Unless you change and become like little children you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

How can we do that? How do we unlearn sophistication, undo the fact that we are adults? What kind of recessive journey can revirginize a heart?

Part of our quandary, I believe, comes from how we think of the heart of a child. When we picture the heart of a child we almost automatically think of innocence. A child’s heart is innocent by nature. Indeed it is stunningly innocent. There are few things in this world that can stop us in our tracks, make a man watch his language, make a woman watch her actions, make all of us watch what we talk about in open conversation, make us regret bad decisions, and make us want to be better persons than the innocence of child. Innocence is a powerful moral light that sears the soul.

But that isn’t exactly what Jesus had in mind when he challenged us to become like little children. We cannot remain children. Childhood is naturally outgrown and adulthood brings with it a bewildering complexity in life in general and in sexuality in particular that is not yet inside the heart of a child. And we don’t choose this. For an adult, life cannot be simple and much of the natural innocence of a child is lost in that fact.

So what does Jesus have in mind when he holds up the heart of a child as an ideal?

He does have a certain innocence in mind, though not the simple innocence of pre-sophistication, of being sheltered from one’s own complexity and that of the world. The innocence that Jesus glorifies in children is the wholeness of not yet being wounded, of still being able to trust, of not yet having one’s heart hardened by sin, wound, and disillusionment. Jesus says as much when he is asked whether divorce is wrong or right. He answers the question not by pronouncing it categorically wrong or right but by giving a deeper reason for its frequency: Divorce happens, Jesus says, because our hearts are no longer as they were “in the beginning”, namely, in that pristine time before Adam and Eve sinned and (in terms of our own lives) in the pristine time before we were wounded. In an unwounded heart, in the heart of a child, divorce is not an option. To acquire the heart of a child is therefore to try to move beyond the things that have wounded and hardened us.

But that is only one aspect of it. The quality of heart, seen in a child, that Jesus most challenges us to imitate is that of acknowledging powerlessness and helplessness. A child is powerless. It cannot provide for itself, feed itself, or take care of itself. For a child, if mum and dad do not get up and make breakfast, there will be no breakfast! A child knows dependence, knows that life comes from beyond itself, that it is not self-providing and self-sufficient.

But we tend to forget this as adults. The adult heart, at least during those years when we are healthy and strong, likes to believe itself to be self-providing, self-sufficient, able to take care of itself: I can provide for myself. The adult heart tends to live the illusion of self-sufficiency and that false notion is at the root of much of the pseudo-sophistication and lack of empathy that isolates us from others.

But how can this be undone? How can we “change and become like little children”?

Nature, God, and circumstance often do it for us. Here is an example: Several years ago, I went to the funeral of a ninety year-old man. While he had always been an honest man, a good man, a family man, and a man of faith, he had also, at least up until the years shortly before his death, been a particularly strong man, fiercely independent, proud of his self-sufficiency, and not infrequently hard on others and cantankerous in his dealings with them. His son, a priest, preached the funeral mass and said this in his homily:

Scripture tells us that the sum of years of a man’s life is seventy, eighty for those who are strong. But my dad lived for ninety years. Why those extra ten years? Well, it’s no mystery: In my dad’s case, God needed ten extra years to mellow him. He wasn’t ready to die at eighty; he was still too strong, too independent, too self-reliant. But the last ten years did their work on him: He lost his wife, his health, much of his independence, his place in society, and his firm grip on life. And that mellowed his soul. He died ready to grasp a stronger hand.

We have a choice: We can do this process deliberately, on purpose (so to speak), or we can fiercely guard our strength and sense of self-sufficiency and wait for nature, God, and circumstance to do it for us.