Backwards to Heaven

004-dsc_supermoon-red-alone-2016111415-21Backwards to Heaven

“There is a very mysterious real connexion between the garden of Eden and our childhood.”[1]

Looking back on childhood might mean more than indulging in nostalgia. Age invites retrospect, but Newman suggests in “The State of Innocence” that it is at root a spiritual thing.

“There is a very much closer connexion between the state of Adam in Paradise and our state in childhood, than may at first be thought,” the Cardinal says. Our backward glance, “surveying Eden” he calls it, in a way represents “looking back on our own childhood; and in aiming to be children again, we are aiming to be as Adam on his creation.”

It’s not hard to see this. To return and inhabit the simple and friendly landscape of Eden, where Adam and Eve lived in communion with God and each other, speaks to the world-weariness of adult life. We are creatures in conflict, and most find themselves at some point either feeling something like Jacob’s distress: “All these things are against me,” or, even more extremely, fitting the Biblical description of Ismael: “His hand against every man and every man’s hand against him” (Gen 42:36, 16:12).

Newman shows us that if even in New Testament times we might feel basically the same as our Old Testament forebears, nevertheless “our regenerate state in Christ” is greater than either the state of childhood or that of Adam in paradise. Christ has done something other than reinstating us in Eden. Our new life is not mere retrieval, recapturing lost ground. Not recovery, but rebirth.

The Lord chooses to leave the redeemed in a fallen world that bears all the scars of unredemption, requiring that we be “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (Philippians 2:15). His disciples must have the moral dexterity to navigate through evil times and climes while keeping themselves “unstained from the world” (James 1:26), neither collecting its souvenirs nor wearing its tattoos.

When our Lord in the same breath couples dove-like simplicity with serpentine “wisdom,” He is preparing followers who will be neither naïve nor pragmatists, just getting things done by any means necessary. Jesus wants us to be firmly grounded in the real world, even as we trample its snakes and scorpions underfoot—at the same time, never forgetting that as Christians we do not float above the earth, never needing our feet washed. Having bathed the feet of His apostles, the Lord wants no misunderstanding: “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet” (John 13:10). This kind of cleansing is not once-for-all, even if done at the hands of the Savior.

Keeping this fact before us throughout life helps to prevent a kind of perfectionism that fixates on making things perfect that have no business being perfect. To prize efficiency in organization or management too excessively is to set oneself up for collapse when life brings periods of chaos. Perfectionists are undone by reality, and spirituality is all about the reality of fallen people living in an imperfect world and the grace that makes saints out of the broken pieces.

At the end of the day, tolerating weaknesses, failures, and mistakes is more valuable than we may think, as St Josemaria Escriva explains:

As we walk along it is inevitable that we will raise dust; we are creatures and full of defects. I would almost say that we will always need defects. They are the shadow which shows up the light of God’s grace and our resolve to respond to God’s kindness.[2]

One of Newman’s most deservedly celebrated passages highlights how God can use these defects—and even our backsliding—as a means of leading us to himself. “At present,” he observes, “our moral rectitude, such as it is, is acquired by trial, by discipline: but what does this really mean? by sinning, by suffering, by correcting ourselves, by improving.” He elaborates with an inventory of everyman’s daily struggle:

We advance to the truth by experience of error; we succeed through failures. We know not how to do right except by having done wrong. We call virtue a mean,—that is, as considering it to lie between things that are wrong. We know what is right, not positively, but negatively;—we do not see the truth at once and make towards it, but we fall upon and try error, and find it is not the truth. We grope about by touch, not by sight, and so by a miserable experience exhaust the possible modes of acting till naught is left, but truth, remaining. Such is the process by which we succeed; we walk to heaven backward; we drive our arrows at a mark, and think him most skillful whose shortcomings are the least.

In accents realistic and compassionate Newman reminds us that however uprightly we may walk, it is through a dark valley of tears we amble, negotiating a path Jesus calls narrow. And whereas narrow seems to allow no careering or clumsiness, the Lord’s compassion for straying sheep, fleeing apostles, and repenting thieves, frames the picture with hope and mercy—not so much widening the road to life as expanding our humility and trust in walking it.

What Newman—and St Josemaria—tell us is that God’s goodness accommodates a generous margin of error. Our clumsy missteps, our sour notes, can be incorporated into a harmony that only the divine mind can foresee and orchestrate. Like a virtuoso’s intentional mistake that displays an unexpected expertise, the glory comes not from the error but from the one who reworks it into a fitting piece.

God doesn’t bless human sin, but He is more than willing to pick up children who try and fail. Newman’s is a spirituality of God’s children as children. Manly virtue, the “mature manhood” often urged by St Paul, never divorces itself from the Lord’s call to spiritual childhood.

Christian childhood is neither nostalgia nor make-believe, but rather the choice of the mature Christian. Even though, as Newman comments, “the past never returns,” and childhood is “a thing past and over,” and while we “are not, we cannot be children,” because “grown men have faculties, passions, aims, principles, views, duties, which children have not,” still, “we must become as little children; in them we are bound to see Christian perfection, and to labour for it with them in our eye.”

To be as little children—who know how to fail, stand up, and carry on—is so essential to our salvation that the Lord leaves us with defects, even with the ability to sin, so that we will learn to accept our more important need for dependence—to trust in God both for forgiveness and strength. If St Paul astounds us with his paradox “when I am weak, then am I strong,” he also emboldens us to claim as daringly: “And when I am most childlike, then am I most mature.”

 

 

 

[1] Blessed John Henry Newman, “The State of Innocence,” Parochial and Plain Sermons Vol. 5, no. 8. Unless otherwise noted, all Newman quotations come from this sermon.

[2] St Josemaria Escriva, “Interior Struggle,” Christ is Passing By, no. 76.

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