Like Children

“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children,
you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven….
…If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,
will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills
and go in search of the stray?…
…In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father
that one of these little ones be lost.” Matt 18:1-5,10,12-14

Our peaceful Pentecost prayers were interrupted by the wail of an emergency siren.  It was emanating from my 18-month-old niece Zippy, who was making a compelling case that evolutionary descent was not from apes but from banshees.  “Owwwww” she wailed, convincing the entire congregation to look our way, expecting blood.  But it was just an abbreviation for “out” by which she meant “out of the pew”, “outside” and also “now.”

So I extracted her writhing figure and brought her outside to the statue of Joseph holding Jesus, where she was once again happy.  “Ball!” she said, noting the sphere in the hands of baby Jesus.  “Ball!” she said louder.  “That’s the world, Zippy, not a ball,” I explained, but she still thought that Jesus ought to hand it over to her.  I realized she had a good share of my DNA blended in with the banshee.

Several years ago I read a book about Saint John Paul the Great which deeply inspired me to want to be a saint.  “I am ready to get serious about my faith” I told God.  The images that came to me in prayer, however, were not of great sacrifices or even good deeds, but rather of a nursing infant.

“What does this mean?” I asked, and then followed another image, of myself as toddler, sitting on Jesus’ lap at the Last Supper.  I looked around with great delight.  “I am ready to sit with the big kids!” toddler-me told Jesus.  “I want to be one of the apostles.”  Then I thought for a moment, and toddler-me replied, “Actually Jesus, I want to be you.  I want to be in charge!”  Jesus only smiled, and I saw once again the nursing infant.

There was a time when serious-adult-me would have rebuked this little toddler, but now I only laugh, because I know that Jesus delights in her, in her big dreams and small stature.  Certainly a humility check is in order (and still in progress) but there is something in her honesty, in her way of relating to Jesus, her confidence in His love for her no-matter-what, that adult-me can learn from.

After Mass, we take Zippy to Red Robin for dinner, and order her mini meatballs from the kid’s menu.  Because I am an amateur, not a parent, I hand her the tomato sauce for dipping.  Moments later, I am sitting next to a pint-sized serial killer, covered head to toe in red.  Because I am an aunt, not a parent, I snap pictures in lieu of cleaning her up.

I hand her a cup of juice, which she sips daintily, careful not to spill any.  When she is finished, she indicates so by pouring the remaining juice directly into her lap.  She looks up, smiles, and reaches out her arms to be picked up.  She is confident that my love is greater than my aversion to sauce and stickiness.

I bring her outside to fend off impending sirens, and she hears some music from a nearby restaurant, and begins to dance.  She has not yet learned to judge herself on the reactions of others, the number of Facebook likes, or even her skill at dancing, which is only a slight improvement over her table manners.

I am reminded of teaching my four-year old class the story of The Found Sheep. For this one, Jesus leaves the ninety-nine to search diligently, until He finds it and carries it home jubilantly on His shoulders. At first I worried in the back of my mind that children in their sensitivity might worry about the ninety-nine—those poor sheep left behind while Jesus goes looking for the one.  But the child sees what adults do not: to Jesus, there is no ninety-nine.  There is only the one.

Children know the secret to holiness is simple.  Love. Dependence. Trust. Confidence in the goodness of God, in His care for us, in His willingness to love us even when we are messy or awkward or do things badly or even completely wrong.

The key to holiness is not the greatness of our deeds but the greatness of God’s love.  Prayer is not one of the good works performed by the holy, but rather the food which makes any other work possible.

A few months later I am standing at the seashore with little Zippy, the waves which wash pleasantly over my ankles are strong enough to push her off balance.  But unafraid, she reaches up her arms to be picked up.  Safe and comfortable in my arms, she points to the deep, trusting that she can go anywhere as long as she is held.

May we like little children be confident always in the Father’s love for us, trusting in His goodness and protection to feed us, to lead us, to carry us home.

To Be Like Little Children

Gospel: MT 11:25-27

At that time Jesus exclaimed:
“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to the childlike.
Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.
All things have been handed over to me by my Father.
No one knows the Son except the Father,
and no one knows the Father except the Son
and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”

Dear Frassati brothers and sisters,

Today’s Gospel reminds us that God wants us to be like children, that there is something about children that is an ideal in the Christian life that people lose as they age. I’ve heard this passage explained in homilies and sermons many times, but the way I always come back to interpreting it is that God wants us to remain like “little sponges,” picking up on every word He says, and staying close to Him all throughout our lives. (Even as we grow older and more and more think we know what we’re talking about…)

Children develop at a rapid pace – there is so much to learn about this life, so much joy to be had in the simplest things, so many questions to ask their caregivers, including the never-ending stream of “why? but why? why???”. But then, as childhood fades more and more into the rearview mirror, this curiosity and openness to new information and experiences slows down. We begin to feel “stuck” in our ways or even feel lethargic in life’s pursuits. We forget the amazing gift it is to just be alive. We forget how to grow, develop, because we lose track of that ideal, dependent relationship with God. We might be stuck thinking about how our life is difficult and not what we expected it to be. We grow inward, forgetting our caregivers and learning to depend on ourselves because the idea of independence and “muscling through problems” is put on a pedestal in our society. We forget we are still children of God; we forget we must constantly be developing into the image of our Father.  

