When I was a small boy in grade school, we had no cartoons of naked men and women, boys and girls, strutting and slouching across the pages of “health” books. We had no sly suggestive come-ons into the world of porn and trivial sex. We were not encouraged to abuse ourselves, or given hints as to how many ways we could do it, or with whom. We did not know that our bodies were tools for mutual and meaningless seizing and consumption.
We were not, in other words, the objects of massive, publicly sponsored, selfish, soul-flattening child abuse.
That is but one conclusion I’ve drawn from the remarkable and profoundly wise book by Dawn Eden, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. I don’t wish to give the impression that Dawn’s book is mainly condemnatory. It isn’t, not at all. She understands what it is to have your childhood torn from you, because of the selfishness or the heedlessness or the outright cruelty of adults. But she does not dwell upon old crimes. She does not tug at the scab to open it up and have it bleed afresh. She does not delight in exposing the evil.
Instead, she shows, in biographical meditations upon the lives of various saints, how people who have been hurt by those who should have loved them best can have peace, by hiding themselves in the wounds of the suffering Christ.
We have the story of Sister Josephine Bakhita, torn from her home and subjected to trauma so violent that she forgot her own name.
We have the story of little Margaret of Castello, whose parents denied that she was their own, because she was dwarfish and deformed, walling her up for many years in a small cell, and then abandoning her in a crypt among the sick and the dead.
We have the ten-year-old Laura Vicuna, whose own mother tried to persuade her to yield to the advances of their wicked landlord.
But we also have the story of Therese, the Little Flower, whose mother and father themselves may someday be canonized as saints; and whose way of spiritual childhood is a model for every Christian.
And we have, at the beginning of every chapter, a verse about the purity and goodness of childhood, from that sage and sane evangelist of a better day, Hans Christian Andersen.
The child, Eden says, is defenseless against the designs of adults. When they break upon the child’s innocence, let us say by ushering them into their own sex lives, parading naked before a child of the opposite sex who is old enough to notice, showing them smutty pictures, slyly inviting them to play the explorer, “teaching” them what they are not ready to know, they reduce children to things, to counters in a game.
She suggests that we have lost the sense that even the pagans had, that the innocence of children needs to be fostered and protected. In this regard she quotes at length a stern letter written by Pope John Paul II, to parents, teachers, and media workers: “It is precisely out of an intuition regarding the extreme delicacy of this phase of life that pagan wisdom enunciated the well known pedagogical guideline which directs that maxima debetur puero reverentia” – we owe to the child the utmost reverence.
That is much more than respect or deference. The poet Juvenal, who wrote that line, meant what he said: reverence, akin to a holy fear, for in the presence of the boy or girl we approach a beauty and simplicity of heart that adults must cherish, not dismiss, scorn, corrupt, or obliterate.
It is startling to hear that utterance from the bitter old satirist, but not nearly as startling as to hear again these words of Jesus, whom the pope quotes: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Mt. 18:6)
That is why I believe Eden turns our attention, gently but persistently, to Andersen and his stories for children. They are not, after all, only for children; they are for all men and women who need to become again as little children, if they are to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Place two books side by side. Here is Andersen’s story, “The Snow Queen.” The little girl Gerda has gone on a long pilgrimage up to the lands farthest north to save her friend, the boy Kay, from the Snow Queen. That woman is an educator, she is. She smiles when Kay, who has gotten an ice splinter stuck in his heart, that he can “do mental arithmetic, with fractions even; that he knew the number of square miles and the number of inhabitants in the country.”
Suffer the Little Children . . . by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1538)
Kay has learned to despise the simple and beautiful roses of his childhood. This one’s got a canker, that one’s crooked. Under the Snow Queen’s tutelage, his heart turns to one complete lump of ice. But Gerda’s warm tears melt it, and he too weeps when she begins to sing the song they had always sung together:
Where roses blow in the flowery vale,There we the child Jesus shall hail.
Now open the second textbook, from Planned Parenthood. There is a cartoon of a naked girl bending over backwards with a mirror, inserting her finger into her anus. There is a cartoon of a boy with his pants unzipped, handling himself and looking stupid and vacant. Those are the less offensive cartoons.
Stuff like this is peddled at just about every school in the country. Worse is to be found in every drug store and grocery store. Unimaginably worse stuff is a click away.
Such are we. And we know no peace.