Christmas and Innocence: Personal Memoirs and a Poem
Sorting through faded photos of childhood, a thought occurred to me: Was I ever that young? I felt nostalgia: the desire to “go home.” No, I didn’t want to go back to a “time gone by” or to a “place long ago and faraway.” I’d only go back if I could “know then” what I “know now.” Too soon old, too late smart. Moreover, you can’t “go home again” any more than you can step into the same river twice. So, what did I really desire when I felt, “I want to go home”? I thought about it. “Home” means “innocence.” What’s innocence? To say “innocence is the absence of guilt” is like saying “life is the absence of death.” True, but it doesn’t say “what it is.” After all, it wouldn’t be false to say apple pie is the absence of spaghetti and meatballs. So, what “is” it? Innocence is peace with the joy of existence. In Genesis, “light” is “innocence.” “Let there be Light” (Genesis 1:3). It means that things are “the way they ought to be” – in proper harmony – as willed by the Creator. Innocence means a fourfold peace with (1) God, (2) others, (3) one’s self and (4) nature. It entails a trust that all is (or will be) well. I felt these forms of peace as a child at times because my parents who, like Joseph and Mary protecting Jesus from Herod, did their duty.
Here’s a personal memory of peace with nature. I remember a moment, with photographic clarity, water skiing at age twelve on a sun-spangled Lake Verret. The moment happened about a mile from Attakapas Landing, southwest of Napoleonville, Louisiana. For a few minutes, I thought I was in earth’s most beautiful place. Cruising on my red, white and blue “Spirit of ‘76” water skis behind a 15-foot runabout powered by a 50-horsepower outboard Johnson motor, I recall the bliss of gliding over the silk waters of paradise. “The Spirit hovered over the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Some local Cajuns ran 200-horsepower Evinrudes behind small wooden skiffs, skimming their bateaux over the waters like low flying ducks. It was funny. But for me – skiing behind a mere 50 horses through the luminous, Cypress-lined lake – God was real. “Nascantur in admiratione!” – “Let them be born in wonder!” “Let there be Light!” (Genesis 1:3) Like the little drummer before the crib, it was a boy’s contemplation. If only we could pray like that always.
That was an experience of innocence. You might call it “home.” Entire governments and economies exist to protect and promote “home.” How we’ve forgotten this! In that Cajun Catholic world, the French words “cher” (dear) and “chez” (home) are, in effect, the same word. Elders called the young “cher” (pronounced “sheh”). I remember being called this. To be “dear” is to be “home.” Endearment like that seems lost on this rough spoken world. From the vantage point of a boy, how good it was to assume innocence the norm and all else mere mischief. But that’s not the reality of this fallen world. Sin is subversive.
As I water skied in paradise, it didn’t occur to me that the “times” were not innocent. I say this in my sadder but wiser age, looking back. I was born in the ‘60s. A kid in the ‘70s. A teen in the late ‘70s and early 80s. A college student in the ‘80s. Adulthood tossed me into the ‘90s. Yet, even in boyhood, I had inklings that all was not well. Nonetheless, childhood experiences formed the assumption that most people are good. “Bad people” will either snap out of it or end up in jail. But the facts-of-life break that illusion. Sin is a fact – deep, dark, persistent and subversive – that only Christ and our life in Him will conquer.
I admit: I was raised naïve. I still catch myself in that naïveté. But I must manfully confront the fact that all is not well. “I’m OK, you’re OK” is an illusion. A hellish war rages within every human heart that only Christ resolves. And yet, despite almost 19 years of “hearing it all” as a priest, I’m still inclined to say, “You didn’t really mean that.” But it’s not always true. Rather, it’s a sensibility formed by the innocence of a world I thought I lived in as a child. Pope Benedict XVI said that Heaven would be like his childhood – by no means an innocent age. The American painter, Carl Schmitt, wrote, “When will we learn that childhood is in a great sense not simply a preparation for adult life, but a thing unique and complete in itself – a masterpiece of God?” Parents and even governments do their duty if, like Joseph and Mary, they protect the innocence of their children. Kids are free to run around if a fence is built around the yard (so to speak). That’s a good thing. But it cannot last.
