Readers might recognize that the Catholic Sunday Gospel reading is very well suited to this week’s thought. This tiny snippet from the Gospel of Mark is found at chapter 10, verse 15: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
For the autistic among us, childhood is already a thorny issue. Our chronological age never seems to match up with our interests. Sometimes we are drawn to things the world has designated as best for preschoolers, even if we seem too big to wonder at colors, shapes and familiar rhythms. Toddlers are allowed “imagination time” – should we not have that same permission to use objects to inspire our thoughts? Other times, we thrive being around adults, especially those who stop and listen to us and genuinely share our curiosity. Adults can be a lot easier to be around than children, who can be loud, kinetically unpredictable and impatient dealing with people who need a little extra time. When we feel the full extent of our feelings, we are told to “grow up,” and when our reactions don’t match those of the people around us, we are called “immature.”
Childhood on the spectrum is no better or worse than for those of any neurotype. But, in a very broad sense, it is very likely that the formative events of autistic people are different than those not on the spectrum. Our learning sequence may take many more detours and roundabouts than the straight road that is supposed to go from the sensorimotor stage to pre-, concrete and formal operational processing in child development.
Silly question of the week: At which developmental stage should we receive the Kingdom of God like a child?
By now, the point has become completely lost in the details.
Likewise, most of the other, less academic considerations we give this Gospel passage become waylaid by our attempt to define and apply what we think childhood means. In doing so, we completely miss the exhortation: Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.
Receive the Kingdom like a child.
This is what separates children from adults: DEPENDENCE.
Adults are those who have reached the stage of independence where they are expected to get and do things for themselves. No more do they need guardians to sign off on activities, provide for necessities or guide in making decisions. Adulthood, in a very simple sense, is the shift from primarily “Please help me, I need” to “I want, so let me go get.”
An adult’s wants and needs are the responsibility of that adult to pursue.
A child’s wants and needs are obtained at the mercy of others.
Saint Thorlak worried toward the end of his life that he had never had a childhood. He was required at a very young age to become very responsible so that he could one day provide for his family in the absence of his father, both materially and spiritually. As Thorlak was dying, he fretted about this Gospel passage, fearing in his literal mind that he squandered his opportunity to enter the Kingdom of God having spent his childhood as an apprentice adult.
Instead (as the story goes), God revealed that Thorlak had, in fact, demonstrated his childhood every time he depended on others for his material and spiritual well-being. Like a child, he received: education from teachers impressed with his aptitude; instruction from priests who marveled at his wisdom; companionship from adults who delighted in telling him stories of their legacies; and strength from people who struggled in one way or another, showing him that he was very much an important part of their daily lives.
Need draws provision, and the meeting of the two is the experience of God. This holds true whether the need is met well or poorly, expediently or reluctantly. However long the path to provision, the meeting of the two reveals where God was theretofore hidden.
Whether we receive the Kingdom of God through sensory channels, imaginary role play, hands-on experimentation or conceptual book knowledge is not relevant. What matters is that we do not insist on doing so by ourselves. We must voluntarily depend on others to reveal God.
Put another way: Our physical childhood begins at birth and culminates when we achieve independence. Our spiritual childhood, then, begins after we have achieved independence and gradually start learning how to depend on others– until at last we receive the full experience of the Kingdom of God.
Anywhere we go, we can find skills curricula and programs to help people learn independence. By contrast, it is nearly impossible to find any program teaching us how to depend on others. Usually, we wait until find ourselves in crisis situations to realize that learning these skills – how to trust, how to ask, how to be vulnerable – might have done us a world of good.
Maybe we should start earlier on.
We can begin by studying childhood.
Pray: Heavenly Father, our culture teaches us from an early age that is important to be independent. Help me to see how DEPENDENCE can be just as important a skill to have… and then, show me how to begin learning.
Contemplate: What does the Kingdom of God look like as I witness those who depend on others?
Relate: Try at least once this week to deliberately depend on another person… and then, watch for the signs of the Kingdom of God!
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak