This article was previously published in Sword & Spade magazine.
Editor’s note: Some might not see the wisdom in examining a father’s experience battling television decades ago, since it is a form of media largely displaced by phones and devices. What Mr. Gilbert’s account offers, however, is the courage and foresight of a father to recognize early the effects of a medium in his home inimical to family life — and he did so at the height of its influence in the 80’s and 90’s. Many of us have allowed in much more than television in the last decade, and it is time to take stock of our leadership or passivity in the face of an obvious danger to the spiritual, moral, intellectual, and even emotional state of households. We might very well start by reclaiming our evenings.
by Lee Gilbert
We worry far too much about how secular culture will affect our children. We can easily keep our children from “the culture” for quite a long time, time enough for them to form up as virtuous Catholic young people. At this point many Catholics are doing just that, especially homeschooling families. This is not at all difficult since we are, in fact, in total control of what comes into our own homes. We fathers are the gatekeepers, are we not? We can keep the television out. We can keep the Sunday paper out. We can burn our phones. We can bring the lives of the saints in. We can bring the catechism in. We can bring good literature in. We can fill our evenings with wonderful stories, music, and song. All this is within easy reach of every Catholic family.
Most families have their largest block of free time in the evening, after dinner and before bed. How we spend that time is immeasurably important, but for some reason the simplest and most obvious way to claim the evening for Christ is, somehow, the most difficult and even the most controversial: cut out all secular media and read together. We should note that this was the usual way Catholics spent their evenings for centuries — though the stories were narrated from memory rather than read. It is a tradition worth reclaiming. Such were the evenings of Louis and Zellie Martin and their children, from whose home came St. Therese of Lisieux. We read the same sort of thing in the life of Blessed Solanus Casey:
At a time when television and movies were not even imagined…stories and songs provided the Casey family with sufficient entertainment. Especially when snows landlocked the family, this kind of entertainment kept spirits from becoming morose. Often the children played games. Other times Barney Sr. and Ellen gathered everyone around the dining room for an evening of literature. Barney Sr. would read the poems of Tom Moore besides those of Longfellow and Whittier. Stories like Cooper’s The Deerslayer held the children fascinated for long periods of time. (From Thank God Ahead of Time by Michael Crosby, O.F.M. Cap).
Again, in a life of St. Angela Merici (1474-1540), Sigrid Undset relates St. Angela’s memories of her father:
In the evening the fire blazes on the hearth in the great kitchen. Giovanni reads aloud to his household from the holy scriptures, from the lives of the saints and from the great book about the life of the desert Fathers which made a particular impression on Angela and her sister.
Surely this account fulfills St. Paul’s exhortation to dwell on whatever is true, honorable, just, holy, lovely and of good repute. “If there be any virtue,” says the apostle, “if anything worthy of praise, think upon these things” (Phil 4:8).
Inviting the Enemy in to Teach Your Children
Television came into the Catholic home in the mid-fifties and altered Catholic life entirely. It drove prayer out, for the two are oil and water. It also drove out the literature, the music, and the time spent engaged with one another. With TV we sat passively and watched. And watched. I witnessed this collapse of our evenings, although at ten years of age I hardly realized what was happening. When the first generation raised on television came of age we had the moral chaos of the late sixties. Our minds became putty for the mass media to mold, and we let it.
At the time, and even now, from the Church there were only feeble warnings against all this. For example, note the date on this article from the Austin Daily Herald, Austin, Minnesota, December 10, 1951, page 16:
Archbishop Warns on TV Program
ST. PAUL (/T) In a letter read in Catholic churches of the St. Paul archdiocese Archbishop John Gregory Murray warned that television is having disastrous results, especially on children.
“It is the serious responsibility of parents,” he wrote, “to supervise and limit the presence of children at programs presented so as to safeguard their health and morals.” The letter was read as Catholics were asked to renew the pledge of the Legion of Decency.
A few years later Pope Pius XII wrote to the bishops of Italy, but it was not repeated on our shores:
The painful picture of the evil and disturbing power of the cinema is ever present before Our mind. But it is impossible not to be horrified at the thought that through the medium of Television it may be possible for that atmosphere poisoned by materialism, fatuity and hedonism, which is too often breathed in so many cinemas, to penetrate within the very walls of the home. One could not, indeed, imagine anything more fatal for the spiritual forces of the nation, if these impressive revelations of pleasure, passion and evil, which are capable of shaking and ruining forever a whole construction of purity, goodness and healthy individual and social education, were performed in front of so many innocent souls, in the very midst of the family.
The effect on the Church was disastrous, of course, for it was enormously weakened by so many of its members being carried away by sensuality and worldliness. Around this time the priest abuse crisis really began to take off; Humanae Vitae was issued and largely rejected; the vocations crisis set in with many priests and religious abandoning their vows and nowhere near enough replacements stepping up.
