It is one thing to talk about the Resurrection. It is quite another to see the Easter fire struck in the night, the candle lit, the light of Christ filling the tomblike darkness of the waiting church. As a Catholic, I live and relive that liturgy every year; every year it astonishes me as no amount of evidence-based argument—The Case for the Resurrection—could ever do. Yes, yes, I want to say to the apologist, I get it. But when the lights come on and the bells ring and the music starts, I know it. If, as John Lukacs has written, knowledge is “personal and participant,” then our knowledge of Christianity must, at its most real, be both of those things. If you ask a child, “Where is God?,” he may respond, “God is everywhere.” This is a fact, easily memorized. But until the child has some personal and participant sense of who God is, what it feels like for God to be everywhere, his answer falls short of knowledge.
Such knowledge involves the imagination. Gretchen Wolff Pritchard argues in Offering the Gospel to Children—a book that has shaped the way I think about religious formation—that the power of the gospel lies primarily in its power as story, its power to kindle the imagination. The gospel is what the Victorian British educator Charlotte Mason called a “living book,” a book that is imaginatively alive. The best religious books for children, in my view, are those written not just with piety or orthodoxy, but with literary power. They are “living books,” written as beguilingly as the best fairy tales.
In the course of our home-educating years, my family read many such books together. Early on, we read picture books. Through the saint stories and retold legends of Tomie dePaola, we met Saints Patrick and Christopher, marveled with Saint Juan Diego at the apparition of The Lady of Guadalupe, and wept—at least, my voice sounded funny—at the death of the ardent little juggler in The Clown of God. We pored, too, over the intricate, gilt-trimmed, intensely colored illuminations of Brian Wildsmith’s Jesus, Mary, and Saint Francis.
Later we moved to chapter books, which had fewer illustrations but were no less works of art. My favorites from my children’s elementary years were the works of the mid-twentieth-century writer Marigold Hunt: A Life of Our Lord for Children, The First Christians, and Saint Patrick’s Summer: A Children’s Adventure Catechism, which is precisely what it says. In this story, two English children are magically transported into scenes from salvation history and the lives of the saints, and through these encounters they prepare to receive their First Communion. Hunt’s lively, elegant prose and writerly instincts elevate the episodic adventures above the didactic or cartoonish (which the reader may unfortunately be envisioning). In one scene, as the children return home from drinking bowls of fresh milk with Saint Patrick and discussing the Person of Christ as hypostatic union, the little girl discovers that the two bowls, which she had wrapped up carefully as souvenirs, have become “the shell of a plover’s egg, neatly broken in two.” The scene preceding this discovery is engaging—but it is that tiny, concrete, mysterious detail that lives and resonates at the chapter’s end.
Another book that enchants young children and teenagers alike is My Path to Heaven, by Geoffrey Bliss, S.J. This lyrical rendering of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises features intricate pen-and-ink illustrations by Caryll Houselander, a text in themselves, which the second-graders in my First Communion classes studied with eagerness. The book’s ideas, however, about vocation and the Christian life, are capacious enough to grow with children and to speak even to adults. One sentence from the first chapter—“The stars cannot love God, who made them so beautiful, because they are not free”—so lodged in my mind that it emerged later as a line in a poem.
All these books invite the child into a living, personal, participant experience of what it means to know, love, and serve God, as we are made to do. Yet I remain convinced that the gospel is not limited to explicit treatments of it. Its truth never hides but announces itself, on the level of metaphor, as the truth of any good story well told. “Metaphor,” Pritchard writes in Offering the Gospel to Children,
is not simply a kind of decorative language which is there to be decoded into “concepts” or “truths,” or spiritual ideas, and then discarded now that we have uncovered its essential point. Rather, the metaphor itself carries the truth.
In other words, the Christian story breathes through any good story, though nothing in a good story is merely a matter of connecting the dots. It’s never quite as schematic as “the prince represents Christ.” A prince may point to Christ, but so might any number of other characters. In The Lord of the Rings—as I had plenty of time to observe in the year when we read it—at least three characters, Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn, refract different images of Christlikeness, and themselves form a trinity. Ultimately, I think it’s less helpful to ask, “Who is Christ in this story?” than to ask, “Where is Christ in the story?,” and most productive to seek him in its action.
He is there, for example, in the fairy tales I read to my children, though they never name him explicitly. Most beloved to me are the old Norse legend East of the Sun and West of the Moon and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. In each of these stories, a young girl accepts a quest: to find and redeem the one she loves. In East of the Sun, a Christian transfiguring of the Cupid and Psyche myth, the “lassie,” whose parents bartered her away as the bride of a magical bear, seeks her enchanted lover across the whole world and, with the help of friends along the way, frees him at last from his captors. Whereas Psyche, abandoned, wanders the world forever in lamentation and tears, this young woman’s story ends in morning sunlight, freedom, and joy. She has cooperated in the work of redemption and receives her crown.
Likewise in The Snow Queen, the heroine, little Gerda, braves many dangers to find her beloved friend Kai, whose eye was pierced by a poisoned splinter from the devil’s mirror and who now is a captive in the Snow Queen’s palace beneath the Northern Lights. When she finds Kai at last, sitting half-frozen on a lake of ice and trying to spell the word “eternity,” Gerda flings her arms about him and weeps, melting the ice in his heart. When Gerda and Kai, returning to their town, enter the roof garden between their conjoined houses, they see that the rose trees are in bloom and, in the same moment, realize that they are no longer children. In growing up, they have not lost their innocence but have found the restored, fully realized innocence of Paradise.
The best traditional fairy tales encapsulate the whole sweep of the salvation story, from Fall to Wedding Feast. This same story underwrites good fairy tales of the contemporary era as well. I’m indebted to Gretchen Pritchard for identifying William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, another favorite in our family, as a resurrection story. Sylvester the donkey finds a pebble that grants wishes. On his way home with the pebble he encounters a lion, and in his panic he wishes to become a rock—a wish instantly, horribly, granted. Through the year that follows, as his parents first seek him, then mourn him, Sylvester the rock falls into the long sleep of despair. Rain falls on him, then snow. In the springtime, his salvation, which occurs by means of a miraculous coincidence, is expressed as the granting of a wish: to be his true self again. “And in less than an instant, he was!”
The explosive moment of joyful reunion that follows calls to mind those encounters with the risen Christ, in the garden and at Emmaus, when those who have loved him recognize him again, as his true self. Who is Christ in this story? He is and isn’t Sylvester; he is and isn’t the pebble; he is and isn’t the granting of a wish. But he is present in the story’s action, in the redemption of Sylvester and the reuniting of the family. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. The son who was dead is alive again. The story ends with an image of the family together, their arms about each other, happiness and peace suffusing their faces. All of them, together, have passed from death into life. The child who enters this story understands, on an intuitive level, what that experience is like. Where is God in the story? In this story, as in any good story, whether it names him or not, God is everywhere.
Sally Thomas is author of the new poetry collection Motherland.