The path of spiritual childhood

Andres Vazquez de Prada

The Founder of Opus Dei I, Scepter, p. 308-322


In September and October of 1931, when feelings of love were springing up so abundantly in that young priest’s heart, the Lord confirmed him on the path of true filial abandonment. From that torrent of graces burst forth another stream: an inner life of spiritual childhood. In 1949 he recalled:

I often had the custom, when I was young, of not using any book when making a meditation. I would recite, savoring them, the words of the Our Father, and, I would pause, relishing the thought, when I considered that God is Father, my Father, and that this makes me a brother of Jesus Christ and a brother to all people.

I never got over my astonishment, contemplating that I was a son of God! After each reflection I found myself firmer in faith, more secure in hope, more on fire with love. And there was born in my soul the need, since I was a child of God, to be a small child, a needy child. That was the beginning, in my interior life, of my living whenever I could – whenever I can – the life of childhood. I have always recommended this to my sons and daughters, while, of course, respecting their freedom.

On October 2 – the feast of the Guardian Angels, the third anniversary of the founding of Opus Dei, and the vigil of the feast of Saint Therese of Lisieux – he fervently invoked the heavenly spirits, and in a special way his guardian angel. His journal entry for that day reads:

I paid him compliments and asked him to teach me to love Jesus at least – at least! – as much as he loves him. Undoubtedly Saint Therese... wanted to give me something in anticipation of her feast day, for she succeeded in having my guardian angel teach me today how to make a prayer of childhood. What very childish things I said to my Lord! With the trustful confidence of a boy talking to his Grownup Friend, of whose love he is certain, I said, “Let me live only for your Work. Let me live only for your glory. Let me live only for your love...”I duly recalled and acknowledged that I do everything badly, and said, “That, my Jesus, should not surprise you – it is impossible for me to do anything right. You help me, you do it for me, and you will see how well it turns out. So, then, boldly and without straying from the truth, I say to you: Saturate me, get me drunk, with your Spirit, and thus I will do your will. I want to do it. If I don’t do it, it’s because... you’re not helping me.”

And I had feelings of love for my Mother and Lady, and right now I feel myself very much a child of God my Father.

This journal entry is the first fruit of the new path undertaken. He spent the next several days in interior recollection, in affective and fervent prayer, while alarming rumors of new burnings of churches and religious houses swept through the city. On October 14 he learned that the infamous article 26 of the Constitution had been approved. It would mean the expulsion of the Society of Jesus. That very afternoon, he went to see his confessor at Chamartin.

But the Jesuits were not the only ones in danger. All monasteries, convents, and other residences of religious were at risk. Catholic students mounted guard at night to protect them.

On October 15, the feast of Saint Teresa of Avila, the chaplain came into the cloistered area of Santa Isabel. The nuns were very frightened by the rumors. He reassured them as best he could, speaking words full of warmth and optimism.

Today I went into the cloister of Santa Isabel. I encouraged the nuns. I spoke to them about love, about the cross, and about joy... and about victory. Away with anxiety! We are at the beginning of the end. Saint Teresa has obtained for me, from our Jesus, the Joy –  with a capital J – that I have today…, when it would seem, humanly speaking, that I should be sad, both for the Church and about my own situation (which, truth to tell, is not good). We just need much faith and expiation, and above faith and expiation, much Love. Besides, this morning, when purifying two ciboriums, so as not to leave the Blessed Sacrament in the church I received almost half a ciborium full of hosts, even though I gave several to each sister.

The sisters rewarded him for that sowing of joy.

On my way out of the cloister they showed me, in the vestibule, a Christ Child which was a darling. I have never seen a better-looking Child Jesus! Totally captivating. They uncovered it. He has his little arms crossed on his breast and his eyes half open. Beautiful. I ate him up with kisses and... would have loved to kidnap him.

For a long time thereafter he would go every week to the convent’s revolving window, and the sister on duty would let him hold “the little one.” In those days when his soul was crisscrossed by joys and afflictions – feelings of ardent affection in prayer and difficult trials in which he asked for a cross without “Cyreneans” – his devotion to the Child Jesus was beginning to shape his interior life.

The Child Jesus: how this devotion has taken hold of me since I first laid eyes on that consummate Thief that my nuns keep in the vestibule of their cloister! Child Jesus, adolescent Jesus – I like to see you that way, Lord, because... it makes me more daring. I like to see you as a little boy, a helpless child, because it makes me feel like you need me.

