Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The maturity of spiritual childhood

Revised and reposted:

 “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. Oddly enough, the Irish priest who authored the book, The True Vine and its Branches (1938), 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 that self-denial is the mark of childhood. After all, 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. These objections, no doubt, are true.

However, what Fr. Leen is calling to mind is something more fundamental. The predominant disposition of a child is marked by a trust and dependence on his parents. Because of this, Fr. Leen argued that a child’s trust is far more endearing than the polite considerations of adults. He said,

“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.”

Due to this self-abandon disposition, the child discovers a happiness that is seldom retained throughout in his adulthood years. Sooner or later 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 goes on to say 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. Nevertheless, their adulthood tendencies asserted themselves from time to time. Quite often, they esteemed greatness as the world viewed greatness. When their worldly ambitions were frustrated, it was not uncommon for them to murmur. That’s right. Prior to the decent of the Holy Spirit, being small in the eyes of others was not a top priority for the Apostles.

Fr. Edward Leen reminds us that, “Men are always more alive to the disadvantages from which they suffer than they are to the advantages which they enjoy.” One such disadvantage they abhorred was not “being someone of distinction.” They wanted recognition. They coveted human respect. But it must be borne in mind that our Lord has a way of answering our prayers in unexpected ways. If it is distinction they wanted, it was distinction they received. 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 spiritually formed, fallen human nature will rebel against its dependence on God. This is precisely why meditating on the Cross and even death itself are so very important for our salvation. They remind us how limited we are as God’s creatures. The priest goes on to say add this:

“Man, proud of the freedom of his will, is ever tempted to 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 -can be effected only through abandoning this independent attitude of the 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.”

“In his riches, man lacks wisdom.” (Psalm 49) Hence, voluntary acts of self-denial keep the wisdom of spiritual childhood alive. This spiritual practice is a palpable reminder that our human lot in life is one of dependence. And if the Christian is ambitious, the author of The True Vine and its Branches maintained that he should not settle for half-measures:

“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 which is akin to the disposition of spiritual childhood.”

And what if we should fall and give in to sin or the illusion of independence? Answer: we should never lose hope. Fr. Leen continues:

“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 ironic but true that through spiritual childhood a Christ reaches his full maturity in the soul.