12. Ideals in Youth
Young people have always had a great capacity for enthusiasm, for big things, for high ideals, for everything that is genuine - St. Josemaría Escrivá.
The idealism of youth - what an inexhaustible subject! Psychologists explain it, educators build on it, demagogues exploit it, and (perhaps worse still) older people look on it with benevolent tolerance or cynical skepticism, and wink knowingly to one another: "They'll learn".
Young people certainly will learn many things from their elders and from the way they live. One of the things they will not learn, one hopes, is cynicism, that is, the loss of one's ideals. Whether this occurs or not depends largely on the type of older person they happen to meet.
If an older person takes it for granted that, though it is logical that young people have ideals, it is also logical and besides inevitable that they end up by losing them, then one can only conclude that the older person in question either does not believe much in ideals or else does not believe much in young people.
If a parent wants a self-assessment as to how he stands on this point, he would do well to quiz himself with a few questions such as these:
- Do I believe in the idealism of young people?
- Do I believe that their hearts are made for big things?
- Do I - who have to bring them up - believe in big things?
- Are the big things I believe in big enough for their ideals?
Only the person who can answer each of these questions affirmatively can entertain some hope of being a good parent.
Ideals in constant growth
One of the many striking things about St. Josemaría Escrivá was his belief that young people need never lose the ideals of their youth. He rather believed that these ideals could and should grow indefinitely. He had his own experience to go by; his personal ideals grew steadily from the age of fifteen to his death almost sixty years later. And he could also go by his experience with millions of young people from all over the world.
Josemaría was a firm believer in the idealism of the young (and the not-so-young). But, being a realist and - above all - a man of faith, he knew that the human heart was made not just for any ideals, but only for the ideals that Christ brought to earth. He knew that these are the only ideals capable of filling our hearts - to overflowing - during a lifetime. His own life was entirely devoted to incarnating these ideals and awakening them in others.
Josemaría, I have just said, was a realist. By this I mean also that he was perfectly well aware that a young person's heart is not just a focal-point of ideals; it is a field of battle. He addressed his message to all. But his insistence that we are all called to the highest possible ideals was constantly accompanied by the reminder that we are all equally capable of the greatest possible crimes, and must therefore be prepared for a life-long struggle. Now, if the struggle hits all of us, it obviously hits harder when it hits first - which is in adolescence. Let us take a closer look at those early teen years when a boy or a girl is no longer a child, but is not yet a man or a woman either, and stands therefore in special need of his or her parents' understanding.
The age of contrasts
It is the age of contrasts. Life, in youth, seems bigger. It seems to offer more. It is filled with the challenge of great things. And the young person feels ready to take up the challenge. But life, in youth, also seems more complicated; and the young person finds himself or herself faced with new difficulties or with old ones that have suddenly grown worse: selfishness, sensuality, laziness, vanity, rebelliousness... It is the age of contrasts: nobleness, on the one hand; calculation on the other. It is the age of enthusiastic victories and of discouraging defeats. It is, or should be, the age of struggle. The point is well expressed in the following words of St. Josemaría, speaking to a group of young people in October 1972: "You can't give up fighting, because our life is nothing but one continuous tug-of-war. The craziest things attract us. It's humiliating, isn't it? St Augustine used to say that his passions were constantly trying to pull him to the ground. But at the same time, along with these crazy ideas, we feel a great urge to do something worthwhile, to serve other people, to live a pure life, to work in things that can help others, to sacrifice ourselves. Isn't that true too? And it is then that the struggle breaks out between our passions seeking to pull us down, and those other wonderful longings that spur us upwards. We have got to fight. There's just no alternative".
It is elementary for a parent to realize that adolescence marks the outbreak of this war between nobleness and calculation.
It is also obvious and elementary to be aware (and I suppose that practically everyone is aware of it) that there could be fewer more decisive proofs of being a poor parent than the readiness to spoil children by giving them whatever they ask, or allowing them whatever they want. The grown-up person who acts in this way turns himself into the accomplice of a young person's selfishness; he becomes the ally of his mean and calculating instincts, and so practically guarantees the defeat of that young person's idealism and the destruction of his generosity and capacity for sacrifice.
It ought to be no less obvious and no less elementary to see (although my impression is that many parents do not see it) that one can prove oneself to be a bad parent by falling into another error - a subtler (but perhaps more harmful) error, which is to let the great and noble ideals of youth be edged out and replaced by limited and calculated objectives: narrow and selfish objectives which, even if at times they leave little room for laziness, always leave plenty for individualism and self-centredness; and which, whatever else they may give if achieved, cannot give happiness. Let me try to explain what I am getting at.
Ideals and objectives
An ideal is something great. It is essentially felt to be something greater than one's self. It is something which, by the sheer force of its beauty and nobility, makes a person want to get away from himself, to forget himself, so as to defend, to admire, to love, and to serve that ideal, and strive upward toward it. A person with a true ideal is ready to live for it and, if necessary, to die for it. There are not all that many true ideals: love, family, country, God...
An objective, in contrast, is something - felt to be of worth - that one hopes to gain and make one's own. It may be something difficult to attain. It may be something great. But it is seldom, if ever, seen as being greater than one's own self (if so seen, it would tend to turn into an ideal, to be served; or into a humiliating irritant, to be rejected or hated). An objective attracts because it promises to satisfy some specific personal desire: the desire for power or pleasure or popularity, or the simple desire to progress and improve oneself... There lies its worth.
