What to Call It? Spiritual Childhood

All-SaintsWe have all struggled with the line from the Gospels, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3; cf. Luke 18:17). How should we be like children? Innocence? (And in what ways are children innocent?) Silliness? Some people say we should be truthful like children . . . Bill Cosby has some funny words about how truthful children are (not)! I knew one priest who gave a great homily every year on how children can focus on detail and ignore world issues. It was a good homily . . . but I’m not sure it was what Jesus was getting at.

Continuing our meditations last week on our relationship to God the Father, this week we consider how sanctitythe interior life, the spiritual life, life in Christ, divine filiation – can be described as “spiritual childhood.”

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Let us consider spiritual childhood in relation to being sons of God. Last week we said, to be a son (or daughter) is to possess the same nature as the Father. Catholic theology, especially the theology of the fathers of the Church in the early centuries, emphasizes what a radical claim this is. We truly are born again; we are a new creation; we receive a new nature, and a new heart. We are reshaped to see with the eyes of God, to love with the heart of God, to be truly divine creatures.

Although this theology permeates the New Testament, the most direct text on it is the First Letter of St. John. “Whoever is born of God does not commit sin; for God’s seed remains in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whoever does not keep righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother” (I John 3:9-10).

To be a son of God is truly to receive his nature. The Greek for “seed” is the shockingly biological term sperma: we are reproduced. And thus we are changed, new, different. If we are not new, not righteous, not living in the love of God, and expressing it in our relationships with our brothers and sisters, then we are just plain not born again, not begotten of God.

The problem is . . . we aren’t. But the strange thing is, John knows that. In the same letter, he says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (I John 1:8-10).

Now, one solution to this apparent contradiction, Luther’s solution, is to accept the paradox. Simul justus and peccator: yup, we are “righteous,” but in a sense that is perfectly reconcilable with continuing to sin, continuing not to love, continuing not to live as if we have been begotten as sons of God.

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But another solution – a solution worked out nicely in Augustine’s Homilies on First John, a real spiritual classic – is to say that we are in process. We are not yet fully sons of God, but we are on our way.

Or in other words . . . we are children. What is a child? Someone on the way to becoming an adult like his father. Yes, the child shares the same nature as his father – and Augustine insists that the lines in First John that insist on our righteousness mean we must really live, at least deep down, in charity, or we are not Christians, not sons of God.

Yet a child does not yet live as his father does, does not yet fully express the nature of his father. As is our case, while we stumble through this world. We are still growing toward spiritual maturity, still waiting to fully possess the nature of our father.

The case is parallel to God’s fatherhood. It is not just a metaphor from some nice character trait of fathers: being nice, or whatever. Fatherhood says something essential about our natures. So too childhood is not about some detail of how children play (or are supposed to play). It is an essential thing about natures: about growing into the adult nature of our parents.

To live spiritual childhood is to live as if we are on our way to the full divine transformation which is sanctity. Moving toward the perfection (in Latin, perfection is the word for adulthood) of charity – but realizing we aren’t there yet.

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What does it mean for you to be on the way to divine transformation?

Click here for the entire series on names for the spiritual life.

eric.m.johnston

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