My husband are I are raising six lively children; two-thirds of which are boys. (Come March, one will be a man…but let’s not think about that just yet. Oy vey.) And the boys are bookends of the bunch.
Which means that for almost eighteen years now, I’ve been buying, stepping on, picking up, sorting, containerizing, carrying, hot-gluing, and looking frantically for, an ever-growing collection of “guys.” That is what they all are called: guys. Whether they are Jedis, Lord of the Rings or Narnia figures, army men, knights, or comic-book style superheroes, they are cherished “guys” and we cart them around everywhere. There are always some in the car, the bottom of my purse (covered in crumbs), scattered in the bottom of the bathtub or kitchen sink, in pockets, puddles, sofa cushions, strollers – for a while my youngest took to carting guys around in an empty cereal box. Guys appear out of nowhere in church, and even – true story – were spotted this Christmas in the crèche on our table “protecting the baby Jesus.” My daughters were never much inclined to carry dolls around outside of the home, but my sons all clasped ever-so-tightly to miniture men with gigantic powers.
Their eyes would shine as they studied their guys in quiet contemplation. Then, silently, their lips would move as they began an imaginary scene. More guys would be gathered, and epic stories unfolded on the carpet, in the car, even the shopping cart. And always, the everyday would fade away and scenes I would never fully see were played out in imaginations filled with boyish wonder. Bad guys would be thrown, smashed, tossed, hit, flung. And good guys would be lifted, victorious in the end. And it would repeat, day after day, hour after hour.
Our youngest has of late become particulary fond of such heros as Captain America, Spiderman, Ironman. He tucks them tenderly in bed after a hard day of battle and wakes up anxious that they join him for breakfast. Never have I seen a more devoted general to such an array of characters.
And then there is the gear. Sheilds, helmets, capes, swords, hammers, huge green hands perfect for “smashing.” A hero, it appears, needs his stuff. Around Halloween, our little hero wore his Captain America suit, mask and all, everywhere. Gingerly, I would have to peel it off his little, sweaty face after he would finally fall asleep. Suited up, he recently accompanied me to an appointment at a large medical clinic, but quickly became distraught at the comments of kind-hearted patients. He didn’t want to be cute or adorable, or even noticed. He just wanted to be Captain America. Was that too much to ask?
After watching this drama replay for years, I have come to understand something. It is something deep and true, and it is unique to boys. It is the call at their core to admire someone brave and strong and imitate him. It is the dream to be bigger than they are and serve something – someone – great and good and powerful and become more and more so themselves. First they find their father, and God willing he’s a good one, like my boys’ loving, strong Dad. And then coaches, mentors, teachers, priests. Our Bishop here in the diocese of Phoenix, Thomas J. Olmsted, wrote to men asking them to follow him “Into the Breach,” the title of his recent exhortation. “Be confident! Be bold! Forward, into the breach!” the Bishop called. (Find the entire exhortation here.) And of course, in the end they take their marching orders from Christ himself.
I read Into the Breach while laying next to a little boy sleeping in Spiderman pjs. I thought about him someday hearing this call and dropping his nets (webs?) to follow. I resolved to pray that he would hear the true voice amid the chaotic noise of the busy but largely empty world. (Empty cavernous voids can echo very, very loudly.) Would that he would answer God’s firm but quiet breeze when it called him.
I can tell you this, too: Girls have dreams. But their dreams revolve a little closer to home. Oh, there are exceptions. I mean, thank goodness for St. Joan of Arc! But my little girls dream in play houses and kitchens and drawers full of doll clothes. They live to nuture and cherish, to heal and grow things, to coax life out of dark places and bear it through to the light. To plant seeds of love and will them into fruitful blossoms. Beautiful, lovely things that need to be protected – people and relationships and homes and lands. Dreams that need boys’ dreams to survive in a sometimes harsh, bitter world.
I know the day will come – trust me, I know how very, very soon it will come – when I will pack up all those miniture plastic men with strong jaws and stronger weapons. Away will go the bent swords and battered sheilds. But I pray – Oh, how I pray! – that what attracted my little boys to them will remain, as steady and constant as the faithful red light standing staunchly next to every tabernacle. A fierce, loyal, brave love that longs to do great things for a great cause. To defend the defenseless, to be a voice for the voiceless, to protect the lovely, vulnerable things and people God has created and grown and entrusted him with. To carry the Gospel like a banner into lands and hearts, often hostile, who need it, and need it from a man of real spiritual stature.
As a mom, I know that there can be no grasping or clinging here. There can be only love and releasing back to God what was always His. If I could, I would sweep my little (and not-so-little) boys into my arms and give them permission and encouragement to follow the call in their hearts.
I would whisper to my small superhero, Dream of big things, little dreamer. For the sake of All That Is Holy, for the sake of all little girls, dream. Dream of being part of something larger than this life, of glory, of throwing all your weight into a war that is won but a battle that desperately needs you. Suit up, little man. Let your heart swell. And know this: that every day, Every Single Day, your Dad and I will pray for you, for the unfolding of grace, born in your baptism, that groans within you as you grow. For courage, honor, bravery, and fiery loyalty to your Commander. Our dream for you is translated into prayers that rise like incense from the altar of our own hearts. And Someone Else has dreams for you, too. Follow Him; follow him anywhere. You will be great if you do. He is not “safe,” as they said of Aslan in the Narnia stories, but he is good. And I know you, little fighter. You don’t want safe. You want the thrill of battle. So get ready, and don’t let the fallen world dull your swords or your dreams. We need you.
Claire is a wife and mom of 6, mothering through the joys and challenges of teenager and toddler years, and delighting in the sacramentality of daily life. She graduated with a degree in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and now enjoys leading women’s studies and writing – when she can come up for air between loads of laundry. She also writes at eventhesparrow.com and catholicmom.com.
Copyright 2016 Claire Dwyer
Photos copyright 2016 Claire Dwyer. All rights reserved.