John Damascene, systematic theologian par excellence, defended the prayerful reverencing of images against the iconoclasm of the late 7th century. He did so by interweaving the doctrines of creation, incarnation, and redemption.
That defense can also serve a modern theology of environmental stewardship. To that end, here are lines quoted by Benedict XVI when he honored the saint during a general audience:
I do not venerate matter, but the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to live in matter and bring about my salvation through matter. I will not cease therefore to venerate that matter through which my salvation was achieved...
We must allow ourselves to be full of wonder at all the works of Providence, to accept and praise them all, overcoming any temptation to identify in them aspects which to many may seem unjust or iniquitous, and admitting instead that the project of God goes beyond man's capacity to know or understand....
Do not, therefore, offend matter, for it is not contemptible, because nothing that God made is contemptible....
Lofty thoughts! But general reverence for all matter is rubber on the tire of a backyard wheelbarrow, and it hits the road of your child’s summertime desire to catch and keep amphibians.
Detention Policy / Practical Theology
I argue that no aspect of our lives is immune from theological reflection or divine imperative. If there were such aspects, the whole project of Christianity would be rendered absurd. Let's take it that John is right about all creation deserving our respect, and turn our reverent attention to amphibians.
Frog & toad populations are in terrible crisis all over the world due to lawn care, noise pollution, fungal infections, and the agrochemicals with which humanity has flooded everyone's water even though we know they can act as endocrine-disruptors and carcinogens. Even if they weren't so fun to look at, amphibians would be important to protect for the role they play in ecosystems.
Good stewards shape their children's interest in these special little creatures. Although it is not wise to try to keep them as pets, you can detain them for observation to foster admiration and to practice taking care of a creature that can't thank you.
You will need a proper habitat on your porch/patio. Don't bring them inside! Invest in a terrarium from a pet store (~$20) or use a 7 gallon plastic bin; if the latter, make a mesh top out of an old screen or something else handy. Put a lot of dirt in there. Partly submerge a rock in a wide, shallow dish of water, so that they can drink through their skin and cool off but not drown.
Detention Limit: One week. Feeding: Difficulty: 5/5. Detention is a total bummer for frogs when it comes to meals.They only eat food that is still alive! Many frogs are too small to eat grasshoppers or larger beetles. Sadly, they don’t like easy-to-catch-if-you-aren’t-a-frog earthworms. If you don't feed them enough, which is pretty much a foregone conclusion, they'll often find a way to get away. Notes: DO NOT cook them by accident; set a timer to remind you to move the habitat with the angle of the sun.
Detention Limit: 4 days; if you want to buy crickets and meal worms from the store, one month.
Feeding: Difficulty: 3/5. Underfed toads get thin quickly, and they make cranky faces at you. (Frogs don't get moody, but I've heard a toad actually cry.) If you've decided to detain a toad, catching worms and beetles is now a full time job. Set up play dates so your child can enlist her friends. (What are you doing still reading this? Go hunt earthworms and really anything else that won’t bite you!)
Notes: Make sure they have soil deep enough and loose enough to dig themselves in. They need to do this to regulate their temperature and to hide from your terrifying human face. They like blunt-edged sea shells and the like for the same reason. Toads don’t have sticky hands, so they can't climb the sides of the habitat, but watch out for branches and other habitat additions changing the height from which they can jump and escape.
Watch out for Treachers
(Treacherous is a real word and treachers is not, but one time my mom said it and everyone knew what she meant.)
–Watch out for younger siblings who “want to see them hop,” and who will surely release them early by mistake (or totally on purpose). Try to keep this from happening. When it does, help the bigger one learn to be a good steward of his little sib!
—Mind your timing. Hell hath no fury like a seven year old whose toad died because you took him on a hike and then to the store and then dinner at grandma’s and didn’t get home till 9 and it’s not his fault... This is your detainee, too, and the training in stewardship is worth the annoyance of having to think about one more thing on your way out the door.
—Most frogs and toads can cohabitate, but huge toads will eat tiny frogs. —Do not put grass clippings or lots of dead organic matter in the habitat - the methane builds up fast, and that’s it for the little guys.
Stewardship: A Reading List
For those readers disappointed that this post did not feature Arnold Lobel’s beloved characters, I apologize for misleading you. Lobel teaches some great lessons about stewardship (and friendship) in “The Garden,” ”The Surprise,” and “Tomorrow.”
For those readers who would not consider kissing any frogs or prefer plants, Lobel's wife Anita made a gorgeous book, Alison’s Zinnia. This lovely but under-appreciated volume could help end the flower name illiteracy that plagues our nation.
For those readers thinking, Really? Is this a good application of John Damascene? Maybe this blog post is just an instance of raw cultural appropriation. Well, there’s only one way to find out - read more John Damascene! Go here.