While we are vaguely aware that each of us is a “child of God,” we might reflect on what it means for us to be specifically a “child of God. As Jesus said, “I tell you solemnly, unless you change and become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). He himself was very aware of being the Son of God, as we see in his “Our Father” and in all sorts of ways in John’s Gospel, but what does being a child mean for us who have struggled so long to become adults?
Each of us begins existence in the smallest of ways, the joining of cells from our parents which implanted themselves in the womb of our mothers and started to grow. Our life in the womb seemed uneventful, to say the least, and we might say that we suffered from a sort of sensory deprivation if it were not that we were completely unaware of any other way to live and were indeed not equipped to deal with anything more complicated. During those months we felt no hunger and no need to use a bathroom; we did not breathe, sleep, or feel gravity or a temperature change.
We had no sensation of taste, although it seems that towards the end we did have a vague awareness of outside noise, touch, and even of light. Various friends have told me, for example, that in the final weeks of pregnancy they could feel the little person move to follow a bright light shining on the mother’s skin, and some parents would play with the child in a very rudimentary manner: Daddy would gently poke and Baby would kick until Daddy tired of the game and stopped—when Baby would start to kick like the dickens.
I might sum this up by saying that we lived then in a little world that was all we knew, and only at the end did we recognize that there was another world beyond us. We had no choice whatsoever about anything, and we had absolutely no idea of who we were, who our parents were, and what was going to happen to us; these were not even questions for us.
And then we “died”—or at least our birth must have seemed like a sort of death to us. It was the end of our “comfort,” for abruptly we learned what light, sound, breathing, and hunger felt like after a sudden, uncomfortable, and unwilled ejection from our little world.
For the next year we grew in the most amazing way, beginning with a complete inability to make sense of what we saw (and even then it was only in black and white and even upside down for the first few weeks), no muscle control to speak of, and no idea that some sounds might have meaning. Twelve months after our birth we had learned, almost completely by ourselves, to roll over both ways, to waddle, to recognize voices and people.
Our second year was far more challenging. We became more agile in every muscular sense, and we learned a fairly solid grasp of the fundamentals of language, both listening and speaking. We could dance and sing (somewhat), and we started to get a grasp on who we were and our relationships to people, places, and things. Up till then we were very much under the control of other people, especially our parents (whom we trusted fairly thoroughly), but during that second year we led lives very much centered on ourselves and our desires. What was most difficult for us and our parents was that we were beginning to develop a sense of independence, and our favorite word was “No!”
As we grew, our parents insisted that we learn basic social skills such as saying “please” and “thank you,” sharing our toys, being obedient, telling the truth, apologizing, and doing certain things even though we might not want to. We were taking the first steps towards becoming generous and other-centered, although I am sure that we never thought of it that way. Everything our parents asked of us and taught us led in that direction, and we were happier, on the whole, if we let ourselves grow that way. Almost all of this year or two we lived fairly passively, learning language almost by osmosis and generally learning how to deal with reality.
We had a choice in many things, even if we did not realize it, and by our choices we were deciding who we would become. Part of this was trying on different identities, and we can see kids doing this when they play with dolls or play house or when they wear a costume to identify with someone they admire. Although we eventually stopped manifesting the more obvious ways of being a princess or Spiderman, some elements of this remain as part of the personality that we chose for ourselves.
We did not call it playing, but that is what almost all of it was: good toys—including games, pets, and even activities such as getting dressed, eating with silverware, and using tools such as scissors or a broom—taught us things by calling us to interact with them in interesting ways, but once we had mastered what each toy or game had to offer, we moved on to more challenging occupations or simply reduced what we learned to an unconscious skill. In a sense we might even say that our friends were such “toys.” We grew by “playing,” joyfully accepting all as gift and throwing ourselves into interacting with our reality even if it meant sweat, scrapes, and bruises. Even today, as we age, those of us who are active with things we enjoy and find challenging (more “toys”) remain healthier and sharper much longer.
It goes without saying, I think, that each of these toys was at least potentially good for us, but we had both the choice of those toys and the ability to learn how to use them directly or under the guidance of our family. Of course every one of these toys were potentially dangerous, but our parents did what they could to teach us to use them properly.
Let me stop here and ask what kind of children we ourselves would prefer to have. I offer two scenarios, and in the first I imagine that our family is getting ready to go somewhere. We clean up and dress up our kids and then ask them to stay clean and neat until we leave. One kid goes and sits up against the wall, out of the way, and doesn’t move until we are ready to leave, while another goes about his or her life in a relatively careful but still lively manner. Which one would we prefer, and why? My second example deals with a mom who makes her kid’s favorite kind of cookie and gives one to the child. The kid has at least three choices: to eat it immediately, to set it aside for later, or to go out and share it with his or her friends. Again, which action would we most admire the child for choosing, and why?
