion and kindness.  What a truly blessed life.

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AP and the Beatitudes: Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

I mentioned a few posts back that I planned a summer study of the Beatitudes with the kiddos.  We’re so enjoying The Beatitudes for Children by Rosemarie Gortler.  The illustrations are engaging and each Beatitude is explained and clarified at a level children can understand.  Each Beatitude is followed by a prayer, which we included each morning as part of our family devotion.

We finished the First Beatitude (blessed are the poor in spirit) and I’ve been thinking about it all week — not only about what the Beatitude means for us, but about how attachment parenting can help us raise children who are poor in spirit.

What Does It Mean to Be Poor in Spirit?

The First Beatitude is “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.  The kids and I learned that to be “poor in spirit” doesn’t mean you lack money or feel sad;  It means you are humble.  We’re humble when we recognize that we’re entirely dependent upon God for everything.  We trust that he will be there for us and we recognize that we need to put our lives in his hands.  We know that we can communicate our needs, worries, and joys to him because God cares about every facet of our lives.  To be humble also means we are modest – not arrogant or proud.

The kids thought and talked about times in their lives that did or might eventually require them to be humble, to be poor in spirit:  when we’re upset over a something a friend says or does, when we lose something we cared about, when we’re frightened about a new situation or facing a challenge.  How we choose to handle these moments shapes us and forms our spiritual lives, for better or worse.

How AP Can Help Our Kids Become Poor in Spirit

Following an attached lifestyle will go a long way in helping us raise children who understand what it means to be poor in spirit.  Infants and small babies who are held, fed when they’re hungry, and cuddled tenderly become children with a deep sense that they can count on their parents to meet their needs.  When they continue to be loved and treated with respect, when they grow up in a peaceful, warm home atmosphere, they develop both trust and a healthy self-esteem.

As these securely attached children emerge into adolescence and early adulthood, they’re more likely to possess the modesty and trust necessary to surrender to God and to depend on him in a healthy, open manner.  Being modest isn’t encouraged in American popular culture.  Being arrogant and full of yourself seems to be a prerequisite to popularity these days, as if it’s a sign of strength.  But arrogance is really a sign of a broken heart.  Robert Karen writes in his majestic book on the history of attachment theory, Becoming Attached, that when a child has grown up in an unloving, unsupportive home and possesses a shaky attachment to his mother or primary caregiver, he builds a shield of self-protection:  “The person who expects to be rejected gives little of himself, . . appears superior and standoffish, others back away from him.”  Becoming Attached, 205.

In contrast, a modest person has a healthy assessment of his strengths and weaknesses, and recognizes that we all need others in our lives if we’re to enjoy meaning and self-fulfillment.  Spiritual modesty allows us to recognize our need for God’s care and guidance.  The kind of dependence on and surrender to God that we need to be poor in spirit may be easier for adults who felt cherished and cared for as small children.

I struggle with the whole concept of trusting God to take care of me.  For me, it’s not a sign of arrogance (at least I hope not), but part of a life long spiritual loneliness that continues to haunt me even into middle age.  I believe God has the power to take care of me, to intervene to protect me, but that he chooses not to.   He chooses to keep his distance, to help others who need him, and he says to me, “You’re on your own.  Good luck.”  This feeling clearly has nothing to do with the truth, but it’s still a powerful feeling operating below the surface as I try to grow spiritually.   I tend to soldier on, acting as if I feel deeply loved and protected by my Father.  Really, I feel I’m locked in a room alone; I can hear God bouncing his other children on his knee, but I remain alone only imagining what that relationship must be like for those other Children of God.  I’m prevented from experiencing the true joys of the kingdom of heaven.

I wouldn’t wish this spiritual loneliness on anyone, and especially not on my children, each of whom is a precious, unique gift placed in my care.  My children’s self-concept, their ability to give and receive love, their ability to manage loss, will all be influenced and impacted by my (and my husband’s) parenting choices.   My children’s capacity to experience Christian joy and to walk through life with a deep sense that God is available to them and knows every hair on their heads will be impacted by these choices.

