Fr Martin Pender
'Our sophistication may be making us smarter, but we are becoming less wise'
One of the painful tragedies of the present time is that our modern “culture” has become totally cultureless. Our minds are becoming darkened by the spirit of the age, which is not a time of a new “enlightenment”, as many secular people believe, a time when we have eliminated at last the shackles of religion. Instead of ushering in a time of a new enlightenment, the modern pagan age is a time of endarkenment. Our minds are darkening. Our sophistication may be making us smarter, but we are becoming less wise. Something inside of us is narrowing. What? What’s narrowing inside of us? How are our minds closing?
Jesus tells us that unless we become like little children, we will never enter the kingdom of God. This is not just a simple idea that Jesus came with. It is the answer to the present crisis in our culture. A few years ago, I was giving a talk to a group of university students. When it came to Q&A at the end, one student, let’s call him Peter, recounted something which he found frightening. He said that on his first day at university, one of the professors walked into the lecture hall and said to the students: “You come here from your parochial backgrounds, full of your childish beliefs; well, I am going to bathe you in the great truths and set you free!” Peter was not impressed.
But still, the lesson wasn’t lost on Peter. From the day he qualified as a teacher, John resolved to teach in the opposite way. He would, on the first day of his classes, walk into the lecture room, look at his young students, and begin his class in words to this effect: “You come here with a lot of experience, already having tasted life, having been to many places, and seen a lot of things, so I’m going to try to teach you how to believe again —then maybe you’ll have a chance to be happy!”
This invitation, to awe and wonder and to learn how to believe again, is one of the many challenges of Christmas. And the challenge is not so much to come back to the innocence of a child (something we could never do even if we tried) but to see the knowledge and maturity that we’ve gained from all our years of learning and experience not as an end but as a stage, a necessary one, on the journey to a still deeper place, wisdom, fuller maturity. What this means is that it is not just important to learn and become sophisticated, it is equally important to eventually become post-sophisticated; it is not just important to grow in experience and shed naivete, it is equally important to eventually find a certain “second naivete”; It is a sign of even more intelligence and deeper maturity to start believing again.
To be an adult is precisely to be experienced, complex, and wounded. To be an adult is to have lost one’s innocence. None of us, unless we die very young, carries the dignity of our person and of our baptism unstained through life. We fall, we compromise, we sin, we get hurt, we hurt others, and mostly we grow ever more pathologically complex, with layer after layer of emotional and intellectual complexity separating us from the little girl and the little boy who once waited for Christmas in innocence and joyful anticipation. And that can be painful. But we are not meant to be children forever and innocence will always be lost. Sometimes, more positively, we get to experience our old innocence and youthful wonder vicariously in the eyes of our own children, in their joyful anticipation and gleeful celebration of Christmas. Their belief in Santa and the wonder in their eyes as they look at the baby Jesus in the crib helps us find a certain softness inside us again; not in the same place where we once felt things when we were children and still believed in Santa (because that would only bring the painful pang of nostalgia) but in a new place, a place beyond where we defined ourselves as grown-up (because that’s the place where wisdom is born). That’s also the place where Jesus is born. That’s Bethlehem in the soul. That is where Emmanuel, “God-is-with-us”, is to be found, but we cannot truly enter into this sacred space unless we once again become like little children.