Lenten Reflection: Unless You Become Like Children
Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP
The season of Lent is a penitential season. But what is “penitence”? The etymology of the word is instructive: it derives from the Latin paenitentia, or "repentance", which in turn derives from the word paenitere, "to cause or feel regret" which likely derives from the word, paene, "almost." In this light, paenitentia, our repentance, stems from our acknowledgment of the fact that life is "almost" right, "almost" enough, that we regret the fact that "almost" is not enough and that we know ourselves to be complicit in the fact. The purpose of our repentance is to be restored to a fullness whereby we are able to face life without regret; we are to eliminate the "almost."
"Repentance" makes little sense to many of our contemporaries in that they have no expectation that life should be other than the all-too-partial satisfaction that they experience; life, after all, is regarded a series of compromises. In fact, to be a Christian in the 21st century is, immediately, to be confronted by two wildly different, even contradictory, accounts of what it is to be human: the testimony of the Church, according to which repentance makes sense, and what we might call "the testimony of the world" according to which repentance makes no sense at all.
What is the testimony of the Church concerning your life and destiny? You have a name. No one else has your name, for you are a unique and unrepeatable manifestation of the human mystery. Your name is and was first spoken by God, who is your Father. For the Son of God has revealed that the One who created heaven and earth, the One who lives in unapproachable light, is your Father. He made all things for your sake, and, graced by your Father, in the dignity of your life and person you are of greater value than the whole rest of creation combined. Not only has your Father given you dominion over the world and all that is in it, he has determined that you will sit in judgment over the angels (1 Corinthians 6:2,3). For he sent his Son to take upon himself your humanity, so that he might see and love in you what he sees and loves in his Son. In offering himself for your sake Christ destroyed sin and death, so that there is nothing which need keep you from your Father and the destiny he has willed for you. So complete is his love and respect for you that he waits for you to approach him; he will never violate your own will and freedom. For in Baptism you were born, "not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of mankind, but of God" (John 1:13). Just as the Son was free to offer himself for our sake, so you are free to take up the name and destiny that is your own.
Your life and person are sacred. Your dignity is so great that your Father has invited you to collaborate with him in the salvation of every man and woman. Let us dwell on this for a moment: God himself seeks you as his Friend and Collaborator. Through the Son, he has conferred upon you his own life, the Holy Spirit. In Confirmation you received the Spirit of God himself. In this way the Father has made it possible for you to be perfect, as his Son is perfect; for you to be free, as his Son is free. Moreover, just as the Son revealed the Father in his every word and gesture, so the Holy Spirit makes it possible for you to reveal the Father through your own words and gestures.
Because the Father has called you to be his priest, your acts can secure an end which ought to be impossible. When you approach your Father in prayer, the Holy Spirit unites your prayer to the prayer of Christ, and all humanity is presented to the Father through you. When you offer your life to the Father in a sovereign act of your own freedom, the Holy Spirit unites your self-offering to that of the Son, and all humanity is offered to the Father through you. When you offer yourself in marriage the union which you seek and celebrate becomes a sign of the union of Christ with his Church. When you commit yourself in friendship your faithfulness can gesture the faithfulness of Christ and make his Church visible. When you are welcomed in love, Christ is welcomed with you.
No evil can befall you, unless you yourself permit it. Even though you should be put to death, not a hair of your head will perish. You have no earthly measure; you remain in the world for the sake of the world, but you are not of the world and the world cannot define you. You are subservient to no one, save to God himself, and he has called you "friend" and "beloved." You are never alone, for the Son has promised that he will be with you always. There is no limit to what you are able to bear, believe, suffer or endure, for the Spirit who is Love dwells in your heart (cf. 1 Cor 13:7). The world itself is blessed by your presence, for you are an Ambassador of Christ, destined in him to become the very holiness of God.
Such is the testimony of the Church. What is the testimony of the world? Simply, that all of this is an illusion which vanishes with the first toothache. For you are measured by the world and limited by it. You are, according to this testimony, "only human," and the best that you can hope for is a life in which you are able to fulfill your needs and find a measure of comfort before you die. The only immorality is that you would suffer, and with sufficient investment we can adequately master our technology and conquer every form of suffering. Should our technology fail us, you can be assisted, painlessly, to an early death. The Church is an enemy and its testimony an abomination, because it will make you uncomfortable with life as you find it.
