I recently completed Saint Augustine’s Confessions and one defining feature of his work, and of the saint, was the ability to ask questions. He asked questions about everything, from the experience of being a baby, to the nature of time and eternity, all the way through to the obviously “saintly” questions concerning God and His nature that St. Augustine is widely famous for. As I made my way through the book, though, I couldn’t escape the fact that as interesting and as important as these questions were, they were not what was making the deepest impression on me as I read. Rather, St. Augustine and his childlike nature were. That this should impress me shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I opened my Bible later in the week to find God Himself telling me “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt.18:3-4). With the words of God in our ears and the example of the saints before our eyes, it’s time to consider becoming like children.
The Christian is defined by their filial relationship to God. We experience God as Father, through our Lord and brother, Jesus Christ. This status as sons and daughters of God, more than anything, ought to affect the way we conduct ourselves in the world, but all too often, it doesn’t. It would be easy to criticise the way in which we bustle about, as though we were adults with no need of a Father’s guiding hand, but I believe the more compelling argument is to be found in examining all of the ways in which we deprive ourselves of what God wants to give us by refusing to live as children. Before going any further though, St. Paul’s words from his first letter to the Corinthians offer guidance for the consideration of this topic:
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” (1 Corinthians 13:11)
Do these words stand in opposition to Christ’s instruction in the gospels? Quite the opposite. St. Paul provides an important distinction between becoming childlike and childishness. Whereas Christ teaches us to become like a child, St. Paul warns us that we are to avoid becoming childish in the process. What’s the difference? As I mentioned earlier, it’s a rare thing for us to live out the reality of being children of God, and yet it’s totally accurate to say that many of us conduct ourselves childishly as we move about the world. I know this to be the situation I find myself in. I’m not being childlike when I refuse to forgive someone, I’m being childish. I do not become like a child in the sense Jesus intended when I rage because things didn’t go my way, rather, I display childishness. When I avoid the responsibilities that are a part of growing up, I don’t cling to my childhood, I cling to childishness. St. Augustine discusses this early in his Confessions. He acknowledges the beautiful nature of childhood, but he also realises that children can exhibit intense selfishness because they haven’t yet had the opportunity to develop the maturity required to overcome themselves. If childishness is nothing to be aspired to, then, what of the childlike nature that Jesus tells us to strive for? What is it in their nature that allows children to, so effortlessly, pass near to the kingdom of Heaven? As always, we can look to Christ and his saints for the answers.
“Consider the lilies”, Christ tells us in Matthew’s Gospel, “they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these” (Matthew 6:28-29). This sentence is part of Jesus’ great reminder to us not to be anxious, because our lives are in the hand of our Father. Christ was precise in his use of language, with never a word wasted. In this one sentence, he reveals to us many of the childlike qualities necessary if we’re to gain access to his kingdom, beginning with a sense of wonder. “Consider the lilies”, God tells us. He places this at the beginning, because a sense of wonder is an invaluable aid in becoming like a child, in experiencing the world as one. If I think back to my childhood, I remember considering the lilies. I remember the vivid intensity of the green of the grass, the rush of the wind, the heat of the sun, and the music of laughter. Everything felt so real, so solid, and it hasn’t always been the same since entering adulthood. More often than not, we find ourselves trapped inside, caught up in worries and fantasies as God’s creation rolls by us unnoticed. We shouldn’t lament the loss of these things for their own sake; the creation is not God after all. But we should mourn the loss of the spiritual fruit that such an appreciation of God’s world brings. St. Therese of Lisieux, the master of spiritual childhood, spoke of just this in her memoirs, The Story of a Soul:
“I can still feel the deep and poetic impression which the wheat fields made on me when I saw them all studded with poppies and cornflowers and daisies. Even then I love far distances, wide spaces and the trees. The whole of nature, in fact, enchanted me and raised my soul toward Heaven.”
A child’s soul is lighter than an adult’s, and more easily raised to Heaven. This is not to downplay the importance of many of the decisions we face, that we’re burdened with, as we age but is simply an echo of Our Lord’s reminder to “Consider the lilies”, because a proper appreciation of the majesty of creation, a proper sense of wonder, will point our souls Heavenwards. St. Augustine reflects this same attitude in the multitude of questions that I referenced at the beginning of this blog. It’s a well-documented phenomenon that children pour forth an endless onslaught of questions, and the same is true of the saint. Wonder begets a desire for Truth.
Having stopped to consider the lilies, Jesus then asks us to observe how “they neither toil nor spin”, and yet he tells us “even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these”. What’s their secret? Jesus tells us:
“Therefore, do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” (Matthew 6:31-32)
Trust is the practical application of childhood that Jesus recommends here, and the trust that he proposes is radical. He asks us to trust that God will feed us and clothe us in the same way that the birds and the flowers trust. I’m inclined to believe that such trust is impossible for us if we refuse to humble ourselves and become as children, and it seems Jesus says just that as he points to Solomon. Solomon, who for all his wealth and intelligence, couldn’t clothe himself as finely as God clothes the flowers. He asks us to trust that God will provide what we need as surely as a child trusts their parents to keep them going from day to day. And while the sad reality of our fallen world is that parents are not always able to provide everything their children need, Jesus asks that we take the childlike leap of faith into our Father’s arms anyway. In God, we have a Father like no other. St. Augustine voices this trust in his Confessions, “the believer has the whole world of wealth and ‘possesses all things as if he had nothing’ by virtue of his attachment to you whom all things serve”. St. Augustine, like St. Therese, took the crucial step of moving beyond a merely intellectual understanding of this truth. They actively lived it out. They cast all of their anxieties on him, for he cares for them, and he asks us to do the same.
Jesus’ teaching, that we must become as children to win the kingdom of Heaven, should see us running to our Father, as the saints have done before us and will continue to do after us. As with many of his commands they may seem difficult initially, but if we have the courage to try, we will find his yoke easy, and his burden light. To enter into the childhood offered you is to receive the world as your inheritance, and infinitely more, as the poet Thomas Traherne so beautifully exclaimed:
“You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world.”
Become like children and enjoy what your Father is trying to give you.