to comfort and to challenge

Hanging next to our front door is this Irish woodcut print with the prayer below:

God, keep my jewel this day from danger

From tinker and pooka and black-hearted stranger

From harm of the water and hurt of the fire

From the horns of the cows going home to the byre

From teasing the ass when he’s tied to the manger

From stone that would bruise and from thorns of the briar

From evil red berries that waken desire

From hunting the gander and vexing the goat

From depths o’ sea water by Danny’s old boat

From cut and from tumble – from sickness and weeping

May God have my jewel this day in his keeping

I have always loved this blessing (aside from the dated language) and the image that accompanies it, because I think it speaks to the heart of parenting: the competing desires to protect your child from the dangers of the world and to push him out to explore its beauty.

The mother stands watching, waiting; you can almost feel her anxious restraint as she holds back from removing every obstacle in her child’s path. And he toddles onward, happy and oblivious, eager and curious.

Last week at Mass, I found myself musing how parents and the church share a similar call: to comfort and to challenge. In the sea of First Communion veils and suits, I saw hundreds of families who rarely darken the door of the church. Every year our pastor or deacon admirably tries to weave in the message that the children who are sharing in the Eucharist for the first time are invited to return every week with their families. Our parish strives to make this celebration a welcoming occasion for people who are new to the parish, who may have had their child baptized and not returned since, who often dropped their kids off for faith formation classes rather than take an active role in helping them prepare for the sacrament.

But I often find myself wanting the priest to challenge these families as well. Becoming part of the life of a faith community does not simply mean showing up for the happy celebrations or dropping by “when you feel like it.” The message of Jesus Christ that we’re trying to preach and live is equal parts comforting love and challenging message. We aren’t just here to feel good about ourselves and put on a happy face; we’re called to turn the world’s values upside down as we work for the justice and peace of God’s kingdom.

I know it’s a delicate balance. I have to bite my tongue sometimes and admit that we need to welcome people in with comfort before we can change their lives with challenge. Thinking about the church’s role in comparison to the parent’s vocation helps me in this way.

I can’t simply thrust S out into the world and tell him, “It’s a tough, messy, broken place – go learn about it and then make a difference.” I have to care for his tender awakening to life and comfort him when he stumbles. The ebb and flow of helping another human learn how to navigate what lies ahead.

Perhaps God watches us like the mother in this woodcut print: loving, vigilant, hopeful yet wanting to protect. And there we go, toddling out into the dangers of the world, often utterly unaware of what lies ahead and how much it could hurt us.

When we return, bruised and weeping, we seek comfort – which God freely gives. But we also need challenge – to learn, to do differently, to act wisely – which God gently places before us.

I find comfort in the truth that God’s mothering spirit must understand our challenges as church and as parents as well.

12 thoughts on “to comfort and to challenge

    1. Hello! I’m happy to add to the info re. the woodcut print of the mother’s prayer, “God keep my child this day…” The press which created this lovely and evocative print was Cuala Press, Ireland. Cuala Press was a joint effort of the Yeats family. They did outstanding quality work showcasing and maintaining the written and artistic traditions of Ireland through their top-quality Press. Their prices were approachable, “real-life” and “friendly” while they were still in production. At some date in the very early 1980’s, I believe it was, they closed their doors. I was fortunate to have already collected numerous copies of my favorites of their works; the most popular are not easily found today.

      1. Suzanne-Marie, thank you so much for helping to solve this mystery! I am so grateful to know the origin of this beautiful print. My mother and I both have one from our visits to Ireland, and we must have been lucky to find copies after the press closed down. I’ve had so many readers ask about it over the years, so I’m glad to have some direction to point them in.

    2. ~Winifred Lett (1882-1973) Prayer for a Child
      God keep my jewel this day from danger;
      From tinker and pooka and black-hearted stranger.
      From harm of the water, from hurt of the fire.
      From the horns of the cows going home to the byre.
      From the sight of the fairies that maybe might change her.
      From teasing the ass when he’s tied to the manger.
      From stones that would bruise her, from thorns of the briar.
      From evil red berries that wake her desire.
      From hunting the gander and vexing the goat.
      From the depths o’ sea water by Danny’s old boat.
      From cut and from tumble, from sickness and weeping;
      May God have my jewel this day in his keeping.

  1. The Irish blessing for a small child is of unknown author from Leinster Ireland and is recorded in an 1882 book called songs of Leinster by Letts. Google songs of Leinster and you will find it ( on page 128)

    Regards,

    Jim Chambliss
    Evanston, illinois

      1. Delighted. I share your faith and your perspective although I am nearing the end of my time here and you are joyfully in the midst of caring for God’s and your children. A happy time for both of us.

        Jim

  2. Thanks for posting this print and prayer. I have looked far and wide to purchase this woodcut print. Can you tell me where to look? Thanks! Along with this wonderful poem/prayer, poem, it is perfect for a child’s room and the home. I have enjoyed following up on the author.

    1. Gayle — If you still receive replies re. your inquiry, here, perhaps you’ll see my just-earlier comment re. the origin of this particular print from Cuala Press, Ireland. Good fortune in finding a copy — they rarely become available. Best wishes.

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