A Child’s Heart

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The Voyage of Life: Childhood (detail)
Thomas Cole

Emily Dickinson

Dew — is the Freshet in the Grass —
‘Tis many a tiny Mill
Turns unperceived beneath our feet
And Artisan lies still —

We spy the Forests and the Hills
The Tents to Nature’s Show
Mistake the Outside for the in
And mention what we saw.

Could Commentators on the Sign
Of Nature’s Caravan
Obtain “Admission” as a Child
Some Wednesday Afternoon.

Luke 18:15-17

And they were bringing even their babies to Him so that He would touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them.

But Jesus called for them, saying,

“Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.”


RickFor John Steinbeck, as for William Wordsworth and William Blake, a child’s lucid vision captures the essentials. Steinbeck scrawled reminders to himself: capture a “child’s vision” because “adults haven’t the clear fine judgment of children.” That meant to write with precision and freshness. Truth is like clear pure water.

In his book The Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck wrote:

We have not known a single great scientist who could not discourse freely and interestingly with a child. Can it be that the haters of clarity have nothing to say, have observed nothing, have no clear picture of even their own fields? A dull man seems to be a dull man no matter what his field, and of course it is the right of a dull scientist to protect himself with feathers and robes, emblems and degrees, as do other dull men who are potentates and grand imperial rulers of lodges of dull men.

When Emily Dickinson wrote of “obtaining admission as a Child” to Nature’s Caravan, she evoked the words of Jesus who reminded his listeners that entering into the kingdom of God requires doing so as a child. In all of the complexity of such a profound truth, the picture is that of a wide-eyed child whose heart is filled with joy and delight.

Wonder and worship are the beginning of understanding.

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

D I G  D E E P E R


 Children in Literature and Liturgy

The relationship between God and his chosen people, often described in the Bible as a marriage, is also figured in terms of a parent-child relationship (e.g., Deut. 14:1; see also Pss. 73:15; 103:13). Occasionally in the OT Gentiles are also referred to as children of God (e.g., Isa. 45:11). In the NT what the Israelites were by birthright Gentile Christians, according to the apostle Paul, could hope to be by adoption: “He hath chosen us. … Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself” (Eph. 1:4–5; see also Rom. 8:15–23; Gal. 4:5). Just as there are children of the flesh, then, so there are also “children of the promise,” and these may be as Isaac was to Ishmael—“not children of the bondwoman, but of the free” (Gal. 4:22–31).

The injunction to “honour thy father and thy mother” is prominent among the Ten Commandments and the first commandment with a promise attached. Dependence, trust, and humility are taken as normative in a child’s relationship to his or her parents and, indeed, in that of the children of God to their heavenly Father: “LORD my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty … as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child” (Ps. 131:2). Thus, when Jeremiah was called by God, he pleaded inadequacy in terms of childlike dependence: “Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child.” Exemplary obedience and trust are likewise emphasized in the story of the child Samuel, as well as in canonical accounts of Jesus’ childhood. (Extrabiblical childhood narratives, by contrast, are concerned to demonstrate that Jesus’ divine powers were already present in his early years.) Such qualities are also assumed in Christ’s words, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:13–16; cf. Matt. 11:25; 18:3). It was a child whom St. Augustine heard in his garden, saying, “Tolle, lege; tolle, lege” (“Take it up, read; take it up, read”) (Conf., bk. 8). Since Augustine was struggling at this time against (among other things) his Manichaean desires for special knowledge, the child seems to recall not only humility like Jeremiah’s but also the biblical tradition of divine wisdom which is often seen as foolishness in the eyes of the world (1 Cor. 1:18–27).