To all this I was hardly immune, for I was swept away like so many others, out of the Church, out of belief in God, out of grace and hope of Heaven. On the one hand I cannot escape personal responsibility for this failure, but on the other hand I can recognize the heavy influence television played in my formation. My parents did so many things right and until television came in we were a prayerful, peaceful, joyful, holy Catholic family. To them, too, I owe my reversion, for I left the Church at age 18 and by one month short of my 21st birthday they had prayed me back in, greatly assisted by several personal disasters, chiefly hellish flashbacks from my one experiment with drugs, from which the Lord in his goodness delivered me when finally I called upon Him.
Now because of this experience, seventeen years later when I found myself married and the father of a three-year-old boy, like virtually every other parent of our time I was very alarmed at “the culture” and its likely influence on our children. I would read The Mother Earth News and think about taking our little family to some rural outback where we would raise them in chaste isolation.
Fortunately this was not necessary, for providentially I was given a clue how to deal with this situation. In our apartment building a Korean couple lived across the hall from us, and when their door opened the strong smell of Korean cooking wafted out, together with incomprehensible chatter and the sounds of small children playing. One day it dawned on me that despite the fact our Korean neighbors were living in the western suburbs of Chicago, those children might as well have been living in Seoul, absorbing a culture passed down for generations. With that I realized that we too could live a different culture, a vibrant and true culture with one easy step: throw out the television. This, of course, opened up oceans of time, time that we learned to fill with good things and to create our own Catholic culture.
With that one decision we escaped coming across as nagging, dictatorial parents, always saying, Don’t watch this. Don’t watch that. It drives kids nuts. With that one decision we escaped many hours of wasted time, to say nothing of escaping many petty quarrels and animosities over what program to watch.
In response to this recommendation many of today’s fathers will say that they do not wish their children to lead sheltered lives. But fathers exist for practically no other reason than to shelter their families. Not shelter them in their formative years from oceans of bad examples and wasted time? Really? Isn’t this argument for the most part a form of special pleading that allows fathers many hours of watching televised sports and results in handing his children over to the media to raise his children for him? Am I wrong? As far as sheltering his children from the world’s influence, a Catholic father has no moral obligation to expose his children to temptations to mortal sin or to the ways of the world. It is absurd to think that he does. Then there is the counsel that a dad can use television to explain moral concepts to his kids and to tell them what is off base in what they are watching. He can be, as it were, a couch-sitting commentator/filter on God’s team. We live and move in a world filled with snares and plots and stratagems of which we have very little idea. Even the very explanation would be a snare. Believe me, the media know very well how to talk over our heads to our children.
When the kids grew older we eventually began a program of family reading together for about ninety minutes every evening. The first half hour was given over to good secular literature such as The Swiss Family Robinson or The Chronicles of Narnia and later to the works of James Herriot. This was followed by half an hour reading a good, book-length life of a saint. We did not want three-page versions with emphasis on visions and miracles, lest the children think that such is holiness. For example, when the children were twelve and ten respectively, we read The Curé d’Ars by Msgr. François Trochu. We followed the life of a saint with twenty minutes of the Baltimore Catechism. The catechism explained the lives of the saints, and the lives of the saints made the catechism come alive. Yes, they were learning the catechism, but we did not insist on excessive reverence during this time. They listened or recited while lying on the floor, dangling off the couch, twirling in the middle of the living room.
All of this was utterly delightful, of course, and a rediscovery of the way Catholic families used to live. Along the way we had a total blast. It was great family time together, and the time when I felt most a father to my children.
Results and Recommendations
So, did it work? Well, there was never any resistance to going to Mass. There was no teenage rebellion. In their early forties my children are still practicing the faith. It worked. Of course, like every Christian they have had their own temptations, trials, and difficulties to surmount in order to remain faithful to Christ and His Church, but I shall always believe that the way we spent our time together formed them and equipped them well for this contest.
A Gentle Rule
A caveat or two. All of this was done as lightly as possible. Winter, darkness, and rain were our best friends and kindly shepherded the children into the living room and someone would say, “So are we going to read or what?” Summer evenings and fair weather, on the other hand, were our rivals, but I was unwilling to provoke my kids to resentment by insisting that they interrupt their play to come in and read with mom and dad. Eventually, too, their studies competed for their time, but they had a good six or seven years of our family evenings together. That literature, lives of the saints, and catechism shaped the culture of our home. We had a prayerful, peaceful, joyful life together.
In the course of this program we made some very unexpected, interesting, and significant discoveries.