An objective is something that can be conquered (an ideal, never). A man should always have objectives before him because he needs always to keep moving ahead. But if he attains his objectives, there are different ways in which he can use them. He can use them as a support under his feet, as a springboard to help him reach closer to his ideal (which is still far off). Or he can just stay put, smugly looking at what he has attained, as if there was nothing more left for him to achieve. He is so proud of having achieved his objectives that he forgets his ideal, if in fact he ever had one.
A person who has ideals will always have objectives. But some people have objectives without having ideals. If a man dreams of an ideal love, of an ideal woman, and thinks he has found her, he falls in love... His objective then will be to marry her. If they get married, he will have achieved his objective. But (if his love is real) she will continue to be his ideal and he will recognize that despite all his efforts to achieve other objectives (to keep improving in points of character, for instance) he will never be worthy of her. It would be a sad day if he ever came to feel he was at last worthy of her, and worse still if he ever felt her to be unworthy of him. Idealism would have collapsed in that marriage .
The man who wants to marry for money has an objective, but not an ideal. And if he succeeds in marrying a rich heiress or the widow of a millionaire, he will have attained his objective. And that is as far as he wanted to go. Ideals just did not enter into his plans.
A boy with no objectives is (or will turn out to be) an idle boy. Anyone can see that. But a boy without ideals is and will always be a disaster - no matter how many objectives he has or what efforts he makes to achieve them. The sad thing is that lots of parents do not see this, though it is parents who should be their children's main guides. They do not seem to understand that the objectives-without-ideals formula for life can turn out energetic people, perhaps, but not happy people. For a life without ideals can only be selfish and vain, and therefore unhappy.
There are far too many parents around who (in relation their children and even at times in relation to themselves) cannot see the difference between high ideals and self-centered aims; between ideals that ennoble a person's character, and aims that (unless they are directed toward a higher end, a true ideal) diminish it. And so they allow or even cause the noble ideals of adolescence to be debased and turned aside into poor and inadequate objectives.
One sees so many cases! Parents with a fairly bright son or daughter who constantly push him or her to come out number one in their class. And the young person ends up quite centered on that goal and quite satisfied to attain it. It is a very bad thing indeed to be satisfied in youth. One can think of plenty of other cases: a father with an athletic son who provides him with every sort of stimulus (clubs, coaches, trips) and so manages to turn out a boy whose one aim is to become a tennis or swimming champion; or the mother who allows (or perhaps again encourages) her teenage daughter to think that the one thing that really matters in life to be popular with boys and so she has no thoughts in her pretty little head except for clothes and other ways of attracting their attention.
What's wrong with wanting to be a tennis champion?
"Now, just a moment," I hear the objection, "are you really suggesting that young people with brains shouldn't work to get good marks, or that kids with the making of tennis champions should not try to make it, or that girls shouldn't like making themselves up and looking attractive?" No, I am not making any such suggestions. It seems to me quite natural that young people do all of these things. What I am suggesting, however, is they should not be led or allowed to believe that, in doing them, they are striving for ideals. They are striving for aims or objectives which, I repeat, is not the same thing. What I would like to emphasize is that teenage boys or girls who simply fill their lives with these things are leaving them empty of ideals. And a life empty of ideals is heading for unhappiness. It is a tremendous pity if children or parents fool themselves on this point. It is sadder still if parents are to blame for having deceived their children on the matter.
Isn't it true that the roads along which far too many parents seem to be pushing their children, are paths of selfishness, silly vanity, or narrow ambition? But why? Why have these parents been such poor pupils in the school of life? How is it that they are so unconcerned to spare their children, if they can, the mistakes that stand out in their own experience?
Proud of their parents?
Later on in life, are such children likely to be proud of their parents or to be content with themselves? Are they likely to be proud of their parents later on? I don't know. I do know of boys or girls who have later on (rightly or wrongly) come to the conclusion that their parents' concern to see them "tops" in studies or sports or popularity, was more the result of the father's or mother's vanity than of a genuine respect for the young person's distinctive personality or of a more mature and deeper understanding (such as might be expected of a grown-up person) of the qualities that go to make up true happiness. (After all, one of the elementary facts of family psychology is that a parent's determination to see a son of daughter come out on top is at times the unconscious reflection of the parent's desire to compensate for the failures they themselves experienced in their own youth).
Are such children likely to be content with themselves if, say twenty or thirty years later, they sit down to a sincere self-examination and find themselves lacking in ideals? I doubt it. Are they not rather likely to go through something similar to the experience Julien Green narrates in his Journal? At the age of forty-two, he takes a long look back, and out of his memories he fashions a dialogue with his own self of twenty-five years earlier. Rather than a dialogue, one would have to call it a sort of cross-examination to which his far-away youth, brimful of ideals, submits the miserable and impoverished reality that marks the sum total of his mature years: "You have cheated me. You have robbed me. Where are all those dreams I entrusted to you? What have you done with all of that richness I was fool enough to place in your hands? I answered for you, I was your guarantor; and you have gone bankrupt on me. I should have run away with all that was still in my possession and which you have since squandered. Far from admiring you, I despise you". And Green adds: "And what would the older of the two allege in his self-defense? He would speak of all the experience he had acquired. He would talk of his solid reputation. He would turn out his pockets, and look desperately through the drawers of his writing-desk for something to justify his life by. But he would make a bad job of his defense, and I think he would feel thoroughly ashamed of himself" .
Ideals and Models
Young people seldom get enthusiastic about abstract ideals. But they are easily attracted by the ideal or idealized persons or personages whom they meet in real life, or who are conjured up before them in fiction (novels, films). With this in mind, the following points may be useful:
- Our modern world is so commercialized and so dominated by public relations, that it is often difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is fictitious. It is no exaggeration to say that the image presented to us of many real persons (pop singers, film-stars, sports figures, racing-car drivers...) is largely fictional.