As a solid devotion to the childhood of Christ took root in his soul, Father Josemaría came to realize the paradoxical nature of this spiritual route: that it requires, simultaneously, both strength and exquisite sensitivity.

I recognize, my Love, my clumsiness – that it is such… such that when I want to caress, I cause harm. Soften the manners of my soul. Give me, I want you to give me, within the strength and energy of the life of childhood, that softness and tenderness that children have that allows them to relate to their parents with an intimate outpouring of love.

By no means was this attitude one of mawkish infantilism. On the contrary, by it the Lord strengthened the soul of the founder, as he observes in his journal entry for November 30, 1931:

The way of childhood. Abandonment. Spiritual childhood. All this that God is asking of me and that I am trying to have is not foolishness, but a strong and solid Christian life.

With the confidence of a little boy before his Father God, he adjusted his old habits of prayer – not without effort – to that new path of childhood. He became more and more convinced of “how beautiful and pleasant is this path, because it allows sinners to feel as the saints have felt.”

Most of the journal entries in which he records ideas about the life of spiritual childhood, or expresses personal feelings of this kind, were written in or near December 1931 and January 1932. For example, on November 30, the first day of the Immaculate Conception novena, he observes that “when praying he Rosary or doing – like now in Advent – other devotions, I contemplate the mysteries of the life, passion, and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, taking active part in the actions and events as a witness and servant and companion of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.”

He had already gotten used to praying the Rosary by contemplating the mysteries of the life of our Lord as a small child transported to the scene and present as a witness. To judge by some of the parenthetical observations he makes – for instance, “I am sorry to note down these details, because they might make one think well, or less badly, of me: I am full of miseries” – we have reason to suppose that this way of praying the Rosary put him in an elevated state of contemplative prayer.

On the second day of the novena, December 1, he expected – without asking for it – to receive a favor, a gift connected with the novena: a sign of progress on the path of spiritual childhood.

Immaculate Mother, Holy Mary: You will give me something, my Lady, in this novena honoring your unspotted conception. Now, I don’t ask for anything – since I haven’t been given permission to – but I want to set before you my desire to reach perfect spiritual childhood.

One morning during this novena, after saying Mass and finishing his prayer of thanksgiving, he wrote the book Holy Rosary in one sitting, in the sacristy of Santa Isabel, close to the sanctuary. We don’t know with certainty which day it was, but we do know that on December 7, vigil of the feast of the Immaculate Conception, he read to two young people at Santa Isabel “the way to pray the Rosary.” That was why he wrote this little book: to help others pray the Rosary.

In his introduction to the book, he discloses the secret of spiritual childhood:

My friend: if you want to be great, become little.

To be little you have to believe as children believe, to love as children love, to abandon yourself as children do…, to pray as children pray...

Become little. Come with me and – this is the essence of what I want to tell you – we shall live the life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

Gently, he introduces the reader to the scene:

Don’t forget, my friend, that we are children. The Lady of the sweet name, Mary, is absorbed in prayer.

You, in that house, can be whatever you wish: a friend, a servant, an onlooker, a neighbor.... For the moment I don’t dare to be anything. I hide behind you and, full of awe, I watch what’s happening:

The Archangel delivers his message…

Also in the introduction, he tells us: “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.”

At home he had a small wooden statue of our Lady, which he had a habit of kissing when leaving or entering the apartment. (“My Lady of the Kisses – I will end up eating her up!” he exclaims in one of his journal entries.) Not just that one, but all images of our Lady moved him. This was especially true of those he found thrown out on the street and covered with grime, or those he caught sight of in his travels through Madrid, such as a picture in glazed tile that attracted his attention every day as he was leaving Santa Isabel. This image, which was on the terrace of a house on Atocha Street, looked down upon a strange event that took place a few days after he wrote Holy Rosary.

Octave of the Immaculate Conception, 1931: Yesterday afternoon, at three, when I was going to the school of Santa Isabel to hear the confessions of the girls, on Atocha Street (on the side near San Carlos, almost at the corner of Santa Ines) three young men, all of them probably thirty-something, crossed paths with me. When they got close to me, one of them rushed forward, shouted “I’m going to get him!” and raised his arm in such a way that I thought for sure I would be struck. But before he could carry out his intended aggression, one of the other two said to him in an authoritative tone of voice, “No, don’t hit him.” And then immediately, in a mocking tone of voice, bending toward me, this same man added, “Little donkey, little donkey!”