Our response to these scenarios and others we can imagine for ourselves tells us something about the kind of children that we wish that we ourselves had been. I think that we would say that we would like to have children who are more adventuresome, generous, and alive, kids who look up to Mom and Dad and imitate them, especially in their most loving and straightforward behaviors. These children will learn to take risks if there is a sufficient reason and to live with loss and pain, but they will not let that inhibit them: they know that you don’t win every game you play. And is that the kind of people that we would like to be ourselves?
In fact we are those children, learning from the Father at whatever age God has given us and in every one of his gifts, in everything that God offers us from joy to sorrow, from the day’s weather to chance encounters.
We are those who have the choice of who we will be and whether we will make the most of our opportunities; that was not possible for us in the womb. I see now that I made some wrong choices in my past: there are times that I wish I had said a word at a certain moment, or kept my mouth shut. I wish I would have listened more to what others tried to tell me and would have apologized more often. I wish that I had spent more time just being with the people who were important to me, and I wish that I had told them that and thanked them for the ways that they had blessed me. And I have discovered that I really don’t want to say “I wish I had . . .” or even “I knew I should have. . .”
This power of choice is the most noteworthy difference between our life in the womb and our life on earth. Everything else is relatively the same or similar, although on a different scale and in a more elaborate fashion: our bodies grow, we develop some personality, and we move ahead not only in our skills but also in the sorts of gifts we have and use. Thanks to all the holy men and women of the past and to God’s action in and through them, we do have at least a rudimentary awareness of the next world, who God (our true Parent) is, and where we are bound. And Jesus, of course is absolutely primary in giving us that revelation of the truth about our selves and the actual world that we live in, beyond just the physical world.
Since our life in the womb, which ended in that seeming death which was our birth, is roughly analogous to our life here on earth, which will end in another sort of death which is also actually a birth, we might work with this paradigm in various personal and imaginative ways to discover some things about our lives, past, present, and future. Now we choose our “toys” and our activities, whether they will be repetitive and boring or challenging and life-giving. We choose the talents and other gifts that we wish to especially emphasize as we determine who we will be. We even choose the “parents” we will meet after our next death/birth—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—and what kind of a person we will be in that next stage of our lives.
Let me offer some additional images for developing this. Our Father sits, watching us while we sleep (as well as at all other times)—not in judgment, not even for our protection, but in joy and pride in who we are and what we will become in his love. I can see the Father delighting in us and, figuratively speaking, right down on the floor playing with us and our “toys.” I see him with all possible toys right to hand, offering us toy after toy to play with and to learn from, and I see him doing it constantly. Even at our current level of maturity, this is almost the only way he can “converse” with us or interact with us. In his humble love he calls us to life and maturity, to knowing, trusting, loving, and imitating him. The Father teaches us through our gifts, and in our using them properly we first become co-creators of ourselves and then caretakers of his Garden, establishing his firstborn Son’s Kingdom here.
Our Older Brother himself watches over us and models for us just what a child of God is and does. He is not a prophet, speaking for God; he is God—a perfect revelation of the Father, yet speaking in the most human manner—God coming ever closer to us. Jesus the man, unlike the Father, speaks to us at our own level, far more clearly, and yet we still fail to grasp the depth and breadth of what he has told us in words and in his acts.
Jesus took our humanity to himself so thoroughly that this God became human, to the point that by all rights it is no longer “our” humanity but his, and so his life is itself a concrete and practical model for us as to what our Father seeks from and for us. The maturity he invites us to is not just human, physical, moral, or spiritual, but living as the complete person, seamlessly whole, that God created us to be in his presence forever. And the Father’s words at the Baptism of Jesus (in my own translation) apply to us as well as to Jesus: “You are my beloved child. I support you in all that you do” (cf. Mt 3:17; Mk 1:11; Lk 3:22).
The Spirit is still different from the Father and the Son, acting more or less like a tutor, doing constant one-on-one work with us to help us make wise and fruitful choices. The Spirit inspires and guides, leading us to make the most of our time, to live that opportunity which is our life as fully as we can in growing towards God.
Putting ourselves completely in the hands of the Trinity will let them recreate us to be like them, completely other-centered out of love. We will then live in hope, our eyes fixed on the Father in love and trust, carefully watching how Jesus was so human that we might imitate him as best we can, and listening eagerly to the Spirit to help us make the very best choices.
Our life in the womb was without choice for us, and we remained completely unaware that there was more to existence than we knew. As we live in this new womb that is the world, awaiting our birth into eternal life, we have a much clearer idea of who we are and who our Divine Family is; for their part they eagerly look for our entry into that fullness of life. And we have the chance and the choice to reach out to them, to willingly and knowingly become more like them as we wait for them to call us home.
And there is no limit to the blessings that God can send you; he will make sure that you will always have all you need for yourselves in every possible circumstance and will have something to spare for all sorts of good works. (2 Cor 9:8)
Featured Image: Juliaan de Vriendt (1842–1935); Suffer the Little Children to Come to Me; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.