Teen-ager's confirmation is a religious experience


THEY SAY THAT none are more devout than the newly converted, and that is as true of teen-agers as it is of prison inmates.

My son, the high school freshman, will soon be confirmed in the Catholic church, and while I prayed that his cynical young heart would be softened for this milestone, I never bargained for this.

Joe could be pope.

He is not simply devout. Devout would be a moderation of what he is now. Joe is dogmatic. He is didactic. He is uncompromising and unmovable. You do God Joe's way, or you get out of the way. This no-excuses religion. This is religion cast in stone, with my apologies to Moses.

I am still not sure how this happened.

"Free will" was the operative doctrine as my husband and I approached this sentient experience with Joe.

"We marched you down the aisle for communion when you were 7 years old," we said. "But we can't march you down the aisle for this. This is about adult membership in the church and it has to be your decision."

Translation? We are not arguing with you about this, too. If it is your choice, you don't get to complain.

We were prepared for six months of eye-rolling and barely audible mutterings. We were not prepared his relentless demands for moral perfection.

Our faith is being tested.

When his religion teacher asked if there was a way the church could be more appealing to young people, my son, who never met an accommodation he didn't need, said flatly, "No."

"You want food? Go to a fast-food restaurant. You want music? Go to a party. You want God? You go to church. Simple."

He sets his alarm for Mass and chastens his sister for complaining and his father for requiring pre-service coffee.

When I suggested one Sunday morning that we might all do better with the blessing of sleep, he made me feel ashamed.

When I stuffed singles into the poor box, he asked me what I had planned for the $20 bill in my wallet.

"Don't you think the flood victims in Honduras need it more than you do?" he asked.

It would take a saint to bear up under this scrutiny.

As much as I have hoped that my children would open their hearts to the possibility of God, I tell myself that this is less about religion than it is about being a teen-ager.

For kids this age, life is as black and white as linoleum tiles. There are only absolutes. There are no maybes. There is only right and wrong.

It is not that they are not smart enough to recognize doubt or uncertainty or complexity. It is not that they cannot see another's point of view.

It is, instead, that their world is expanding at an exponential rate and it must feel safer to them if they can reduce the number of possibilities out there.

Teens will bend the rules and push the edges of the envelope when it suits them. But only when it suits them.

When they want to feel secure, when they want the earth to stop moving beneath their feet, when they want the horizon to stop flying away from them, they retreat to a set of unyielding principles that protects them from unpredictable results of too many choices.

Our job is to endure their dogmatic preaching until they find the strength to be merciful, until they have the courage to be tolerant, until they have the wisdom to love others without judgment.

And, to make sure we have some say in the absolutes they are so busy defending unto death.

Pub Date: 11/24/98

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