I crossed Santa Isabel’s corner at a calm pace, and am sure that I in no way showed on the outside the trepidation I was feeling inside. To hear myself called – by that defender! – by this name, “little donkey,” that I use when speaking to Jesus: this really got to me. Immediately I said three Hail Mary’s to the Blessed Virgin, who witnessed that little event from her image on the house of the Congregation of Saint Philip.

The name “little donkey” (burrito) is one that, as earlier mentioned, he used privately and only his confessor knew about.

On the next day he recorded some more impressions of that event:

December 16, 1931: Yesterday I felt kind of tired, undoubtedly as a result of that assault I suffered on Atocha Street. I am convinced that it was from the devil. Father Norberto thinks so too. The one who tried to attack me had the ferocious face of a madman. About the looks of the other two, I can’t remember a thing. Then, and also afterward, I did not lose my peace. There was a physiological fear that made my heart beat faster, but I could tell that it did not show on the outside, not even on my face. I was amazed, as I say, at the tone of sarcasm, of mockery, in which that one man called me, twice, “little donkey.” Instinctively I lifted my heart and said three Hail Mary’s to our Lady. Afterward, on my notepaper, I jotted down exactly what those people had said.

One of the most beautiful and sublime pages in his journal is inspired by his mystical connection with the Lady of the Kisses. It is not a literary flight of fancy, as at first glance might appear, but an intense interior experience: the kind of mystical experience in which the audacity of desire becomes a mandate, and with which children open up the kingdom of heaven.

It was December 28, the feast of the Holy Innocents, a day on which people in Spain traditionally play jokes on one another. The chaplain went to Santa Isabel and found that, for twenty-four hours, a novice was acting as prioress and the youngest nun as sub prioress. It was great fun to see the oldest and most serious nuns carrying out tasks imposed by the prioress of the day. When he got home, Father Josemaría kissed his statue of our Lady, began his meditation, and lost himself in contemplation. Immersed in prayer, he took up his pen and made the following entry in his journal:

A little boy visited a certain convent...

Little boy, you are the last donkey, the least among those who love Jesus. It’s your turn, you have the right, to rule in heaven. Let loose your imagination, and let your heart run wild too...

I want Jesus to forgive me... everything. I want all the blessed souls in purgatory purified in less than a second and going up to enjoy our God... because today I am taking his place. I want... to scold some guardian angels that I know – in fun, right? but also a little bit for real – and command them to obey like this: to obey Jesus’ donkey in things that are all for the glory of Christ our King. And after giving lots and lots of orders, I would say to my Mother, holy Mary: “My Lady, not even for fun do I want you to stop being Mistress and Empress of all creation.” Then she would kiss me on the forehead and leave me, as a sign of that favor, a bright star above my eyes. And with this new light I would see all the children of God down to the end of the world, fighting our Lord’s battles, always victorious with him, ... and I would hear a voice more than heavenly, like the murmur of many waters and the explosion of a mighty thunderclap, gentle despite its intensity, like the sound of many zithers played in harmony by an infinite number of musicians, saying, “We want him to reign! All glory to God! All, with Peter, to Jesus through Mary!”

And before this wondrous day comes to an end, O Jesus (I will tell him), I want to be a bonfire of madly passionate love! I want my mere presence to be enough to set the world on fire, for many miles around, with an inextinguishable flame. I want to know that I am yours. Afterward, let the cross come: never will I be afraid of expiation... To suffer and to love. To love and to suffer. What a magnificent path! To love, to suffer, and to believe: faith and love. The faith of Peter, the love of John, the zeal of Paul.

The little donkey still has three minutes of divinization, good Jesus, and so he commands... that you give him more zeal than Paul, more love than John, more faith than Peter. The last wish, Jesus: may I never lack the holy cross.

Two days later, the convent having returned to normal, the nuns let him take home with him the statue of the Child Jesus. The priest wrapped “the little one” in his cloak and brought him with him to celebrate Christmas with the outside world. Taking advantage of having that Christ Child outside the convent, he had a photo taken of it.

