I indulged myself in a little amateur Biblical sleuthing today. I googled “children in the Bible.” Summarizing here with an enormously large brush, I found, not surprisingly, that the Old Testament is strong on the “spare the rod, spoil the child” theme but always in the name of faith in the revealed Law. Children are always spoken of in the Hebrew Scripture as gifts of God. Childlessness, as we know well, was a profound personal and familial tragedy in Biblical culture...and a cross for many people today.
Then I focused upon what Jesus himself said about children, and two major pieces caught my eye. The first, from Matthew 18:1-5: At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “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 is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.”
The second teaching, Luke 18:15-17, reinforces and strengthens the first. Now they were even bringing infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
Scholars tell us that these sayings of Jesus enjoy high levels of historical confidence. [Mark’s Gospel includes similar texts] and words worthy of contemplation. Jesus pulled an anonymous kid out of a crowd and taught that every child is pleasing to God, period. [Original sin disfigurement, where art thou?] But more than that, Jesus proclaims every child is a template of who will be welcomed into the lasting joy of the Kingdom at the end of time. The kids I know and wave to as they go to school in their golf carts every morning—this is Florida--are too young to have read or absorbed the full texts cited above, so it is our call as adults to love them and encourage them to spread their lives to embrace and enjoy God’s universe—by our returning to the child God made us. Right now, we don’t look much like kids—we’re frightened and angry, sensing that we are “losing control” …when “control” is usually an illusion anyway.
I have been a counselor for much of my life, and usefully, a patient as well. I specialized in mood disorder as provider and patient. I learned that depression and anxiety are often comorbid, i.e., you can have both, which makes perfect sense. Science does not fully understand how brain chemistry interacts with how we think and feel, or how “nature and nurture” impact our present state of mind. Depressives do tend to instinctively set goals—very often, unrealistic and numeric goals—to measure personal success or failure, and of course succumb to anxiety when the goals aren’t met. [There is more, of course, to mental health science—don’t be afraid to ask a pro in your circle, like your family doctor.]
If I were going back into providing fulltime ministry, spiritual direction, and even mental health counseling, I would use the benchmark established by Jesus, his Gospel revelation of childhood as “gift of God.” Regardless of age, we are the children of God. Father Edward J. Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, said in 1949 “there is no such thing as a bad boy, only bad environment, bad modeling, and bad teaching.” And that includes bad catechetics. [Recent research from the CARA institute indicates that the median age when individuals consider leaving the Catholic Church is 13, and for many as early as 10.]
The famous astronomer Carl Sagan observed that when he visited schools, the kindergarteners were voracious questioners: “Why is the moon round? What is a dream? Why do we have fingers and toes?” But when he visited twelfth graders, by contrast, their questions were few and guarded. He lamented that the child’s eye for wonder and knowledge had almost literally been squeezed from their souls. Too many years of “teaching to the test” and not enough playing in the captivating world of humanity and the sciences, perhaps? [Closing down music departments in schools? Shame.]
The Gospel model of childhood articulated by Jesus scares the dickens out of us who are cursed to be stuck in adulthood. We would be less than honest if we denied that Catholic parochial life has never been much of an advocate of imagination and “independent study” of life by the young and the young at heart. Carl Sagan was lucky he was not born Galileo. The Inquisition came into being in large part because some medieval Catholic adults dared to reflect, pray, and live the scriptures beyond the guardrails of mainstream Church life as then lived. They gave full run to their religiously inventive minds and hearts, hungry to turn over every stone and to create for themselves a mosaic of sacred meaning. Essentially, this is how the Benedictines, the Franciscans, and the other great orders came to be. [Sadly, a number of other “experiments” were suppressed with leaders going to the stake.]
Formation of children, whether in the family, the school, or especially the catechism class, is hamstrung by our need to “get it right,” keep it ordered, protect the status quo. Look at a typical early-adolescent parish Confirmation class: the practical goal-preoccupation is to memorize data from the Catechism to ensure readiness to receive God’s Wisdom, the Spirit. The irony here is precious; we are talking about the visitation of the all-powerful God and reducing it to small thumb drive of data. Have we taken time to listen to the young and hear their questions, particularly about the knowledge of God they may have already experienced? Jesus, at the age of twelve, would not be denied his moment with the teachers and scribes of the Temple, the same folks ironically who would later have him crucified for displacing the guardrails of religious uniformity.
Father James Martin’s Learning to Pray  begins with the author’s own youthful experience of a world beyond the tangible, He was riding his bike through a field. “Then I looked around. All around me was so much life—the sights, the sounds, the smells—and suddenly I had a visceral urge not only to be a part of it, but also to know it and somehow possess it. I felt loved, held, understood. The desire for everything, somehow for a full incorporation into the universe, and a desire to understand what I was doing here on this earth filled me.” [p. 23] Not to outdo Father Martin here, but I grew up in Buffalo, without a golfcart, where robins are very common in the spring and summer months. Robins provide a distinctive and soothing song at dawn and dusk. I asked my mother about that—I was probably four or five and quite taken with this gift of nature—and she said that the robins were singing their morning and evening prayers to God. And yes, the few times I get to New York State nowadays, the robins still take me to a very special place.
SOME MEDITATIONAL QUESTIONS:
Jesus tells us that we will find happiness and eternal destiny as we become like children. Can we retrieve moments today when we felt “loved, held, understood” in our childhood, to use Father Martin’s words?
Is your present-day lifestyle drowning out the beautiful singing of birds or the risings and settings of the sun?
Do you sometimes think you hold yourself responsible for too many things?
When you were young, did you go hungry—in the literal sense for the material necessities of life? Or for attention to your questions about life?
Or for adults to take healthy interest in you, just because you were a hearty little kid?
Do you regret you didn’t have someone like Carl Sagan to open your eyes to the universe--created by God for you.
Do you have good, bad, or indifferent recollections of “churchy things?”
We were all children once, and we all have people who, back in the day, affected us positively [i.e., left us with good memories] or negatively [in any number of ways.] Are any of those good folks still around or continue to play an important role in your life?
No permission necessary for personal and/or responsible ministerial use.
The next essay/meditation will go up in about two weeks—on adulthood-- with more reflective questions. If you have been moved by anything here that you would like to explore further, your parish or diocese may have “spiritual direction” available—trained lay persons, religious, or priests who would meet with you periodically to guide you in your spiritual growth. If you are feeling unduly stressed—anxious, depressed, etc.—your diocesan office may have links to professional counselors for you through Catholic Charities, with fees scaled to your ability to pay.