According to Jane Yolen, in her book Touch Magic, children read fiction differently than adults. Adults come to fiction in order to apply; they come looking for what they want to see in a text. For “as the writer writes about himself or herself solipsistically, so the adult reader reads.” In other words, for most adults, we see what we expect to see. We get out of a story what we put into a story. So all we see is an echo of our own voices speaking back to us as though across a great chasm.
Children, on the other hand, absorb and ingest a story. I’m not sure Yolen is totally correct about adults, but for the sake of her distinction, we’ll keep it. So adults put themselves or their worldview into the story. Children, on the other hand, take the story’s worldview into themselves, ingesting and internalizing it. And they are shaped by it. She writes
But a child, more open than the adult, is more changed by that reading. Just as the child is born with a literal hole in its head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in its heart. Slowly this, too, is filled up. What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow. Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart (25).
All true. This is why we must be so mindful of what our children are ingesting. But the true kicker is this statement, which absolutely staggered me. It is literary incarnation.
The child reading the fairy tale takes it—and the writer (for the story is the writer)—into his heart. There is literary Eucharist: heart to heart, body to body, blood to blood. The writer is parent to all children who read what he or she writes (25).
Literary Eucharist. It is no metaphor to say that children ingest stories. They literally eat them, and after all, we are what we eat. There is so much gospel here I can hardly figure out where to begin. Let’s see where a few meditations can get us.
First, stories are both incarnation and sacramental. We find that we cannot have the one without the other. Incarnation is sacrament and sacrament is incarnation. At least, the ideas are present within each other. There are plenty of myths about gods who become humans or are born of virgins, and so on. But they do so for reasons bizarre, strange, odd, and selfish. They might walk about in human bodies, but they always keep their distance. No matter how human they become, they hold themselves at arm’s length. Their intention is self-focused.
Jesus, on the other hand, is the only God who became incarnate in order to share the wealth. He becomes human, he comes to be within humanity so that humanity can come to be within Him. It’s not a one way deal. This is Trinitarian life, participation within one another. As St. Athanasius said, God became man so that man might become like God. We can say that God came into man so that Man can come into God.
How is writing like incarnation? To be incarnate is to make yourself known. God makes Himself known fully through the person of Jesus. Writing too is the expression of yourself, the incarnation of your person through word. When you feel yourself immersed in a world, you are immersed in the deepest, most intimate part of another soul. That’s why writers take it personally when people insult their work. The person is rejecting them in a very deep, profound way.
That is incarnation. Incarnation leads directly to sacrament. It is through ingesting the body and blood of Jesus in the Supper that this union is achieved and strengthened. We ingest Jesus and thus become more like him. Such is the case with literary Eucharist (what a great term!). We take another person into our soul. I could add another post called “Writing as intercourse,” because ingesting a story may be one of the most intimate contacts one can have with another human’s deepest nature – apart from sex. Two souls touch, blood to blood, body to body, heart to heart. That’s what a story does. Now, intensify that ten times and you get the connection forged by sex. Intensify that by infinity (without the erotic overtones) and you get the union and communion of the Eucharist.
So, story is Eucharist in miniature, on a human level. Let me take this one more direction. If a story is a tiny image or model of the Eucharist, then teaching our children the Bible is the best way to shape them, early and often, into the greatest Story. If a child takes a story into their heart, and therefore takes the author into their heart, the greatest way to forge a bond between Jesus and your kids is to tell them the greatest Story ever told. They ingest the story, they ingest the author, indeed, as a parent. What better author–what better parent–than King Jesus?