- The fictitious version of the life of a real person can exercise greater influence (and, if the "values" it offers are negative, it can do greater harm) than the presentation of the life of a fictitious person (for instance, a character in a television series), because the reader or viewer knows that the latter is fictitious, and he may think that the former is real.
- Generally speaking, the heroes of modern novels and movies possess less human virtues than the heroes of the popular novels or stories of forty or fifty years ago. Modern 'heroes,' in fact, are often presented with a whole string of anti-hero characteristics; apart from their bravery (which at times is hardly distinguishable from the recklessness of a person who simply looks contemptuously on life), they are frequently cruel, unscrupulous, untrusting, untrustworthy, sexually promiscuous, selfish, superficial, inconstant and vain.
- Those parents who see the seriousness of this last point would do well to try to develop - in their pre-teenage children (ten to twelve years old) - a taste for the great romantic or adventure stories of classical fiction, or for the real-life accounts of geographical exploration, scientific discovery, mountain or space conquest, and so forth. In this way they will familiarize their children with the real details - the ups and downs, the hopes and disappointments, the suffering and endurance - of true-to-life heroes. It is better if a boy's sense of hero-worship is stirred by the life and adventures of an Arctic explorer or a Himalayan mountain climber than by that of a football star or someone out of contemporary show business. Are girls more easily captivated by the tinsel glamour surrounding stars, models, pop-stars, and the like? Perhaps; and if so, it is undoubtedly harder to enthuse them with valid and healthy heroes and heroines drawn from real life. There is a special challenge here for script-writers, novelists, and other artists prepared to devote their talents to the task of creating or presenting, in literary, artistic or journalistic form, figures capable of awakening a nobler and deeper admiration among girls .
Parents as their children's ideal?
Every father and mother must strive to be in some way, if not their children's ideal, at least a model for them; or rather perhaps a copy of the model. For the model and the ideal, as we will see shortly, is Someone else. But a copy, even if it is a poor copy, can get across some idea of the original.
It should be clear, I insist, that a mother and father ought not to try to be his or her children's ideal. They won't make the grade. They're just not up to it. The father who sets out to be his son's or daughter's ideal, would be setting himself up as an idol, as a false god. The same is true for the mother. And when the let-down comes for the children (and it will come), it can turn out to be pretty costly: costly for the parent, costly for the children, and costly for the proper parent-child relationship that should exist between them.
There is an age at which many children tend to idolize their parents, especially their father (perhaps mothers are too close to them, or too sensible, to allow it). For as long as it lasts, this idolatry may flatter a father's vanity. His common sense, however, as well as his loyalty toward his children, should make him ensure that it lasts the shortest time possible. He should be the first to stick a pin into that bubble-self and burst the false ideal, before life itself bursts it. If a boy sees that his father plays tennis much better than he does and begins to think that he plays it better than anyone, then his father should disabuse him in a hurry by the simple process of showing him a real champion. If the kid thinks his dad must be the world's number one expert in physics or astronomy, then the father might send him to an encyclopedia to look up a few Nobel Prize winners...
The temptation of wanting to "play god" in one's own home is an absurd temptation. Yet quite a few parents toy with it for some time. Silly parents. The sensible ones step down from the pedestal as soon as possible. Sensible parents don't go around making a show of their limitations, defects, or mistakes. But they don't act the hypocrite either, trying to conceal their weaknesses from the eyes of their children. What good this sincerity on their parents' part does to the children! It teaches them that the parents are not self-satisfied or self-centred, but are living for a higher ideal.
The ideal is Christ
Parents and teachers therefore have to be constantly on the alert so as not to adulterate young people's idealism with false ideals or unworthy idols, or let it be side-tracked into self-centered aims that only tend to make a person selfishly unhappy or consciously frustrated. What, then, are the genuine ideals that should be put before young people?
Christian ideals, of course. Or, to be more precise, the Christian ideal - which is Christ. If Christ really and truly becomes the ideal of a person, then all his or her other true human ideals will become centered on him, and so will find support and stimulus and purification. Without Christ at the center, all the other human ideals die away.
I wonder if this idea, that Christ should be the young person's ideal, seems surprising or insufficient or impractical. If it does, this is surely a sign of the extent to which we have depersonalized our religion, making it cold and lifeless. Is it not possible that we have reduced our religion to a sort of business transaction - getting to Heaven in exchange for observing certain rules and living within a system - when it should rather be a matter of fulfilling these rules because we love a Person, because we love Jesus Christ (and through him the Father and the Holy Spirit)? Surely it is in this way, as a Love-affair, that we should see our religion? A Love-affair that - here on earth, where we are constantly seeking and finding Our Lord, getting to know him, returning to him whenever we fail him, learning to serve him, introducing him to others - is like a prolonged but enthusiastic courtship that will reach its consummation, its full and glorious union, in eternity.
If, despite everything, the Person of Christ, regarded as the ideal that our young people (and we ourselves) need, still seems to us too theoretical or out-of-this-world to be a practical proposition, this would be clear proof of our own lack of acquaintance and friendship with him. A little thought should help us remember where we have gone wrong.
Do we doubt that Christ can really attract the young people of our day? How little we know him! And how little we know them! We can far too readily dismiss things like "Jesus Movements" as emotional flashes-in-the-pan and fail to see the important message they contain: that many young people, including quite a few who reject what they term "institutionalized religions", feel themselves strongly attracted by the most elementary human knowledge of the figure of Jesus.
