Perhaps the most basic trait of a happy childhood is trust. An implicit, nearly absolute confidence in one’s parents is at the root of that carefree spirit which we typically associate with youth, and the betrayal of this confidence is a calamity of such profound and intimate consequence that, unless we have suffered it ourselves, we feel presumptuous commenting on it. Most of us, however, as we grow older and assume the burden of providing for ourselves and others, look back on our youth as a time of comparative ease; and we can even become desperate to recapture what Evelyn Waugh memorably described as its “languor”:
“The languor of Youth—how unique and quintessential it is! How quickly, how irrecoverably, lost! The zest, the generous affections, the illusions, the despair, all the traditional attributes of Youth—all save this come and go with us through life . . . These things are a part of life itself; but languor—the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding, the sun standing still in the heavens and the earth throbbing to our own pulse—that belongs to Youth alone and dies with it.”
The nostalgia for youth and childhood is not, of itself, a bad thing. At its best, it evinces a desire for lost innocence, simple joys, and easy fellowship, and those who repress the longing for such things in the name of “realism” or “growing up” betray a certain inhumanity (or, ironically, immaturity). But in the midst of the stress and worries of adulthood, and in a culture that reveres youth for all the wrong reasons—dread of commitment, hedonistic pleasure-seeking, individualistic “self-fulfillment”—our nostalgia for bygone days is apt to become superficial. We are prone to regard youth’s secondary features as primary and, therefore, to try to recover its luster in futile, adolescent ways. In any case, we tend to forget what the real foundation of our childhood felicity was: that implicit trust in, that utter dependence on, our parents.
Some of the most shocking, original, and challenging passages in the Gospel—and there are many to choose from—are those in which Jesus tells us to have this same implicit trust in, this same utter dependence on, our Father in heaven. We, the autonomous, self-directed, sophisticated heirs of modernity, are supposed to call God Abba. We, who are weighed down by so many responsibilities, are told not to worry, for our Abba knows what we need: “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:30).
The saints are so profoundly happy because even the most grownup among them remain children all their lives, trusting in (without presuming to understand) their Father’s goodness, power, and wisdom. Yet Jesus calls all of us to be children of God; indeed, he tells us that, unless we “change and become like little children,” we cannot enter his Kingdom (Matthew 18:3). How, then, can we, poor distrustful people that we are, attain a measure of the saints’ faith and, therefore, a portion of their childlike happiness?
Well, we know that one thing is absolutely essential. It’s so simple that anyone can do it, so wonderful that it’s impossible without God’s grace, and yet it’s the one thing we are most likely to neglect. St. Teresa of Avila names it with the sureness born of experience, and her words echo those of our Lord to Martha: “There is but one road which reaches God, and that is prayer. If anyone shows you another you are being deceived.”
We might say that, just as no one has an intellectual life who doesn’t think, so no one has a spiritual life who doesn’t pray. And if we want real faith, real childlike trust in God, we must pray daily. After all, what child would go through a whole day without listening and talking to his mom or dad—expressing his needs, confusion, love, complaints, contrition, gratitude?
Of course, we can and should aspire to make all our activities a kind of prayer, but in reality most of us are very far from such a high degree of recollection. That’s why we need to pray at set times (e.g., morning and evening) and in set forms (e.g., the Rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Psalms, or the various litanies). Set forms help us to compose ourselves, to worship God with fitting words and sentiments; and set times interrupt our worldly business, reminding us of who we are and who God is. In this way, God reveals himself to us; he becomes personal to us, not just an idea; and, more and more, we become his trusting child.
Cardinal Newman, commenting on today’s Gospel, discusses this matter with characteristic insight, and, to conclude, I can do no better than to recommend reading his words in full:
. . . if we leave religion as a subject of thought for all hours of the day equally, it will be thought of in none. In all things it is by small beginnings and appointed channels that an advance is made to extensive works. Stated times of prayer put us in that posture (as I may call it) in which we ought ever to be; they urge us forward in a heavenly direction, and then the stream carries us on.
Image: Veláquez, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary