“Mama. God needs a snack.”
Asa, our three-year-old, pressed his face against a rectangular plexiglass box, fixated on the statue of Jesus lying inside. He couldn’t stop staring at the plaster God-man there, bloodied and gaunt and grimacing – and, according to Asa’s diagnosis, in urgent need of a granola bar or some Goldfish crackers.
We stood in the annex of a small chapel attached to a larger Catholic church. Reza and the twins were wandering, almost in slow motion, around the perimeter of the room, taking in the does of other sculptures and paintings and other depictions of Jesus lining the walls. Most were pretty gory. God definitely needed a snack. Some band-aids too.
The chapel was empty except for the five of us. We had taken shelter here from the noise, dampened but still just outside the church’s doors, reverberating off of the stone buildings surrounding the quaint town square of San Miguel de Allende.
This was a few months back; it was Easter morning, and the town square was bursting with people. Hundreds had gathered to witness the small town’s famous annual Easter tradition of the “burning of Judas.” Dozens of festive, colorful, life-sized paper maché puppets – some made to resemble specific personalities, with more than few Donald Trumps – swung in the breeze, hung from ropes strung between treetops and balconies. People milled around, eating ice cream, drinking aqua fresca, but all the while kept a close eye on the puppets.
And then, right at noon, the scene, jovial and carnival-like, quickly shifted. An MC called from a balcony for everyone’s attention, and then one by one, the paper maché dolls were introduced, applauded, and then exploded, as the MC lit a fuse that set of a handful of fireworks buried inside each puppet’s belly. The energy was still celebratory, but had a gladiatorial quality now too. And the BOOM BOOM BOOMs from the fireworks were loud enough to pound us in our chests. One of our 6-year-olds started crying, covering his ears and burying his face in my stomach.
This was when we gathered up our boys and ran into the church.
The burning of the Judas ceremony, admittedly, did not go quite how we had expected – though, I hope you can see how we thought a big party-like atmosphere with loud noise and explosions had the potential to make for a pretty great Easter Sunday. We made the best of it, wandering around a lovely old chapel and later the church to which it was attached, as the noise echoed outside, talking about what the word resurrection means, and why people were mad at Judas, and a good number of other Easter-related topics.
When the church filled up with people and mass began an hour later, we sat down in a pew and stayed, taking in the service with all of our senses: the incense floating in the air, the priests’ chanting in Spanish, our boys giggling as blessings and holy water literally rained down on them (met with, “Why is the priest was allowed to do water play inside but we aren’t?”).
As we drove back to Mexico City later, we continued to de-brief. The boys had new questions. Why was Jesus still hanging on the cross in the Catholic church, but in our church at home the cross is bare? Why were there lots of Jesuses there if there’s only one in real life? And what does it mean to forgive someone when you’re still really mad? (This, after we’d suffered through a few spats among the boys, crammed in the back seat of the car while we sat in standstill traffic.)
They also had questions about sin. Lots of them.
What were all the ways you could sin? Who gets to decide? Was making a mistake by accident a sin? What if you got tricked into doing a bad thing? What if you were just having a bad day? Did you turn into a bad person if you did enough bad things?
Reza and I held hands while he drove, not just because we like holding hands but to try to communicate silently with squeezes as we each attempted to give our best answers, reflecting what we thought as individuals and as a team. The boys had so many very good, and very tough, questions.
Fast-forward to yesterday, our last full day in Rome. We figured we owed it to Catholicism to round out our kids’ exposure to the religion a bit – you know, like with fewer explosives – so we organized a visit to the Vatican. We arranged for a private tour with a kid-centered guide, and dedicated the entire day to it. We really built it up. No other activities allowed until our special tour! We had to save our energy! So in the morning we slept in and took our time with breakfast. We lounged in our PJs, watched some of the World Cup, read, reviewed some photos from the day before. Jaspar sketched a drawing of a statue he’d seen in Pompeii. Cyrus and I played cards. Asa did puzzles and made ramps for his marbles with magazines on the floor.
Eventually we actually left our airbnb and made our way across town. We met our guide, Fabio, outside of the Vatican Museum entrance. He instantly got down on the boys’ level and learned everyone’s names. Our hopes got higher. It was clear he was going to be an excellent, kid-centered guide.
