A child-like openness to God can help us grow in faith

By 
  • May 1, 2012

Her hands covered her face. She was weeping inside herself, her body shaking. “I know I need to let go,” she cried, “but I don’t know how. I can’t.”

Before she was 14, Marie already experienced tragedy, not once but several times: violence, betrayal. It’s buried deep within her. She carries it like an interior mountain without realizing the weight. No wonder she can’t stop clinging to the person who’s been for her a little life raft in the middle of the Pacific, but who is pulling her under the roaring waters. How can she let go of him, even though he’s harming her?

Sitting there, she looks sometimes like an old woman, sometimes like the young woman she is, but often like a child — as she was when first she endured violence.  

Shockingly, profound childhood suffering isn’t rare. Marie isn’t unique in having suffered abuse before she was old enough to understand the words. Her particular plight is hidden, but the reality of suffering children, among and all round us, is plain to see. Roméo Dallaire, recounting his experience of the Rwandan slaughter, tells of discovering a child in the woods there. He thought he would save this one child — even that possibility was snatched from him as the child was spirited away before his eyes. My helplessness before one girl’s suffering had me nailed to the cross; Sen. Dallaire, up against hundreds of thousands, says he became suicidal.

How is it we can’t keep our children from harm? How can God, seeing our incapacity, not care better for His little ones in spite of us? The birth of His own Son into our world indirectly set off the massacre of innocent children. Sometimes it seems every generation thereafter has been doomed to repeat, doomed to repeat.

Our faith tells us we must open our eyes to such painful reality and enlist in the movement to transform it. But, if we’re to succeed, we must also beware the fatal mistake of thinking failure and suffering are the whole truth. Tolkien’s Denethor, in The Lord of the Rings, became enslaved to Sauron by falling into such error. Sauron showed him (selectively) his own victories; Denethor, not looking up from where the finger of evil pointed him, despaired because he didn’t see beyond it.

What is beyond it? Mercy poured out in the world. Grace flowing, even in us fragile little humans, vulnerable to the seduction of evil. An old poem of my uncle’s: “small, frightened and weak, I change with the changing sky; one day eager and brave, the next not caring to try.”

Life is victorious over death, love over sin. We claim this truth at every Eucharist. Can it really change us, and wrest joy out of suffering? Especially when children suffer?

Children themselves can guide us. Every May 13, the Church commemorates three children who claimed a victory they saw coming despite present suffering. What Lúcia, Jacinta and Francisco saw and heard has been received with both faith and skepticism, now as a century ago when they were little children. It may be impossible to “know,” scientifically, just what happened at Fatima so long ago. We know three children said they saw “our Lady,” hearing her speak about earthly events and the need of prayer; we know some others reported seeing wonders, and some didn’t. This local devotion became universal because people were moved by and received it. 

Personally, I suspect the Mother of God speaks and shows herself to all sorts of people — many of whom perhaps ignore her, explain her away or don’t risk making the story public. The three Portuguese children, like other children (and adults of child-like spirit), did receive, did risk. The rest of us do with their witness what we will. Remarkably, many adults have followed the three children. 

It’s true we need to grow up in our faith. Sometimes being Catholic can seem like an invitation to stay in kindergarten spiritually while becoming adults in other ways. We may feel we should obey unthinkingly, or suspend our intellects as if intelligence and faith were at odds with each other. Such misunderstanding makes it harder for us to engage in the real spiritual work, the kind that helps us liberate children from their undeserved, heart-wrenching anguish. 

God seems to want us involved in that redemptive work, although innocent suffering continues when He doesn’t override our freedom. As we grow up, our faith needs to grow, too. 

Paradoxically, we’re better able to grow in faith when we cherish our child-like openness to God. Somehow the Fatima children were open, and opened others, to beholding and hearing new things.

We’re all able to either increase the suffering of innocents or help heal and transform it. As with Marie, it seems impossible to let go of what’s harmful. As with the three children, we can receive from God what we can’t produce on our own. When we do, miracles may happen.

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