People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
It started in the 19th, but it was only in the 20th century that the Western world really romanticised childhood. Only then did we begin to believe that a child was something superior to an adult: that he/she had a greater measure of innocence, virtue, and even wisdom than the average adult. To all the ages that went before, that would have appeared a most bizarre belief.
The world in the time of Jesus (and not only then) believed that a child was a deficient adult, a nobody who knew nothing, had nothing, and was nothing: an extension of the parents with no rights of its own. So when Jesus said you must be like children to enter the kingdom (presence) of God, he meant you must be a nobody, a nothing….
Does this canonise ignorance and inexperience? Like St Paul we are allowed to make appropriate distinctions. “Brothers and sisters,” he wrote, “do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults” (1 Cor 14:20). To be childlike is not the same as being childish. Childlike qualities are simplicity, trust, openness, hope… the very qualities needed for living a spiritual life. The French mystic Mde Guyon (1648 – 1717) wrote, “The simple ones, so far from being incapable of [spiritual] perfection, are, by their docility, innocence, and humility, peculiarly adapted and qualified for its attainment… they are less employed in speculation and less tenacious of their own opinions… they submit more freely to the teachings of the Divine Spirit: whereas others, who are blinded by self-sufficiency and enslaved by prejudice, give great resistance to the operations of Grace.”
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