How does one venture beyond the “fence” and remain innocent? How does a man remain childlike and yet manfully navigate sin-sick chaos? How can a poet become pragmatic? It’s a compromising dilemma. But Christ guides the humble, even when He seems absent. Like storm-tossed ships, we navigate between waves of naïve trust and cynical doubt. How to steer and ballast is often a crapshoot. “Suddenly a furious storm came upon the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping” (Matthew 8:24). But I have a gold coin in my pocket: consoling memories of my childhood’s naïve innocence, when such battles didn’t trouble my conscience. I can’t go back. No one can. However, those childhood experiences were prophecies, gifts of Baptism. They were given, briefly, by the Holy Spirit for this reason: when you feel lost on your journey, remember those moments because they faintly foretell the joy of your future in Heaven. But, you must first die to self to get there, says the Spirit.
My first hint that all was not well with the world came at age five. I was playing with a friend on Arrowhead Trail along Lake Mohawk in Sparta, New Jersey. Spring breezes blew from the lake over Virginia Bluebells lining the road. My friend said we – meaning he and I – won’t become men because we’ll die in war. The Vietnam War was raging, but I didn’t know that. He apparently heard something. A flash of sadness depressed me. But it was fleeting, like a dip in a hilly road. It was my first experience, that I recall, of a primeval sadness that’s within everyone: the shame of Adam after he sinned, and the sorrow of Cain after he killed his brother. At age five, I could feel it. But I couldn’t ponder it. What could I have known of this? It’s not normal for a child to think the world is a mess, unless that perception is prematurely imposed. Rather it’s normal for a child to think something is wrong with himself before he thinks anything is wrong with the world. “Behave yourself!” To a child, that implies “don’t be selfish” and “be good to the world out there.” A child’s naïve sense that the “world out there” is a wonderful thing that he shouldn’t mess up is prophetic. The prophecy of childhood should be guarded by trustworthy guides. But not for long. Despite my friend’s kid-take on the Vietnam War, despite my future dilemmas, I still trusted that the world in time could be made right. Moral danger seemed a minor consideration.
But that was boyish. Manhood means suffering. A boy cannot experience tragedy or confront evil and remain a boy. He must grow up or lose his soul. He must go outside “the fence” and go to war – often within himself. He must be a soldier and confront sin, within and without – but only in the grace of his Master, Jesus Christ. He must be humbled by the fact that the battles he loses might be the battles most worth fighting. That’s why God became a Child and then a Man and died on a cross. In Christ, we’re made innocent, we grow up, we suffer, we’re humbled, we repent, and finally we pass from this life. Then, we go Home. When we’re born into that World, we’ll rejoice and say, “I’ve become a child again!” “I’m home!” That’s the message of Christmas. That’s the gift of Jesus Christ.
by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
There fared a mother driven forth / Out of an inn to roam; / In the place where she was homeless / All men are at home. / The crazy stable close at hand, / With shaking timber and shifting sand, / Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand / Than the square stones of Rome.
For men are homesick in their homes, / And strangers under the sun, / And they lay their heads in a foreign land / Whenever the day is done. / Here we have battle and blazing eyes, / And chance and honour and high surprise, / But our homes are under miraculous skies / Where the yule tale was begun.
A child in a foul stable, / Where the beasts feed and foam; / Only where He was homeless / Are you and I at home; / We have hands that fashion and heads that know, / But our hearts we lost – how long ago! / In a place no chart nor ship can show / Under the sky's dome.
This world is wild as an old wife's tale, / And strange the plain things are, / The earth is enough and the air is enough / For our wonder and our war; / But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings / And our peace is put in impossible things / Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings / Round an incredible star.
To an open house in the evening / Home shall all men come, / To an older place than Eden / And a taller town than Rome. / To the end of the way of the wandering star, / To the things that cannot be and that are, / To the place where God was homeless / And all men are at home.