What can we make of the inexpressible joy of children? It is a kind of gratitude, I think—the gratitude of the ten-year-old who wakes to her own energy and the brisk challenge of the world. You thought you knew the place and all its routines, but you see you hadn’t known. Whole stacks at the library held books devoted to things you knew nothing about. The boundary of knowledge receded, as you poked about in books, like Lake Erie’s rim as you climbed its cliffs. And each area of knowledge disclosed another, and another. Knowledge wasn’t a body, or a tree, but instead air, or space, or being—whatever pervaded, whatever never ended and fitted into the smallest cracks and the widest space between stars.. — Annie Dillard
I so love Annie’s description of the way children spontaneously link the acquisition of knowledge with joy and gratitude — and with mystery, that evasive quality of existence. I like to define mystery as reality overflowing our every attempt at comprehensive definition, description, analysis. Reality resists reduction, retaining a limitless surplus of meaning. Every time you try to possess mystery, it escapes. Seen through the eyes of faith, mystery means that everything possesses a radical transparency to infinite and transcendent truth, beauty and goodness, like a universal sacrament gesturing forever beyond itself.
Children are born with a natural attunement to mystery, keeping it lively amongst us old while thrusting into our language, by their irrepressible exuberance, words like surprise, amazement, bewilderment, astonishment and wonder, accented by seemingly pointless smiles and explosions of giggly laughter “without a why.” Every time we try to domesticate reality, children rebel. Of course, all of these electric words are words that populate the four Gospels, swirling like incense around the person of Jesus. Wherever he goes, the world awakens into a chorus of wonder and awe. As with children, Jesus himself was untainted by the mortal wounds of envy and ruthless competition, nor were his senses ever dulled by our suffocating addictions, possessiveness and violence.
Jesus, the Everlasting Child, keeps the raging flames of wonder burning brightly in our shadowy world through children – those born of flesh and those born of the Spirit.
Jesus taught clearly in the Gospels that children have a pivotal role in the Kingdom, not simply as stark symbols of humility and powerlessness, which they were, but also as bearers of the pure light of tender love that is the Origin and End of every created being. Here, I think of the magnificent insight Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart articulated as he was reflecting on his book, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?:
…as I was writing the book, I found myself thinking again and again of a photograph I had seen in the Baltimore Sun. The story concerned the Akhdam, the lowest social caste in Yemen, supposedly descended from Ethiopians left behind when the ancient Ethiopian empire was driven out of Arabia in the sixth century, who live in the most unimaginable squalor. In the background of the photo was a scattering of huts constructed from crates and shreds of canvas, and on all sides barren earth; but in the foreground was a little girl, extremely pretty, dressed in tatters, but with her arms outspread, a look of delight upon her face, dancing. To me that was a heartbreaking picture, of course, but it was also an image of something amazing and glorious: the sheer ecstasy of innocence, the happiness of a child who can dance amid despair and desolation because her joy came with her into the world and prompts her to dance as if she were in the midst of paradise.
What an incredible image! This girl’s wildly unbridled joy came with her — and came with us! — into the world, radiating outward from the divine image hidden in the secret depths of her soul and flesh. An incarnation of the divine image unique to her alone. Her ebullient witness begs the question of us — What have we done with this hidden treasure we bear in earthen vessels? Have we, who have grown old in sin, allowed this image, this spark of divine splendor to shrivel and devolve into morbid patterns of broken thinking? — gluttony, lust, greed, envy, despondency, anger, vainglory and pride. In these ways, we turn inward in self-protective postures, deformed by the ancient curse of Adam and by those older than us, who were themselves long ago given over to a life of competition in a zero-sum game.
