This morning, I happened to attend a Mass alongside a large crowd of schoolboys and schoolgirls, all of whom were there in preparation for their First Communions or Confirmations. As they streamed into the pews, I was put in mind of William Blake's lines:
'Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two and two in red and blue and green.
Grey-headed beadles walked before with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul's they like Thames' waters flow
O what a multitude they seemed, these flowers of London town,
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own;
The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands.
I don't want to get too sentimental. I know that children can be little brats, even downright bad sometimes. (I remember from being a child myself.)
And yet, I couldn't help feeling sentimental and tender. The funny thing is, looking at children doesn't just make me feel sentimental about children. It makes me feel sentimental about everybody. It makes me remember that everybody was a child once, and that-- in a sense-- everybody is still a child. We may guffaw at talk about "the inner child", but there's surely a lot of truth to the idea.
Indeed, it's even sadder when "the inner child" is gone, or suppressed. When you look at the eagerness, wonder, and artlessness of children, it seems almost heartbreaking that so many grown-ups are (apparently) cynical, apathetic, sardonic, and defensive. What happened to them? Where did the wonder go? How much hurt and disappointment is it buried beneath? Why did those things have to be lost?
Look at the photograph below. I've posted it here before. I got it from the website TV Tropes. It was used there as an illustration of something that is accidentally scary-- the idea being that the girl would get the creeps once she saw this picture. But that's not why it captured my imagination. The little girl is just so adorable-- so enthusiastic, so happy, so unabashed in her enthusiasm and happiness. This picture makes my heart melt-- not just for the little girl, but for the human race.
I'm an irritable person, easily annoyed by my fellow human beings-- even by things which cause me no harm and which are not even morally objectionable, such as a banal remark or a vacant grin. I'm trying to overcome this, and I think I'm making some progress.
Strangely enough, I feel most charitable towards my fellow human beings when I see them as pathetic-- and I mean "pathetic" in its most literal sense. I feel most charitable towards my fellow human beings when I'm most conscious of the pathos of the human condition. Then my irritation tends to evaporate, and I feel towards everybody as one might feel towards a terminally ill patient, or somebody who has been recently bereaved. Or a child. Personal slights cease to sting, and one's ego seems not overcome but irrelevant.
I've asked myself-- is this Christian charity? Or is it just sentimentality? Then again, is sentimentality always a bad thing?
There is a passage in G.K. Chesterton's Manalive which describes a very similar mood, or perhaps the very same one. In this extract, two of the characters have broken into a house and one of them is burgling it:
After another glance round,
my housebreaker plucked the walnut doors open and rummaged inside.
He found nothing there, apparently, except an extremely
handsome cut-glass decanter, containing what looked like port.
Somehow the sight of the thief returning with this ridiculous little
luxury in his hand woke within me once more all the revelation
and revulsion I had felt above.
"`Don't do it!' I cried quite incoherently, `Santa Claus—'
"`Ah,' said the burglar, as he put the decanter on the table and stood looking at me, `you've thought about that, too.'
"`I can't express a millionth part of what I've thought of,' I cried, `but it's something like this… oh, can't you see it? Why are children not afraid of Santa Claus, though he comes like a thief in the night? He is permitted secrecy, trespass, almost treachery—because there are more toys where he has been. What should we feel if there were less? Down what chimney from hell would come the goblin that should take away the children's balls and dolls while they slept? Could a Greek tragedy be more gray and cruel than that daybreak and awakening? Dog-stealer, horse-stealer, man-stealer—can you think of anything so base as a toy-stealer?'
"The burglar, as if absently, took a large revolver from his pocket and laid it on the table beside the decanter, but still kept his blue reflective eyes fixed on my face.
"`Man!' I said, `all stealing is toy-stealing. That's why it's really wrong. The goods of the unhappy children of men should be really respected because of their worthlessness. I know Naboth's vineyard is as painted as Noah's Ark. I know Nathan's ewe-lamb is really a woolly baa-lamb on a wooden stand. That is why I could not take them away. I did not mind so much, as long as I thought of men's things as their valuables; but I dare not put a hand upon their vanities.'
"After a moment I added abruptly, `Only saints and sages ought to be robbed. They may be stripped and pillaged; but not the poor little worldly people of the things that are their poor little pride.'
"He set out two wineglasses from the cupboard, filled them both, and lifted one of them with a salutation towards his lips.
"`Don't do it!' I cried. `It might be the last bottle of some rotten vintage or other. The master of this house may be quite proud of it. Don't you see there's something sacred in the silliness of such things?'
The Catholic poet Coventry Patmore, who Chesterton often quoted approvingly, is even more eloquent on this theme in his poem "The Toys". I am utterly unable to read this poem without being reduced to tears:
My little Son, who look'd from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
Having my law the seventh time disobey'd,
I struck him, and dismiss'd
With hard words and unkiss'd,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.
Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep,
I visited his bed,
But found him slumbering deep,
With darken'd eyelids, and their lashes yet
From his late sobbing wet.
And I, with moan,
Kissing away his tears, left others of my own;
For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein'd stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.
So when that night I pray'd
To God, I wept, and said:
Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath,
Not vexing Thee in death,
And Thou rememberest of what toys
We made our joys,
How weakly understood
Thy great commanded good,
Then, fatherly not less
Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,
Thou'lt leave Thy wrath, and say,
"I will be sorry for their childishness."
I'm also reminded of a touching passage in Steven Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, in which he describes a mistake he made in raising his daughter:
One day I returned home to
my little girl's third-year birthday party to find her in the corner of the front room, defiantly clutching
all of her presents, unwilling to let the other children play with them. The first thing I noticed was
several parents in the room witnessing this selfish display. I was embarrassed, and doubly so because
at the time I was teaching university classes in human relations. And I knew, or at least felt, the
expectation of these parents....
After unsuccessfully cajoling the girl, he forces her to share, which in retrospect he comes to regret:
I've learned that once children gain a sense of real possession, they share very
naturally, freely, and spontaneously. Perhaps a sense of possessing needs to come before a sense of genuine sharing. Many people who
give mechanically or refuse to give and share in their marriages and families may never have
experienced what it means to possess themselves, their own sense of identity and self-worth.
Whatever you think of gurus such as Steven Covey (and my own opinion of them is not very high), the image of the little girl clutching her toys to herself is quite affecting.
I agree with Covey's reasoning in this instance. I took part in a correspondence some years ago, in the letters page of the Irish Catholic newspaper, on the subject of charity gifts. One writer had suggested that, instead of receiving gifts for Christmas, donations to charity should be made in the children's name, to teach them to give rather than to receive.
I think this is a terrible idea, and I said so. I recalled my pleasure in Christmas gifts as a child, a pleasure that has never gone away but still lingers with me. I honestly don't think it was greed or materialism. When I remember Christmas toys as a child, I'm flooded with feelings of gratitude-- they seemed like a symbol of grace, something given out of pure love, something given especially to me. The thought of getting some certificate telling me a charitable bequest had been given in my name would, I'm sure, have rankled with me to this day. Kids can be encouraged to be charitable at any time of the year. Why deprive them of their toys at Christmas?
Recently, I've been remembering one Christmas where I made a park bench out of lollipop sticks, using a kit I'd received just for this purpose. When I remember this, I feel bathed in tenderness, and gratitude, and a desire to be generous myself. Looking back, I realize that it was the love represented by such gifts that really mattered to me. Do we ever really want anything except love, even at our most cynical?
One of the priests in UCD, in one homily, said that it was very important to truly believe that God loves us, because then we would be ready to love others, secure in that knowledge.
All this sounds like I am suggesting that "to understand all is to forgive all", or that "everybody is fighting a battle you know nothing about", or some such sentiment of universal tolerance.
Well, I'm definitely not saying that. I think this is exactly the sort of decadent thinking which leads to liberal Christianity-- the inability to condemn, the inability to say "no", the withering away of righteous anger and indignation.
When I think of the people I know who have made a misery of their own lives and the lives of others, the image of the child clinging to its toys is no less applicable. The same applies in a wider social and cultural context. Ireland is on the threshold of legalizing abortion, in great part because several generations of Ireland's great and good have been beguiled by the flashy toys of Progress and Liberation and Rebellion. The fact that there is something pathetic about this, once again in that literal sense of pathos, doesn't make it any less lamentable.
Sometimes we have to sternly warn the child to drop its toys, to get rid of them. In some circumstances, even prising them its fingers might be warranted.
But here's the thing....I think we should always strive to do so with a certain regret, a certain pity. Our anger should be righteous anger, not vindictive anger, or the anger of a bruised ego.
It's interesting that, in the gospels, Jesus seems to alternate between pity and anger, even towards his own disciples. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill
the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to
gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her
wings, and you were not willing!"
In this blog post, I've used the image of toys, but what does it represent? Well, I suppose it represents a few different things.
The toys might be the trifles that we comfort and console ourselves with, which are charged with a tremendous, child-like pathos when seen in perspective-- like the toys in the Manalive excerpt, or the Coventry Patmore poem.
Or the toys might be the equivalent of a toy on Christmas Day, an image of the pure gratuitousness of God's love, or the gestures and symbols which mean so much in the economy of love.
Or the toys might be sins, idols, things fetishized as good far beyond their deserving, things which come to be preferred to God.
In any case, musing upon this theme fills me with a resolution to be more patient, kind, and generous when it comes to the faults of others. Whether I live up to this resolution is another matter entirely.