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What advice would you give a newborn child? (I ask because a friend gave birth early this morning.) Perhaps you’d quote my father’s favorite Scripture verse: “My son, if you would serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trial.” (Sirach 2:1) Maybe you’d quote my favorite statement from Saint Ignatius Loyola: “Nothing worthy of God can be done without earth being set in uproar and hell’s legions roused.” Or you may choose my favorite Scripture verse: “If what I say is false, produce the evidence; but if what I say is true, why hit me?” (John 18:23)
If a newborn child could understand, wouldn’t he panic? Mightn’t he ask, “What kind of world did you bring me into?” There was a time when most people weren’t surprised by the pains and struggles of life. People a hundred years ago endured inconveniences and burdens that would be unimaginable today.
In our day, we who have access to so many conveniences, protections and assurances, seem sometimes to demand as our birthright a life free from pain and disappointment. And it’s become a commonplace today to see the apparent fragility of university students (at least in America) who demand “trigger warnings” lest they hear something unpleasant or objectionable, and “safe spaces” to retreat to should they be so unfortunate as to be exposed to an idea they don’t like. In fact I read not long ago in a professional periodical of the hiring of an academic administrator whose qualifications included “certification in Safe Spaces.”
All this prompts me to ask: “What kind of world are our children being prepared for?” Or, better said, “What kind of children are we preparing for our world?” We do our children no kindness if we lead them to expect a world without unpleasantness or inconvenience. And we rob our children of the hope of Heaven if we don’t prepare them to live the way of life embodied by Christ crucified.
Not long ago, I was told by a social scientist: “The trouble with you priests is that you think of yourselves as sacrificial servants and not as members of the helping professions.” I smiled, and asked her if she had ever attended an ordination ritual. She hadn’t. If she had, perhaps she may have recalled words such as, “Imitate the mysteries you celebrate” and “Model your life on the cross of Christ.” Perhaps, if she had been properly catechized growing up or offered adult education in her parish, this self-identified Catholic “member of the helping professions” would have learned that a priest serves in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”) and as a result of ordination is alter Christus (“another Christ”). If she had been better taught and formed, she might have understood that every Christian must take up his cross and follow Christ. And then perhaps, she, and those like her, those “members of the helping professions,” might direct the wounded who come her way to Christ, who is the model of endurance and triumph in our often dark and difficult world.
C.S. Lewis, in his classic The Problem of Pain, wrote: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” What does God try to tell us by pain and adversity? He tries to tell us that something is wrong and that we’re in danger. One of the greatest dangers is the illusion is that we can navigate life safely apart from his grace.
Robert Hicks, in his helpful little work “How a Man Faces Adversity,” warns us: “Adversities are thorns that penetrate our souls and cause extreme pain … our natural reaction is to fight the pain, deny the pain, or deaden it … I believe that the reality Jesus wants us to face—the reality He prepared His disciples for—was that pain has a work to do in us, and that this work be accepted and welcomed. Why? Because it is only through the work of pain that we truly experience the grace of Christ as our sufficiency … Adversity—if we bring it under the Lordship of Christ—refines us…”
What advice would I give to a newborn child placed in my arms? Perhaps this: “Welcome, my dear little one, to this passing world of light and dark, to this time of many trials and small victories. Welcome to this time of preparation and purification, which can ready you for the perfect happiness of Heaven, in the home and heart of your Father. We will teach you Christ, who is crucified, risen, reigning and returning. We will imitate him and live from and with him, and he will guide us all to our true home. Let’s go!”
When I write next, I will speak of conscience. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.