ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Sacramental Appeal of Youth

No matter what faith or culture, we can look to the young people in our lives to remind us of our spiritual potential.

At some wonderful moment each spring a plant bursts into colorful, fragrant bloom. Flowers and leaves are so new they look clean, smell pure – without the inevitable wear and corruption of time. Each unique blossom contributes to the larger, progressive pattern of spring.

When we see this annual renewal of the earth, we can feel that all things are new. The manifestation of spring in the bright azaleas, cherry blossoms, flowering dogwoods, delicate lilacs – in all of nature – becomes a sign of renewed life, of reaffirmed life and hope.

Youth strikes us the same way. In our separate lives it is a sudden, gentle, splendid blossoming. Although it can feel awkward, it also inspires those who see its beauty, strength, and spirit. Ultimately this vision of youth reaffirms the resilience of life itself.

Youth wears many faces: eager student, committed soldier, inspired artisan, unemployed worker, struggling refugee, hopeful parent, dedicated apprentice – yet always a vulnerable survivor. Man-child or woman-child, each of them is an innocent coming into power in an all too imperfect world.

Although these blossoms still remain vulnerable to thoughtless pluckings and withering frost, they radiate potential. Youth is the not-yet time of life, with an innocent beauty and a raw power. Its time, however awkward, is full of grace. For each youth bloom clings precariously to vine before giving way to the fruit of adulthood.

A common element unites their singular lives in our imagination. Though a fleeting experience, youth’s image endures across time and cultures with a universal appeal. It captures an ideal which every one of us imagines ourselves to be: attractive, healthy, full of energy and spirit, receptive, dynamic, and sociable. Therein lies an ever-fresh appeal, full of promise not yet disappointed or bounded.

Youth’s image includes beauty, strength, and enthusiasm. Its innocent beauty is uncorrupted by the weight and lines of adulthood. Its budding strength transforms raw power into graceful expression and control. Youth’s characteristic enthusiasm thrives on challenges. Its spirit not only endures but prevails over the inevitable pains of life. Youth’s collective enthusiasm joins together in a communal celebration of life.

This image of youth is not a recent creation. Ageless perspectives have admired youth’s qualities. Ancient civilizations – Egyptian, Greek, Persian, Indian – recognized the special appeal of youth. They celebrated it in their sculpture, frescoes, mosaics, and other art forms. This art helps us make sense of the world we see. The appeal of youth is so instinctive in humans that all cultures also interpret it in mythic stories. Myths help us make sense of the life we experience.

Art and myths keep their power through the centuries because they use external signs to show life’s deeper truths. The image of youth is especially rich as a symbol. Rather than using it as a model to be imitated, we need to approach youth as a sign which tells us something about ourselves.

Although beauty fades, strength withers, and enthusiasm flags, they endure as timeless ideals of the human spirit. These images of youth also symbolize qualities potentially within each of us.

Often it is difficult to see these qualities, whether in ourselves or in others. Beauty of character is the inherent dignity in everyone who is capable of love. Strength of character involves an inner power to withstand the inevitable pressures of life. It is a capacity to hope. And to be young at heart is to maintain enthusiasm for life in the face of adversity. It is an act of faith, which offers constant renewal from the tedium of the workaday world.

To honor youth, as we do during this International Youth Year, is to honor these youthful qualities of human nature. No matter what one’s age, youth can be found within. Youth then is a precious possession available to everyone. The young merely hold their youth in trust for all.

In our imagination as in art, the image of youth never grows old. Despite its transient nature in every person’s life, youth is a timeless state which “springs eternal.” Uncorrupted by time’s cruel hand, its image defies time and the death accompanying it. It frustrates the inevitable tide of life fleeting toward death. This is its appeal to us. This also points to its deepest significance. It symbolizes death’s eternal nemesis.

Faced with physical mortality, we should remember the youth image as a sign of our transcendent, spiritual potential. Like the rich young man of Matthew’s gospel (Mt. 19:16-22), each of us is confronted by the difficulty of passing up material wealth to gain eternal life. Offered a life of the spirit, we must move past the temporal allures and the death they imply. Youthful folly clings to the attractions of the physical world, even as they lead to death. The wisdom inspired by youth lets go of material possessions and delves into a deeper vision of life. There the inner qualities of beauty, strength, and enthusiasm reveal an eternal youth in the spirit. Youth’s image then shows us life’s spiritual potential.

The image of youth stands against the image of death. Both are bound together in a tireless dance. Youth hardly checks imminent death. But for the young of this world, especially in the Near East, life is not imaginary. For many finding the simple dignities of food, clothing, and shelter is an effort to ward off death. The young suffer illness, violence, fear, pain. They die in war, go hungry, seek work, struggle to learn, raise their own children, feel weak, suffer ugly scars, learn to hate and to kill. They are mortal, with all human weaknesses.

Yet they also dare to hope and have the courage to love. They dream amid the struggle. They cling tenaciously to life. They recognize their own sanctity and the holiness of life. They perceive it instinctively and feel it deeply. The young move us with their courage and resilience. The youths of this world are persons who call to us for a response.

The image of youth inspires us in a different way. It has a sacramental nature. It not only points to qualities within all of us: The image of youth manifests the human potential that foils death with its transcendent faith, compassion, and hope.

Youthful qualities and spiritual potential live within each person. By sharing in that sacramental nature of youth, each of us becomes more than a solitary blossom. We possess an inner garden, which can be cultivated throughout a lifetime. And as it grows lush with the fragrant flowers and the delicious fruits of the spirit, each small garden contributes to a springtime transforming the world.

Michael Healy is editor of Catholic Near East Magazine.

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