Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
– Matthew 19:14
“Grown-up people do not know that a child can give exceedingly good advice in the most difficult case…The soul is healed by being with children.”
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky
We had just arrived. And I wasn’t sure how they would react. In my 7 years of being a father, I have discovered that there are times you are best served by being completely up front with your young kids and other times you tactically avoid divulging information until it is absolutely necessary. There is no effort in this to deceive, but only to be strategic in information sharing. And so on this Thursday (my day away from clinic) after a lazy start sponsored by my cheesy scrambled eggs and Sponge Bob Squarepants, my two daughters and I rolled into the nearly vacant parking lot of the St. Paul Cathedral.
As I sat in the front seat of my car, I braced for the reaction to come from my five and seven year old daughters straining against their booster seats behind me. “Where are we?”. I didn’t say much. Tick-tick-tick. But then I peered in my rearview mirror and saw them both craning their necks to see if they could glimpse the top of the magnificent structure in front of us. “The Cathedral”, I answered. “Whooooooaaaaaa!” was their reaction. Score. Major score.
And so we went in. Walking across the relatively untravelled street, petite fingers of small hands gripped each of mine. There couldn’t have been a prouder dad in the state of Minnesota (or the world). For the next hour, a dad and his two sweet girls meandered through a peaceful and ornate house of God. “What animals do you see with those big statues of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?” “What are your favorite colors on the stained glass windows?” “How tall do you think that dome is from the inside?” These are the questions I asked. Some they answered and some they sweetly dismissed. They were simply too busy looking all about them. They were lost in wonder. My tendency is to talk. And talk. And talk. So I needed to restrain myself. And just be with them. And listen.
They were struck by how big the Cathedral was and wanted to know what the confessionals were. They were entranced with the agony of Mary in the replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta and wanted to light a votive candle for Mom (who was at work). They were able to giggle and yet be silent, to walk quickly down an aisle and yet kneel in a chapel for a brief prayer.
Now, I have to admit. This “weekday adventure”, in my mind, starred me as the educator. I was excited that these little girls hadn’t balked at my idea so I was going to make the most of it. And while I sat them down in one of the front pews under the towering dome to impress upon them the blood, sweat and tears that went into building this splendid structure and the importance of remembering that those to whom much has been given, much will be expected, I realized that the lesson I was trying to teach them was a shadow of what they were unwittingly teaching me. During our time wandering through the Cathedral, when I was quiet – I mean really quiet – and looked at my daughters, I saw their eyes so wide, their necks earnestly stretching, their hands irresistibly feeling all surfaces, and their gait prancing from one discovery to the next. While I could comfortably find words like baldachin and sacristy and corinthian column in my intellectual toolshed, they encountered magical bronze snakes and sacred hidden doors and columns with sprouting leafy headdresses. I had a tendency to explain God as a theorem while they were experiencing Him as a sweeping magical drama. I don’t lack for books and essays and dissertations and explanations. But I sometimes lack wonder – true wonder. My daughters taught me to be still and to embrace this again. And they teach it to me every single day.
Upon his conversion to Catholicism, G.K. Chesterton described the strain of misguided intellectualism that we all risk falling into as we grow older (and debatably wiser) compared with the blinding brilliance of experiencing (perhaps as the proverbial child) the redemptive love of God,
The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.
Even further in a poem titled North Berwick, Chesterton, who would ache (alongside his wife) for his lack of ever having children of his own, masterfully captured the irreplaceable joy and wonder found in being with a child,
On the sands I romped with children Do you blame me that I did not
By bottling anemones?
But I say that these children will be men and women
And I say that the anemones will not be men and women
(Not just yet, at least, let us say).
And I say that the greatest men of the world might romp with children
And that I should like to see Shakespeare romping with children
And Browning and Darwin romping with children
And Mr. Gladstone romping with children
And Professor Huxley romping with children
And all the Bishops romping with children
And I say that if a man had climbed to the stars
And found the secrets of the angels,
The best thing and the most useful thing he could do
Would be to come back and romp with children.
And so, on that Thursday at the Cathedral, I romped with my daughters. I let the maps go and saw, through the wide eyes of my daughters, the endlessly grateful vision of Lazarus. And it was healing. Dostoyevsky said it well, “The soul is healed by being with children.” Yes, indeed it is. Without question.
To my two beautiful daughters, I love you more than all the stars in the sky.