Yes, but what would happen if they knew him better? Some would undoubtedly abandon their enthusiasm because the real Jesus is demanding, for he is God. But many others - who have a greater instinct of generosity and know in their hearts that any worthwhile ideal involves sacrifice - would come to him because Jesus Christ, demanding as he is and all, attracts.
Even on the purely natural level, the good parent or educator sees the native idealism of youth as a sign that young people know they are made for bigger things and are somehow restless if they cannot rise to them. For the Christian parent or educator, this idealism should be the springboard from which the young person can reach up to Christ. Perhaps the task cannot be expressed more concisely than in the formula constantly repeated by St. Josemaria Escrivá - to educate children in such a way that, from their earliest days or in full adolescence, their hearts beat to the ideal of seeking Christ, meeting him, getting to know him and making him known, following him, loving him, and remaining with him.
Christ as the Ideal
What does it mean in practice to have Christ as one's ideal? I would suggest four main things:
1. to be friends with Christ;
2. to be loyal to Christ;
3. to be proud of Christ; and (as a consequence)
4. to want to introduce Christ to others.
Let us see what each of these four headings may imply, and how parents or the family can help in realizing them.
1. Friends with Christ
Young people are hero-worshipers by nature. They find their heroes or heroines in fiction, and in real life too. There is scarcely a boy or a girl who has not a "star" to admire. They read the biographies of their stars or heroes. They get excited at the mere possibility of seeing them. And all of this is true even though they normally have to admire their heroes from a distance, probably without the chance of ever speaking with them, much less of becoming friends of theirs.
And are we then going to suggest that Jesus Christ - perfect God and perfect Man - is not capable of attracting them? If they want a Superstar, there is Jesus. Not a poor stage parody, but the tremendous reality of the God-Man who lays down his life out of love for each one of us.
But if one is not constantly reading the life of Jesus, how can one get to know and love him each day more and more? If someone answers, "Oh, you mean the Gospels? Why, I've read them already. I know what it's all about," he or she should be told, "No! you don't get to know the life of God become Man in a single reading, nor in a thousand. Keep reading the Gospels, and you'll find that you always get more out of them; you always get to know him better; he always attracts you more."
Besides, that Jesus, who is so wonderful, lives. You can talk with him. And there we have prayer (which means conversation with the Friend) as another wonderful means for striking up friendship . Five minutes each day, using your own words, full of faith, aware that he is looking at you, listening to you, understanding and loving you. We need to talk and listen to him in our prayer. And we need to receive and be fed by him in the Eucharist. To receive the Eucharist means to let God himself "work" inside us, communicating his very life to us and strengthening our faith and our love.
Is it hard to get young persons to see all this? I don't think so. But it will mainly depend on what they see and sense in their own families. The parents may be "practicing" Catholics, they may even be exemplary parishioners and so on ... but if youngsters do not acquire the growing conviction that religion, for their parents, means above all a personal friendship with a Friend with whom they are not yet so friendly, then their ambition to seek that friendship is not likely to be stirred.
It is so very different if children begin to understand that when their parents pray, they are really talking with God. Again, few religion classes can teach children as much about what the Eucharist should mean as their simply observing their parents staying on for a few minutes' thanksgiving after Holy Communion - and obviously relishing those moments of special intimacy with our Lord.
A family needs to pray together, though it is wise if the children's part in family prayers is as voluntary as possible. But is it not likely that they would be keener to take part in the Rosary, for example, if they were taught that this devotion is closely connected with the gospel? That it is, in words of Pope Paul VI, a way of contemplating "the mysteries - the deeds - of the life of Christ seen through the Heart of her who was closest to our Lord" (Marialis cultus, 47)?
2. Loyal to Christ
In the second place, we have said, there must be loyalty toward Christ. The more friendship there is, the easier it is to be loyal. Nevertheless, it is wise to emphasize that forgiveness has an essential role within friendship: forgiving, on the one hand, which is something that our Lord, who is God, is tireless in doing with us; and asking to be forgiven, which is something that we who are human, and very often offend him, have constantly to do with him.
A first expression of loyalty, therefore, is repentance immediately after a fault, and, if needed, Confession. This is simply the process by which love is born again. It is necessary, then, to insist on how important it is that children see their parents go to Confession frequently.
Since there is so much talk today, especially among young people, about freedom, it is good to remind them that freedom means our ability to say Yes or No; that each time we say Yes to something, we say No to other things. What matters, therefore, is not to be able to say Yes to oneself, as if being a Yes-man to one's self were a sign of a well-developed or a well-defended personality. When all is said and done, to say Yes to oneself generally means saying Yes to one's selfishness - which is a sign not of personality but of weakness and self-indulgence. For a true personality, what matters is the ability to say Yes to other people, in all of the noble demands that our life with them involves. What matters above all is to be able to say Yes to God, for that is what love for him means; and to continue saying Yes, even when it is hard, for that is what loyalty to him means.
It can be so helpful to young persons if they are taught that these are the alternatives involved in any moral problem: being loyal, or being disloyal, to Christ! It helps them so much if they are told that life for all of us is the up-and-down story of how we now choose one alternative, and then perhaps the other. And that salvation means having more ups than downs, canceling out our acts of disloyalty by acts of loyalty.
3. Proud of Christ
"You have to learn how to live a Christian life in a pagan atmosphere," I tell young people time and again. It is true because, to all practical intents and purposes, the social and moral atmosphere surrounding us all today is pagan. It is never easy to go against the social grain or cut across current fashions. And a person can find himself strongly tempted to yield, to keep quiet, to hide the fact that he is a Christian, out of fear of what people may say. He may be tempted, in a word, to be ashamed of his faith; which is the same as being ashamed of Christ.
