Recently I was with a family I know quite well for a picnic supper. It was a gorgeous summer evening and we were sitting on the grass enjoying sandwiches and cold drinks. The family has a four-year-old daughter and, just after the meal started, she stood directly in front of me and, without speaking, kept smoothing down the dress she was wearing. She said nothing, but she obviously wanted to draw my attention to something. She just kept smiling and smoothing down her dress, but I wasn’t picking up her signal. Finally her older brother said to me: “Look! She wants you to look at her, to see her new dress. She wants you to notice that she is wearing a new dress!”
I looked up. She stood there silent, beaming, proud, healthily exhibiting herself. There was no pretense; she was proud of her new dress and wanted the whole world to see it and to know that she was happy. Beyond her joy, her face and body spoke of innocence, simplicity, purity of heart, and purity of intention. She was a little girl in a new dress, happy in that moment, unashamed to let the world know that she felt good, proud, happy, and beautiful. Her joy was pure and she felt no reason to mask it.
I was moved. Such moments are precious and rare enough. Such sheer delight in creation is also precious and rare. The distractions of the moment soon enough spoiled her pure delight and, not too many minutes later, she was complaining and crying in a childish way, despite her new dress. I too was soon distracted, but the image of her uninhibited and innocent joy has stayed with me.
Driving home afterwards, I thought of Jerome David Salinger’s, The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger, lamenting how growth to adolescent and adulthood destroys the innocence, purity of intention, and naive joy of a child, once had a high fantasy within which he envisaged children playing in a rye field. He, their guardian, watched over them and made sure no one strayed falsely in or out of their field of joy. In his fantasy, they were to remain children always, spared the pain, compromises, pretense, lost innocence, lost honesty, and lost simplicity that make up adult life. These children, playing in the rye field, would always remain innocent, pure, and joyful, even if the price of that was isolation and naiveté.
There is enough of a romantic and nostalgic streak in me to, like Salinger, also want to be a catcher in the rye. Wouldn’t it be nice, if somehow we could block out what’s ugly and impure in life so that children would go through life uncompromised and uncontaminated, able always, like this four-year-old girl, to experience pure delight and express it so honestly and without shame?
That’s unreal though, and children, like adults, also have their selfishness, their real cruelty, and their dishonest masks. Their field of play has its own little brutalities. Moreover, salvation does not lie in playing naively, sheltered in the deathless and yet uncompromised field of childhood. But this child’s delight in her new dress did speak of salvation because salvation lies, Jesus assures us, in having the heart of a child and, in that instant when this little girl smoothed down her dress, I saw what that looks like.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer and say: “Your kingdom come”, we are praying for salvation. What really are we praying for?
Julian of Norwich once said that, when the kingdom comes, “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of being will be well.” For a few seconds that summer night on our picnic grass, in one little girl’s heart, “all was well and all manner of being was well.” Innocence, honesty, healthy exhibitionism, beauty, joy and delight in creation, deathlessness, the healthy carelessness of the lilies of the field, lack of pretense, and purity of heart came together. Somebody was happy, content, admired, grateful, and delighting in herself and the rest of creation. For just a few seconds, I saw what heaven is going to look like … and I saw what kind of vulnerability, self forgetfulness, innocence, openness, and joy is needed for us to let heaven happen.
When, in all the heartaches and headaches that constitute our normal lives, we pray: Your kingdom come, this is what we are praying for, the capacity to, like this child, stand before each completely unmasked and, in purity of heart, take sheer delight in the goodness of God, ourselves, and creation.