Eliott from Pete’s Dragon.
In Part One we touched upon the romantic and the tales of old, as well as their role in helping to convey truths. The romantic also believes in dragons. Not the cute, cuddly kind found in Disney’s Pete’s Dragon or in Dragon Tales, an animated show for kids. We’re talking Smaug in the Lonely Mountain or Harry Potter’s Hungarian Horntail on steroids. When we dismiss the dragon we close ourselves off from adventure, imagination, trials and our own courage. Michael O’Brien addresses the dragon in his book A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind:
The dragon has a vested interest in having us dismiss the account of battle as make-believe. It is not to his benefit that we, imitating our Lord the King, should take up arms against him. He thinks it better that we do not consider him dangerous. Of course, the well-nourished imagination knows that dragons are not frightening because of fangs, scales, and smoke pouring from nostrils. The imagination fed on truth knows that the serpent is a symbol of hatred and deceit, of evil knowledge and power without conscience. If dragons do exist, it is not in the form of green steam engines or painted Chinese masks or overgrown lizards. The dragon that takes no form is the worst kind, and I would rather it not prowl around the neighborhood I call home. Most of all I do not want it infesting my children’s minds. I do not want them befriending it, either, nor do I want it calming their instinctive good fears and perhaps in the process taking possession of their very selves.
At this point I may sound somewhat contradictory. It seems that I do not want dragons in my children’s minds, I say, and yet at the same time I want them to read plenty of stories in which there are dragons that act like dragons and meet a dragon’s end. In fact there is no contradiction here. It is the real dragon against which I want my children armed. Their interior life has need of the tales that inform them of their danger and instruct them at deep levels about the tactics of their enemy. It is good that our children fear dragons, for in the fearing, they can learn to overcome fear with courage. Dragons cannot be tamed, and it is fatal to enter into dialogue with them. The old stories have taught our children this.
This is why our home contains books not just of history or the classics or even Calvin & Hobbes or The Far Side. Our shelves are also full of fairy tales, myths and legends. Our children cut their teeth learning to read them and have continued as they’ve grown in age and intelligence. For fairy tales and intelligence or reason are not mutually exclusive. We do not shelter our children from evil, but have taught them to recognize its existence and the many forms that it takes. They have learned or are learning about risks, failure, courage, selflessness and honor. These are some of the same values they learn in their Catholic faith. Why on earth would I steal that from them?
Lest you think I believe my children are perfect little knights and ladies let me tell you that they are as imperfect as any adolescent. They have tantrums, fights and irrational meltdowns. Come to think of it they are as imperfect as any adults, myself included. But I see in them hope. I see a fighting chance. I see the formation of honor in my sons and a dignified air about my daughter (who can also wield a rapier and battle ogres with the knights).
Is my children’s growth somehow stunted by their daily attendance at Mass from kindergarten through the 8th grade at their school? Or weekly Mass with the family? Or acknowledgement and study of history in the lives of saints? What about through prayers, not just for themselves, but for those people in their lives who may have even wronged them? In this area care is taken to ensure religion is not a crutch used to beat over someone’s head. To rob religion of its mystery…its heart…is what Longenecker describes below:
Poetry is the heart of religion, and when the poetical is lost, religion has lost its heart. That is to say, it has lost its romance. The lifeblood, the beating passion of religion, has gone. Instead of poetry and prophecy, we are left with pedestrian prose and pious platitudes. Religion has become not the realm of the romantic but a list of regulations and rules, doctrines and dictums, prohibitions and polite behavior. In other words, modern religion has become merely physical rather than metaphysical. It has become concerned with making this world a better place and has forgotten the next world altogether. In other words, modern religion has ceased to be a religion at all. It has become a set of table manners.
At the rambunctious heart of humanity, religion has always been about the supernatural commerce with the gods. Forget table manners. Furious, fiery beings were there to be wrestled with. A great war between heaven and earth was enjoined. The great dragon was engaged. Sacrifices were made. Blood was shed. Teenagers sang through torture. Old men smiled at their executioners and blessed the head of the one who would cut off their own heads. Holy men cracked jokes while they were grilled alive and scoffed at the terror of the scaffold. Housewives went into the flames with forgiveness on their lips or had their heads detached with a calm air of dignified detachment.
