TUESDAYS WITH TERESA: Theology of a Child

I trust regular readers enjoyed the contributions by Melissa Fenech and John Donnelly over the past two weeks, while I was on the Gold Coast caring for my daughter Angela and her new baby, Ada Teresa.

John, in his message last week, reflected upon his role as a dad, and during my time away I was again reminded of the selfless task of parenting, for those who have the privilege of bringing new lives into the world. Interestingly, God chose to come to us as a child, growing up under the influence and instruction of a family, until, as we heard in the Gospel over the weekend, he asks his friends this question: “Who do you say I am?” He was growing in his sense of who he was and what his mission meant for him and his followers.

Spending time with my daughter, I decided to avoid opening my computer so that I could be present to her, her new baby, her almost two-year old, her husband, and my other children and grandchildren who live on the Gold Coast. Initially, I thought it would be hard to remain disconnected, but it became essential because babies require full-time commitment, and adult children who are having babies also require full-time nurturing. Mothering is an amazing gift which totally stretches your whole being – physically, mentally, socially, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically... Ultimately it is the profound driver we call love which gets you through each day.

When Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say I am?”, and they respond that he is the Christ, Jesus goes on to indicate what this means; that he is destined to suffer grievously. Real love requires sacrifice and suffering. We struggle with this aspect of love as did Peter in his remonstrations. Giving without counting the cost is not for the fainthearted.

Babies don’t have a sense of the other and certainly do not understand time, night or day. They are not yet able to communicate effectively, so their crying penetrates the household on regular basis. I wonder how many parents recall thinking they are hearing the cry of their child only to discover they are sound asleep! And yet our love for our spouses produces a desire within us to participate in the act of pro-creating with our God.

Upon my return to work, Fr Brian Mascord handed me a stimulus paper, ‘Children; Close to the Mystery of God’, written for Catholic Education South Australia (a CESA Stimulus Paper). It states:

Children are open to God; in the ordinary course of their journey they touch the Mystery of God. We see the grace of God at work in their sense of wonder at the beauty of the sea, a landscape, or a flower; we see it in their enquiring minds, their search for knowledge; we see it when they are at play, exploring their imagination; we see it in their uncomplicated affection, trust and warmth; and we see it in their reaching out, in their sometimes surprising inclusion and care for others.

How true this was for me as I spent time with the two-year old, brother of Ada. At night, he would ask me to take him outside to see the stars and the moon and we would sing “Twinkle Twinkle” and “Hey Diddle Diddle”. I could feel his delight in the magic of the night lights in the sky, without explanation. He spends many of his waking hours dancing and singing without fear of being judged, and knowing that the adults will affirm him and join in with delight. At some stage, I took him with me to pick up some of the other grandchildren from school, and so as I passed the church I took him in. As soon as we entered, he looked around and put his fingers to his lips, producing a Shhh! sound. I wondered how he sensed this awe and wonder of this space. Upon taking him to Mass, he once again engaged in this sense of Mystery. I also introduced him to the ritual of grace before meals. On our first night, he observed but would not join in, however by the second night and subsequent nights he happily blessed himself and verbalised a form of grace which sounded like ‘abba dabba dabba’.

So I have no doubt that children touch the absolute divinity of God, and my recent ‘vacation of parenting and care’ has re-reminded me of the miracle of new life. In the above article Karl Rahner, a German Jesuit and one of the most important theologians of the twentieth century, is quoted:

Childhood itself has a direct relationship with God. It touches upon the absolute divinity of God not only as maturity, adulthood and the later phases of life touch upon this, but rather in a special way of its own.

So it seems that children, in their openness to God, communicate that divine love to all whose hearts and minds are open. This is why the dignity of the human person forms such a profound part of our Catholic theology. Life is precious from the moment of conception to its natural end. And yet it is hard to hold onto the sacredness of life when the demands are so great. I certainly spent many hours walking the floor with baby Ada and holding her while she slept, just so we could enjoy the peace that comes after the stress of crying. And yet in holding this new life, one could sense the mystery of God within this helpless being. I recall standing over the cot of our children and gazing at them, particularly after a hard day, and marvelling at their innocence and beauty.

I am left wondering about our God who holds each of us like I held Ada. Our God is there for us and soothes us by holding us or walking beside us, or listening to us. “All of us together – children, parents, carers, teachers, school leaders, and our communities – can be caught up in the grace of God; we can radiate the Mystery of God’s love to one another. This is the fundamental aspect of the mission of Catholic schools and, indeed, of families and church communities.’ (CESA Stimulus Paper)  This paper spoke of children having their origin and fulfilment in an ultimate divine love; each is an “icon” through which the Mystery of God shines.

I will now take the opportunity to move this image away from my own experiences of the past couple of weeks to the images in our media of the many children and their families fleeing Syria. It seems to me that it was the image of the child washed up on the beach, Aylan Kurdi, which turned the hearts of our community and politicians to now respond generously. Their hardened hearts were touched and softened by the ‘mystery of God’ in the face of a particular child and children. Jesuit Fr Frank Brennan shared the following in his address, What I Believe, at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House on 5 September.

I believe in Aylan’s inviolable, inherent dignity as a human being like all of us, no matter what side of a national border we might live. I believe that a globe of 7.3 billion people with inviolable, inherent dignity confronts huge challenges and real evil when almost 60 million people are displaced, when inequality is increasing, and when climate change is accelerating.

And so to finish this message with the message from Sunday’s reading from the letter of St James in which he writes that faith without good works is dead. This reading challenges us to live our faith in action each day. Certainly young families are living their faith each day as they nurture their children in so many ways. My daughter speaks well about the 4th trimester of the life of a child, the first three months of life beyond the womb. I will leave you with that powerful image, but add to that, the notion that we all live beyond the womb and are in need of that deep care and warmth that the womb provides.

What is your theology of the child? How has it been shaped?

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Teresa Brierley Image
Teresa Brierley

Teresa Brierley is Director Pastoral Ministries of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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