“I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3
On a terribly turbulent flight, I took great solace in observing a young child. As my arms pulled a pillow tightly to my chest and my eyes winced with each violent swerve, this little girl was calmly reading a picture book without a care in the world. I have never forgotten that experience and I have always wondered why I found such great comfort in merely watching this little child being oblivious to the perils and precariousness of the situation. Then I came upon Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and found my answer. He wrote:
“My dear Mr. Kappus,
I don’t want you to be without a greeting from me when Christmas comes and when you, in the midst of the holiday, are bearing your solitude more heavily than usual. But when you notice that it is vast, you should be happy; for what (you should ask yourself) would a solitude be that was not vast; there is only one solitude, and it is vast, heavy, difficult to bear, and almost everyone has hours when he would gladly exchange it for any kind of sociability, however trivial or cheap, for the tiniest outward agreement with the first person who comes along, the most unworthy . . . . But perhaps these are the very hours during which solitude grows; for its growing is painful as the growing of boys and sad as the beginning of spring. But that must not confuse you. What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours – that is what you must be able to attain. To be solitary as you were when you were a child, when the grownups walked around involved with matters that seemed large and important because they looked so busy and because you didn’t understand a thing about what they were doing. And when you realize that their activities are shabby, that their vocations are petrified and no longer connected with life, why not then continue to look upon it all as a child would, as if you were looking at something unfamiliar, out of the depths of your own world, from the vastness of your own solitude, which is itself work and status and vocation?” (p.55-6)
What brought me solace on that nightmarish flight was the child’s solitude. Perhaps observing the child subconsciously brought nostalgia for my own childhood, and as a result, during those brief moments, I had my own solitude. I was in my own world, full of wonder, completely forgetful and ignorant of the troubles of the world.
I think Jesus said that we must become like little children to enter God’s kingdom because only with a child’s solitude can a person walk the straight and narrow, oblivious to the distractions and temptations and fears of the “real world.” What value do luxuries, status, or looks have for a six year old in her own universe? Indeed a great evil is when adults invade a child’s world and pollute it with cravings and images originally foreign to her. That is a molestation of the soul. When a child becomes self-conscious of the need to conform to what is popular around her, and is no longer apathetic to the values of a consumerist society, that is when a person becomes no longer fit for God’s kingdom.
I remember in China when I would be cradling a four year old, softly singing hymns, trying to maker her laugh; and then soon my heart would begin to cry over her tragedy and I could only sit silently still. On reflection, this four year old’s solitude was so vast. Her oceanic heart was not overwhelmed by her misfortune: paralyzed by spina bifida from the chest down, abandoned at birth, confined to a wooden cage/crib 22 hours a day, never getting to go outside to breathe fresh air, not likely ever to be adopted before she prematurely dies. Her arms would still stretch out to volunteers to cradle her. She still smiled and laughed, though her face always showed some weariness from having to carry such heavy burdens for so long. It is certain that very few adults could have carried such a load without being crushed by the weight of cynicism, bitterness, and depression.
Only with a childlike solitude could one have the strength to bear the pressures of the world without crippling one’s soul. That is why Weil, Rilke, Nouwen and other wise spiritual guides have emphasized over and over again the necessary practice in spiritual growth: Develop your solitude. Guard your solitude.
Then we can see Christ and not the storm. (Matt. 14:22-34) Then we can be a source of encouragement to others to endure the tossings and turnings of life: not by what we say, nor by what we do, but by who we are . . . children of God.