We might say with the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), that your life, and all human life, is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Can Hobbes have been serious? I suppose that the only worse possibility for human life is that it should be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish" and long (this reflection is possibly appropriate; poor Hobbes lived to the age of ninety-one). However pessimistic it sounds, his testimony is in basic agreement with many voices in our modern world. For they declare that you are born alone and proceed alone. You are a product of biological evolution. As such, you are no better than the brutes who, therefore, should have the same rights that you do. There is nothing about you that is unique or different; your whole reality is determined physically. Left to your own devices, because you are only human, you will eat and drink unwisely, engage in sex inappropriately and possibly die of AIDS or a drug overdose. Therefore you must be carefully regulated in your eating and drinking and sexual habits, lest you harm yourself or someone else. The whole purpose of education is to train you so that you do not prove to be an inconvenience to yourself or others. You must be taught about rights and about tolerance, otherwise you will be cheated, or you will cheat someone else. You must be trained for a productive role in society. Then, with a strong police force and an education that is politically appropriate, perhaps you can be afforded a comfortable life.
It is deeply significant that Hobbes never turned his own criticism upon himself. Being a philosopher and, according to his own self-estimate, enlightened, he preferred to prescribe a political solution for everyone else. At first glance his estimate of human life could not be farther from that of Hölderlin, the German poet, writing from Paris in about 1790:
I love the generation of centuries to come. For this is my most blessed hope, the faith, which keeps me strong and active, that our grandchildren will be better than we.... We live in a period of time in which everything is working towards better days.
This, too, resonates in our own time, and is part of the testimony of the world. Have we not progressed from age to age? You are certainly more comfortable than any of your forebears. No matter how dark your situation may seem, at least you were not born in the dark ages. It is your privilege to live in a democracy; you have freedoms that other ages did not dream of. While you have learned, through the threat of atomic war and pollution of the environment, that science can be put to an evil use, still you have been freed from the sickness, poverty and superstition of previous generations. You can reap the benefits of the past. You are a child of privilege, you stand upon the shoulders of your ancestors. With intelligence and perseverance you can still live as well as did your parents, and possibly better. But fix your sights upon the world, and understand it. Do not surrender to doubts or depressions, for we now understand such things, and through psychology you can find the help that you need. Above all, be realistic and practical. See to yourself, and do not throw away the advantages that you have inherited.
The testimony of the world seems to be a rather confused affair. Both the pessimism of Hobbes and the optimism of Hölderlin likely strike us as naive and exaggerated. But they are really only extreme statements of two sides of the same testimony. For both insist that your measure is the world. Your possibilities are determined by your situation in the world, whether through biology or history, or both. You are no better or worse than the next person. We understand through psychology that there is really nothing unique about you that a little therapy would not cure. Anyway, very little is demanded of you, except that you are tolerant and observe the rights of others. In return you yourself have rights. If you cooperate with society and invest your hope in the world, you will be comfortable. You need never suffer.
Such is the testimony of the world. Who, we might wonder, would not prefer the testimony of the Church? Yet there are many who find it an abomination. There are three things that our age cannot forgive the Church: that it insists upon judging the human situation and therefore offends against tolerance; that it insists upon the value of suffering, and therefore offends against morality; that it insists upon a divine dignity for man and woman, and therefore offends against the freedom to be fully invested in the world.
I suggested at the outset that, to the degree that we discern a need to repent, we do so because everything is not full, that some things are almost but not quite right with us. But if we were fully to accept who we are in the Lord’s sight, then surely life would be full, surely we could eliminate the “almost”. Can it be that we are ourselves complicit in a testimony about life that is not of the faith?
We should likely acknowledge that, at least in some respects, our actual experience better supports the testimony of the world than it does the testimony of the faith. It would seem that evil can befall us –we can lose our jobs, be abandoned or betrayed by those who, we thought, loved us, suffer the death of a loved one, the absence of a friend – and what about the toothache? When we consider our actual circumstances, our lives do not appear to be so very different than those of others, our own uniqueness and our vocation can be obscure to us, and are not tolerance, the alleviation of suffering and accommodation to the world prudent in a pluralistic society? How can we reconcile the testimony of the faith with our life in the world?
