Monday, October 22, 2012

The Wisdom of Spiritual Childhood

The Wisdom of Spiritual Childhood
Quotes: From The True Vine and its Branches by Fr. Edward Leen, 1938

“One need not practice evangelical poverty to be saved, but one must deny oneself. It is a law of the spirit that cannot be evaded,” said Fr. Edward Leen.  And it would seem odd that Fr. Edward Leen, author of the book, The True Vine and its Branches, goes on to say that the chief characteristic of childhood is one of self-denial. This is precisely what our Lord calls every adult to: a childlike trust in God.

It is a peculiar assertion to say the least that self-denial is the mark of childhood. Odd indeed because is it not true that a toddler pronounces the word “mine” before he does “mommy?” Children are not known for voluntary sharing their toys. In fact, parents are constantly bidding them to be more generous as they play with their siblings and friends.

This, no doubt, is true. But the good priest reminds us of a bigger childhood picture.  The predominant disposition of a child is marked by a trust and dependence on his parents. Because of this, Fr. Leen said that a child’s trust is a far more beautiful thing than gratitude. “Confidingness is the permanent quality of the child spirit. The little one does not fret against, or resent, its dependence…It depends on them [the parents] as naturally as it breathes. There is in the child a complete absence of self-consciousness or reflecting back on itself…Its life is grappled to a life outside its own.” And because of this self-abandon disposition, the child discovers a happiness that is seldom retained throughout his life. Sooner or later, as an adult, the admission that we need God and others for one's happiness is falsely perceived to be a sign of weakness- a kind of a crutch.

Fr. Leen maintains that a child’s happiness derives from the ability to lose himself in a world outside of himself. He continues:  “This transition of the center of gravity of its existence outside of itself is the source of utter confidence and fearlessness…It is in striking contrast to the subjectivity and self-preoccupation that marks the adult. That life is not calculating.”  What is even more charming is that “the choice of the persons to whom they readily give themselves is not determined by riches or by beauty, but by affection.” To be sure, children are not interested in status of the people they love; at least at a very young age.  They accept others as they are, especially their parents.

This childhood simplicity and dependence was a quality that our Lord fostered in the hearts of the apostles. However, their adulthood tendencies would assert themselves from time to time. They, quite often, esteemed greatness as the world viewed greatness. When their worldly ambitions were frustrated, murmuring issued from their lips. Prior to the decent of the Holy Spirit, being small in the eyes of others was not a top priority for the apostles.

“Men are always more alive to the disadvantages from which they suffer than they are to the advantages which they enjoy.”  If it is distinction they want, it is distinction they will get.  But it must be borne in mind that our Lord has a way of answering our prayers in unexpected ways. As Fr. Leen said, “The apostles looked for distinction in Christ’s Kingdom. That distinction would not be denied to them, but the way to it was not self-advertisement, but self-effacement.” It is a great irony in God’s plan that in order to become great in God’s eyes the disciple must first become small in his own eyes. As St. John the Baptist said, "He must increase while I must decrease." 

As each soul is formed by our Lord throughout life, fallen human nature will rebel against its dependence on God.  This is precisely why the Cross and even the anticipation of death itself is so very important for our salvation. It reminds us how inherently limited we are as God’s creatures.  Fr. Edward Leen said,

“Man proud of the freedom of his will is ever tempted into revolt against the natural limitations that are inherent in created freedom…Christ’s teaching strikes at the root of this disorderly tendency in rational creatures. He warns men that their entry in the kingdom of God, their return to the paradise from which they had been expelled (in so far as such a return is possible in the actual condition of things) can be effected only through abandonment of this independent attitude of soul. He tells them that they must shed the ‘grown up’ or ‘adult’ attitude in their dealings with God and become as little children with their Heavenly Father.”

Voluntary acts of self-denial  keeps the wisdom of spiritual childhood alive. It is a palpable reminder that our human lot in life is one of dependence.  “The ‘old man’ is strong in all the heirs to original sin and is ever on the alert to express himself, to assert himself, and to insist on his false claims. To vanquish this enemy, the devoted disciples of Christ do not content themselves with refusing him his lawful demands, they push their resistance further. They assume the offensive. They deprive him even of what it would be permissible to grant…Hence, it is that self-denial as a habitual disposition of the soul, is akin to the disposition of spiritual childhood.”

And if we should fall and give in to sin or the illusion of independence, we should never lose hope. “So superabundant is the grace of Christ that the Christian can fall many times and rise again many times…The Christian can rise from the death of sin, not once, but an incalculable number of times. There is in him a source of vitality, in virtue of which, it is in his power to enjoy innumerable resurrections.” Indeed, conversion is a series of beginnings.  The Saint is always starting over but is never disheartened. He or she knows that spiritual progress is principally a work of the Holy Spirit. And that progress necessarily involves recognizing and embracing the wisdom of spiritual childhood. It is through spiritual childhood that Christ reaches his full maturity in the soul.