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.