People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them;
and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant
and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such
as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive
the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
– Mark 10: 13-15
Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God
shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and
does what is right is acceptable to God.”
– Acts. 10:34 NRSV, adapted
The human community and the natural world will go
into the future as a single sacred community
or we will both perish in the desert.
– Thomas Berry
J. Allen Boone, in a wonderful little book called Language of Silence, describes modern humanity as “overcivilized, overmechanized, overeducated, oversexed, and chronically frustrated.” He contrasts modern humans with children, with people of so-called primitive cultures, and with animals, all of whom he reminds us are “more alive to nature’s rhythm and more sensitive to environmental disturbances.”
Boone’s words call to mind the line from the Christian Scripture: “Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” He urges that “to have the humility of a child is to find again the key to reverence for, and kinship with, all of life.”
I also was deeply moved to read in one of Matthew Fox’s books on Meister Eckhart the comment that “the human person must learn to let go of things in order to let things be things and in order that reverence might be learned.”
In order that reverence might be learned. The phrase haunts me. Is this the real challenge of our time? If so, let us hope it is not too late for us to learn.
Yet, that raises the question: how do we learn? I believe we have role models for this in many of the world’s religious traditions. The stories of such role models are one of the things lost when one abandons connection to any formal religion. As someone raised as a Christian, I am most familiar with the examples of how reverence is learned in the Scriptural accounts of Jesus’ life. In Luke’s Gospel, we hear that Jesus “grew and became strong in spirit” (Luke 1:80 NRSV).
One aspect of growing and learning is a change in awareness. When we learn something new, we are changed. We are not who we were before, for now we look at the world in a new way. Just as the process which resulted in the creation of our Universe involved steps that are irreversible, so it goes with us; once our awareness changes, we cannot go back to who we once were.
I believe Jesus, because he was fully human, had experiences of growth and change in awareness. Of particular interest to me are the stories of how Jesus learned that we are connected – that we are all neighbors – and how out of that awareness he tried to teach us about the demands of relationship. For me, one of the stories indicating how Jesus seemed to learn this lesson is the one about the wedding feast at Cana. As John’s Gospel relates the story, Jesus and his mother, Mary, were guests at a wedding feast. Suddenly, Mary notices that the hosts are running out of wine. Mary, no doubt thinking to save the host family from embarrassment, turns to Jesus with a request to intervene. He responds with the question, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?” Without responding to Jesus, Mary simply models her concern by turning to the servants with her command, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Another example of this growth in awareness of what it means to be neighbor comes for Jesus in his meeting with the Syrophoenician woman. Mark’s Gospel tells us that the woman was not of Jesus’ Jewish race, but a Gentile, for whom Jews had much loathing. When the woman begs Jesus to cast a demon from her daughter, Jesus at first replies, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The woman does not relent, and boldly replies that even dogs are allowed to eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table. Hearing this response, Jesus experiences a change of heart, and tells the woman, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”
As we know, having taken these lessons in, when Jesus is later asked by the lawyer, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the story of the good Samaritan, who helps a Jewish man attacked by robbers, after a Jewish priest and a Levite both passed him by.
Jesus as a role model of spiritual growth and development is only one example. As with Jesus, so, too, with us. There are stories of many other men and women who underwent similar journeys of inner transformation within the Christian tradition, as well as other religious traditions. Throughout our lives, our own personal experiences often lead to growth through a change in awareness. This change brings new attitudes and behaviors, and often is marked by a growing inclusiveness and acceptance of others.
The issue of inclusiveness brings me to another brief personal story. In December of 1999, I traveled with a group from the Institute for Spiritual Leadership and DePaul University to Cape Town, South Africa, to attend the Parliament of the World’s Religions. For me, the Parliament offered a window into the real possibility of achieving a harmony among the world’s diverse populations that could mean peace and a long future for humanity and the whole Earth community. Practitioners of the entire spectrum of the world’s religious and spiritual communities were present, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Jains, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, as well as representatives of African, Native American and other indigenous traditions, along with Goddess worshipers, New Agers and many others. And of course, inherent in all of this religious diversity was a rich ethnic variety as well.
The Parliament was literally an extravaganza of religious, spiritual, emotional and intellectual challenge and inspiration. It was an unprecedented opportunity for experiencing prayer and ritual in many religious and cultural contexts; for learning about the sacred principles, the prophets, and the historic struggles of various religious communities; and for witnessing the embodiment of those principles in the life struggle and presence of such modern-day leaders as Nelson Mandella and the Dalai Lama, both of whom addressed the 1999 Parliament.
On board the plane as we were flying toward Miami on our way to Cape Town, I was reading the book, God’s Whisper, Creation’s Thunder: Echoes of Ultimate Reality in the New Physics. The book explores the similarities between the Christian tradition of mysticism and the insights of the new science. A transformative moment came for me as I read the Foreword by John Davidson. In it, I was challenged by the description by Davidson of the mystical understanding of God and creation. Davidson wrote that mystics “say that the Source of All…is one and undivided” and that all creation arises as “patterns of multiplicity and diversity within the ocean” of God’s self.
I paused in my reading, immediately attracted to that beautiful image of the multiplicity and diversity of all of creation floating in the ocean of God’s self. Then, a further thought entered my mind, offering a dramatic challenge: if God holds all the variety and diversity that we know exists within reality in such a way, are we not called to do the same? It was an image and challenge that returned to me a number of times while I experienced the diversity present at the Parliament in Cape Town, and prompts me to look at how well I am doing this for myself and in my relationships even still.