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 turningchildren 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 atime 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 childrento come unto me" (Mt 19:14). And if this is said, then there isno reason to be ashamed of the unquestionable childlikeness that is connectedwith 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 thisis first of all revealed in the image of this child; it is precisely this revelation that is thekey to everything else in religion. What can they mean, these words: "Be likechildren"? Certainly these words cannot refer to some kind of artificialsimplification, 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 byits 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 thatwhich he loses, as he leaves his childhood. There is no doubt in the fact that he does losesomething, something unique and precious, that for the rest of his life he remembers hischildhood as a paradise lost, as a kind of golden dream, at the end of which life becamesadder, emptier, fearsome.
I believe that if we had to define this in one word that word would be "wholeness." Achild does not yet know the fragmentation of life into past, present, and future, the sadexperience of vanishing and irretrievable time. He is completely in the present; he istotally in the fullness of everything that is now, be it joy, be it grief. He is completely injoy, which is why people speak about "childlike" laughter and about a "childlike" smile;he can be completely in grief and sadness, and this is why we speak about the tears of achild, and thus, why a child so easily and unreservedly cries and laughs. A child is whole not only in relation to time, but in relation to all of life; he giveshimself to everything with his entire being; he does not understand the world bydeliberation, through analysis, or through one of his particular emotions, but with hiswhole being without reservation-and this is why the world is open to him in all of itsdimensions. If in his eyes the animals are speaking, the trees are suffering or rejoicing, thesun is smiling, and an empty matchbox can miraculously appear as a car, or a plane, or ahouse, or whatever, this is not because he is silly or immature, but because open andgiven to him at the highest level is this feeling of the miraculous depth and connectedness of everything witheverything. He has the gift of full indwelling with the world and with life. And in growing up, we indeed hopelessly lose all of this. First of all we lose this very wholeness. In our mind and consciousness the worlddisintegrates to its constituent parts, and outside of this profound interconnection allthese elements become isolated, and in their isolation become limited, unidimensional, andboring. We are beginning to understand more and more, but less and less to truly comprehend. We are beginning to acquire knowledge about everything, but no longer have a realcommunion with anything. But this miraculous connection of everything with everything, this possibility of seeingthe other in everything, this possibility of a full giving of oneself and connectedness, thisinner openness, this trust in everything, is precisely the very content of religiousexperience-this is in fact the feeling of divine depth, of divine beauty, of the divineessence of everything, this is in fact the direct experience of God, who is all in all! The very word "religion" in Latin means "connection." Religion is not simply one areaof experience; it is not one category of knowledge or experience; religion is the connectionof everything with everything, which is why, in the final analysis, it is the truth abouteverything. Religion is the depth of things and their height; religion is light, which flowsfrom everything, thereby illuminating everything; religion is the experience of the presencein everything, behind everything, and above everything, of the final reality, without whichnothing has any meaning. And this whole divine reality can only be perceived with anunderstanding that is whole, and this is the meaning of "Be like children."
It is to this that Christ calls us when he says "The one who does not receive thekingdom of God like a child, will not enter it" (Mk 10:15). For in order to see, to desire,to feel, to receive the kingdom of God it is necessary precisely to see this depth of things,to see that which in the better moments of our life they proclaim to us, that light whichbegins to flow from them when we return to our childhood wholeness.