“Shhh!” came the rough rebukes from a handful of disgruntled listeners, first in disjointed fashion but soon crescendoing to a single collective and very loud shush. As the maestro continued to play Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 28—and brilliantly, at that, despite the distraction—I couldn’t help but feel bad for this small family with the rambunctious children. In my own life I have of course been the rambunctious child (who of us hasn’t?); I have also been the embarrassed older brother of the rambunctious child, powerless to do anything to soothe my sibling(s) or to assuage the anger of the exasperated malcontents who seemed to surround me. The family at the Chopin recital managed to stick it out through the rest of the Preludes, but apparently not before the children indulged in a great many kicks to the seatbacks in front of them. After the intermission the parents decided to move a few rows back, apparently hoping that the change of location would somehow convince the children to stop acting like children, at least for a time. This of course did not work, and after enduring a few more vigorous shushes (the imperturbable maestro valiantly played on), the father carried the most restless of his restless children out of the theater, not to return.
Now some would say that these children never should have been brought to the recital in the first place, but I’m not terribly interested in that question here. The fact is they were there; and while it is true that remaining quiet during a concert of classical music is polite and in accord with proper etiquette, all the shushing still seemed a little much. Of course it would be one thing if a cultured and proper and dignified adult occupied himself during a performance by crumpling and crinkling his program, whispering loudly about cartoons, and kicking whatever was within reach. But this is simply what children do. They tend sometimes to be noisy, and careless, and restless, and distractible.
This makes our Lord’s instruction to his disciples slightly more interesting: Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 18:3). We shouldn’t take this to mean that we ought to try harder to be noisy, careless, restless, and distractible when conversing with each other, but rather that we ought to realize that we are noisy, careless, restless, and distractible, especially when it comes to conversing with God, and this doesn’t preclude our union with him. We should of course strive to grow in spiritual maturity before God—St. Paul himself writes: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways (1 Cor 13:11). But this spiritual growth involves becoming more childlike, not less. St. Paul goes on: For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Cor 13:12-13). The childish ways Paul gave up were the ways of ignorance; becoming a man meant becoming wiser; and wisdom is something given by God. Solomon’s prayer for wisdom in Wisdom 9 is one of the most beautiful examples of this truth: to become wise, we must rely on God, just as children rely on their parents. (St. Thérèse of Lisieux understood this better than most, with her famous “little way” of spiritual childhood.)
It’s noteworthy that St. Paul speaks of attaining wisdom in the context of his famous “hymn to love,” because true wisdom is always rooted in love. Just as a child receives good things from his parents, even his very life, so we receive every good thing from God, even our very lives—and wisdom, too. Without love, this is senseless: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing (1 Cor 13:1-3). Love is the necessary condition for wisdom, which, like love, is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity (Jas 3:17). Perhaps not surprisingly, these are characteristics we tend to attribute to mature men and to children alike.
We may be noisy, careless, restless, and distractible when God is speaking to us, singing to us the wonders of his great love for us; but by putting off childish things and becoming more childlike we are better able to receive the gifts he gratuitously grants from on high, especially wisdom. And like the maestro who just kept on playing through both the rambunctious racket and the shameless shushing, God just keeps on giving good things to his boisterous but beloved children—for his steadfast love endures forever (Ps 136).
Image: Raoul Dufy, The Red Concert