I never fully appreciated the gift of sacred images and icons until I had kids. The purpose of oral tradition and visual depictions of sacred history was certainly downplayed in the Evangelical tradition of my own childhood. In many fundamentalist, "Bible-believing" churches, including the one I attended, a Christian's knowledge of God and faith life come directly from the Bible. The Bible is the authority. Unfortunately, this limits the profundity of the Christian faith ultimately to only the literate and so-called educated. Certainly children of Evangelical parents become introduced to Christianity through the re-telling of Bible stories and pictures they see in Sunday School, but the centuries of thought, philosophy, and Church history are lost when one solely relies on simply reading the Bible; Christian tradition is then grossly incomplete. That being said, I do not mean to say that the Bible is incomplete, for it is the most complete and sacred Book ever written. Nevertheless, simple Bible-stories only tell of the faithful heroes who lived in the small window of history recorded and canonized. What about the scores of saints who lived and died in the faith, and who continue to intercede for us?
I have aimed to tell my twin girls about Jesus and God as early as they could understand. Whatever interest they show when we are in Mass, my husband and I try to explain. Most of what they ask is about what they see: stain-glass windows, the images of fish and loaves embroidered on the altar cloth, the statues of Mary and Joseph, and even the Crucifix. Margaret can recite (as best as a 2-year-old can) the Lord's Prayer, and Elisabeth can say the Hail Mary. They understand that Jesus can help them with the challenges of being 2 (sharing, learning to use the potty, and listening to Mom are some of their big prayer requests). They also know that Jesus heals our boo-boos. Oral tradition at its best!
But all our explanations about Jesus and His love for us were too difficult for them to apply to their first encounter with a new emotion: fear. As quickly as their little imaginations had started to develop and invent fun games of pretend princess tea parties, the nighttime imaginations also emerged. This created an epic bedtime battle (Ironically, it was a Bible story that started it all....I would not recommend reading about David and Goliath before bedtime). I was at my wit's end trying ways to comfort my girls without dragging out a lengthy bedtime routine. We tried monster spray, a nightlight, we checked under the beds and in the closets. Unfortunately, despite my theatrics and pleas, a little girl always seemed to end up in our bed at night. To my disappointment, no matter how much I explained to them that Jesus was watching over them, it didn't sink in. It was too abstract.
Then an unexpected break. Another mom from church passed on to us a packet of some pro-life literature. She also included for the girls a small envelope with 4 saint "baseball cards": each card had an image of a saint on the front and a simple history written on the back. The images resembled cartoons more than sacred historic icons, but it was exactly their juvenile quality that caught the girls' attention. The four saints were St. Michael, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Gianna Molla, and of course, St. Mary. They listened intently to their stories, but grew especially attached to St. Michael, perhaps because I explained to them that St. Michael chases away the "bad angels". That night I stuck all four cards on their dresser, exchanged our good-night kisses....and enjoyed an entire night in my bed sans enfant. The next morning Margaret went directly to St. Michael's card and joyfully announced, "Mama, St. Michael watching over me!"
Learning about prayer to the saints was one of the prickly points of my conversion. I was skeptical that prayer to a saint would distract me from my personal relationship with God, or even become an idol in itself. In my research and discussions with other Catholics, however, I began to understand that prayer to the saints is simply asking them to pray for us, just as I would ask that mother from church to pray that the girls would sleep through the night. To any skeptical Protestant reading this, let me affirm that God is above all the saints. Nevertheless, knowing that the saints watch over us and pray for us has increased my understanding of the love God has for His people: not that we would be blessed by only the small number of people who live in the small moment of time as we, but that we would have a team, a cloud of witnesses, so large that it would span generations and cultures. Saints were ordinary people who struggled with the same sufferings as we do, who overcame, and who speak with Jesus now in Heaven. How much love does God have for us, that He would give us a family not limited to the living?
The baseball card saints serve as a reminder to the girls that they are not alone at night. To a two-year-old, Goliath is no match to the image of St. Michael holding his sword high and smiling a goofy, cartoonish grin. To anyone cognitively limited and/or illiterate (and that pretty much means anyone younger than age 5), icons, artwork, and stories are the window of understanding of God's immense love. Catholics and Protestants can agree that Christianity is not meant for only those who have the ability to read a Bible. Stories and images give children and the mentally handicapped access to a holy life. My girls are learning about how God protects them from all the monsters at night through the images that watch over them. The images themselves do not protect the girls, but serve as a comforting reminder that they are never alone in the dark. And that's pretty comforting for the literate Mommy's and Daddy's too.