From Wonder to Wisdom

Childlike wonder is a precious gift.

It is so much fun to observe the awe of children as they plunge into the present moment. They exhibit an eager and relentless curiosity, whether exploring the flora and fauna in the backyard or dismantling their toys to figure out how they actually work. They burst forth with such intense joy during spontaneous play as they gleefully cry out “Again!! Again!!” They tirelessly yearn for the eternal in their experience of the present moment. They instinctively and effortlessly convert a large open room into a playground or an adventure zone. They easily overlook the expensive Christmas gift their parents have purchased, instead playing for hours with the large cardboard box or the shiny wrapping paper.

The common denominator in all of these experiences is a marvelous human capacity to be wholly and wholeheartedly present in the present moment. We do not need to teach our children how to do this; they do it effortlessly. It is hardwired into our humanity. God has put the timeless into our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

Sadly, the trials and traumas of life often leave us splintered and fragmented, and we “grown-ups” can be much more guarded about entering freely and wholeheartedly into the present moment. We hold parts of ourselves back. This self-protection is so sad because the present moment is the only thing that really exists! The past is irretrievably gone, no matter how much we cling to it or dwell upon it. The future is not yet here and is largely unknown to us, no matter how much we try to control it. Certainly it is wise to learn from the past and plan for the future, but ultimately the “now” of the present moment is the one and only space in which we can encounter the living God. All times are simultaneously and perfectly present to him. There is no before and after, only the “now” of his eternal existence. As the most unique of all God’s creatures, made in his own image and likeness, we humans are most fully ourselves when we abide in the present moment.

We learn in Scripture that the beginning of Wisdom is to be found in the fear of the Lord (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10). The “fear” that leads to wisdom is not a cowering or groveling fear, and it is most definitely not the paralyzing fear that many of us know all too well. It is what Saint Thomas Aquinas calls “filial fear.”

Thomas describes the difference between “filial fear” and “servile fear.” Servile fear is a slave-like fear, motivated primarily by avoiding punishment. This kind of fear can certainly be a strong motivator, but it is not what sets us apart in the image and likeness of God. The fear of pain or punishment is something that we share with all our fellow mammals. It can be a helpful beginning to wake us up or turn us away from a destructive path. But servile fear will not lead us to grow in Wisdom. Indeed, it is much more likely to pull us out of the present moment. From a brain science perspective, servile fear kicks in our survival response of “fight or flight or freeze.” In those moments, our prefrontal cortex (the higher and more rational part of our brain) goes offline as our survival instincts take over. Survival mode is great when our life is on the line. But it does not allow for childlike wonder.

Filial fear, by contrast, is what sons and daughters have towards a loving, benevolent, and merciful father. They cherish him and their relationship with him. They desire that relationship to grow ever more intimate and shun anything that would turn them away from that joyful communion of love.

Many of us still need to make the journey of maturity from servile fear to filial fear, a journey described so beautifully by Paul in Romans 8: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

Faith is a gift, utterly undeserved. It moves mountains, removing any and all obstacles that get in the way of us growing into the glorious freedom of the children of God. Restored by Faith, we can rediscover an even greater childlike wonder, which leads us to true Wisdom. We can rediscover the spontaneous joy and gratitude and praise that come from abiding in the present moment.

What a special gift to grow into during this time of COVID-19, in which many are feeling bored or understimulated. The words of G.K. Chesterton come to mind:  “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.”

If we become again like little children, even the smallest blessings of daily life can become an unmitigated experience of wonder and awe in God’s presence. All is gift, and his glory shines everywhere in the creatures he has made. Those who become again like little children can experience it.

What are the cardboard boxes God is dropping into your life today? Are you ready to receive them with awe and praise and gratitude? What is holding you back from being wholeheartedly in the present? Are there parts of your heart that resist, hesitate, or bail out? Will you let the soothing balm of the Holy Spirit calm you, opening all of your heart to receive the glorious freedom of the children of God? It is a freedom that can only be experienced in the “now” of the present moment.

When Hope Hurts

As followers of Jesus, we are people of Hope – especially during Holy Week and Easter.

This year we will experience a Holy Week like no other – gathering the family around our tablets and TVs to view the live stream of the holiest liturgies of the year.

I think back to the middle of March – which now feels like ancient history – and remember how I wept and sobbed over the cancellation of public Masses. The part that was the most painful for me was when it fully dawned on me that our faith communities would not be gathering together for Holy Week and Easter. Having had time to process my grief, I am now grateful that we’re doing our moral duty and serving the common good by joining in the shared effort of social distancing. I’m grateful for all the creativity and innovation that has opened up new opportunities. I’m getting accustomed to Mass on facebook live and Zoom meetings. But let’s face the facts: it’s still hard.

Since the middle of March, there have been far greater hardships for many than the temporary disruption of prayer gatherings and public Masses. Some find their entire livelihood in grave peril; others are under enormous daily stress; many others have died of COVID-19 or lost a loved one.

All of us have felt our daily lives turned upside down. Almost everyone I know seems to be experiencing a significant spike in anxiety or a resurgence of unwanted behaviors. So much is uncertain and unknown; so much can change so quickly. We trust God, but it’s incredibly hard at times to keep believing that it’s somehow all going to be blessed by God as part of his greater plan.