Today I brought home with me the “Christ Child of Saint Teresa.” The Augustinian nuns lent him to me. We went to see Father Gabriel, at the Carmelites, to wish him a merry Christmas. The little friar was happy and gave me a holy card and a medal. Afterward I saw Father Norberto’s spiritual director, Father Joaquin. We talked about the W. of G. From there I went to visit another convent. I spent a good amount of time with Mother Pilar. Then to the house of Pepe R., where we took a photo of the Child. Before going home, I went up to see Father Norberto, so that he could see the Child. At home, Mama prayed out loud an Our Father and a Hail Mary. I get to keep him here until tomorrow.

In a couple of journal entries written in January 1932, he relates when and how he learned the life of spiritual childhood:

I did not learn the path of childhood from books until after Jesus had made me start along this way.

Yesterday, for the first time, I began to page through a book which I will have to read slowly many times: Caminito de infancia espiritual [The little way of spiritual childhood], by Father Martin. I see how Jesus, with that reading, made me experience – even with the same images – the way of Saint Therese. I have written things in these Catherines that show this. I will also read slowly Story of a Soul.

By now his soul was becoming so filled with graces that despite his repeated resolves not to relate extraordinary events, some inevitably crept into his journal entries. That was the case with two locutions he received in 1932. On January 4 he wrote:

This morning, as usual, as I was leaving the convent of Santa Isabel, I went to the tabernacle for a moment to say good-bye to Jesus. I said to him, “Jesus, here is your donkey.... See what you can do with your donkey.” And immediately I understood, without hearing any words: “A donkey was my throne in Jerusalem.” This concept I grasped, with full clarity.

But at that moment a doubt assailed him. His attention was fixed on the female donkey mentioned by Saint Matthew, and so he thought the locution (since it referred to a male donkey) was a mistaken, perhaps even diabolical, interpretation of the Gospel. As soon as he got home he consulted the Gospels, and was reassured. Jesus had entered Jerusalem mounted on a young male donkey.

For some time, upon seeing a community of religious praying, he had been putting the way of spiritual childhood into practice, by saying, “Jesus, I don’t know how much they love you, but I love you more than all of them put together.” Well, shortly after the locution about the donkey, in putting on record his lack of generosity toward our Lord, he lets slip another of the many locutions he had.

February 16, 1932: For the last several days I have had a rather bad cold, and it has been an occasion for my lack of generosity toward my God to show itself. I slacked off in the thousand little things that a child – especially a child donkey – can offer his Lord each day. I started noticing this, and that I was postponing the fulfillment of certain resolutions about putting more time and effort into devotional practices, but I calmed myself with the thought, “Later, when you’re well, when your family’s financial situation is in better shape ... then!” Well, today, after giving the nuns Holy Communion... I told Jesus what I tell him so many, many times both day and night:... “I love you more than these.” And immediately I understood, without hearing any words: “Love is deeds, not sweet words and excuses.” At that moment I saw clearly how little generosity I have. Suddenly there came to my memory many details which I hadn’t been paying attention to, which made me see with crystal clarity my lack of generosity. O Jesus, help me, so that your donkey will be fully generous. Deeds, deeds!

*   *   *

“I expect great things in this year of 1931,” he had written in his journal in March of that year. His expectations had been exceeded. Twelve months later, he found himself brimming over with divine graces like a person inebriated by wine: so filled with God that he felt like calling for a truce. “I am inundated, drunk with the grace of God,” he says on March 11, 1932. “What a terrible sin if I do not respond! There are times – like right now – when I feel like shouting, Enough, Lord, enough!”

The divine eagle had caught that little bird and lifted it to dizzying heights. The Lord had definitively impressed on him such a consciousness, such a strong feeling, of his divine filiation that he was moved to loving acceptance of whatever happened. As he had expressed it on November 29,1931, “Because it comes from our Father’s hands, the blow of the chisel, regardless of whether it is – as the world sees it – favorable or unfavorable, and even though it wounds the flesh, is always also a proof of Love, which smooths out our rough edges to bring us closer to perfection.”

His courage in traveling the way of pain and expiation was rewarded with the triumph of love, which from then on took precedence in his soul over any other feeling.

Jesus, I feel great desires for reparation. My path is to love and to suffer. But love makes me rejoice in suffering, to the point where it now seems to me impossible for me ever to suffer. I already told you: there is no longer anyone who upsets me. And I even added: there is no one who can make me suffer, because suffering gives me joy and peace.