It was into this world of agèd and calcified minds and hearts that God entered as an infant, planting the supple genius of childhood into adulthood as the Son of Man became a man. As Man, Jesus introduced the foolish naïveté of God’s unconditional selfless love into the sinister realms of sin and death. True because it is impossible! There, lying in the abode of the dead, where wonder sleeps, Christ awakened the eternal childhood of God and invited the rest of humanity to awaken with him.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously wrote in his novel, The Idiot, “I believe the world will be saved by beauty.” In that same novel he also wrote, “Children soothe and heal the wounded heart.” Here we see the fusion of beauty and childhood as the antidote to the world’s terminal illness. In that fusion we can see the eternal mission of children, which is to save the world by restoring the beauty of innocence to a fallen world. The English word innocence, stemming from two Latin words which mean “to not harm,” elegantly captures this mission in a manner reminiscent of Pope Francis’ brilliant description of the Gospel as “the revolution of tenderness.” The Word became flesh and dwelt among us to incite this revolutionary mission, which Psalm 8:2 itself reveals with such poetic beauty:
From the mouths of children and of babes
you fashioned praise to foil your enemy,
to silence the foe and the rebel.
It is the helpless innocence of a child that vanquishes the enemy in the Kingdom, putting down the rebellion of humanity against the vocation to imitate divine tenderness, mercy and forgiveness in the face of violence and evil in every form. From the innocent wonder and joy of a child rises an eternal hymn of praise to a Crucified God who, in effect, said to us from the Cross, “I don’t want to hurt you. I want to redeem you, to heal you, to raise you up into my eternity of tender love and mercy.” All of which is why St. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:18 that the wisdom of the Cross is mōria “folly and idiocy” for those who reject God’s revolution.
Many years ago we had a family friend who was dying of cancer. His name was Patrick. Our children were quite small at the time, and didn’t really understand exactly what dying meant. Patrick had been there for the birth of our first son, and was very much a part of our life. He was a man of kindness and humor, a real character with a personal story of lifelong hardship. He had come back to the faith not too many years before he first met him, and was living his life, as he said, in reparation for past misdeeds. As he was dying, the darkness of his past resurfaced and he was, he said, very much afraid to meet God and face all the people he believed he had wronged in this life. No matter how many times he was reassured by friends or clergy of God’s complete forgiveness, nothing could alleviate his fear.
One day, my wife took our children to visit him at the hospice. I couldn’t go because of work. I knew that morning that she was going to see him, but I had not heard from her during the day so didn’t think about it. But somewhere in the middle of the afternoon, I received a call at work from a woman who had cared for him throughout his illness and was with him during his hospice stay. She called to tell me that Patrick had died, and that she wanted to share with me what happened shortly before his death. She said:
Your wife came with your children late this morning to see Patrick, and he was quite distraught. Inconsolable really. One of your children, I think it was Nicholas, climbed up into the bed with him and said, “Don’t worry Mr. Pat! It’s gonna be alright!” That just made it all worse, though. Patrick said, “Oh no it won’t! It won’t!” and began to cry loudly. Your wife said goodbye to him and left with the children. After they were gone, I went over to him and said, “Patrick, did you see that little boy come up to you just now? Did you hear what he said? Didn’t you see the sincerity in his eyes? That was the voice of Jesus speaking to you. You know Jesus said he comes to us through little children. Patrick, when your time comes, when you meet Jesus, those are the words he will say to you: “Don’t worry, Mr. Pat, all is well.” After I said that, he grew very calm. Then after I walked out of the room, within a minute or two, he died. So I called because I wanted you all to know that your son helped Patrick to die a peaceful death. He helped Patrick hear the voice of Jesus.
Children soothe and heal the wounded heart. We live in a world littered with bleeding, broken and dying men and women, desperately afraid and in need of a child’s gentle touch. Each of us, “born of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:5) in baptism, have been restored to the innocence of childhood, commanded by Christ to heal the world with his tender touch. There is no other way by which the world can be healed.
So may the Spirit of rebirth draw us again and again into the womb of God, so we might be daily reborn, in and with the Son, as children who bear the fruits of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.