Hope is hard. The Christian virtue of Hope is not rosy optimism; it’s not a feel-good pretending like everything is just swell. Hope involves longing and desiring, watching and waiting. Hope stretches our human hearts far beyond what feels easy or comfortable. Indeed, keeping Hope alive in our heart can be painful. It’s so much easier to try to avoid, it, numb it, or even kill it – choosing instead a path of self-soothing or self-reliance. But we cannot save ourselves.

Holy Week is a time of Hope. The death and resurrection of Jesus, his Paschal Mystery, constitutes THE human story. Without Jesus dying and rising, our human existence becomes empty, fruitless, and meaningless. On the contrary, as we allow ourselves to be plunged into those saving events, we are brought to new and more abundant life.

In the “in between” of that transformation stands the virtue of Hope, like a brave soldier standing in the breach. It can be far more agonizing than we may realize. It’s quite possible that only a few Christians these days are truly steeped in Hope.

Hope is the virtue of Holy Saturday – a day that is easily overlooked. Many are bustling about preparing for Easter; others are pre-binging on food or Netflix or some other pleasure. The invitation of Holy Mother Church – rarely accepted – is to engage in fasting and silence and prayer as best we can, to continue keeping our vigil at the Tomb of Christ, watching and waiting in Hope.

Think of the various characters in the Gospels and imagine what their experience of Holy Saturday was like. Think of Peter and the other apostles, having suddenly lost their Lord and their friend Jesus – and under the shameful circumstances of having abandoned him or denied him. Jesus had recently given a glimpse of glory to Peter atop Mount Tabor in the Transfiguration. Maybe that remembered experience emitted some faint glimmer of Hope amidst his overwhelming feelings of grief and disillusionment, fear and doubt, guilt and shame.

Think of Mary Magdalene and the other faithful women, holding Jesus in their hearts, continuing to love him even when it hurt so much. Their instinctive and intuitive Hope drew them to the tomb on Easter morning, even if they didn’t understand what was happening in their hearts.

Think of Jesus’ own mother Mary, who had borne him in her womb, nursed him, taught him to walk, taught him to read the Scriptures, taught him to pray, and so much more. Over the course of 33 years, she was more intimately close to him and held more conversations with Him than any other human being. Scripture does not record these, but Luke does tell us more than once that Mary kept pondering these mysteries in her heart. She is perhaps the one person who was not entirely surprised at his Resurrection.

But even for Mary – nay, especially for Mary – there was that agonizing in-between moment of Hope between the first day of Good Friday and the third day of Resurrection. If the experience was anything like the previous patterns (the birth of Jesus, the Flight into Egypt, the Presentation in the Temple), she knew and believed God’s promises, but did not know how those promises would be fulfilled.

That is what is so hard about Hope. It is an invitation to plunge into the depths of Jesus’ suffering – which involved far more than physical torments. He freely chose to dive into the depths of our fallen human experience – including the isolation, the loneliness, the fear, the shame, the rejection, and the abandonment that so many of us experience. When he cries out “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” He is crying out with and for each of us from the depths of our hearts – places we are often not willing to go ourselves, because they hurt so much. Jesus allows himself to feel the pain of rupture from God and rupture from neighbor that is part of the story for each of us who are fallen.

Then it’s our turn. Like the Virgin Mary, like Mary Magdelene, like so many of the other disciples, we are invited to keep vigil at his Tomb. We are invited to keep believing his promises – even when it seems impossible anything will ever change. For each of those followers, Easter morning was a wonderful surprise. The risen Jesus brought them joy in a way they had never imagined possible.

During “normal” Holy Weeks, Catholics show up in large numbers for Good Friday, and are often moved to tears at the torments Jesus endured on the Cross. This year, only the priest celebrant will get to kiss the Cross.

During “normal” Holy Weeks, most Catholics give little thought to the experience of Holy Saturday. This year, we all have an extended Holy Saturday opportunity. We have been given a share in Jesus’ suffering and death. In the form of all this unrest and all these unknowns, we have an opportunity to share in the same disorienting and agonizing experience of those early disciples on that first Holy Saturday. Like most of them, we do not know how long it will last, whether it will get better, or how it will get better. We surrender in Hope; we wait in Hope, even when it hurts.

We are free to choose. We can plunge fully into the deep waters of Hope. Or we can keep popping up for air. There are any number of ways we can do that. Some turn to the false soothing of food or alcohol or pornography. Others minimize or deny, pretending like it’s not really that hard (thus distancing themselves from genuine Hope). Still others crack a joke or enter into fault-finding and peevishness – anything that will distract us from the present agony of abiding at the Tomb in Hope.

These are normal ways of avoiding – and they make sense. We all do at least some of them. The truth is that tt is terrifying to be under water for a long period of time! For many of us, it feels like it will be too much or too long. Indeed, that is the whole point of being plunged into the waters of Baptism – we actually die with Christ!

We Catholics think often of Good Friday and of suffering with Jesus. This year, I invite each of us to think especially of Holy Saturday, and give ourselves permission to experience the full depth and breadth and length of Christian Hope. It is not for the faint of heart! If we allow it, it will grow and crescendo into an earthquake that will finally break open the cave of our heart; it will roll away the stone so that we, too, can be surprised by the joy of the Risen Jesus.