It might not have been the wisest move, but a robin just built her nest near the sliding door to my patio. She seemed indifferent to the fact that I sit there often with my devoted dog — and a cat renowned as a serial killer. How many dead animals over the years have lain in tribute beneath my dining room table, usually discovered upon my return from morning Mass!
I was intrigued to witness the little mama’s action during the recent weeks of rain. Amidst these soggy downpours, whenever I checked, she was sitting steadfastly with her wings spread across the opening of the nest. In animals this is not called virtue but instinct, or nature. The very nature that led her to combine twigs, grass, and mud fortified her for this behavior, which is an object lesson worth considering.
Despite the clever personification of so many animals in cartoons, books, and movies, they have little actual freedom in their actions. While having a limited range of judgment (this tree or that for my nest? This antelope or that for my dinner?), they are hardwired to act in the best interest of their kind — in the words of Aquinas: “Their judgment is naturally determined to do one thing.” Survival is key, and nature provides the tools in each species.
Mama Robin’s touching gesture brought children to mind, especially in our present culture that seems dedicated to their wholesale corruption and destruction. Those charming books that introduced us to Bambi, Peter Rabbit, and Rikki Tikki Tavi have been replaced by stories that up-end nature in the sensitive minds of young children, beginning with animals and then creeping into human relations and family arrangements. Instead of teaching them that there are stable forms on which we can depend, and categories of things that can be classified and defined, they are introduced to a shape-shifting world that morphs upon will. The simple wings of maternal affection are replaced with wretched actions and perverse philosophies, and innocence thereby sinks into a murky bog.
Human beings have far more than mere instinct to guide them, for our rational nature allows for actual judgments in everyday life. Because our end is not just survival but flourishing, human nature is framed to lift us to exorbitant heights, allowing our intellect and will to deliberate right and wrong in terms of eternal realities. So how do we arrive at a point where children are regularly handed stones for bread and serpents for fish? How can we fail to understand the value of our children’s purity? Do we not comprehend Holy Scripture: “It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin” (Lk 17:2)?
These changes have not happened in a vacuum, nor have the decisions that have led to the rejection of natural law happened overnight. Over many decades the edifice of Christendom has steadily disintegrated until we find ourselves tongue-tied when asked to defend its most basic principles.
The answer is prayer. In addition to the usual prayers we offer, I challenge the reader to resolve during the coming school year to go to the local church at least weekly, to sit before the Blessed Sacrament an hour if possible, and to ask deliberate and specific questions: What do my children need? How can we arrange things so that they can flourish? How can I be a better parent? What changes in our home are essential for the good of our family? Those who don’t have school-aged children can use the time to pray for those who do, because everyone will be profoundly affected by the formation of the next generation.
God loves these little ones more than we do, and He has entrusted them to our ability to judge the environment they must navigate. Like the Canaanite woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter, we cannot go away without answers, without some sense of guidance. If we have been remiss with Confession, then we need to take care of it and return to the Lord and ask again. There are better choices, and He will show us if we persist. I’m bracing for the inevitable carnage when the nature of the cat and the nature of the bird collide (although I hope I don’t have to witness it!) but when it comes to human nature and your children, there are critical decisions to be made — or the outcome will be infinitely worse.
Anchor columnist Genevieve Kineke is the author of “The Authentic Catholic Woman.” She blogs at feminine-Genius.typepad.com.