St. Teresa of Avila tells the story of a time she was coming down the steps of her convent when she saw a child standing outside. The child spoke to her and said, “Who are you?” Teresa answered, “I am Teresa of Jesus, who are you?” With a smile, the child answered with great energy, “I am Jesus of Teresa!” Of course, she realized in that moment that it was Christ, who promptly vanished.
I just heard this story in a lecture by Fr. Francis Martin, and was blown away by its simple beauty. “Of Jesus,” “of Teresa” is clearly a statement of mutual belonging between two people bound to one another by a covenant of love, as in the language of the Song of Songs 6:3,
I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.
The fact that Jesus appeared as a child to say this to her is also stunning, as it reminds us that to enter this covenant of the Kingdom of Heaven, we must do so as Jesus adjures in Matthew 18:2-4,
He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
I was so struck by the child’s smile and energy! In that I see a heart filled with joy, wonder, playful zest, openness, trust, love, humility. 300 years later, St. Teresa’s spiritual daughter, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, would develop a whole spiritual vision of the “little way” around this encounter.
The other week when I was in Iowa, I sat on a bench by a lake and watched a small child excitedly playing with some bugs he had found. His mother was busy on her iPhone for at least 20 minutes, wholly oblivious to the explosive joy erupting in front of her as he would cry out now and again, to no avail, “Mama, look! Mama look!”
At first, this made me feel sad for the child, that the mother would not respond to his attempts to draw her into his tiny world of amazement. But when I saw that this was not diminishing his joy in any way, I couldn’t help but think of the words of Fr. Zossima in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov,
Pray to God for gladness. Be glad as children, as the birds of heaven. And let not the sin of men around you confound you in your doings. Fear not that it will wear away your work and hinder its being accomplished. Do not say, ‘Sin is mighty, wickedness is mighty, evil environment is mighty, and we are lonely and helpless, and evil environment is wearing us away and hindering our good work from being done.’ Fly from that dejection, children!
In truth, belonging to Christ, who is the fountain of eternal childhood, steels you against a world grown cold and sad in its loss of the capacity to discover in all moments the unfettered joy of shared wonder over God’s amazing creation.
Even as the world around you gripes and groans, dance! And pray to the God-made-child…