Annie Dillard once wrote about innocence: “Innocence is not the prerogative of infants and puppies, and far less of mountains and fixed stars, which have no prerogatives at all. It is not lost to us; the world is a better place than that.
“Like any other of the spirit’s gifts, it is there if you want it, free for the asking, as has been stressed by stronger words than mine. It is possible to pursue innocence as hounds pursue hares: single-mindedly, driven by a kind of love, crashing over creeks, keening and lost in fields and forests, circling, vaulting over hedges and hills, wide-eyed, giving loud tongue all unawares to the deepest, most incomprehensible longing, a root-flame in the heart, and that warbling chorus resounding back from the mountains . . .”(Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 82)
One of the deepest underpinnings of all morality and spirituality is innocence—if not its achievement, at least its desire. Just as any healthy child spontaneously longs for the experience of an adult, any healthy adult longs for the heart of a child.
To lose the desire for innocence is to lose touch with one’s soul. It is, in fact, the loss of one’s soul since to lose entirely the desire for innocence constitutes one of the qualities of being in hell.
What is innocence?
Dillard, herself, describes it as the soul’s “unselfconscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object.” For her, innocence is the sheer gaze of admiration, something tantamount to what James Joyce describes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when young Steven sees a half-dressed girl on a beach and instead of being moved by desire for her is moved only by an overwhelming wonder and admiration.
The late Allan Bloom, in a bestselling book, The Closing of the American Mind, suggests that, in the end, innocence is chastity and that chastity has more than sexual connotations.
In his view, there needs to be a certain chastity in all of our experiencing, that is, we need to experience things only if and when we can experience them in such a way that we remain integrated. Simply put, we lose our innocence when we experience things that “unglue” us, that cause disintegration—be that moral, psychological, emotional, spiritual or erotic.
Bloom suggests that, today, most of us, through lack of chastity, have already become somewhat unglued. This, he suggests, manifests itself not just in spiralling rates for suicide, emotional breakdown, and drug and alcohol abuse, but, and especially, in a certain deadness that leaves us “limping erotically,” without fire in our eyes and without much in the way of the sublime in our hearts and in our dreams.
A number of philosophers and mythologists today suggest that adult innocence, unlike the natural innocence of a child, has to do with reaching “second naivete” and “post-criticalness.”
More simply stated, they distinguish between childishness, the spontaneous innocence of a child which has its roots in a certain ignorance and naivete, and childlikeness, the post-critical stance of an informed, experienced adult who again can take on the wonder of a child.
Finally, there is Jesus who defined innocence as consisting in having the heart of a child and the heart of a virgin . . . “Unless you have the heart of a child you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” “The kingdom of heaven can be compared to 10 virgins waiting for their bridegrooms!”
For Jesus, the heart of a child is one that is fresh, receptive, full of wonder and full of respect. The heart of a virgin is one that can live in patience, in inconsummation, without the finished symphony.
The virgin’s heart is innocent because it can live without breaking certain taboos, knowing that, as a child, many of the things that it so deeply desires cannot be had just yet. The virgin’s heart does not test its God.
In her novel, The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence describes a woman, Hagar Shipley, who, one day, looks at herself in a mirror and is horrified by what she sees. She scarcely recognizes her own face and what she sees frightens her. How can one, imperceptible to one’s own self, change and become so different, so old, so lifeless, so devoid of all freshness and innocence?
It can and it does happen to us all. Most of us have long ceased being the type of person that the child within us can make easy friends with. It’s time to pursue innocence as hounds pursue hares, single-mindedly, crashing over creeks, keening in lost fields, driven by a kind of love.