St. Paul, in another period of paganism, felt this temptation or at least recognized that it could hit his fellow Christians. And so he encouraged them, saying in his usual forceful way, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel!" (Rom 1:6). St. Paul had not lived with Christ during the years of our Lord's life on earth. But he had gotten to know him well through prayer and the contemplation of all the details he had been able to learn from others about Jesus (details that we too can learn in the Gospels). Paul well remembered those words of our Lord, "If anyone is ashamed of me and of my doctrine before this sinful and adulterous generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when he comes" (Mk 8:38). He was ashamed neither of Christ nor of his doctrine. He felt happy and proud to follow him. If we help our young people to get to know Christ, they will easily feel the same healthy and holy pride in following him.
Let us list a few expressions of this holy pride. A Christian should feel proud of Christ's friendship, proud of Christ's teaching, proud of Christ's example.
Proud of Christ's friendship. This is how the Christian should feel: proud of the friendship that Christ has for him. And proud of the expressions of friendship toward our Lord he himself wants to show. Proud, therefore, of his piety - which simply means the devout fulfillment of his religious practices. For example, he will not be ashamed to go to Mass, or to have others notice that he is trying to follow the Mass well without yielding to distractions. He will not be ashamed to say the Angelus, or to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, even when the friends he is with raise their eyebrows. And he will live these expressions of piety without any fear of being accused of "holier-than-thou" attitudes - because he knows he is simply living out what he has good reason to be proud of. Like the son who feels proud of his parents or his brothers and sisters; when he is away from home, studying or working, he is not in the least concerned if his companions are aware that he writes or phones them or buys them presents.
Proud of Christ's teaching. Because it is a teaching that sets people free. "You will know the truth," Jesus said, "and the truth will make you free" (Jn 8:32).
In a world increasingly dominated by hatred, selfishness, and runaway passions, it should not be difficult (it is not, in my experience) to arouse young people's enthusiasm for the human nobility of Christian living. Let us remind them of these words of St. Josemaría: "We have to act in such a way that those who see us can say: this man is a Christian, because he does not hate, because he is willing to understand, because he is not a fanatic, because he can control his instincts, because he is ready to make sacrifices, because he shows he is a man of peace, because he knows how to love" (Christ is Passing By, no. 122). Let us explain to them that this program is based on a real and constant rebellion - the greatest rebellion, Josemaría used to say, that any person can get involved in, and the only one that is really worth while: the rebellion of each one of us against his or her own selfishness.
I would like to emphasize this point. If, for example, you speak to them clearly and positively about purity, my experience is that young people have no difficulty in seeing through the pathetic hypocrisy of those who would dismiss all restraint in sexual matters as a sign of a Victorian hangup. They understand that those who take this line, far from being more liberated or mature, are in fact weaker and more enslaved, and above all incapable of really loving. And, again in a phrase of the founder of Opus Dei, they understand that purity is a "joyful affirmation"; that it is a condition of freedom, of grace, of love; and that the person who understands what love is about is happy to face up to the struggle needed for purity.
In the case of girls this insight can be especially important. Obviously, it is only by doing violence to her own womanly nature that a girl or a woman can throw her inborn and deeply-rooted feminine modesty on the dust-heap. When, in spite of everything, she does so - as quite a number do today - the logical consequence is that men cease to respect her. They may ogle her, but they do not admire her. Their looks express desire; they express anything but respect. After all, what a man who is really a man and not simply a human animal looks for in a woman is something more than mere physical attractions. He looks for delicacy, grace, tenderness, sensitivity, understanding, personality, reserve, and modesty. These are qualities he can admire. If he doesn't find them, his admiration for the woman's physical attractions will degenerate into mere desire, and his attitude toward her as a person, into contempt.
Is it so hard for a girl to understand that there is a big difference between being looked at and being admired? Or that if, by her way of behaving or dressing, she draws men to desire her in a specific way, she is not making herself respected by them, she is making herself despised? A mother who really loves her daughter should have no difficulty in getting these points across to her. Provided she backs up her words with her own example, a mother should have no difficulty in explaining to her daughter that modesty in a woman is simply the expression of her determination to be treated as a person and not as an object.
These reflections should help us to appreciate once more the marvel of Christian morality, as we see how it is both a support and a defense of human values. How could anyone not be proud of moral standards that are the very basis for human nobleness itself?
It is clear that the truth of Christ, which makes us free, does not refer only to the sphere of sexuality. Do we not also feel proud of Christ's doctrine, which makes us know ourselves and helps us to overcome fear as we acknowledge ourselves as sinners? So it helps us avoid falling into the isolation of pride. It makes us humble, open, and understanding with others.
And we do feel proud of the doctrine of Christ, which teaches us that the world is good - as a means, not as an end in itself. The doctrine sets us on our guard, therefore, against the temptations of all those false philosophies that are forever promising man a hedonist, materialist, or Marxist paradise here on earth. Christ's doctrine, by teaching us that our real and lasting treasure lies in Heaven with him, and by encouraging us to put our hearts there also, helps us precisely to be more detached, less envious and covetous, and so enables us to be more truly concerned for the well-being and material welfare of others.
No one should outdo the Christian in his concern for other people. This too is part of what his ideal, Christ, teaches him.
Proud of Christ's example. The Christian should feel proud of the way Christ gave himself to others. And he should feel proud too of the ways in which he himself can imitate that example of dedication and service. As he tries to fulfill Christ's New Commandment of mutual love - "by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn 13:35) - he should remember those other words of our Lord: "The Son of Man has not come to be served, but to serve" (Mt 20:28).
