Posted October 7, 2015
Innocence, Complexity, and Sanctity
years ago, I officiated at a wedding. As the officiating priest, I was invited
to the reception and dance that followed upon the church service. Not knowing
the family well and having church services the next morning, I left right after
the banquet and the toasts, just as the dancing was about to start. When I was
seemingly out of earshot, I heard the bride's father say to someone: "I'm glad
that Father has gone; now we can celebrate with some rock music!"
take the remark personally since the man meant well, but the remark stung
nevertheless because it betrayed an attitude that painted me, and others like
me, as religious but naive, as good to sit at the head table and be specially
introduced, but as being best out of sight when real life begins; as if being
religious means that you are unable to handle the earthiness and beat of rock
music, as if church and earthy celebration are in opposition to each other, as
if sanctity demands an elemental innocence the precludes human complexity, and
as if full-blood and religion are best kept separate.
But that's an
attitude within most people, however unexpressed. The idea is that God and human
complexity do not go together. Ironically that attitude is particularly
prevalent among the over-pious and those most negative towards religion. For the
both the over-pious and the militant-impious, God and robust life cannot go
together. And that's also basically true for the rest of us as is evident in our
inability to attribute complexity, earthiness, and temptation to Jesus, to the
Virgin Mary, to the saints, and to other publicly-recognized religious figures
such as Mother Theresa. It seems that we can only picture holiness as linked to
a certain naivete. For us, holiness needs to be sheltered and protected like a
young child. As a result we then project such an over-idealization of innocence
and simplicity onto Jesus, Mary, and our religious exemplars that it becomes
impossible for us to ever really identify with them. We can give them
admiration, but very little else.
For example, the Virgin Mary of our piety
could not have written the Magnificat. She lacks the complexity to write such a
prayer because we have projected on to her such an innocence, delicacy, and
childlikeness so as to leave her less than fully adult and fully intelligent.
Ultimately this has a negative effect religiously. To identify an unrealistic
innocence and simplicity with holiness sets out an unattainable ideal that has
too many people believe that their own red blood, with its restless stirrings,
makes them bad candidates for the church and sanctity.
In the Roman
Catholic Rite of baptism, at a point, the priest or deacon pronounces these
words: See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity.
With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity
unstained into the everlasting life of heaven. That's a wonderful statement
celebrating the beauty and virtue of innocence. But it celebrates an innocence
that has yet to meet adult life.
The innocence of a child is stunning in
its beauty and holds up for us a mirror within which to see our moral and
psychological scars and the missteps we have taken as adults, not unlike the
humbling we can feel when we look at bodies in a mirror when we get older. The
beauty of youth is gone. But the disquiet and judgment we feel in the presence
of a child's innocence is more a neurosis and misconception than a genuine
judgment on our sanctity and moral goodness. Children are innocent because they
have not yet had to deal with life, its infinite complexities, and its
inevitable wounds. Young children are so beautifully innocent because they are
still naive and pre-sophisticated. To move to adulthood they will have to pass
through inevitable initiations which will leave more than a few smudges on the
childlike purity of their baptismal robes.
A friend of mine is fond of
saying this about innocence: As an adult, I wouldn't give a penny for the naive
purity of a child, but I would give everything to find true childlike innocence
inside the complexity of my adult life. I think that what he means is this:
Jesus went into the singles' bars of his time, except he didn't sin. The task in
spirituality is not to try to emulate the naive innocence and non-complexity of
our childhood. That's an exercise in denial and a formula for rationalization.
The task is rather to move towards a second-naivete, a post-sophistication which
has already taken into account the full complexity of our lives. Only then will
we have again the innocent joy of children, even as we are able to stand steady
inside the rawness of rock music, the power and complexity of human sexuality,
the concupiscent tendencies of the human heart, and the uncanny and wily
maneuverings innate inside the human spirit. From there we can write the