First we sat down in the museum cafe to have a quick chat about Greco-Roman mythology. He said there’d be a quiz at the end. Instantly, the boys were rapt. Then, a few minutes in, adding fuel to the fire, Fabio guessed (all too correctly) that if he made up a points system to reward correct answers, the kids would pay better attention during his explanations, and participate more; little did he know that we’ve been reading to our kids about mythologies from Atlas to Zeus for years, and they knew every answer to his questions. The competition got intense, and fast. Reza, beaming with pride, sat across from me, rocking Asa to sleep, while I wrangled the twins and Fabio continued to casually ask questions as if nothing interesting was even happening in front of him. The competition escalated until I actually had to cut it off. Jaspar almost leapt across the table to stop his brother from answering first (it was a triple point question!!!) and knocked over a chair in the process. I wonder if Fabio has incited any other brawls in Vatican City.
While I calmed the boys down, Fabio changed topics a bit and rattled off a quick history of the Roman empire, up to the present. He showed the boys pictures of old maps, with country names and borders they’d never seen before.
Fabio kept up the pace and finally introduced the subject of what we’d see in the Sistine Chapel. Apparently, once we were inside the Chapel itself we wouldn’t be able to stay long and talk about what we saw; it was a place where people (especially people with three small kids, Fabio communicated tactfully) ought to move through quietly, respectfully – and therefore, for us – somewhat quickly. Plus, no photos are allowed, so at any rate, discussions about what we’d see were going to happen now, not later.
Fabio began to walk through the major paintings and other works of art we’d see. He really did a great job, giving the boys tricks and tips to decipher each scene. He showed us how to recognize Moses or Jesus based on what color robes they were wearing. He showed us God creating man – which led Cyrus to ask, “Where does it show God creating woman?” He pointed out the Last Supper, and Judas, who our kids remembered generally was “not a very good friend” to Jesus in the end, and who “kissed him in front of the Romans, which was bad for some reason.”
Things got really interesting when Fabio began to walk us through sections of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment (or as he first articulated, in Italian, Il Giudizio Universale). The enormous fresco covers the whole altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. It is a depiction of the second coming of Christ, and God’s judgment of all humanity. The apocalypse, Fabio said nonchalantly. The boys’ attention piqued – they knew this word – and they took over from there.
Jaspar: “Oh hey YEAH I know what that is! It’s like, well when there are zombies, and everyone is like ‘brains brains brains!’ …Right?”
Cyrus (not waiting for any adult to fact check Jas): “Totally, yeah, there are zombies and everyone is running around and chasing each other! It’s crazy!”
Fabio, amazingly, just went with it. “Yes, it is sort of like that, and God is having everyone separated into the good people and the bad ones, and look, see here? There are two books with all the people’s names listed. You can see how Michelangelo made this book here very small. This is the book with the names of the good people. They are the ones who will get to go up to heaven with God. And this big book is everyone else, the one with all the names of the people who will be punished and go to hell.”
In fact, there is a section of the large painting with two angels, each holding a book, one with the names of the saved, and one with the names of the damned. There are lots of other figures swirling around, too, some who are part of the saved group, and others part of the damned, and some of the folks in the latter group are pretty scary. For instance, there’s one figure who appears to have just learned his fate; his face is contorted, and he’s paralyzed with horror. Two devils are pulling him downwards. Other souls are not just pulled down by devils but pushed down by angels. This division of souls is serious stuff.
Fabio continued, as casually as ever, “So. Do you guys see the man here who has been very bad? See how now he is going to hell in this boat with the ferryman of Hades, Charon? This is what will happen at the end of days.”
Aaaaaaand I’m going to stop you right there Fabs. Just hold on for a minute buddy.
I’m all for the art history lesson here. I’m all for a lesson about Roman Catholic Doctrine, or what the Bible says about apocalypse. Heck I’m up for a deep dive discussion on anything. Really. But I do insist on participating in those discussions, and it was time to jump in. It’s time whenever Reza and I start to lose track of all the points we’re going to need to bring up and talk about over dinner with the kids – especially points that need more color, or clarification, or correction.
The boys were starting to raise their eyebrows as well at our lovely tour guide anyway at that point. No offense to Michelangelo, or Fabio, or the Bible, but well, even my 6-year-olds sensed that this big book / small book theory didn’t sound quite right.
We’ve talked with them before about good guys and bad guys. I mean, it feels like all of the stories they’ve ever read have some version of heroes and villains battling; it’s an unavoidable topic. And one thing we’ve always reassured them about – especially if, in the middle of a story, they feel worried about how it will turn out in the end – is that good guys always win. (Or, almost always, a lesson we had to teach them on November 9th, 2016, when we had to break the news to the boys that yes, this time, the bad guy had actually won.)
That was the original context, and how we initially talked to the boys about good guys and bad guys, anyway. More recently, we’ve tried to stop saying “good guys” or “bad guys” altogether, about anyone. For instance, when our boys have a disagreement with a friend at school, or especially if someone isn’t kind to them, we talk about bad behaviors vs. bad people. We insist: no kids are bad kids, but they might make bad choices sometimes.
Then we try to move on to why that person might have made a bad choice. We redirect to empathy. Usually, people make bad choices when they’re having a hard time in some way. Maybe they are sad, or scared, or tired. Maybe someone was just mean to them, and they felt defensive already. Maybe they just simply made a mistake (like we all do).
Understanding, or even imagining, the reasons for someone’s behavior helps us all get some perspective, become less focused on ourselves, and learn how to cultivate empathy for someone who hasn’t been very nice. It also helps us continue to believe: everyone wants to be good. We ought to assume that everyone is doing their best to make good choices, even though that doesn’t always happen.
Back to Fabio. He was patient as Reza and I had a quick talk with our kids about the above – reminding them how we try to think about good vs. bad, and about isolated actions vs. an entire person’s identity. Fabio smiled though it’s possible he thought our intervention was overkill. That’s OK. He picked his mini-lecture back up where he’d left off, and continued to be interesting and thorough, and nearly an hour later we finally entered the Sistine Chapel. On a positive note, by that point we were all too tired to be very noisy. Well, most of us were tired. Asa had been napping on and off for nearly the entire tour. He was just hitting his stride.
Our family stood there, clustered together, all looking upwards. We were mesmerized, our backs bumping against each other, as we stepped around clumsily, spinning a little to see everything above us from the right angles. For a few seconds, the boys were quiet. Almost reverent.
And then Asa yelled, “Hey look!! I see God’s bum bum!”
In fact, somehow, there is not just a sun and a moon but, well, a second moon if you will, on the section of the ceiling that portrays the first day of creation, where the Lord separates the light from the dark.
The boys couldn’t stop giggling. We hushed them. The hushing didn’t work. They giggled more. Louder. And they kept squeaking, “God’s bum!” and collapsing with laughter. They did this for maybe 90 seconds but, of course, in the middle of such a quiet, holy, and crowded place, it felt a lot longer.
Finally we quieted them down. I lifted Jaspar up, partially because he was exhausted, partially just to separate him from his brothers still on the ground, so they wouldn’t provoke each other again.
We turned to the altar wall and stared. Jaspar whispered to me, “Mama is that the bad book?” Then, “Wait. Why would the bad one be big? That doesn’t make any sense.”
It’s one thing to talk to our kids about Stonehenge and cave paintings and ancient laws. Even gladiators and demi gods. It’s wholly different to answer their questions about sin, salvation, redemption. Good and evil.
The thing is, there are the answers that are easy to give, the black-and-white ones Reza and I each learned as kids. And, then – in our case at least – there are the answers that feel authentic, and deeply honest, and more real. The grey answers.
I could have told Jas that, well, the Bible says we are all sinners. That’s our identity as humans. So, that’s the default. That’s why the book of the damned is so big.
If only this didn’t fly in the face of how we talk to them about their own choices, their own identities. You are kind, we tell them. You are full of love. You are made in the image of God. You are good.
We are committed to giving our children answers and stories that come from sacred texts, holy places, important religions. They hold great beauty, and great meaning. Our children will be religiously literate people.
But I also want them to know, for instance, my stories. Reza’s stories. The messy stories. The funny stories. The blurry, scrappy, colorful stories about how we have come to our own cobbled-together sets of beliefs that aren’t so much masterpieces as confessions. The stories that, for better or for worse, make black-and-white answers harder to believe.
Altogether there are over 300 figures in The Last Judgment. Nearly all the males and angels were originally painted as nudes but, Fabio explained, many were later covered up by painted draperies or flowing cloths, because the nudity was too much for the leaders of the church at the time. (Though somehow, as Asa pointed out, God’s bum got an exemption.)
In our family, there will be no covering up. No painting over the vulnerable parts. Even when we feel naked and exposed.
I finally answered Jas. “Honestly I don’t know love. But I don’t think the big book is full of bad guys, because there aren’t bad people, remember? Just bad choices. And I think everyone’s trying to be good.”
Maybe that’s what the big book was. A list with all everyone’s name. All of us, trying. And the small one is full of blank pages.
author of #claywaterbrick. cofounder of @kiva. instructor at @USC. investor at @collabfund. in love w @rezaaslan + our three boys.