To serve other people: what a great ideal! And how seldom met today. There are contexts in which the word is used - servants, domestic service - which, to speak frankly, tend to put off many people today. Nevertheless, when all is said and done, it remains an ideal that has a powerful attraction for the young people of our times. That this is true, is borne out by the voluntary youth services that abound today as never before: work-camps, dispensaries, rural schools, and so on.
The most common and perhaps the most wonderful example of service, for love's sake, is that of mothers in their dedication to the home. If each son and daughter is assigned a family task, it is easy to get them to understand that to fulfill their job well is a way of serving others, a way of loving them. When, despite everything, they get cross at times, because they find their job hard, that is precisely the best opportunity to teach them that, true enough, love at times is difficult, but that these inevitable difficulties need not take away the smile that can always accompany love and service. If parents, in their dedication to their family, smile always (or almost always), they are turning their home into a marvelous school of Christian spirit and idealism.
Service as an ideal. At times, however, one meets Christian mothers who sacrifice themselves unstintingly in their dedication to their families, but who seem incapable of appreciating, and certainly do not encourage, the various ways in which their daughters seek to give outlet to their noble instincts for service. They are anything but enthusiastic if one of their daughters wants to train for nursing. They get scared if another is keen on studying domestic science. They accept a proposal to become a teacher - but, oh so reluctantly! .... Just as well that many girls' instincts in such cases are often healthier than their mothers' prejudices.
Some professions obviously call more particularly for a spirit of service, and it is important to help young people appreciate this aspect of such a career if they intend to take it up. Medicine no doubt stands out, as perhaps the noblest of all human professions. Nevertheless, we are in a moment when the very nature of medicine is being threatened by anti-life movements (abortion, sterilization, contraception, euthanasia). There is an urgent need for a reevaluation of the true meaning of the medical profession as a profession at the service of life. Doctors can do so much here by taking part in professional orientation courses and so on; they can communicate genuine and noble professional ideals to young people who mean to become doctors or nurses.
And how about law, as a profession at the service of justice - that primary condition if there are to be trust and peace in society? The ideal of 'giving to each his due' can only be maintained through a generous love for the truth. Few citizens command such well-deserved esteem as the honest lawyer or the just judge.
Let us turn to military service. In countries where it is obligatory, this may undoubtedly make it more difficult for people to appreciate its noble qualities of service toward one's native land. Yet one could scarcely overemphasize how important it is that a spirit of disinterested service should be maintained and grow in the armed forces.
And what about public service? What about politics as a service-profession? Politics is perhaps the most practically important profession, and often the least Christianized. By Christian politics, I am not of course referring to leftist or rightist politics, but simply to a political philosophy and political practice of service to the common welfare. Politics is indeed a noble profession when politicians cherish the ideal of service and, if they are in authority, use their authority in order to serve.
Is this hard to achieve? Yes, it is. Is it utopian or impossible? Why should it be? To think that it can never be achieved would be to show an unjustified lack of trust in the idealism of our young people who will be tomorrow's politicians. It would amount to saying that a power-grabbing spirit - wanting positions of authority simply so as to be one of the top dogs - must necessarily prevail over selflessness, loyalty, and nobility. Why should we think so? We have no right to yield to such a pessimistic view, to such a philosophy of determinism. We should rather firmly believe that, if the love of Christ is kept before our young people's eyes, they will be worthy servants.
In short, we should go over each of the professions so as to pinpoint and emphasize its aspect of service toward others and toward society. And at the same time we should point out how the Christian who wants to imitate Jesus Christ has more motives than others to turn a generous desire to serve into the real inspiration of his or her professional work.
The ideal in study. Perhaps we might conclude this reflection by referring more specifically to the theme of study. Few adolescents are "book worms" by nature. Most of them find study hard. And since, if they do not study, they will not mature for life or even be able to earn their living, we seem clearly bound to push them to study.
True. Though perhaps to "push" them is not the best way to put it. The results of pushing generally don't last very long. You can push a car with its engine switched off, and it will move. But once you stop pushing, the car stops too. What you really have to do is to get the engine working, and then the car will go by itself. Pushing can help in this, but not if the ignition is not connected ... Something similar happens with young people's studies. Threats of punishment, the prospect of having to spend the holidays over one's books, the help a tutor can give through private classes ... such things can give them a temporary push. But none of it gets to the heart of the problem. And as soon as the immediate pressure is over, laziness returns, and the boy's or girl's studies begin to drag again. And there they are, grinding along in first gear, way below capacity.
What matters with young students is not so much to push them from outside as to get them to move themselves from within. The key lies in motivating them. This is what sets them going.
But I would emphasize that the motivations put before them should be serious and lasting; and if possible, noble. From what I said at the start it should be clear that the promise of rewards or prizes is not a good motivation. Neither is it enough to threaten or encourage them with such ideas as: "If you don't learn to study, you'll never be a man; if you don't study, you'll never get through college, you'll never be able to raise a family." This is not enough. What should move them to study, already from these early years, must be their ideals.
The main motive to put before them is that of pleasing God. God wants each one of us to fulfill the specific duties of our state in life. The student's job, his God-given job, is to study. When he does so, therefore, he is carrying out God's will. This is a fact he should be consciously aware of. It will help him if he studies with a small crucifix before him, placed on his study table or on the pages of his textbook. He should study out of love, in order to please the God he loves. In this way he can discover that an hour of study, instead of being a sort of martyrdom, or at least a colossal bore, can be an hour of friendship: "an hour of prayer" (The Way, no. 335).