From then on, the customary pattern of his life was a serene and harmonious combination of great sufferings with great joys: bittersweet sufferings that did not take away his peace, and joys that were not totally satisfying.

Looking at his personal writings, one can see and appreciate how much God had accomplished in him in a year, in terms of simplifying his prayer and attracting his affections. “Now,” he says on April 7, 1932, “between Mary and myself, between Jesus and myself... nobody! Before, I would seek out intermediary saint.” And on February 26, 1932: “Now I go directly to the Father, to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit, to Mary. This doesn’t mean I don’t have devotions (to Saint Joseph, the angels, the souls in purgatory, Dominic, Joseph Calasanz, Don Bosco, Teresa, Ignatius, Xavier, Therese, Mercedes, etc.), but my soul definitely is getting simpler. R. Ch. V. [Regnare Christum volumus: We want Christ to reign].”

As he pursues the life of spiritual childhood, his prayer becomes very assertive. “My way of saying, in prayer, ‘I want,’” he notes on January 14, 1932, “is a childlike way of asking. So I’m not going off track.”

The founder also came out of 1931 with the rather odd habit, already mentioned, that as soon as he began to read the newspaper, his mind would run off to God. This happened quite a few times that year, and at first it seemed strange to him. But soon he noticed that frequently and inexplicably, periods of dryness and of favors were taking him by surprise, with no regard for time or place, inopportunely and often in a breathtaking way. “It is incomprehensible,” he says on March 26, 1932. “I know someone who feels cold (despite his faith, which is limitless) near the divine fire of the tabernacle, and then later, in the middle of the street, amid the noise of automobiles and streetcars and people – when reading a newspaper! – is seized with mad raptures of love for God.”

Was he getting practical lessons on how to lead a contemplative life in the midst of traffic, the hustle and bustle of crowds, or while reading?

Meanwhile, the devil was not inactive. First he insinuated the suggestion that he had no right to condemn his family to a life of poverty for the “folly” of the Work. Later he tried to rob him of his peace of mind by causing trouble concerning his official appointment to the Foundation of Santa Isabel. Finally, seeing how little progress he was making, with the Lord’s permission he resorted to physical assault.

At first Father Josemaría did not realize that he was dealing with the rage of “Old Scratch,” as he called the devil. He caught on to this only when he fell victim to a peculiar series of violent acts. On his way to a tutoring appointment one Sunday in March, at noon, he was peacefully reading his breviary when suddenly he was hit hard by a ball. He kept his composure, not even turning around “to see if this was an accident or an act of malice.”

Ten days later, on Ash Wednesday, he went to hear the confessions of the girls residing at the school of Santa Isabel. Returning by Duque de Medinaceli Street, he saw some boys playing on the sidewalk in front of Hotel Palace. Already burned by similar encounters, he quickly crossed over to the other side of the street, but he could not avoid the unavoidable:

A really hard kick and... pow! on the right-hand lens of my glasses, driving them into my nose. I didn’t even turn my head. I got out my handkerchief and, calmly, kept on walking, while cleaning my glasses.... At that moment I perceived the devil’s rage (it is too much of a coincidence) and the goodness of God, who lets him bark but not bite. One would have expected at least that the lens would have been broken, since there was nothing moderate about that blow I received. My right eye might also have been injured. Even just a broken lens would have been quite a setback, since I already have a hard time paying for the few streetcar rides I have to take.... The bottom line: God is my Father.

But misfortune comes in threes. Here is the next entry:

Monday, April 11: Yesterday, as I was walking on Alvarez de Castro Street, on the sidewalk, reading my breviary, on my way to catch the 48 to the hospital, they again hit me hard with a ball! I laughed. It upset him.

Father Josemaria’s lively sense of humor let him see that God was permitting the devil to “bark but not bite.” On another occasion at that time, he very clearly sensed that hell was raging against the Work of God. This incident happened “at noon on a sunny day, on Martinez Campos Avenue, near La Castellana.” He says nothing more about it, since by now he was depersonalizing journal entries about supernatural events having to do with himself. But possibly it was connected with this entry made some weeks earlier:

Hell is roaring, howling, bellowing, because Satan has an inkling about the souls that the W. of G. is going to bring to Jesus, and about the whole of its operation in the world: the effective reign of Christ in all of society. Regnare Christum volumus.