Browsing The Northern Cross

Betsy Kneepkens: Sending a son off to college, hopefully rooted in faith

Walking on the sidewalk early one summer day, I looked down and noticed tens of thousands of little “helicopter seeds” lying all around. These helicopter seeds came from a couple of large maple trees in the area. I have always loved these seeds, and as a child, and sometimes as an adult, I would pick up a seed and fling it into the air, taking pleasure in the way they twirl to the ground.

On this particular day I looked at them differently. I was intrigued by the number of seeds that existed contemplated the thought that despite the number of seeds, only a few, if any, would actually result in a full grown maple tree. I am no botanist, but I do know many conditions must exist for this little kernel, encased within a powerful propeller, to take root and create a new tree.

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

Less than a month from when this article appears, my fourth son will be leaving home to attend a midsize Catholic Jesuit College in St. Louis. His leaving is a significant event for our family for many reasons, but specifically we will now have more children regularly living outside our home than we do living at home. I have always wanted a large family, and mine has never felt large enough. Having just two of our children living at home will make that “not large enough” feeling even more significant.

When I looked at the helicopter seeds I made a connection with the number of seeds necessary to bring forth a maple tree and the decisions that my husband and I used to raise our fourth son. It is amazing how family circumstance can be similar, like same house, same schools, same extracurricular activities, same music lessons, same parents, yet our children result in six entirely different people. Early on I learned that my children’s differences required different approaches to raising them. Those helicopter seeds symbolized for me the method my husband and I choose to educate, nurture and form our fourth son in all ways, including his Catholic faith.

In our effort to help our son, who has always worked to seize, accept and overcome his learning disorder, or more accurately his learning difference, my husband and I found it most beneficial to expose him to as many means as possible to help him grasp whatever concept he needed to understand. Like the thousands of maple seeds necessary for one tree to root, we offered our son a multi-disciplinary approach to teaching and forming him in his Catholic faith. That education was not just in the intellectual pursuit of our faith, but more importantly teaching him to live out the Gospel message in small ways every day.

We were fortunate to send him to a Catholic school which embraced everything we taught at home and emulated the faith practices we thought essential in his formation. He attended high school religious education and took advantage of as many Catholic mission trips and camp experiences as were possible. Priority was given to teaching the essential act of attending Sunday Mass as well as appreciating the need of an occasionally daily Mass as spiritual reinforcement. We explained many current events in light of our Catholic faith, and when attending non-Catholic school we were careful to share the church’s perspective on matters that were different from what he was learning.

We tried to make him comfortable having relationships with saints and encouraging prayer as a natural part of everyday life, even if that praying was necessary in public. We attempted to keep him engaged in issues relating to Catholic social teaching and encouraged works of Catholic social justice. We did what we could to teach him to live in this world but understand that he is ultimately not of this world. We knew with his learning difference it is more difficult than it is for our other children to make the connection between what we do as Catholics and why we do what we need to do. We tried to create experiences which would make that easier for him.

So beginning in four weeks, we will learn if some of these seeds have taken root. Honestly, this is what I worry most about as he goes off to college. In his academic pursuits, he has nearly mastered coping with his difference, working harder than others to learn, planning appropriately and advocating for his accommodations. I do not worry about his academic growth. What I want most to remain rooted are the virtues and foundations that are provided in his faith. I can only hope he has learned to start with the lens of his faith to understand intellectual matters. The real challenge comes in him not being seduced by intellectual superiority as the main goal of everything, as compared to standing up for the truth.

I can’t think of a greater challenge for him than placing him in the environment of higher education, where many frequently try to use the intellect as a way to showcase outsmarting God. He is not ignorant of the fact that this reality exists, I just hope we have provided roots deep enough to weather those attempts to pull him from the structure that has shaped him thus far. I have been moved when I have observed him, as an older adolescent, serving and glorifying God in small, beautiful ways: When he has stepped out of his comfort zone for the sake of others and taken on leadership roles because he believed that the way of his faith truly improves the common good. I have been awed by the way he accepts and lives out a Catholic lifestyle without even needing to invoke Christ’s name.

I am excited for him, but I worry. You can only hope he is attending a place where developing a virtuous, faithful man is as important or more important than developing an intelligent person. As a matter of fact, a smart person who has lost virtue, I think, is much more dangerous in the world today than a value-centered person without intellectual mastery.

Over the years, we have tried to prepare him for likely challenges to the truths of his faith, and we hope that using the reason and logic he learned in his formation will help him be the light for others who may lack logic and rely on feelings alone.

We have always been called to fling him out into the world, like that seed encased in the propeller. I hope we have created enough conditions so that his faith has been rooted deeply into every part of him. I hope he knows that he must continue to work harder, as challenges will be increasingly difficult to overcome the longer he pursues formal education.

Like all my children, he is special and unique, and I can only pray that those who help with his formation going forward will value those special and unique qualities in him. I know that my son has only been entrusted to my husband and me for a time on earth. I pray that we created enough Christ-like learning opportunities for him, so that powerful propeller God gave him continues to push him in a direction pleasing to God. We hope he lands on solid and fertile soil so his faith can continue to take root and he becomes the “holy tree” that God is ultimately calling him to be.

Betsy Kneepkens is director of marriage and family life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.