With the Heart of a Child

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

I was a classroom teacher once. So occasionally I am tempted to point out something educational, but only when the conversation is slow. It can be impressive sometimes, but not as impressive as when a six year old says it. “Did you know that the average human head weighs six pounds?” (That was from the film “Jerry McGuire,” and that 6 year old child is 21 now.)  … It’s useless information. But when I am in this “almanac” mode, it’s not as easy to be the learner, to take in new information from someone else, to listen to what people are saying and be a student again. Many years ago in my Introduction to Philosophy class, I learned that not all logical statements make logical sense. For instance, the more you learn, the more ignorant you are. The argument goes: The more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you forget; the more you forget, the less you know; the less you know, the more ignorant you are. Therefore, the more you learn, the more ignorant you are. You and I can tell something is not right with that conclusion. But I had to take the course to know what it was, a non sequitur. Yet truly wise people know that in spite of everything they think they know, there is so much that escapes their grasp. And when it comes to knowing and understanding God, whatever knowledge we possess we soon realize is so insignificant and inconsequential in light of the immensity of the mystery that is God.

A priest in an old country village once noticed an elderly woman stopping by church for a half hour in the morning before going about her day, and again in the evening before heading home. He saw her often sitting in the back of church. And on more than one occasion, he thought he saw her just staring straight ahead, when she wasn’t bowed down taking a snooze. So he asked her one day, “I noticed you come to church twice a day to pray. What do you say to God when you pray?” She answered, “Oh, nothing most of the time. I just sit there. God looks at me, and I look at God. That’s all.” When we try to grasp the concept of God, we find we have more questions than we have answers, and those truths elude us that to simpler souls are so obvious and clear. We know God doesn’t reveal himself to just anyone. And God’s choices often defy human understanding.

When my cousin’s son Frank was six, he often came up with questions that startled his parents and grandparents, questions that few six-year-old kids ask. “What does it mean that we’re Catholic?” he would ask. “Why do married people get divorced? Where is purgatory and why do people end up there?” When I was six, I was busy drawing with crayons on my grandmother’s walls. Frank wanted to know if there is such a place as hell. When I was six, I was intent on finding out how best to make mud cakes stick to the backyard wall. Frank wanted to know where his guardian angel slept at night. That question never crossed my mind in a million years. God chooses those to whom he might reveal himself, and God’s choices follow no logical pattern nor set calendar.

I believe my grandmother was a saintly woman. She passed away in the late 1980s. But when I was younger, she would take me aside and tell me that she prayed for me everyday, and that she believed God was planning something wonderful for me someday, that she had reason to hope. (Maybe she knew about Waynesboro.) I was a troublesome child then, always getting into sticky situations, you can ask my mother, (on second thought, don’t). And my grandmother sometimes took it upon herself to discipline me. But she said nothing when I went to the seminary, when I put on the clerical habit, when I made my first profession of poverty, chastity and obedience in a religious community. She just watched and smiled. I will always remember her smile. And I have a feeling she was aware of a lot more than she ever told me. God chooses those to whom he might reveal himself, and God’s choices follow no logical pattern nor set calendar, and God is under no obligation to explain his reasons to anyone.

It is interesting that despite the lessons we learn from sacred scripture, despite all we know about God from the words of his only begotten Son, despite the insights of countless holy women and men whose lives and teaching point to sublime truths about God, we still put more importance of the values of the world, the values that we know do not last. We are often more concerned about looking good, about having no enemies, about being perceived by others as better than we really are. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t be concerned about these things, but when it comes down to making a choice between the truth and what just sounds interesting, between beauty and what just seems entertaining, we are often moved by selfish interest, and we allow these selfish tendencies to rule our hearts. I remember some years ago, my sister was having an argument with her then eight-year-old daughter, about what to wear for school the next day. My sister insisted that the little girl wear some outfit because it looked good. The little girl, obviously not a teenager yet, kept arguing back, “But that other outfit is more comfortable.” Now doesn’t that make a whole lot more sense? When she was eight, yes. She is now 23. And comfort isn’t always the top priority anymore.

We learn profound lessons from the openness of a child. We learn to see mystery in the ordinary, to be awed by beauty in sight and sound, to recognize the presence of God in the events of our own lives and in the people who touch our lives. I have encountered many individuals through the years who have shared with me experiences in their lives when God was most real and most present: in the fulfillment of their hopes, in the sadness of parting and death, in the senselessness of suffering. They speak of signs: meaningful words spoken in some other unrelated context, other people’s random decisions and actions that clear the jungle of complex realities right before their eyes, patterns in the unfolding of ordinary events pointing to clear answers to their questions. However the details take shape, the conclusion is often the same: God is near. God is speaking. Listen.

In today’s gospel, Jesus gives thanks to the Father for revealing his truths to the simple and the lowly. God is always trying to break into our world, always trying to reach into our hearts and minds. But it is only the simple heart, the child-like heart, the heart open to beauty and truth who will perceive such mysteries. It is only the heart of a child who hears more distinctly the voice of God and sees more clearly the face of God. What will it take to possess once more the heart of a child?