Am I Doing This Right? Crosses, Questions, and Awe in Creation

“What’s that?” my 5-year-old asks, pointing to a ceramic cross above the bedroom door at my parents’ house as I lie down next to him to help him fall asleep.

“It’s a cross,” I reply matter-of-factly, with a pang of guilt that I apparently haven’t done a good enough job at catechizing my child for him to recognize this ubiquitous symbol of Christian faith.

“It looks like a ‘t’,” he concludes, unimpressed, then decides he isn’t yet satisfied with the conversation (or maybe he just doesn’t want to go to sleep). He asks a follow-up question, “Why does Mimi have a cross over the bedroom door?” 

I think for a second, wondering to myself why she does, why I don’t. It’s certainly not because I don’t have them. I have lots of them. And I think they’re important. Why are they in boxes instead of on our walls at home? 

I’m taking too long to respond. But how do you answer such a question when the inquirer doesn’t even know what a cross is in the first place? I’m not going to retell the entirety of salvation history right here, now, at bedtime.

“Well…” I try to delay my response while I condense (or maybe disregard) multiple theology degrees and years in ministry positions into an answer appropriate for the moment. “It’s to remind us that God is here.” 

His eyes grow wide in the dark. He can’t believe it. 

“Here?! In this house?! The person of God is here in this house, right now?!”

I smile as my lingering pangs of guilt fade. His ignorance of Christian symbols does not dampen his awe at the presence of God. This is how it should be, I think. We should marvel at God around us, no matter the specifics of our faith teachings.

But I’m also still thinking about the fact that all of our crosses at home are in boxes. The guilt creeps back in. 

My children know the names of a few saints (though I’m not sure they know what a saint actually is), and they have all been baptized (while not really understanding what that means), but part of the reason I haven’t taught them much about Catholicism is because I don’t want them to think certain places, people, or objects are more sacred than others. 

Intentional or not, the church’s hierarchical structure tends to imply hierarchies of holiness, despite the actual theology’s teaching to the contrary — that the entire created world is good, that God dwells in all things. I want to first instill this true teaching in my children, because I know decades of believing the alternative is difficult to deconstruct.

God is everywhere. As a common prayer attributed to St. Patrick states: with us, before us, behind us, in us, beneath us, above us, on our right, on our left.1 And this is true regardless of if there is a cross on the wall or not, regardless of if we’ve been kind or mean that day, regardless of how often we pray or step into a church building. Nothing we do (or don’t do) affects God’s presence in our lives. God is always near.

At the same time, I find sacramentality deeply meaningful. Everyday moments and relationships and objects are sacred. There is meaning in the rituals and symbols embedded in our lives and perpetuated by the practice of our faith. 

Physical objects like crosses and birthday cakes help us to mark realities like the presence of God and the passage of time. But these objects are not what make the realities true. God is still present without a cross on the wall. People still age without birthday cakes. 

I want my kids to notice God in their lives, I just don’t want them to rely on an institution to tell them where and when and how to do so. I don’t want them to think access to holiness is tied to certain circumstances.

My mind is racing to get this sacred moment right. Only a few seconds have passed since my 5-year-old’s last comment, and I quickly tack on (maybe more for my own sake than for his), “God is present in houses without crosses, too. The crosses just help remind us to think about it.”

“Oh! Okay,” he likes this answer, rolls over and falls asleep. I lay there for a while in the dark, wondering how the mom with a master’s degree in systematic theology and a job as an editor at a Catholic newspaper managed to make it five years without her child learning about the cross. 

I recall the time a year ago when he told me to donate all of the Jesus books because they were “boring.” That hit my Catholic theologian/journalist mama heart hard. I simply replied, “I think we’ll keep those ones. You might decide you like them someday.” 

Then again, I guess he also might not. I want that to be his choice, not something I impose upon him, not something he includes in his life because he’s afraid of what will happen if he doesn’t.

Am I doing this Christian parenting thing right? Am I adequately adhering to the promise I made during my wedding vows “to accept children lovingly from God and to bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?”

I have to admit this is a question I ask myself often. But all I have to do is briefly reflect on how my children interact with the world to assure myself they’re doing just fine discovering God’s presence on their own terms.

I remember another conversation when my 5-year-old asked me to explain the evolutionary history of the wooly mammoth, and listened intently to details about the Ice Age and extinction. I remember the many times he has stopped in his tracks to point out the moon in the sky and demanded I gaze at it too. I remember how delighted he is by every single, colorful, perfectly crunchy leaf on the sidewalk. I remember how effortlessly he names the joy of spending time with friends. 

These things, too, are holy. These things, too, remind us of the presence of God.

It actually seems quite instinctual to notice God in our everyday lives. Children do it all the time, even if they don’t use religious language to describe their experiences. As they become more articulate, sometimes they do.

A new study by Springtide Research Institute shows that young people ages 13 to 25 say they experience sacred moments primarily “in nature” (69%) and “in the privacy of my home or room” (68%). Next in line are “at a place of worship” (55%) and “at a religious or spiritual retreat” (49%), followed by other options.2

I’m not sure if my 5-year-old knows what the word “sacred” means. And I really don’t know how he would explain the concept of “God.” But despite the lack of formal catechesis coming from me, I know that when he was met with the information that God dwells with us, he was totally awestruck. 

I’d like him to be reminded of that awe — by God’s creatures, the night sky, changing seasons, good friendships, and crosses hung with intention and care.

Maybe it’s not my responsibility to teach my kids to notice God. Maybe I just need to let them do it and join them in that experience. Maybe they’re actually teaching me. Maybe we’re companions on the journey to know God.


1. Prayer of Saint Patrick
2. Springtide Research Institute Study

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Stephanie Clary is the environment editor at EarthBeat, a project of the National Catholic Reporter that shares stories about the climate crisis, faith and action. In 2021, she co-led the communication track at Creighton University's "Laudato Si' and the U.S. Catholic Church" conference while working as the digital editor at U.S. Catholic magazine. Prior to her roles in national Catholic journalism, Clary helped coordinate the implementation of Laudato Si' in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, Vermont, including the state-wide diocese's "Year of Creation" programming and the "Action for Ecological Justice" conference at Saint Michael's College in 2017. In 2019, she served on the board of Vermont Interfaith Power & Light. Her writing appears in various publications, including Vermont Catholic magazine, Millennial Journal, Catholic News Service, U.S. Catholic magazine, National Catholic Reporter, and the Journal of Religion and Film. She has given talks and presentations on the church and creation care to Catholic, ecumenical and interfaith groups, including the 2022 commencement speech at College of Saint Mary's in Omaha, Nebraska. Clary holds bachelor's degrees in communication studies and religious studies from Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana, and a master's degree in systematic theology from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, where her research focused on ecofeminist theology and film. She lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her family.

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