What Distinguishes Spiritual Childhood from Natural Childhood

We continue where we left off in our last number on the three-part study of spiritual childhood by Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. (1877-1964). This is the concluding passage.

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Lastly, in her teaching on the way of spiritual childhood, St. Teresa sets forth clearly what constitutes the distinction between spiritual and natural childhood. Differentiating between them, St. Paul tells us: “Do not become children in sense. But in malice be children; and in sense be perfect.” Consequently maturity of judgment first of all distinguishes spiritual from natural childhood. But there is also a character to which St. Francis de Sales draws attention. In the natural order, in proportion as the child grows, the more self-sufficient he should become, for some day he will no longer have his parents. In the order of grace, on the contrary, the more the child of God grows, the more he understands that he will never be self-sufficient and that he depends intimately on God. As he matures, he should live more by the special inspiration of the Holy Ghost, who, by His seven gifts, supplies for the imperfections of his virtues to such an extent that he is finally more passive under the divine action than given up to his personal activity. In the end he will enter into the bosom of the Father where he will find his beatitude.

A young person, on reaching maturity, leaves his parents to begin life for himself. The middle-aged man occasionally pays a visit to his mother, but he no longer depends on her as he formerly did; instead, it is he who supports her. On the contrary, as the child of God grows up, he becomes so increasingly dependent on his Father that he no longer desires to do anything without Him, without His inspirations or His counsels. Then his whole life is bathed in prayer; he has obtained the best part, which will not be taken away from him. He understands that he must pray always.

This doctrine, at once so simple and so lofty, is set forth in detail in the following page from St. Teresa of Lisieux:

To remain little is to recognize one’s nothingness, to expect everything from God, as a little child expects everything from his father; it is to be disturbed about nothing, not to earn a fortune.

Even among poor people, as long as the child is quite small, they give him what he needs; but as soon as he has grown up, his father no longer wishes to feed him and says to him: “Work now, you can be self-supporting.” Well, so as never to hear that, I have not wished to grow up. since I feel myself incapable of earning my living, the eternal life of heaven. I have, therefore, always remained little, having no other occupation than to gather the flowers of love and sacrifice and to offer them to God for His pleasure.

To be little also means not to attribute to oneself the virtues that one practices, believing oneself capable of something; but it means recognizing that God places this treasure of virtue in the hand of His little child that he may make use of it when necessity arises; and it is always God’s treasure.

This is likewise the teaching of St. Augustine, when he affirms that, in crowning our merits, God crowns His own gifts. This is also what the Council of Trent says: “So great is God’s goodness toward us that He wills that His gifts should become merits in us.” We can offer Him only what we receive from Him; but what we receive under the form of grace, we offer to Him under the form of merit, adoration, prayer, reparation, and thanksgiving.

St. Teresa adds: “Finally, to be little is not to become discouraged by one’s sins, for children often fall, but they are too little to do themselves much harm.”

In all this spiritual teaching appears the great doctrine of grace: “Without Me you can do nothing”; “What hast thou that thou hast not received?” St. Teresa lived this lofty doctrine, on which the fathers of the Church and theologians have written so much. She lived it in a very simple and profound manner, allowing the Holy Ghost to lead her, above human reasoning, toward the harbor of salvation, to which she, in her turn, leads many sinners. Happy indeed the theologian who shall have converted as many souls as our saint! The Anglican preacher, Vernon Johnson, was not converted by theologians or by exegetes, but by St. Teresa of the Child Jesus.

St. Gregory the Great expressed his admiration for this way of childhood when he wrote in a homily, which the breviary recalls in the common for virgin martyrs: “When we see young maidens gain the kingdom of heaven by the sword, what do we say, we who are bearded and weak, we who allow ourselves to be dominated by wrath, inflated by pride, disturbed by ambition?”

Truly St. Teresa of Lisieux traced for us the simple road which leads to great heights. In her teaching, as it pleased Pope Pius XI to point out, the gift of wisdom appears in a lofty degree for the direction of souls thirsting for the truth and wishing, above all human conceptions, to live by the word of God.