Children are different from adults; better in some ways, worse in others. In my own later childhood, my favorite words of taunt and abuse to my contemporaries were, “Grow up!” I was an atheist by then; the phrase was never meant as an allusion to 1 Corinthians 13:11. But I was still thinking as a child, who thinks adults know what they are about, and do not behave with childish narcissism. (To think this at all, I must have come from a fairly good home.)
In many ways, my long road to a very Catholic Christianity has been a process of growing younger — of shedding various quite adult propositions that blocked my view of truth and resuming that sense of wonder, which all of us recollect from childhood. One learns, in stages, how little one knew, and how much larger things are than they first appeared.
Time moves backward, in a sense, for with the passing years we revisit things that once seemed cut and dried. Now they have become infused with living mystery. I look upon nature — the Creation — with an appreciation for the miraculous that I had once almost extinguished. I look upon old family photos and see characters I once knew long ago, who have grown bigger and more strange. With this comes the spooky knowledge that one has passed through scenes without understanding, without observing, without realizing how much had been at stake — in a childhood that must have ended too quickly.
Along this road I have perhaps learnt more about things in their places: that a child will be childish, for instance, and an adolescent will be adolescent. And the mistakes we make, at every age, are according to the seasons.
Christ explained the two fundamental commandments: love God and love your neighbor. And in meditating upon these commandments, “the second like unto the first,” we begin to see that divine law is not like human law, which must stipulate the concrete abstractly. Divine law works the other way, arising from the sacred, in charity, then entering the concrete, by no human code.
It works like gravity, on everything at once; yet plays upon the times and the seasons, as wise Ecclesiastes said — a time to cast away, a time to gather together.
I followed my own advice; I “grew up” — and made all the mistakes of adulthood. And realize that I must continue making them, so long as I cling to the illusion that I am the lawmaker. Of course we are in control of many things, including our children, for a short time. But this “control” is illusory if we think we have it in our power to determine a result. We have only the power to contribute toward results that lie beyond our reach, always; and we can act only according to the season.
This season of Christmas that is almost upon us — of the Nativity of Christ our Lord — has been associated with childhood from its beginnings in Christ. He, who grew — in an exemplary way — through each of the human stages except old age (for old age is an illusion, it is only a cross), entered the world as the child of Joseph through Mary. It was the child to whom were brought gifts, in commemoration of which we bring gifts to our children.
I rebel, in these (electronic) pages and elsewhere, against what I call the “mall culture,” and against the materialism everyone also affects to despise, which reduces the giving of gifts to commercial transaction, and opens us to the cynical manipulation expressed in the annual discussion of sales figures. Our economy rides on “consumer confidence,” the presence or absence of which must be tested in December. Very bad news if we don’t increase our purchasing from the previous year.
We know that can’t be right, that the emperor has no clothes, yet even so are easily caught in the rat trap of Christmas expectations. It is a trap of the sort designed to fool adults; any child can see through it, to the present itself. And it is in that gift our own genius for charity is tested.
Whatever it will be, ask yourself this: Will the child who sees this gift be awakened to the sacred? Or will the gift foreclose the sacred from him?
You must think as a child in asking yourself this question, for adult calculation won’t help you.