Some time ago, I discovered a little book that spoke very deeply to me.
Unless You Become Like This Child by Hans Urs von Balthasar is a theological reflection on what it means to be childlike in faith, and how embracing that state of mind draws us closer to Christ and helps us to be better disciples, neighbors, and people.
I have read it twice now, and referred back to it more often than that, and I know I will continue to do so for years to come.
“Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3-4
Those are Christ’s words to his disciples. But what do they mean?
In a couple of posts, I’d like to examine that with you. Let’s begin with the basics: why is becoming like a child a worthwhile pursuit for a Christian parent? (Check out my second post on this book here.)
Like My Children?
My three-year-old has recently developed a charming habit. She demands that both my husband and I go through a specific litany of bedtime well-wishes before she permits us to close her bedroom door and go about our hour or two of freedom before we’re too tired to stay awake ourselves.
After weeks of this, I still haven’t nailed down the precise order in which we need to blow a kiss, say “I love you,” “sleep good,” and “goodnight,” and wait for her to do the same before we can close the door without hearing her screech in protest.
And my 20-month-old son likes to play a fun game of his own. It’s called “Can you guess what this noncommittal gesture means before I scream my head off over your total ignorance of my needs?” and I’ve literally never won.
Naturally, I’m not generally inclined to believe children are unequivocally the admirable, obedient souls I picture the greatest saints to be.
So does Jesus literally want me to be childlike? Is he absolutely certain that that’s my way not just to heaven, but to “greatness” in heaven?
The Holy Love of Parent and Child
Though children may lack the reason (and reasonableness) we strive for as adults, they are, indeed, chock full of wonderful qualities we should be striving for, too. To begin with, perhaps the most touching lesson from von Balthasar’s work here is how the nature of human, motherly, parental love emulates the profound love that exists between God and his children.
In many ways, it’s the way children think that we should admire—maybe not so much the way they behave. We should be mindful of how they understand us, their parents, as we examine how we understand God.
Consider this example: On page 12, von Balthasar notes that “at first the child cannot yet distinguish between parental and divine love.”
How staggering is that? Our children can’t distinguish between the love we have for them and the love God Himself has for them. They can only know that they are deeply loved and cared for.
There is a reason the family is called the domestic Church. We emulate the Holy Family, the love in the Trinity, and the greater communities in which we grow and help others grow.
Your child looks up at you and sees the adoring face of God. This makes sense in many ways—you, after all, participated in his creation and have the charge of teaching him about the Faith and the God who loves him. Still, it’s a doozy to consider, isn’t it?
Similarly, I bet you look down upon your sleeping babe and see the face of God in him, too. No creation is more awe-inspiring than the human soul, and you have the profound gift of bringing one of those souls into the world and raising him up to be good.
This is an immense responsibility. We are everything to our children, and at times, that can be a heavy burden to bear. This vocation is no joke.
The Ultimate Support System for Parents Everywhere
Though this weight is heavy, it isn’t ours alone to carry. After all, at the same time as we are parents and leaders, we are children ourselves—children of the Most High, whom nothing can escape or overwhelm.
“To be a child means to owe one’s existence to another, and even in our adult life we never quite reach the point where we no longer have to give thanks for being the person we are,” von Balthasar says on page 49. How true that is.
We are only strong enough to nurture and keep safe our children’s love and trust for us because our God is, at this very minute, nurturing and keeping safe the love and trust we have for Him—whether we’re thanking Him for it or not.
In the final chapter, on page 69, von Balthasar meditates on Mary’s Fiat: “Mary thus learns that the Most High has ever borne a Son in his bosom, and that this Son has now chosen her bosom as a dwelling-place. If she were to reflect on her own possibilities aided by an ordinary ‘adult’ understanding, the result of her meditation would simply be: ‘impossible.’ … However, being a perfect child of God, she does not reflect upon herself but places herself at the disposal of God’s every action.”
Imagine what God can do in our lives if only we adore Him as a girl adores her Papa. What are some areas of life in which you struggle to give God your unconditional “yes,” and how can you work toward healing that struggle—toward becoming more childlike in your devotion to our Father?
No Greater Privilege
Finally, I want to close this first post with a quote (found on page 70) that sums up this book’s special relevance for moms. By emulating Mary in this journey, we can be true children of God and wonderful mothers. This is how we can ensure our humble vocations are truly integral in God’s plan for the world:
“She [Mary] will have to do both things at once: introduce her Child into the business of being human (and this does not merely mean teaching him how to walk and speak, but also introducing him to the religion of his fathers) and learn steadily more from her Child how one behaves as a child of God.”
May we all let our children teach us as much as they learn from us. For parents, there is no greater privilege than to walk this journey with our sweet babies, to guide them on their path—and be humble enough to let them guide us on ours.