SPIRITUAL CHILDHOOD

Francis Fernandez

In Conversation with God

 

1. Becoming like children before God.

St Mark tells us that they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. (Mark 10:13)

Behind those children we can see their mothers gently pushing their little ones in front of them. Jesus must have created around himself an atmosphere of goodness and attractive simplicity. The mothers feel glad to see Jesus blessing their children and edged closer to him.

The conflict between these women and the disciples, who were obviously concerned to keep some sort of order in the throng, is the prologue to a profoundly significant lesson from Christ. In the midst of the striving and pushing forward of some and the resultant protests of those who want them to take the children away, Jesus takes the disciples to task. He is happy to be with these little ones. “Let the children come to me; 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. And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them.” (Mark 10:14-16) The children and their mothers had gained the day and went home happy.

We have to approach Bethlehem with the dispositions of children – simply, that is, without prejudice and with our souls wide open to grace. More than that, it is necessary to become completely child-like in order to enter the kingdom of heaven: “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3), Our Lord says on another occasion, as he places a little one in their midst.

Our Lord is not recommending childishness, but innocence and simplicity. He sees in children traits and attitudes that are essential in anyone if he is to gain heaven, and, even in this life, if he is to enter the kingdom of faith. A child is devoid of even the slightest feeling of self-sufficiency. It is in constant need of its parents, and knows it. A child is fundamentally a being in need, and this is what a Christian should be before his Father God, a being in total need. A child lives fully in the present and nothing more. The adult’s less admirable predisposition is to look restlessly to the future, ignoring the here and now, the present moment, which ought to be lived to the full.

This gesture of Our Lord towards their little ones must have won over those women who, perhaps, in their eagerness to get their children to the front, had not been paying much attention to the words addressed by Jesus to his audience.

In this passage Jesus shows us the way of spiritual childhood, so that we can open wide our hearts to God and be fruitful in the apostolate.

“Be a little child: the greatest great daring is always that of children. Who cries for... the moon? Who is blind to dangers in getting what he wants?

“To such a child add much grace from God, the desire to do his Will, great love for Jesus, all the human knowledge he is capable of acquiring, and you will have a likeness of the apostles of today such as God undoubtedly wants them.” (Saint Josemaría)

 

2. Spiritual childhood and divine filiation. Humility and abandonment in God.

A few days before the Passion “the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out..., and they were indignant; and they said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read, “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast brought perfect praise”? (Matt 21:15-16) Throughout the whole of the Gospel we come across this same idea: that which is little is chosen so as to confound the great. Open the mouths of those who know least, and close the lips of those who seem to be wise.

Jesus openly accepts the Messianic confession of these children. They are the ones who see clearly the mystery of God there present. Only with this attitude can we receive the kingdom of God.

We Christians, recognizing Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem as the long-promised Messiah, must react with the mind, the simplicity and the daring of children. “Child, enkindle in your heart an ardent desire to make up for the excesses of your grown-up life.” (Saint Josemaría) What ‘excesses’ we commit when in the hardness of our heart we lose interior simplicity and the clear vision of Jesus Christ, withdrawing from Him our praise when He most desires our open confession of faith in an environment of such blindness to the things of God!

To become like children at heart while remaining adults can be costly. It requires real determination and strength of will, and a total abandonment to God. To become children we must renounce our pride and self-sufficiency, recognizing that we can do nothing by ourselves. We must realize that we need grace and the help of God our Father to find our way and keep to it. To be little, you have to abandon yourself as children do, believe as children believe, beg as children beg.” (Saint Josemaría)

 

3 The virtues proper to this path of childhood: docility and simplicity.

This life of childhood is possible if we have a deep-rooted awareness of being children of God. The mystery of divine filiation, founded on our spiritual life, is one of the consequences of the Redemption. “We are God’s children now” (1 John 3:2) and it is very important that we become clearly aware of this marvellous reality so that we can approach God with the childlike spirit of a good son. Divine adoption implies a transformation that greatly surpasses the changed circumstances of ordinary human adoption. Divine adoption is more real than its human counterpart: “through the gift of grace, God makes man worthy to be adopted so that he may receive a heavenly inheritance. On the other hand, man does not make the person he adopts worthy of his adoption, but rather adopts someone who is already deserving of it.” (Saint Thomas)

As children of God we are heirs of glory. Let us try to be worthy of such an inheritance, and have for God a filial, tender and sincere piety.

The way of spiritual childhood presupposes a limitless confidence in God our Father. In a family, the father explains the great big world to his little one. The child feels its weakness, but knows its father will protect it, and because of this lives and walks confidently. The child knows that when its father is there, nothing can go wrong and nothing bad can happen to it. The child’s soul and mind are open to its father’s voice without fear or distrust. The little one knows that, even though others may deceive it, when it goes home its father will never be unfriendly or hostile, because he understands.

Children are not unduly sensitive to the fear of ridicule which paralyses so many undertakings. Nor do they tend to be inordinately concerned about that false human respect born of pride and the apprehensive dread of what others may think.

Children often tumble down, but they quickly pick themselves up again. And in the life of spiritual childhood those very same falls and weaknesses are means of sanctification. For in it love is always young, and unpleasant experiences are easily forgotten; not dwelt and brooded upon as so often happens with those who have ‘grown-up’ souls.

“They are called children”, St John Chrysostom comments, not because of their age, but because of their simplicity of heart.”

Simplicity is perhaps the virtue which summarizes and co-ordinates all the other aspects of this life of childhood that Our Lord asks of us. As St Jerome says, we have to be “like the child whom I propose to you as an example... He does not think one thing and say another, behaving as you also must behave, for if you did not have such innocence and purity of intention you would not be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Simplicity is shown in our sincere, friendly and unaffected dealings with others. It is a much appreciated virtue in human relations, but not always easy to find.

Another consequence of spiritual childhood is the gentle virtue of meekness. “Child, abandonment demands docility.” (Saint Josemaría) Etymologically, a person is ‘docile’ when he is disposed and prepared to be taught. This is how the Christian should be when faced with the mysteries of God and the things that refer to him, keeping the mind open to a correct formation and always full of desire to know the truth. The person with an ‘adult’ soul assumes that he knows many things, but in reality is ignorant. He thinks he knows, but has in fact not penetrated beyond external appearances, and has failed to get to the bottom of things in such a way that what is true could have a direct influence on his actions. When God looks at such a person, he sees him totally lacking in awareness of reality and shut off from knowledge of the truth.

How wonderful it would be if, some day, having finally become like children, we were to grasp the true meaning of things as familiar to Christians as the Our Father, for example, or of really taking part in the Holy Mass, or of sanctifying each day’s work, or of seeing in the people around us souls that must be saved, or ... of so many things that too often we take for granted!

Let us learn to be children in the sight of God. “And we learn all this through contact with Mary... Because Mary is our mother, devotion to her teaches us to be authentic sons: to love truly without limit; to be simple without the complications which come from selfishly thinking only about ourselves; to be happy, knowing that nothing can destroy our hope. The beginning of the way, at the end of which you will find yourself completely carried away by love for Jesus, is a trusting love for Mary.” (Saint Josemaría)