And allowing God to work in us during these dark times is something that our generation especially has a hard time with because we expect things to be quickly dealt with. We live in a world where technology and industry are trying to constantly make our lives easier, smoother, less cumbersome. But … the conditions for sainthood have never changed; God has never changed.

To become a saint in these current times requires us to effortfully slow down our minds and invite God in. To become a saint requires us to courageously make space for silence, for God speaks in silence. To become a saint requires us to allow God into every space in our hearts, to actively ready this space for change, and to give God the authority and trust as our eternal Caregiver in order to create this continual shift in perspective, inner life. God wants to carve a unique piece of Heaven into each of our hearts for the world to see, but we so often choose to be formed by the things of this world.

I invite you all to take some time tomorrow night to watch this message – given by my favorite preacher, Christine Caine – and really ask God to convict you in your heart about how you have been resisting the ways He wants you to develop. Also, ask God to show you how you have been learning from Him in the way he desires. Give Him glory for the moments you have been an attentive son or daughter, and ask for direction and forgiveness for the times you have been stubborn or have turned away from His love and call to greater things. I promise that God will say something to your heart as you watch this message!

Sweet Jesus, may our hearts ever be open to your revelation. 

May our eyes be like those of little children, 

seeing the beauty of the world in awe and wonder. 

May we trust You with all of our lives, unreservedly. 

Teach us to learn as little children do, 

with an insatiable hunger for love and learning more and more. 

Amen. 

Pax Christi,
Alyssa

Because We Need Faith

Dear fellow pilgrims,

Today in Mass, I continued to ponder the answer to the Lord’s assertion that “it is better for you that I go” amidst a day of celebrating my completed PhD at NYU in Developmental Psychology (AMDG—all glory to God, y’all). I had never thought of the answer within a view of my own discipline…thinking about us as children, and having the disciples, the Church, needing to learn what it’s like to not always have Jesus, their ultimate caregiver, around. After all, in the development of a child’s life, they eventually have to be able to function without the constant help of a caregiver as they get older and more responsibilities are given to them.

In other words, it’s easier to have faith in Jesus when He is in front of you doing miracles and you are physically encountering Him than it is when you are believing without seeing. (But, just for the record, even believing when He was on earth was still a challenge!) And what is Jesus constantly about in our lives? Seeing that we grow further and further into deeper trust and faith in Him. While Jesus was on earth, He subjected himself to being in one place at one time, and in a way, gave up the ability to be present to everyone everywhere in the same way that He can be now, post-Ascension and post-Pentecost.

He left us because you can’t have a deep faith without embracing a space of unknowing. Thomas rejected that space, demanded concrete evidence, and even though our Lord was gracious to meet him where he was, He also acknowledged the superiority of “believing without seeing” over believing because you saw.

Thinking about this dynamic more, I realized that the way I typically have thought of the Ascension (i.e. Jesus itching to ascend and FINALLY get back home, just waving bye-bye to the disciples as they all stare as He ascends slooooowly up towards the clouds) might not have been so one-sided on the angst part. Being a parent and learning to let go is HARD (and my kid is only 15 months old!), so it occurred to me today that Jesus was probably not so unaffected by the disciples pleading. The tone of “it is better for you that I go,” is one straight from a loving Father’s mouth, trying to show that He is doing something that upsets his children only because it is ultimately for their good they could not find from following another way. Saying goodbye to His disciples was probably very challenging, even though He was also intensely joyful to return to Heaven!

The priest today at Mass recalled the words of some saints who have mentioned similar pleas to their loved ones on their deathbeds: It is better for me to intercede for you in Heaven than it is for me to be with you here. Getting to Heaven means joining with the Source of all life and love and holiness, and the Holy Spirit is like the electrical current that flows from that source (going with Grace’s power analogy from Tuesday). It’s like Jesus had to draw the circuit board of salvation history in order to reconnect humans to God, only He could pave the way or connections between Heaven and earth, and He could only truly connect Heaven to earth in the way originally intended in His mission if He returned to Heaven.

But…there is still the waiting after the Ascension. There is still this gap, an empty channel soon to be filled, but the disciples did not know exactly when the Holy Spirit would come! It has never occurred to me that the days after the Ascension were probably filled with similar angst among the disciples as were the days post-crucifixion. “Ok…so He told us to wait in Jerusalem…but not for how long…and what exactly did He say would come to us, again?”. The Lord has left them “for good,” or so it seems like, and they have directions to follow but are uncertain as to the specifics of expectations.

I invite us all to put ourselves in the disciples’ shoes after the Ascension—what would you do if you were in their place? How would you feel after you lost sight of Jesus arising farther and farther into the sky…when He turned from a speck in the air to unable to be seen…maybe it was a foggy day and they lost sight quickly…insert yourself into the scene, and reread passages from different Gospels, praying through instincts that arise when you dig deep into what it would be like to be there. Take note of your responses and what it says about how you could pray for deepening your faith.

Pax Christi,
Alyssa