I was the guest teacher at the Little L School in November. (The Little L School is a preschool that meets in my daughter’s house. It was started, originally, for her daughter, Lucy, and her nephew, Leo. Hence the name). Each November, their teacher, Miss Laura, tries to combine the kids’ fascination with queens (read: princesses) and kings (read: warriors) by talking about “saints who were also kings and queens.”
To say, at the end, I did it my way, and I was well fed and comfortable in the doing, is not a big enough story.
Enter Ma-Maw, (that’s me) who likes reading about and thinking about saints and who likes asking saints to pray for us. We talk about the True King, and what sort of king Jesus is. We make shields and talk about the shields of faith God gives us to protect our hearts. (We talk about the shield of faith even as the boys are using their homemade shields to battle). We make crowns and talk about the crown of faith. (We talk about the crown of faith even as the girls are gluing jewels on their homemade ones, all the while preening and vamping).
We talk about their patrons — an Abraham, an Alexander, an Elizabeth, a Terese and more — and I tell them stories. I tell them stories of St. Margaret of Scotland and St. Elizabeth of Hungary, two of my favorites. I teach them songs and poems. And I watch them as they play.
In the midst of their play I spy my tutu-wearing three year-old granddaughter, standing in the middle of the room, her cardboard crown on her head and her cardboard shield in her hand. She is talking to herself, “Kings never, ever, ever pick their noses.”
She speaks with conviction and purpose. For, one of the important lessons the Little L’s do is something Miss Laura calls, “Skills.” The children learn to put on shoes and fasten them. They learn to put on coats and hats and mittens. They learn to use toilet paper and flush and, yes, they learn the many uses of tissue. These are not instinctive skills, like walking and talking. These are social skills, hard won, and sometimes learned only after lots of fails and many tears. So it makes sense, doesn’t it, that a king would be someone who is as handy with a Kleenex as a sword.
I talk about kings and queens who seek God, who feed the hungry and sue for peace, because those are my needs and the needs I see all about me, needs I am called to meet and fail at meeting, again and again. But my granddaughter knows her own strivings, her own failures, and so she invests “the King” with all the abilities and skills she is yet to acquire. He never, ever, ever picks his nose.
Every Lent we are called to the sacred tripod: prayer, fasting and almsgiving, the same three things for all our lives. It occurs to me that we baptized are in a lifelong “Skills” class. For prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not instinctive skills.
It is instinctive to go our own ways, turning a deaf ear to admonitions or counsel. Just watch a child chase a ball into the street or jump into deep water. No one has to teach us, much less drill us, in heedlessness. We take to it as we take to talking.
And that’s talking, not listening.
It is instinctive to eat. It is our second human act, right after breathing air. No one has to teach us, much less drill us, in taking what we want and consuming as much of it as we can. We take to it as we take to breathing.
It is instinctive to think of ourselves, to make sure that we are warm and fed and comfortable. No one has to teach us, much less drill us, in selfishness. We take to it as we take to walking.
So the Church holds this sacred tripod before us. Not because talking, eating and finding comfort are evil, but because, alone, they are not enough, not sufficient for a fully human life. To say, at the end, I “did it my way,” and I was well fed and comfortable in the doing, is not a big enough story. Not big enough, because it doesn’t come close to Jesus’ own story, which is the story of the new Adam, a man living on earth as God intended men, and women, to live.
I will continue, for all the Novembers I am invited to the Little L School, to talk about the Queen of Compassion, as St. Margaret of Scotland is sometimes called. I will tell her story, even as I know the children will probably go through stages where they are more interested in the Queen of Fashion.
I can be patient, because I know the Church is, and has been, and continues to be, patient with me, as I struggle to listen for God’s voice and see and care about needs other than my own, or those of my family and tribe.