An apostolic motive should also inspire young persons' studies. They should know that they can offer each study period for others. But it is also important for them to consider that by studying properly today, they are laying the foundation for an important work tomorrow. They are qualifying themselves so that they can become someone on whom God can rely later on: in their university years, when they set up a family, in their professional life, so that their solidly acquired professional prestige, their honesty, and their spirit of service toward others will help bring Christ into the most varied human activities, along with all the noble values and ideals that his presence inspires.
4. Longing to introduce Christ to others
Young people formed in this way will not be on the defensive about their Christianity. Proud of Christ and proud of all that he asks of them for their good and the good of mankind, they will want to make him known, to spread faith in him, to share the joy that becoming friends with him and following him bring. In other words, they will do an apostolate. This word does not imply an impertinent interference in the lives of others, or a failure to respect other people's freedom or rights. It simply means stirring them with the example of a cheerful, clean, and generous way of living, and so waking them to the great and beautiful things that can be discovered in life.
St. Josemaría frequently said that Christians in the world should act with a "superiority complex." This implies no contemptuous attitude toward others. Quite the contrary! It implies a desire to see them open their eyes, look upward, and see the magnalia Dei - God's wonders, which we, despite our defects and unfaithfulness, and by his mercy, know and see.
I remember the old joke in England about the difference between the Cambridge graduate and the Oxford graduate. The Cambridge man gives the impression of being the owner of the world, while the Oxford man gives the impression of not caring two hoots who owns the world ... I've always felt like adding, in all earnestness, that we Christians should give the impression of knowing who owns the world: my Father - who is God. I know that he is my Father and that I am his child and heir. So many others around me, who are or can be children and heirs of God, do not seem to know it. Let's give them a good awakening!
And other people?
There is a further question that we might ask about the young Christian who is trying to live out this life of true idealism from his early teens. What should his attitude be toward other people? I could, of course, touch on many things in answer, but I would like to dwell on one point in particular. I would say his attitude toward others should largely be one of surprise. He should be surprised, truly astonished, at the lack of ideals he sees in so many people around him or at the false ideals they at times pursue.
He should be surprised. I think it is worth examining this reaction, this attitude of surprise, because it is a factor of the highest importance both for the good defense of one's own Christian ideals and for their communication to others.
A sign of the weakness of the faith and ideals of many Christians today is the fact that they show little or no surprise at current events, ideas, or attitudes that are not only unchristian but are not even human. Clearly, this lack of psychological reaction, this absence of an intimate and indignant rejection of the errors or aberrations in question, weakens not only their own defense against such evils, but also their very capacity to convince other persons that such things in fact are evil.
One of the first bits of advice I got about teaching comes to my mind. I was told that a teacher's simple look of surprise sometimes obtains a more rapid change of conduct in a child than would a reasoned explanation. Put on a look, I was told, of How is it possible a ten-year-old boy can do a thing like that? - and you'll see the results. I liked the idea. But the results were far below expectation, and have taught me to distrust the formula, at least with children of that precise age. My experience is that, no matter how surprised you look, the boy can look back at you, as cool as a cucumber, as if to say, "I wonder just when you will learn that a ten-year-old boy is capable of doing something like that and much more besides." His teacher's face of surprise leaves him absolutely cold. He probably even finds it funny.
However, I have since concluded that it wasn't the teaching technique which was wrong, but the age level at which it was meant to be applied. The surprised-look reaction, which bounces off the ten or eleven-year-old, can in fact be quite effective with an older person, and especially with adolescents, who, between the ages of fourteen and twenty, are tremendously sensitive to what others think of them and are very scared of making fools of themselves.
Who is making a fool of himself?
Moreover, applying this specifically to what we are talking about - the apostolate - it is not a question of a stratagem or an affected reaction. The reaction should be real. It is simply a question of not failing to be surprised at attitudes that are in fact surprising.
Here we have to make up for lost ground, for in some inexplicable way we have let a great deal of the psychological advantage pass to the opposite side. So much so, that many people today are "surprised" if it turns out that one does go to Mass, or has not read the latest best-selling obscenity, or has not seen the latest pornographic film.
Given this situation, it seems urgent not only to re-stress the sense of sin in these matters, but also to recover the sense of the ridiculous. Otherwise some people are going to keep on thinking, "Of course I know that if I see or read this, I'll be committing a sin, but if I don't see it, I'll be making a fool of myself," whereas the truth is that, if they do see it, they are not only committing a sin but they are also in fact making fools of themselves! Of course, it is more important to convince them that they are committing a sin, but, to begin with, it may be easier to get them to see they are making fools of themselves. For they are. And we should be surprised at it; and show our surprise.
There are, then, two points to be emphasized here. Our surprise may be the best defense against the possible weakening of our own firmness in principles and conduct. After all, if a person does not react with amazement at the absurdity - at the intellectual poverty and the human degradation - of the postures held by some Christians, he may eventually come to regard them as reasonable or respectable... But our surprise may also prove to be a healthy shock for these inconsistent Christians. It may be a new experience for them, and one needed precisely in order to give a jolt to their dulled minds. If the jolt sets their minds working, they may begin to be aware of the extraordinary degree to which they are being fooled or are fooling themselves.
It is surprising, really surprising, if a person states that he does not believe in God, or if he maintains, as a reasonable proposition, the idea that the world emerged, spontaneously, from nothing. It is surprising if he states this. But it would be even more surprising if we were to treat his statement as if it were a reasonable and intelligent position, and begin to argue seriously about it. It is not a serious position. It is absurd. Our first natural reaction, therefore, should be to laugh at it. After that (also out of charity), we should try to get him to look at the matter in a more mature fashion. In a word, we should try to get him to think.
