AS LITTLE CHILDREN
The Priest at his Prie-Dieu
“I will sing praise to Thee in the sight of the angels; I will worship towards Thy holy temple and I will give glory to Thy name.” (Ps. 137: 1-2).
On the road outside Capharnaum. Jesus is walking with His disciples and they question Him about who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He stops, perhaps near a house where there is a little child standing, watching the party as it passes, Christ calls him over and places him in the centre of the group. Pointing to him He explains to His questioners that such a little one is to be the model of their conduct if they would be great in heaven. In our own day our holy Father the Pope has placed another little child in the midst of us and told us about her what Jesus is telling these men. St. Therese of Lisieux has been raised up to teach men the way of spiritual childhood. Equally with St. Francis Xavier she shares the honour of being made patron of the missions. Under her guidance then, I come to seek light on the lesson Jesus is teaching to His disciples as He places the little child in their midst. (cf. Matthew 18:1-4).
A deeper spirit of living faith which will make the supernatural world a greater reality to me.
1. Our Lord liked to call His priests His little children. At first sight the title might seem inappropriate when applied to the rough fishermen who were His first disciples. “My little children” – the phrase was caught up by St. John and by St. Paul, “love one another... My little children of whom I am in labour again till Christ be formed in you.”
In my prayer this morning, under the guidance of St. Therese, let me think about three truths characteristic of little children. A little child, first of all, is always ready to believe. Tell a little child the most extravagant fairy-tale and he or she accepts it unquestioningly. It does not even occur to the mind of a little child that the fairyland does not exist except in the fancy, or that the noble king or prince never fought those battles.
“That you may be the children of your Father!” There is another marvellous fairy-tale which is told to the children of God. They too manifest a childlike spirit by accepting it without question. But, unlike the invented story, this one has the added charm that it all is literally true. It is the astounding story of the infinite, eternal love of the heavenly Father for His little children, and the proofs He gave of that love. Notable amongst these proofs is the Incarnation, the assuming of human nature by God Himself.
A childlike spirit is one that lives habitually under the realisation of the fact that God is indeed such a Father. Consequently the little child is filled with a love for the Father, not such a love as dwells in the cold intellect but such as seizes upon the will and the heart. The Father is a reality to that little child, not a remote figure far away in His heaven. The fairy-tale is true, and its truth must necessarily fill the child’s heart with love.
Side by side with this love, there is boundless trust in the heart of the little child. “Your Father knoweth…” It is most true that the world to-day is in a state of chaos and that men’s lives are sadly out of joint with the teaching of the gospel. The little child is pained by this, deeply pained. But there is also the comforting assurance that all must come right, all must, somehow, redound to the Father’s honour and glory. Even when everything is at sixes an at sevens, the little child recognises that not a sparrow falls without the Father’s knowledge and permission.
The child of God will toil indeed to make the world a better and a holier place, but all is done in tranquility, for the spirit of the child is to trust all to the Father, more especially when the human reasons for doing so are more than usually obscured.
The little child walks through this world as through the halls of the palace belonging to the Father. He recognises in its beauty flashes of the Father’s beauty. There is the music of birds and laughing waters, there is the glory of the summer sunset, there is the limitless expanse of ocean. Just as a little child will wander through the halls and admire its treasures and relate them all with its father, so the little child of God lives habitually in His Presence, and every small detail is a reminder and a help to lift itself up in love. These are some of the things the little child is ready to believe. Such an outlook on life transforms this valley of tears into a veritable corner of heaven. It is promised to “little ones” but it remains hidden from “the wise and the prudent.” The priest persevering in prayer at his prie-dieu is just such a “little one.” The Father will not give him a stone when he begs for bread.
2. Little children are ready to play at make-believe. They will throw themselves with zest into the game that supposes one to be a giant, another a cowboy, a third a jockey or a soldier. The analogy here between them and God’s children is once again imperfect. God’s children, too, act towards others as if those others were Christ Himself! But – and here is the enormous difference – they are quite right in doing so. “As long as you did it to one of these My least brethren, you did it to Me.” No doubt we have read the delightful accounts of St. Therese’s devices by which she put this art into practice.