Preoccupied, as we are, with the burdens and responsibilities of life we can, perhaps, understand the impatience of the disciples in Luke’s Gospel when people brought their children – even their infants – to Our Lord for his blessing. The Master, after all, has more significant things to accomplish – our preparation for establishing the Messianic Kingdom, for a start. “…But Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mt 21:16-18).
What can he possibly have meant? We tend to have a sentimental view of children which was not at all shared by the people of the Old and New Testament. We read in Deuteronomy that child is one who "…does not know good from bad" (Dt 1:39). A child is one who is not yet wise (Wis 12:25) and one who must therefore be subordinate to his or her father and mother (Sir 3:2). Scripture speaks of "a brood of worthless children" who require constant training (Sir 42:5) and, when the Lord rebukes Israel through the prophets, he calls them "rebellious children." Our Lord himself compares the unbelieving generation to which he was sent to ‘…children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, "We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’" (Lk 7: 33), in other words, to spoiled brats. This cannot be what he means when he insists that we must become like children.
As is so often the case, our Lord did not trouble to explain what he meant, but left the whole matter up to us. What, then, do we notice when we study children? We know perfectly well that children can be cruel to each other. We know this perfectly well because we ourselves were children. I was the eldest of three children having been blessed with two younger sisters, a blessing that was sometimes difficult to appreciate; after all, what possible use are younger sisters to a boy? They are, I discovered, useful for the sake of scientific experiments, such as how long they could endure to stay unattended in a dark place. Yet, for all that, the cruelty of children compared to the cruelty of adults is a rather open, inept affair. There can be in a child lots of evidence in defense of the doctrine of original sin but there is in childhood nothing of the contempt for life which can only be the sinister refinement of adulthood.
This is very likely due to the fact that the child, as a child, has no history or, at least, insufficient experience of the world, or of himself in the world, to protect himself from astonishment at what he discovers there. To wit: about 25 years ago Tip O'Neill, retired Speaker of the House, visited friends of mine in Southern California. Upon entering their home, Mr. O'Neill noticed their three-year-old son Matthew watching him, with what G.K Chesterton termed "the terrible seriousness of a child." Mr. O'Neil scooped up Matthew into his arms and asked him what he had to say for himself, to which Matthew replied to the horror of his parents, "Was your nose always that big?" Mr. O'Neill replied that he had always had a big nose but he feared that because he was a politician, something that Matthew could not possibly understand, it might still be growing, a response that Matthew received, his eyes wide with astonishment.
Lacking sufficient experience with the world to be otherwise, a child is, in the strictest sense of the word, a literalist: she cannot see the world other than it is. For exactly the same reason a child, any child, is truth bound. Granted, the child is capable of lying, but deceit in a child is artless, its principles being little understood. I recall a trip with my family when I was eight years old. My father was driving, at speed, toward our destination, the cabin that he had rented in the interior of British Columbia, some five hours from our home. Dad had noticed in the rearview mirror a car approaching at a speed greater than our own, and was sufficiently astonished to mention the fact to my mother who suggested that it might be the police, a suggestion that my father dismissed with the thought that it was likely some traveling salesman making up for lost time. It was at this point that our progress was abruptly interrupted by a siren. My father pulled over to the side of the road and rolled down his window. The first words of the policeman to my father were, "I imagine that you know why I have stopped you." "Why no, officer," my father replied. "Why for exceeding the speed limit, of course!” I exclaimed from the backseat. The officer managed to compose himself and then asked where we were from. My father told him that we lived in Penticton. The officer asked at what time we had left home. My father said that he couldn't quite recall, at which point I offered, "Sure you can, Dad. You remember: we left at 10 o'clock this morning," thus sealing my father's fate by proving, beyond a doubt, that we had been speeding the whole way. Being in the backseat I could not, at that point, see the look on my father's face, but I can now imagine it, in that the policeman began to laugh uncontrollably. My father escaped with a warning in that, I suspect, the officer likely thought that he had already been punished enough. What followed was a lecture from my mother roughly to the effect that children should be seen and not heard.