I know people whose religion is nothing more than table manners. How truly bland and boring. I also know people whose impressions about religion were formed by those who believe the same. More’s the pity, because the former have no idea what it truly is they have their hands on and the latter won’t give it a second look because of what they perceive it to be. Both are missing out on the adventure of an eternal lifetime.
Our kids know that St. Lawrence told his executioners “Turn me over” as Emperor Valerian had him slowly burned to death over an open grill because Lawrence turned his money over to the poor instead of enriching the coffers of Caesar. For Lawrence religion was not a set of rules and this life is not all there is. For him it was more.
The Martyrdom of St Lawrence, Tintoretto, oil on canvas, (Christ Church, Oxford)
Good magic and bad magic in truthful stories correspond to true religion and false religion in our real world. True religion is the search of the soul for God in order to surrender itself to him, the search for his will in order to fulfill it, the search for truth in order to conform to it. False religion is the inverse. It makes a god out of oneself; it makes one’s own will supreme; it attempts to reshape reality to fit one’s own desires. True religion is about surrender, while false religion is about control.
Lawrence surrendered. He knew there was more. For Caesar it was all about control.
My children have grown up seeing their father on his knees in prayer before God on a regular basis. It is not a foreign concept to them and hopefully a gesture they see as one of strength and humility. Not because I am overflowing with either trait, but because from them I draw the courage to be vigilant and to instill in them the values they’ll need to go out into the world and fight the dragons that lay in wait, both foreign and domestic; of this world or those principalities of a more supernatural nature (See Ephesians, Chapter 6).
And why do I kneel? Because I believe. I believe that there is something more. In something that exists beyond our world. And when one believes, well…a line from my favorite novel speaks of this:
The future opens ahead of us as a great mystery before which we can only kneel in reverence. – Island of the World, by Michael O’Brien.
This brings me back to our tardy tooth fairy. And while there are some of your reading this who believe that our Catholic religion and faith is about nothing but control, know that once my children are out of our home at the age of 18 they are free to believe as they wish to believe. Our oldest will be at boot camp in eight months and in the Marine Corps will be free to follow his own path. The Marines define their character by the virtues of Honor, Courage and Commitment. As he has learned to recognize these since he was a child I’m confident he will embrace them as an adult. He will continue the fight and the adventure.
Hello, it’s me. You’re going to college.
I should disclose that since the idea of joining the Marines was first presented a few years ago I fought my son on the idea. I wanted him to pursue the path of scholarship and baseball and career, most likely because it was the path I’d followed and known. During these (at times) knock-down drag out conflicts I morphed into his dragon. Actually, that’s not true. I was more of an orc or an ogre. But I was the thing that stood between my son and the path he had chosen for himself. But he had the courage to stare me down and once I recognized what was going on I blinked, put down my club and heard him out. He did not wish for himself the path that would lead him to a “life in doing neither what he ought nor what he liked.” He had been listening to what I’d been telling him since he was a small boy about finding your place and pursuing it even if it meant taking the path less traveled. He had seen his own father grow comfortable in the dreary flickering of mind that is involved in the cubicles and conference calls of corporate America while hating himself for it. My son wants more, and he slay the dragon blocking his path.
The other two may or may not follow his path but they will be armed with the same knowledge, recognize the darkness of dragons, and one day, perhaps as parents themselves, be less tardy in their role as the tooth fairy.
For more on prayer, particularly from a man’s point of view, read this post from The Catholic Gentleman.
For more on adventure, read On Adventure: A Letter To My Children by Bryana Joy over at Having Decided To Stay.
The 12 Steps to Holiness and Salvation, by St. Alphonsus Liguori. TAN Books, 2012.
The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, by Dwight Longenecker. Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2014.
The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. HarperOne, 2009.
A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind, by Michael O’Brien. Ignatius Press, 1998.
Island of the World, by Michael O’Brien. Ignatius Press, 2007.