When she helped a sister who was crippled, when she smiled at another who did not like her or approve of her, when she refrained from showing annoyance with one who fidgeted behind her in the chapel, Therese was a child playing a game – a game of hide and seek! Christ was hidden in the hearts of others and this little child chuckled delightedly when she discovered Him there.
This “game” is played by all God’s little children. They are ever on the alert to discover the Christ hidden in the soul of the neighbour. It is very easy then to understand why they forgive so easily, why they forget a snub or a taunt almost before it is uttered. They are preoccupied, you see, with adoring lovingly in these others the Christ Whom they have found there. It is true the neighbour may indeed be most unlike Christ, but Christ is discerned there none the less. A battered frame may enclose a picture that is a masterpiece; a precious liquid may be contained even in a vessel that is filthy.
St. Peter Claver signed his last vows as a Jesuit in his own blood and the signature was: “Peter Claver, slave of the slaves forever.” For forty years he slaved for them in the spirit of the little child though with the endurance of a Hercules. Why? It was the same game again – seeking and finding the hidden Christ in the souls of these poor neglected creatures of the Father.
What a delightful playground the world would be if all God’s children would try to play the same game! If even we priests tried hard to learn the simple rules of the game! These, once more, the Father will reveal to little ones. The hidden Christ will be sought and found in the coal-heaver, in the fallen woman, in the Mass-server, in the house-keeper, in one’s brother-priests. The rules of the game are very simple; so simple that a little child can master them; more, so simple that only a little child will bother to learn them or keep them. To the sophisticated, “ the wise and prudent,” the game seems childish.
3. There is nothing easier than to make a little child laugh. Watch the mother playing or the father pulling a face, and listen to the delighted response in the laughter of the child. Walk along the road and observe little children and see the simple things that amuse them – a top, a bucket and shovel at the seaside, a pair of stilts, a sailor’s cap or a showy uniform. Children’s laughter is the music of the home.
Nowadays, laughter, like most things else, has been commercialized. Amusement has been incorporated into big business and has become a very serious affair indeed! But there is nobody who laughs more heartily at the world and its foibles than the little child of the heavenly Father. St. Teresa of Avila recommended her daughters not to speak of worldly affairs or of the world, unless to laugh at them. A little child does not take this world too seriously for he is habitually conscious of the gladsome truth that he is very Soon going to leave it forever.
One recalls the ecstasy of the Little Flower when she wakened up one morning and found that there was blood on her handkerchief. It was a sign, eagerly-expected, of the early advent of the King to take her home, and she went to that day’s work with a heart that was near to bursting with joy.
A child of God can enjoy the simplest things. This meditation is being written in a monastery of great fervour. There are none of the comforts and amenities of the modern world; there are long hours of prayer by night and by day; there is much retirement, much silence, much fasting and penance. But what joyous ringing laughter among these men as they walk in their little garden for an hour after their simple meal! What an event it is to take a few hours off for a tramp together through the countryside, or to be given permission to speak during a meal!
We are living in a world that is jaded and sated because it has tasted all that can be offered as pleasure, and the heart is still empty. “No heart can be satisfied with less than God.” The little child of God enjoys the simple things of life, laughs delightedly at the simple joke, sees fun in the simplest remark, is blessed with an irrepressible sense of humour.
The greater one’s independence of the creature comforts, the more freely does the soul soar upwards towards the Creator, and from that eminence it sees men’s follies.
No wonder the child of God laughs easily at the make-believe, the insincerity, the selfishness, the silly manners that pass for courtesy, the restless greed, the plans to enrich oneself at another’s expense. No wonder, for when life is seen in its true perspective, all these foibles are recognised as the antics of men devoid of sense.
“Vigilate... qua hora non putatis... at what hour you think not.” If Our Lord meant to terrify the sinner by this warning, for the little child the words are a source of ineffable joy. He may be here at any moment!