Lacking a history of their own, children delight in stories. Chesterton, who understood childhood so very well, possibly because he fulfilled our Lord's mandate and never fully outgrew it, can give us an account for the fact:
….When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water. I have said that this is wholly reasonable and even agnostic. And, indeed, on this point I am all for the higher agnosticism; its better name is Ignorance. We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget ("Orthodoxy").
With Chesterton's help we can, possibly, begin to understand how it is that the Lord proposed to the disciples and to us that we must again become like children, for we have forgotten what we really are. A child cannot be tired, world-weary, cynical - exactly because for a child the world is an adventure experienced for the first time. And, unlike an adult, a child never doubts what she sees. She is therefore capable of judging the truth of what she knows; she may have figured out little about relationship, but she can invest complete trust in the little that she does know.
Some years ago I visited a young family then living in Incline Village by Lake Tahoe. Andy, the father, came out to meet me, and I greeted him by name in the presence of James, his three-year-old son. James heard my greeting and then told me, solemnly, "his name is Daddy.” I laughed and then attempted to explain to James that Andy was his daddy, not my daddy and that, in fact, I was almost old enough to be his daddy's daddy. James, however, would have none of it and insisted, still more firmly, "His name is Daddy." At that point I capitulated and greeted "Daddy."
It is James’ disposition that our Lord requires of us if he is to speak to us about divine things. We must insist upon the little that we do know in order that we may be open to things that we cannot know, save that he tells us, things beyond our experience, things that our experience therefore cannot adequately support or verify. If we do not receive what Jesus reveals to us as new, as astonishing, then we do not receive it at all. If we are to hear him, we must stand in amazement of the fact of who we are, in wonder that what he tells us could be true, gaping in surprise like, for example, a child in the presence of an enormous nose.
But how are we to achieve this? First and foremost, we must, like a child, listen attentively to what our Lord tells us and then take him literally. This is sometimes very hard to do. For example: “Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you" (Mt 17:20). Nothing in our experience supports what Our Lord tells us here, and the commentators are therefore inclined to hold that he could not possibly have been serious. One goes so far as to accuse Jesus of “semitic exaggeration.”
I very much regret that the Gospel does not report that someone in the crowd cried out, “Master, how amusing you are! We Semites just love to exaggerate!” I suspect that the response might not have been understated. I am certain that our Lord did not mean for a moment to exaggerate. In fact, when I take him at his word I am immediately made aware of three reasons that I would not say to any mountain, “Move from here to there.” First, I know that no such thing could possibly happen; to command the mountain to move would be just plain silly. Second, I would certainly not give any such command publically because if I were to do so I would appear to be an idiot. Third, I would, if I am strictly honest, prefer that the mountain not move, for if it did it would likely scare me to death. I am not comfortable with the idea of a world in which mountains move at my command.
But notice what has occurred: my lack of faith has been triply exposed. Apparently I am prepared to keep faith – to believe in what the Lord tells me – exactly to the extent that it doesn't contradict my experience. But this being so, I cannot possibly accept what he tells me about myself for I have no direct experience of the dignity he claims for us. Again, it appears that I am prepared to keep faith right up to the moment that I am in danger of appearing to be foolish and then I am long gone. Finally, it appears that I am prepared to keep faith so long as I am comfortable with my life and my possibilities; the moment that I would overreach what I know myself to be from experience, I cease to pay attention to what he says. My Lenten discipline would also, therefore, appear to be obvious: I must cling to what he says regardless of my experience to the contrary, regardless of the manner in which I appear to others, and regardless of the fact that it seriously challenges my comfort zone.
We must take our Lord literally, in the manner of a child. And therefore we must also permit astonishing things to be astonishing. Here at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology we study, for example, the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. We ought to notice that the incontestable brilliance of St. Thomas was largely due to the fact that he was utterly childlike in his openness both to the revelation and to the world of created things. He was attentive in the manner of a child and had a childlike confidence in what was shown to him, never doubting what he could see and never pretending to see when he couldn't.
This season of Lent calls us to repentance in order that we may be fully restored in Christ to a life in the presence of the Father that is without compromise. Perhaps the sins that require our greatest attention are those which would cause us to be complicit in the spirit of our age, lacking confidence in the dignity that our Lord reveals to be true of us.