Now some might point out that many great saints in history came from deprived, abusive, dark backgrounds and this is certainly true.  Some saints were abandoned and grew up with little tender care yet somehow managed to impact the world with their gifts.  But this doesn’t mean we would wish such suffering on any child.  And it doesn’t mean we should avoid looking at how we can prevent emotional suffering in children and adults.  If we can love each other in such a way that we’re all more open to the joys of heaven, then that’s the path we should take.  We should be willing to ask the hard questions and to make difficult choices that will release our children to become what God is calling them to become.

When we’re there for our children, they internalize the clear message that they’re worth our time and attention.  When we treat them with respect and respond to their needs with tenderness, they internalize the message that they’re valuable and lovable.   It makes perfect sense to me that armed with this confidence, they’ll find it easier than those children who’ve grown up in a harsh, rejecting home, to experience a loving Heavenly Father and to trust that he’s devoted to them like they are tiny babes bouncing on his knee.

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Strengthening Our Families This Summer

Families today are buffeted on all sides by the gale forces of modern culture.  We face innumerable distractions — some benign, some far from it — and if we don’t guard our hearths, our homes can be consumed by relatively frivolous activities and amusements.  This seems to be a particular problem for my family during the summer.  I’ve heard the theme song to Star Trek way too many times this week, thanks to Netflix instant streaming.  There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, but I don’t want to find out how many hours of Star Trek it takes before my kids’ brains start oozing out of their ears.

I’ve been reading Marge Fenelon’s lovely book Strengthening Your Family: A Catholic Approach to Holiness at Home and she’s inspired me to think about how I can deepen my family’s faith and prayer life this summer.  I truly love the rhythms of the Church calendar.  Each year I’ve been adding new customs and traditions at Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter to deepen our family’s Catholic identity and shared faith.  During this summer Ordinary Season I hope to show the children that “Ordinary” means anything but “boring”.   Ordinary Time can be a time to explore our Faith in ways that are best suited to our situations and the specific spiritual needs of our families.  We might create a Scripture reading plan, learn to pray the Rosary together, or explore some summer saints.   Where are we on our spiritual path as a family?  Which areas need a little TLC?

In June our Little Flowers Catholic Girls Club discussed the virtue of hope.  We possess hope by believing and trusting in God’s promises to us, especially his promise that we’ll find happiness in Heaven if we follow him faithfully.  That desire for happiness is of Divine origin, placed in our hearts in order to draw us to the only One who can fulfill it.  CCC 1718.   The Beatitudes, which mark the opening of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, are very clear promises to us about the happiness we will enjoy if we endure all things in faith and love, sustained by God’s mercy:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.

Blesses are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We don’t have to wait until we get to Heaven to enjoy the fulfillment of these promises.  If we conform our lives to Christ’s example, we receive these blessings now.  How’s that for real immediate gratification?  And way better than a Wii game.

As there are Eight Beatitudes, I think focusing on one Beatitude each week will be a perfect summer spiritual exercise for my family.  I put together a few resources to get us started:  Beatitudes for Children by Rosemarie Gortler and Childrens Guide to the Beatitudes by Kathy Della Torre O’Keefe.  Gortler’s book is great for younger children but older children may prefer O’Keefe’s.  I can’t wait to share them with the children.  Our Sunday Visitor has free discussion questions available for download to accompany Gortler’s book.  In between swimming, wandering in our local nature reserve, and yes probably more episodes of Star Trek, we can spend time together thinking about each of Christ’s promises.

Of course, I don’t want my children to have only an abstract theological understanding of the Beatitudes:  I want to instruct their minds but I mostly want to change their hearts.  The Beatitudes are really about transformation.  I hope my family can come to understand together how we can live the Beatitudes every day.  Fenelon writes in chapter 9 of her book about how each family has a unique call to holiness.   How is my family called to live the Beatitudes both within and outside our home? What might that look like?  I want to explore this question with my family this summer.  I honestly don’t know the answer yet, but I know my family will be blessed as we press on it, think about it, pray about it.  I’ll keep you updated!

During my book search I came across two other books I couldn’t resist:  Hooray I’m Catholic! by Hana Cole is a celebration of all things Catholic for young children.  I’m a revert to the Church and I’m very on fire for the Faith so I’m always drawn to beautiful and fun books that show my kids how awesome it is to be Catholic!  The Monk Who Grew Prayer by  Claire Brandenburg is about a monk who becomes holy by praying while doing ordinary things like gardening and chopping wood.  What a beautiful lesson for us all.