It is surprising if a person who says he is a Catholic does not pray or go to Mass on Sundays; or goes, but obviously under the impression that he is fulfilling a senseless obligation, and without the least awareness that he is receiving a divine gift. It is absurd.
It is surprising if a person proclaims himself to be more "liberated" because he rejects the need for any type of self-control in sexual matters. It is absurd because he is clearly enslaving himself.
It is surprising if a person "justifies" his attendance at a notoriously pornographic show by appealing to what certain critics have said about its "artistic" value. To put on airs about the culture or refinement that he has drawn from a show of that nature is simply pathetic and absurd.
It is surprising when someone defends abortion in the name of humanity or when he suggests that it all boils down to the "right" a woman has over her own body... It is absurd.
It is surprising if a communist puts himself forward as a defender of freedom or democracy. One has only to think of the "democratic freedoms" lived in China in order to classify him, if not as a hypocrite, at least as a comedian. It is absurd.
Any Christian with an average formation can easily see what is sinful or mistaken in the examples given, or in other examples along the same lines. But many fail to see how poverty-stricken they themselves are, how hollow, how ridiculous, and how absurd. Christians who are really in contact with Christ, as their ideal and as their Friend, will scarcely fail to notice it. And their reaction will be one of amazement. And that amazement can startle many people out of their sleep.
I've seen so many cases. The boy whose friend tells him that he hardly practices his religion, and who reacts: "But, is it possible that you don't go to Mass? ... What, you just don't care about receiving Holy Communion? ... But, do you seriously mean you haven't been to Confession for six months? ..." And the look of surprise - which is not put on, which is genuine - shakes his companion. Because normally these friends have some faith left, however anaesthetized it may be. And what can rouse and waken them, at least to begin with, is not so much reasoned argument but a friend's amazement: "But, are you mad"?" And they may well begin to think, "Perhaps he's right. Perhaps I am mad."
"Have you watched that film"? You're nuts.... Don't you realize that if you go on like that, your life is going to fall to pieces? You're going to become a slave to obsession, don't you see that? And have you thought that you won't have the slightest chance of a happy marriage later on because no decent girl or boy will accept you?" Each of these questions can be a hammer-blow, awakening them, because they know in their hearts that all of it is true.
And if it's the case of the comfort-loving egoist: "So, you see no need to serve other people? You are quite happy just looking after yourself? What a miserable life!"
And if it is a Marxist: "I agree with you that we should try to build a more just society. But we won't achieve it by spreading violence and hatred... Besides, are you really satisfied to be a pawn of the State, a lump of matter, no more, in a world where no one has any real worth because no one has any personal destiny? Does such a poor ideal really satisfy you? How pitiful! How absurd!"
Saving idealism from bankruptcy
Before ending this discussion, let us recall those words of St. Josemaría Escrivá that I quoted at the beginning. "Young people have always had a great capacity for enthusiasm, for big things, for high ideals, for everything that is genuine." For everything that is genuine! Christ is genuine, even though we Christians often are not. Christianity is a genuine ideal, an ideal that fills to overflowing the noblest desires of the human heart. And its genuine nature is bound to stand out more clearly, in all its colossal attractiveness, precisely in a world like ours so filled with false "ideals" - whose falseness is each day becoming harder for people not to see.
Perhaps in former times, many people did not reach the full truth (the Truth of Christ), or did not accept the true Ideal - which is Christ - because they stopped half-way. They never managed to get beyond partial and exclusively human ideals. And there they remained, in a posture that combined a certain ease (because partial ideals do not generally ask for too great a commitment in too many areas at the same time) with a certain sincerity (because their minds were captivated by that part of the truth which they found in those ideals and which, if one did not look too deeply into the matter, seemed to give the stamp of an all-embracing and genuine ideal). And in this way many men and women - sincere people, no doubt, though not very deep - were idealists. Idealists and enthusiasts of ideals of equality, of liberty, of fraternity, of the independence of their country, of the emancipation of slaves, and so on.
These ideals were genuine - as far as they went. And their partial authenticity was often enough to capture the hearts of the young. But today authenticity seems everywhere to be on the verge of bankruptcy. The noble names and terms of the great human ideals of the past are bandied about, as much as or more than ever before. But they are being given a content and meaning that is so low, so degraded, even at times so anti-human, that it no longer seems possible for anyone to be taken in, unless he or she wants to be.
When the "ideals" offered to people are: in the name of love, sex: in the name of freedom, license and selfishness; in the name of the right to a full development of one's own personality, contempt for the standards and rights of others; in the name of independence and personal maturity, the rejection of any type of authority and the consequent incapacity for service; in the name of responsibility or democratic participation, idle and sterile protest; in the name of political or social justice, violence and hatred... When this is what we are offered, what, one may ask, is lacking to have human idealism declared utterly bankrupt?
It is not we Christians, however, who will declare it bankrupt. We can save it. If young people (and in some degree, all men in their hearts) are looking for genuine ideals, the moment could hardly be more favorable. All the partial human ideals have failed or been emptied of their content. All that is needed now is to expose the falseness or hypocrisy of the libertine, materialist, or communist "ideals." This is the task now facing us Christians. It will be easily done if we have more faith, more daring, and a keener sense of the ridiculous. Then an entire world of young people and older people will have no alternative (nor will they, I feel, want any alternative) but to turn to the only truly genuine ideal, the only full ideal that is neither false nor insufficient, the only ideal capable of appealing to everyone, of enthusing and filling them, of uniting and purifying and elevating them: the ideal which is Christ.