In English literary tradition Vaughan, Traherne, Herbert, Herrick, and Crashaw among others adopt a posture of comparable humility: each writes poems using a child, or a childlike persona (see, e.g., Herrick’s “To his Saviour, a Child; a Present, by a Child” and Herbert’s “H. Baptisme II”). Chaucer’s Prioress, too, wants to be seen as a participant in this tradition. She realizes that God can be praised “by the mouth of children” as well as “by men of dignitee” (Prologue to the Prioress’s Tale) and so hopes that, like the child in her tale, she might sing a song of praise. But since she neglects her adult and spiritual responsibilities, the apostle Paul probably provides the aptest gloss: “In malice be ye children, but in understanding be ye men” (1 Cor. 14:20; cf. Matt. 10:16). Paul is expressing his displeasure that the Corinthians are still spiritual children at a time when they ought to have developed in the faith. As Augustine puts it, “Let your old age be childlike, and your childhood like old age; that is, that neither may your wisdom be with pride, nor your humility without wisdom” (Enarr. in Ps. 113.2 [NPNF 8.548]; see also Enarr. in Ps. 131.5 [NPNF 8.615).

The Bible has little to say about the innocence of children. Even Christ’s “Except you be converted, and become as little children” (Matt. 18:3) has more to do with humility and obedience than innocence per se. In traditional Christian thought, innocence is attached to infancy but not to childhood. The infant, although guilty of original sin, has not the capacity to turn the inclination to sin into actual sin; hence the phrase “the slaughter of the innocents” used of Herod’s murder of infants (cf. Augustine’s comment that “the infant’s innocence lies in the weakness of his body and not in the infant mind” (Conf., bk. 1).

The notion of childhood innocence arose in connection with the Enlightenment’s rejection of the doctrine of original sin and belief in naturally good human nature being perverted by evil social customs. Rousseau’s Emile is the key statement of this view, although Locke’s philosophy of education had already shifted the understanding of human nature away from original sin to human potentialities and so made the education of children more important—because more promising—than hitherto. Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” is an important Romantic expression of the Enlightenment view of childhood, as are Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience,” which together reflect the author’s gnostic belief that good has to encompass evil but that innocence can be recovered on a higher level of inclusive gnosis.

Victorian literature is characterized by a sentimental view of children. Many of Dickens’s child protagonists, embodying a kind of Edenic innocence, act as parents to their elders, protecting adults who have become victims of an evil environment. Thus Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop embodies both the tradition of the innocence of the child—being contrasted with the evil Quilp and with all the ancient instruments of war which surround her in the Shop—and the tradition of the wisdom of the child—as in her reversing roles with her grandfather (chaps. 15 and 16).

By the end of the 19th cent., reaction to Victorian sentimentality gave rise to a more realistic (and sometimes Christian) portrayal of children as by nature inclined to evil rather than good and deserving to be made accountable for their actions. Literary examples of this changed attitude include Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes, Hilaire Belloc’s Bad Child’s Book of Beasts and More Beasts for Worse Children, and the stories of P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse’s early school stories show children as displaying the same good and evil characteristics found in adults.

Increasingly, though, his fiction portrays children as consistently adult in their capacity for evil but lacking in adult social conscience. Wodehouse’s spirited female adults encourage girl children to act on their antisocial impulses. His male adults view with dismay the destructive deeds of their boy counterparts, often expressing sympathy for Herod’s solution to the problem of their continued existence.

Freud’s theories of sexuality in infants support the new antisentimental view of childhood innocence which is reflected in such books as Richard Hughes’s High Wind in Jamaica. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is in the same tradition, having been written, the author says, as a deliberate refutation of the view of boyhood projected in R. M. Ballantyne’s popular adventure story, Coral Island (1858).

Bibliography. d’Ariès, P. Centuries of Childhood (1962); Marcus, L. S. Childhood and Cultural Despair: A Theme and Variations in Seventeenth Century Literature (1978); Stone, H. Dickens and the Invisible World (1979); Walquist, D. J. “The Best Copy of Adam: Seventeenth-Century Attitudes Toward Childhood and the Poetry of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, and Traherne.” DAI 39 (1979), 6785A. David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992).