To begin with, we started off the evening with the Baltimore Catechism. Sacred doctrine trumps all, no? However, the children were very restive and wanted to get into the next chapter of Narnia, so we put catechism at the end of our evening. One night bedtime rolled around and we had not yet done the catechism. To our utter astonishment the children, then aged 6 and 4 jumped up and down saying, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy can’t we please, please, please study the catechism?” Honestly, I thought at first that they were putting me on, but then realized that children of this age are not capable of that kind of humor. The reason, of course, was that anything was preferable to bedtime, even memorizing the catechism. From then on in our parental generosity we permitted the children to stay up late and do catechism.
Secondly, we had undertaken the catechism study because we were unhappy with the sacramental formation of the local parochial school when our son was 6. Except for the middle unit of second grade, the entire religious instruction consisted of “God is love” in virtually every possible permutation of that concept, and that concept only. However, because of his work with the Baltimore Catechism by the time he actually came to his First Holy Communion, I specifically recall that David knew, among many other questions, eighteen questions and answers about the Mass as a sacrifice. That was wonderful, of course, but the stunning thing, and the thing that highlights the possibilities of the mind in very young children, so did his younger sister, aged four.
So in the case of the catechism, am I recommending drilling young children in it evening after evening? Four-year-olds? No, but if I were a parent of a four-year-old only child, my wife and I would be drilling each other while my child played in the same room and the Catechism impressed itself on his very impressionable intellect, little by little, line upon line. No, he would not understand it, nor would he need to for a few years. But he would know it.
Another incident comes to mind regarding memorizing. When the children were younger still, before our family evenings together, we would kneel down by their beds and say our evening prayers. At some point I thought, Why does it have to be the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be night after night? If they learned the Our Father, they could as easily learn a short psalm, and then another. So we did a psalm for two weeks, till they had memorized it, and then another, and then another, and then I realized I couldn’t keep up. It needed more preparation and thought and organization than I could give to this project. The only thing standing between them and memorizing the entire psalter was their father. They would have done so happily. Young children love to learn.
Baptising the Imagination
Another unexpected important aspect of this program was the baptism of the imagination. For example, we had been reading a life of St. Therese of Lisieux when the kids were maybe eight and six and there was a passage we read one evening about how little Therese would greet her father at the door in the winter when he came home, take off his boots, etc. The next evening I came home from 12 hours of driving a heaterless van through the snow and cold of a miserable winter’s day in Chicago. When I opened the door to our apartment there was a chair waiting for me in the foyer. Giggling, the children rushed to escort me to the chair, took my coat, took off my boots, brought me a cup of hot chocolate, etc. Of course, it was delightful, but at the same time also a confirmation that reading the lives of the saints was affecting their imagination and conduct. In fact, I think it was when my daughter was eight years old and we read a life of St. Therese, or rather listened to an excellently done dramatization of her life on tape, that a friendship sprang up between them that eventually brought my daughter to her solemn profession as a Carmelite nun in 2013.
In opposition to undertaking any such program there is a counsel of despair that parents frequently offer one another, namely that it does not make any difference what they may do in their own homes, for their children will be corrupted in the homes of their friends anyway. Yet, for one thing, this falls afoul of Exodus 23:2, “You shall not allege the example of the many as an excuse for doing wrong.” For another, it is simply incorrect, for if we do ALL in our power to protect our children and give them a good formation, God Himself will do ALL. If not, He won’t.
A Fundamental Duty
In this moral climate a man would be a fool not to be St. Monica for his children even from before they are born, fasting and praying and doing all within his power from their earliest years to pray down the grace of God on them and wisdom for himself in raising them. Surely giving up the TV is a grace-attracting sacrifice in itself, and one that makes way for many other graces and blessings. But to pray for a child’s perseverance in the faith while at the same time putting such a font of distraction, immorality, and foolishness in his way is madness, for it is manifestly an insincere prayer with no hope of an answer.
We can bring our children up practically to their teens without exposing them to grave scandal. Dad and mom can form up their character, intellect, and imagination along strong Catholic lines so that when a whiff of evil comes their way, they know it, and know what to do about it. And when they do leave our sheltered homes, they are well prepared for rough weather. We raised our children in the eighties and nineties, years not known for their chastity and holiness, and packed them off to Europe when they were 18 for their Rome Semester for the University of Dallas, where on breaks they traveled with a few friends all over Europe. There was plenty of scandal all round, of course, but on our part little to fear. They were totally unsheltered then, yes, but well prepared for the blasts of hedonism and secularism they encountered.
As they were growing up, these formative evenings were completely delightful in themselves and often filled with laughter. How tragic it would have been to have missed this time together! When parents and children spend time reading good literature and the lives of the saints together in the evening, being inspired by them and thrilled by their exploits, when the peace and joy of Catholic family togetherness have taken hold of every heart, has not Heaven come down to earth? Such was our life for many years, God alone be praised.