What is it about children that allows them to receive when the learned and clever cannot receive? One of the things I remember clearly from my schooldays was our commerce teacher (later the subject was called 'business organization') telling us that the two most powerful words in advertising are 'free' and 'new'. It is still the case, to judge from the frequency with which these words appear in advertisements. So the gospel, which is 'new' and 'free', ought to be one of the easiest products in the world to 'sell'. God is always new and always free - the kind of joy in the Word that is infectious flows from this newness and freedom of the gospel.
Patrick Kavanagh, in his poem called Advent, catches one aspect of the childlikeness that enables children to receive. He speaks of the wonder there was in every stale thing when we looked at it as children. Any stale thing, any old thing, any familiar thing, is wonderful in the eyes of the child. Perhaps the child is seeing it for the first time. Certainly the child comes to the world with a sense of wonder, ready for adventure, open to possibilities, strong in hope (the child has a long life ahead of it and so is naturally full of hope, says Thomas Aquinas).
So too for freedom. We may find ourselves, as stale adults, envying the freedom and spontaneity of the child. Not yet fixed in their ways, children are not restricted to the world's currencies, the established and obligatory protocols that reduce possibilities, restrict freedoms, shorten horizons. There is a trustingness, an openness, a readiness to learn in the child. Of course carrying dangers with it, and it is partly as a result of those dangers that we become cautious, and careful, and less spontaneous.
Growing up, we become learned and clever and it becomes more difficult to receive the gospel with the wonder and freedom of the child. Augustine (a great authority for Bonaventure, whose memory is kept today) laments that he comes late to the love of God - 'late have I loved you, O Beauty, every ancient and ever new'. He is writing at the age of 45 about his late conversion at the age of 32! What hope for those in their 50s, or 60s, or worse. And yet my father, for example, kept a sense of childlike wonder to the end of his life, when he was almost 80.
As life challenges our sense of wonder and our sense of freedom, it is crucial to remember that we are talking about spiritual childhood, the level of life in the Spirit, where we draw our sense of wonder and freedom not from ourselves but from God who is 'ever ancient and ever new', who is absolutely faithful and yet infinitely free. What if God is the tiniest thing around, asks one of the Greek fathers, trying to loosen the hardening arteries of our theology. What if God is the youngest thing around, we can add. What if it is as if He has just arrived on the scene?
One way of trying to get at this is to talk about a 'God of surprises'. He certainly surprised Moses by appearing and speaking in a burning bush - what a wonder! Children love surprises where adults tend to be apprehensive. ('Stay away from it, dear.') Children like the thrill of the unexpected where adults wonder what's behind it. But we must remain ready for new things if we are to remain open to conversion. How are we to have a new mind about anything if our learning and cleverness shut down all flexibility, all uncertainty? Learning and cleverness are all very well but will they help us to remain free as we mature?
Those who knew him say that the French Dominican Marie-Dominique Chenu retained, even into his 90s, a childlike enthusiasm and wonder about things. He certainly celebrates Thomas Aquinas as 'an innovator in the creativity of a new world'. In the article where he speaks of the newness in Thomas's theology he quotes a poem by the Flemish Beguine, Hadewijch of Antwerp. It catches very well what today's gospel reading invites us to think about:
May God give us the new sense of a freer and more noble love
that in Him our renewed life may receive every blessing;
that the new life give us a fresh taste
as love can give it in its pure freshness;
love is powerful and is the new reward
for those in whom life is renewed for Him alone,
you who desire to know anew,
in the new springtime, the new love.