“The social order is not only a flowering out into society of Christianity lived within souls. It is also a safeguard against the paganism which always persists inside of us. It is not the sign of the triumph of the new man, but it is rather one of the necessary aspects of the eternal war against the old man.”
– Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith, 87
My husband, Ben, and I watched a gut-wrenching documentary about a man whose death row conviction was revoked, and he received a life sentence instead. His story haunts me, even as I write this. So does his pain, his face, his eyes. I didn’t see a violent murderer, but a man who had never been loved or wanted as a boy. He even described himself as a stuffed toy on a shelf. “People pick me up when they want me,” he said.
Severely abused from birth through adolescence, he murdered his adoptive grandparents—whom he dearly loved—in what I believe was a dissociative psychological state. Though he is now a grown man older than I, my instinct was to go back in time and embrace that little boy, to lavish upon him love and a sense of security and stability.
We do not know the extent of our effect on children—their sense of safety, their identity, their sense of value and purpose. Adults almost always behave toward their children in ways that reflect their own unresolved brokenness. I am not exempt from this. No one is.
Yet as I wept and even as my heart continues to break for every child—right now—who is neglected, rejected, dejected. I can’t help but wonder how many prisons might be emptier if the people who fill them had known love, had received it gratuitously from a caregiver, guardian, or parent.
And now I am beginning to understand that maybe I am more maternal than I had thought, that I am not, as Anne Sexton once wrote, the Eichmann I believed was latent inside. I am moved with pity—not a condescension or arrogance, but genuine concern—for every child, for my own children. I am convicted as a mother to do better. And I believe I can.
The reality we all face is that we are all capable of great holiness and profound evil. No one gets a pass on facing his or her concupiscence. I have experienced horrific moments of clarity in which the Lord has revealed to me what sins I have committed and how they could spiral downward into even greater ones.
What saves us? God, of course. But Henri de Lubac believed (and I agree) that Christianity is a “safeguard against the paganism which always persists inside of us.” That summarizes the interior battles each of us face on a daily basis. We are fighting against our tendency toward paganism, toward a complete disregard for God and others. And, at the same time, we are reaching for God’s grace to rescue us from our barbarism, to save us from ourselves and all harm we are capable of inflicting.
Without the tenets of our Christian faith, we would be reduced to heathenism. We are, in fact, pulled toward acts of evil without the safeguard of grace by way of our baptism. This is a jarring truth that often fills me with a stifling awareness of how many people do not have that spiritual protection right now. It is, oddly (or maybe maternally) the reason I am compelled to love my children all the more while they are still in the throes of youthful innocence and are relatively guileless.
The point is that there are moments in every Christian’s life when we are startled awake – much like the sleepy, complacent virgins who fell asleep waiting for the Bridegroom. And we realize that we have a choice to make every moment of every day, towards heaven or hell. We do, in fact, make these choices all the time, whether or not we realize that we do.
And the impact we have on those who are most impressionable, namely, our children, is a powerful one. We can turn to God with humble gratitude for the protection and grace He provides, so that we can continually turn toward heaven and treat those closest to us with the greatest mercy, too.
Photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash