Be Like Children

Children do not experience time the way adults do. They are completely whole, interconnected, and in the present.

BY: Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Renowned Russian Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann delivered the following Radio Liberty address to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Originally published in "Sermons and Conversations," it is reprinted from the recent essay collection Tradition Alive with permission of Rowman and Littlefield.

"Be like children" (Mt 18:3)--what can this mean? Is not our whole civilization focused on the task of turning children into adults, of making them as smart, as analytical, and as prosaic beings as we ourselves are? And are not all our discussions and arguments directed precisely at the adults for whom childhood is simply a time of development, of preparation, a time precisely for overcoming any childishness in oneself?

And yet, "Be like children," says Christ, and also: "Do not hinder the children to come unto me" (Mt 19:14). And if this is said, then there is no reason to be ashamed of the unquestionable childlikeness that is connected with religion itself, and to every religious experience. It is not accidental that the first thing we see as we enter a church is the image of a child, the image of a young mother holding a child in her arms; and this is precisely what is most important in Christ--the Church is concerned with the fact that we should not forget this first and most important revelation of the divine in the world. For the same Church further affirms that Christ is God, Wisdom, Mind, Truth. But all of this is first of all revealed in the image of this child; it is precisely this revelation that is the key to everything else in religion.

What can they mean, these words: "Be like children"? Certainly these words cannot refer to some kind of artificial simplification, the denial of growing, of education, of having the experience of growth, of development--that is, all of which we call in childhood the preparation for life, the mental, emotional, and physical maturation. In the Gospel itself it is said about Christ that he "grew in wisdom" (Lk 2:40).

In addition, "Be like children" in no way signifies some sort of infantilism; it is not a supremacy of childhood over adulthood; it does not mean that in order to receive religion or religious experience one has to become a simpleton, or more crudely, an idiot. This is the understanding of religion by its opponents. They reduce it to fairy tales, to little stories and riddles, which only children or adult children--undeveloped people--can accept.

What is the meaning of the words of Christ? The question is not about what a person acquires in becoming an adult, for this is evident even without words, but about that which he loses, as he leaves his childhood. There is no doubt in the fact that he does lose something, something unique and precious, that for the rest of his life he remembers his childhood as a paradise lost, as a kind of golden dream, at the end of which life became sadder, emptier, fearsome.

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