Lent is a season of conversion, a call to repentance, a time of turning back to God. To me, these are Christ’s most striking words on conversion:
Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
Unless you turn and become! We shall not enter the kingdom of heaven unless we change, unless we turn and become like one of these little ones – could our Lord be any more clear? The way is childlikeness – and it’s going to take some changing to get there!
The positive meaning of Christ’s statement might be put like this: if you turn and become like children, you will enter the kingdom of heaven!
What about being like a child allows us to enter heaven?
There are so many ways to study and think about what our Lord meant when he pointed to the child as the way to heaven. Here’s a simple starting framework:
“All that is innately noble and good in the child, though only imperfectly and in passing, must be what we acquire perfectly and permanently through serious striving and effort and prayer.” * ~Fr. J. Kentenich
Recognizing that our Lord wasn’t calling us to be immature for life, spoiled, or to throw tantrums – what was He calling us to? Among the many noble aspects, I’d like to focus on one that’s been helping me through this Lenten season: the simplicity of a child.
Kid’s say the darndest things, right? Remembering our framework from above, there is often a natural simplicity in children that enables them to say it like it is. That spontaneity and total lack of duplicity and diplomacy makes for those hilarious things they say! And while the diplomatic adult might squirm a little, the child couldn’t be less worried. They have no pretense, they just freely express whatever they’re thinking or feeling.
So, how is childlike simplicity an entry way to heaven? When we can be simple before God, that’s when we are truly free. It’s when we are too much of “an adult” with God – full of explanations and rationalizations on the one hand, and on the other so afraid of being judged and found wanting that we run or shut down. We think as adults that we have to be perfect before God, that being holy means always having “a clean collar,” and that this perfection gains us access to God. Quite the contrary! It is when we recognize our limitations, weaknesses and hangups – without pretense, no masks – that He is able to enter our hearts and truly transform our smallness into something great.
And we don’t need big words and fancy prayer formats – granted, these forms can be helpful to get us started – but just simply expressing whatever is on our hearts is really where the treasure lies. That’s the key to opening our hearts to God, and learning to live day in and day out with Him by our side. Sounds a bit like heaven, doesn’t it?
Fr Kentenich puts it this way:
“Be simple in your dialogue with God! Happy are those who work a lot with children. In teaching them how to do things one learns to be simple. The simpler the better! You will find that the more mature the soul, the more it rests in God with a simple affect of love […] We often turn God out because we think simple prayer is not what prayer should be. The saints could rest for months on a single affect. Think of St Francis, whose soul rested in the affect “My God and my All!” It was his interior nest; he lived from this one sentiment. He did not say afterwards: I did not meditate because this is all I did! […] The more down-to-earth, the better! I must speak with God like a child speaks with his father, just “as it comes naturally,” even if it not written that way in any book.” *
This process of learning to speak simply with God as an adult isn’t so easy. I think there’s a reason Jesus uses the word “turning”- transformation is required. And his next sentence show us what that “turning” means:
“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3-4
That humbling ourselves is the painful part. But it’s only painful so long as we’re clinging to those masks and “adult” postures. A wise priest once said that conversion is painful because those old habits are stuck deep in our hearts, and so pulling them out hurts. And it’s scary too – spontaneity, honesty and deep contact with God could lead us into a whole new adventure where we’re not in control – and there’s something very uncomfortable about that.
Let us pray this Lent for the grace to trust, the grace to be transformed, and the grace to increase our love – and let God do the rest. And let us ask our Blessed Mother, our great educator, to intercede for us and to show us the way, for she is a master of this childlike way!
And as we grow in love and trust in God day by day, we’ll be able to take this death leap of humility that ends in being born again as a child, as a child of God, as a child in the kingdom of God who walks freely hand in hand with His heavenly Father.
- all quotes from Fr Joseph Kentenich, Childlikeness Before God