We spend much of our childhood, and particularly our teenage years, waiting impatiently to grow up. Observing the privileges and liberties of grownups, we simply cannot wait to join their ranks and leave behind the seeming confines of childhood and youth with all of its rules and boundaries.
Looking back, of course, we laugh at our naivety and wish perhaps with a bit of nostalgia for that more innocent time of childhood. Not that we want to go back, really, but we do long for a simpler time, before the world was so complicated and messy. And when our own children or grandchildren begin to push at their limits and express the desire to be grown up, all that we can do is tell them knowingly to slow down and enjoy their childhood while they have it.
I’m thinking about all of this because of the reading from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians this week, where he instructs them to:
become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and depraved generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world…. (2.15)
The apostle is telling them not to grow up but to grow down: i.e. to become children. We generally think of spiritual life as a process of maturity, a growing up, and it is true that sometimes the apostle uses this language as well. But here his instruction is, perhaps paradoxically, to mature - grow up - by growing down, becoming children.
There is a real irony here, as is so often the case in matters of spiritual wisdom. So much of what we consider grown-up and adult is actually just a coarse, vulgar, pubescent fascination with sex. Is this all that it means to be grown-up? Of course not, but it is often what passes for maturity and being grown-up. I have had numerous conversations over the years with people who complain about having rules forced upon them by the church, their parents, etc., who want to break free from those constraints and be independent, but who, if the truth be told, really just want a life of sexual liberty — to do what they want, when they want, with whom they want. Like I said, not so much grown up as simply adolescent.
True maturity and growth is a conversion, a turning back, from this fixation on sex and what we perceive, mistakenly, as being grown up in order to become children of God, “blameless and harmless”. It is rather specifically a return to innocence and naivety, a conversion, and thus is characterized by wisdom, not ignorance. It is not some sort of spiritual dementia but rather a deepening of understanding that demonstrates the truth of our Lord’s command to be “wise as serpents but innocent as doves.”
It is not surprising to me, then, that some of the people that I have known who are truly saintly display this quality of growing more and more childlike the more spiritual they become. People who knew him describe Fr Roman Braga with this very word, childlike: filled with wonder; amazed and rejoicing at the little miracles of the world. Robins pecking for worms on the morning grass after Liturgy, or the birds singing in Greek “Kyriaki!” (“The Day of the Lord!”) before Liturgy, or coming to consciousness on his deathbed, with a smile, asking for ice cream, all these are but little examples of the return to innocence of a man whom the communists sought to dehumanize and destroy, but who was saved because he had found the secret Kingdom in his heart.
Don't we long for a return to childlikeness such as this? Not a nostalgic return to the childhood of our memories, but the innocence of the saints, the children of God, at home in their Father’s house? The world’s solution is either to feed the nostalgia with a sentimental trip down memory lane or to cluck their tongues and tell us to grow up. The saints, however, from a place of profound simplicity, invite us to become the children that perhaps we never really were, but that we would like to become.
With love in Christ,