Book Review in THE WANDERER, May 29, 2014

A Beautiful Introduction To Religious Life For Children
By MITCHELL KALPAKGIAN

An illustrated and beautifully designed book intended for elementary school students, this work introduces the vocation of religious life to the young with a simple, lucid, succinct narrative accompanied by attractive pictures that capture the nature and essence of this noble calling.

The book introduces students to the vocabulary of religious life and defines such words as “a special call,” “vocation,” “postulant,” “novice,” “religious community,” “rule,” “habit,” and “vows.” The text not only clearly defines these terms but also explains their moral significance.

For example, a habit is not only “the uniform worn by all the members of the religious order” but also “a sign for everyone that this person wearing this special uniform is someone entirely dedicated to God.” The habit is not mere external clothing to guard against cold and heat but also a “protection for the religious, outwardly and inwardly.” The habit is both an outward reminder to others of the ideals of Christian morality and an inward defense against vanity. Because the religious do not have to be preoccupied with taste, style, and fashion, it reduces the tendency of always thinking of “self.” The young come to comprehend the importance of outward symbols and signs signifying moral and spiritual truths.

The book anticipates the questions of children (“And what do religious do?”) and addresses them with good judgment and perfect clarity: “What they do is not as important as what they are.” To be charitable and pure and to grow in faith, hope, patience, and humility is to become more pleasing to God, explains the author. “Then, if we are the way God has intended us to be, we will do the right thing, which will be good for us, good for others, and give glory to God.” Such an answer to a childlike question is simple, direct, spiritual, and profound.

The explanation for the vows of poverty, chastity, and obediences make these virtues intelligible and attractive to the young. Poverty is not the absence of wealth or possessions but a declaration of trust in God’s Providence who cares for the birds in the air and the lilies of the field. Poverty is not a state of deprivation or loss but a freedom, a detachment from the accumulation of many material, unessential things.

Chastity is not merely the promise never to marry but also an imitation of heavenly life where “they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30).

Obedience is not just formal conformity to rules and orders. The religious who embrace this vow are “giving up their own self-will” to master the virtue of humility embodied in Christ and the Holy Mother.

The book concludes with a summary of some of the major religious orders, a brief statement about the founder and its history, a summary of their rule, a description of their habit, and some important facts about their accomplishments and mission. The young are introduced to the many corporal and spiritual works of mercy performed by these religious communities.

Benedictines dedicate their vocation to schools, Carmelites live contemplative lives, Dominicans preach against the false teachings of heretics like the Manicheans who teach that the human body God created is evil: “This is a bit crazy, no?…because God created matter: the seas, the animals, the trees…our own bodies with eyes to see and nose to smell, and ears to hear.”

And the Missionaries of Charity serve the poor, the destitute, and the dying so that they recognize their human dignity and experience the human touch of another person’s love. Children learn all the great good these religious orders contribute to civilization.

Charmingly illustrated by Michaela Harrison who portrays vividly the habits of the various orders in their distinct colors and styles, the book has a natural appeal to a child’s senses. It depicts for the young the rhythms of religious life in concrete detail that give an impression of an ordinary day. Her sketches of typical scenes and settings of monastic life — gardens, refectories, chapels — and her depictions of the normal activities of the religious both indoors and outdoors — cleaning, working on the land, visiting the sick, educating the young, worshiping, singing, and praying — capture the imagination.

Both the narrative and the illustrations will introduce, engage, and pique the interest of the young to give thoughtful consideration to this noble calling of loving God and loving neighbor in a most special way.

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                 (Mitchell Kalpakgian is a retired professor of humanities.)