Being Childlike

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Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,/and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;/The calf and the young lion shall browse together/with a little child to guide them.

Isaiah 11: 6

At that moment Jesus exulted in the Holy Spirit. He said, “I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from wise and intelligent people and revealed them to infants.”

Luke 10: 21

 

Often when celebrating Sunday liturgy with a parish community, I find myself pleasantly “distracted” by observing the behaviors of the infants and children who are there with their families. Last Sunday before Mass began, there was a beautiful little interchange between a young girl, perhaps 7 or 8 years old, and a very small infant two or so rows back in the arms of her mother. With the “recruitability” that is an inherent gift of vulnerable infants, the baby was attracting the attention of the young girl. The girl, in turn, was clearly delighted and turned to her mother to express her pleasure and excitement. In turn, the mother spontaneously and passionately smiled and embraced her daughter — the deep desire and life of her heart released by the experience. As an observer, I took note that the children were of different ethnicities, and yet how to them this “difference” was insignificant. In fact, I suspect there was, in fact, no difference at all to them. That difference, and so the fear and distance that comes with it, is something we learn only later in life, as we ironically term it, “as we mature.”

At the heart of the gospel of Luke is the theme of “the great reversal” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, p. 22). The Advent of God, the visitation of the Lord to his people, does not occur among those who are the chosen of society, but rather in the midst of those who are poor, small, and marginalized. When Jesus praises God for revealing the “hidden” truth to infants, he is looking directly at his disciples. Physically he turns his back to the religious and societal leaders and gazes at the poor ones who have given all to follow him.

Reading this passage today, I wondered how I would react to being called an infant. We spend our lives working to become respected, sophisticated, knowledgable, and significant, and yet when Jesus looks at us what he most values is the child in us, our childlikeness. Last evening I heard an interview with Mark Shriver who has just written a new biography of Pope Francis entitled Pilgrimage. Shriver, at one point in the interview, quoted Pope Francis as saying that whenever he is faced with a difficult decision he never goes with his “gut reaction,” as he has come to experience that it is usually wrong. Our “gut reactions” are formed by the biases and prejudices, the fears and the ambitions, the societal pulsations and norms which we accumulate over a lifetime. In truth they are usually in service to our need for social and cultural compatibility, or to our personal ambitions and bodily gratifications. The impulses of our “gut” are most often the reactions of our anxious and false form of life.

Of course, the truth of the matter is that infants and small children are essentially driven by their vital and bodily needs. Yet, there is something of our deepest spirit and aspiration in the movements of our bodies toward connection and even union with others. To receive the advent of God we are called to rediscover by reflection and reformation the one we once manifested as little children. Jesus teaches us, “. . . unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). The infant I saw at Mass instinctively makes contact with another whom she experiences as another like herself. As adults, it seems that most often what we see is difference. The true life that I witnessed in the interchanges among infant, young girl, and mother is obscure to the “common sense” attitudes and dispositions of our social and “adult” lives. When the deeper life emerges, even for a moment, the love and joy it exudes is utterly contagious.

As human beings, we accomplish much through our acquired ability to differentiate. For us, knowing the uniqueness of objects and persons means realizing the difference and separation among them. Yet, for the mystic Ruusbroec, as for Jesus, our deepest uniqueness is, at the same time, what we are and have in common. Our capacity to welcome the stranger and the strange comes out of our deepest spiritual identity. To receive, to appreciate, to love what at first appears alien to us is to welcome the God who comes as Mystery. It is a welcoming that is a recognition of another who is like, and even more who is one with, ourselves.

No one can possess this common life unless that person be a contemplative, and no one can contemplate or enjoy God unless that person has within oneself these six things, ordered in the way I have previously described. For this reason, all those persons are deceived who consider themselves contemplatives and yet love, practice, or possess any created thing in an inordinate way, or who think they are enjoying God before they have become free of images, or who rest before they have come to enjoy God. such persons are all deceived, for we must devote ourselves to God with an open heart peaceful conscience, and an unveiled countenance and must live without hypocrisy in sincerity and truth. We will then rise from virtue to virtue, contemplating God, enjoying God, and becoming one with God, just as I have said.

Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, Conclusion

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