Wednesday, January 18, 2012

the King of bling

It would be impossible to be more of a girl than Maria. Beauty in every form enchants her feminine heart. She loves silk and velvet, jewels and ribbons, glitterings and sparklings. Whatever is delicate and floral, whatever is lovely and dainty, she thinks upon these things. All that said, she will take momentary pleasure in "twaddle" - garish items so tastelessly lurid that only a child would ever be asked to love them. Nevertheless, she has a keen eye for quality and an inherent understanding that twaddle is twaddle and that what she most desires is what is real. In other words, I believe that the concept of the true, the good, the beautiful is already written (and legibly so) on her heart. And this leads to her most pressing desire du jour, the desire for a real ring.

you're never fully dressed without a crown -
and a picnic is no exception
I'm not into bling like Maria. I'm so much more....pragmatic. My most pressing desire of late is for so much less bickering in the house. Less snatching of toys out of hands, less tattling, less squabbling, fewer angry wails rising up from the depths of Bernadette's very existence. I would treasure that kind of quiet more than all the diamonds and pearls in creation. So I began wondering if my desire could somehow unite with Maria's and obtain treasures for us both. The result has been a fascinating lesson for me in grace, virtue and the fatherhood of God.

It began in a little silver shop last week. There was a sale on all rings - including beautiful rings in extra-tiny sizes, small enough for the diminutive hands of the little fairy princess who dwells in my home. The dazzling selection overwhelmed me. Six years ago, I picked out my wedding band in under five minutes and have never selected any other piece of jewelry in my life before or since. Finally - it took almost twenty minutes to pick out this ring - I decided on one I knew Maria would love. The saleslady dropped it in a tiny bag made of rich satiny fabric and nestled the exquisite bag in its beautifully coordinating box. I paid and rushed home, giddy with anticipation.

What comes next may sound cruel. Or like horrible parenting. Or worse. But it is the way that the Lord parents me, so I believe it must be ok to imitate - even with an almost-five year old. I took Maria off by herself and knelt down face to face with her. I put my arms around her and told her that I had something gorgeous for her. I described the treasure in minute detail. I dramatically unveiled it and placed it in her wondering hands. I allowed joy and awe and longing to deeply impress themselves on her heart. And then I took the ring away. I didn't even let her try it on.

I told her that it was a "big girl ring" - not a toy ring, but something really special - only for big girls. It's real. It's valuable. (Actually, after the sale it was $15 and the stone is not objectively precious, but some things are relative). I promised her that the beautiful ring was truly hers, that I was going to keep it in a safe place for her, and that she would be entrusted with it as soon as she showed me that she was capable of acting like a real big girl.  More narrowly, that meant only that she had to resolve conflict with Bernadette in a consistently mature fashion for a specified amount of time. She handled the entire experience gracefully and joyfully. There were no tears. She didn't whine or mope or beg or fall apart. To the contrary, her eyes glowed with excitement and determination.

not only does she wear bracelets camping,
 but sleeps in them lest they go missing in the tent

It's been a week and she still has not won the unfading crown of glory - nor has she gotten the ring - but man, is she motivated. She is trying so hard to be more aware of her behavior, to "catch herself" earlier before the argument gets out of control, to speak more gently to her sister and to fetch me calmly when she cannot resolve the conflict by herself.  She's doing great. I'm so proud of her. Heck, I'm inspired by her. And in the process, I'm learning so much - about her growth in maturity and mine. Because really, I want to give her the ring so bad. Now. I can hardly wait to put it on her little finger and let her have the full joy of possessing something so good. But there's something more valuable I want her to acquire as well. Lasting joy will be the fruit of her cultivation of these new habits, these virtues, that are only attained over the course of time with practice and effort and lots and lots and lots of grace. 

What I'm learning most about is the grace. I understand now so much more deeply that God's grace comes all the time and in many forms because in this isolated experiment I am giving grace all the time and in many forms. I've explicitly detailed the behavior I expect, joyfully coached her on how to meet the standard, lovingly encouraged her when she's succeeded and when she's failed, gently reminded her when she's forgotten  - and prayerfully interceded for her each day as well. I've asked her to do the impossible, really; what I've required is far out of the scope of abilities of an intensely choleric four year old. She would be certain to fail without this free gift of help. But with this abundant help - help with which she chooses to cooperate - she's doing it. Beautifully.

I feel patient and tender during her daily falls because I see them now as part of the process, and as learning moments, and as an inevitable part of growing in a virtue. At first I was thinking "Wow - this is very much how the Lord deals with me!" He promises me a beautiful treasure, sets it aside just for me and fills my heart with longing for it. I do not possess it yet - at least not fully - and I do often get distracted or sidetracked by short-lived twaddle as I pursue my own impossible task- but He wants to give me that lasting treasure so badly that He lavishly gives grace and timely aid. He clearly defines His expectations in Scripture and Tradition, and then coaches, encourages, inspires, strengthens and reminds me through sermons and good books, through my conscience and prayer, through Sacraments and friends, reflection and experience. He understands that my falls are inevitable and maybe He's not as angry with me as I've always imagined. 

Then I realized that it's not almost like I'm mediating grace to Maria in my efforts to help her develop a new virtue. I think I am mediating grace to her. For real. Just as others mediate God's grace to me with their encouragement and instruction, the Lord uses me to mediate grace to others - often without me having the foggiest clue that He is doing so. I get to mediate God's grace  - and to my own children as well! I don't do a very good job of it, but that's the whole point I think. It takes time to get good at it. Lots of time. And even more grace. And after a near-century of constant grace, maybe then I'll start to have firm habits of gentleness and humility and charity - and Maria and I hope then to possess crowns in lieu of rings. Hers will be platinum of course, heavily adorned with flawless diamonds the size of grapes. Mine will be silver - more tiara than crown - with a sparse sprinkling of pave diamonds (and diamonds only because, well, the Lord insisted). But you know.... we'll both be so thrilled.

She even unwraps presents lady-like on Christmas morning