Horizons of the Heart: Horizons of the Heart is a weekly retreat-in-life inspired by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, Donec Formetur by Blessed James Alberione, and my own notes from my thirty-day Ignatian retreat in 2022.
The grace we are asking of God: To have the courage to trust in God entirely for this life and the next, to become a child and to receive his blessing.
In the opening days of any retreat, I feel that God is shaking me loose from all that binds me to the earth. I see this spiritual dynamic in the story of the rich young man who approached Jesus, a potential disciple. “Good master,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Probably we all have the same question. “How do I get to heaven?” “How do I know I will be saved?” “What do I need to do in my life to be a saint?” These are some of the questions we bring with us to a retreat experience.
Before exploring Jesus’ response to the young man, however, I’d like to contemplate with you the passage that appears in the Gospel of Mark immediately prior to the account of the rich young man. In Mark 10, beginning with verse 13, we read the account of Jesus and the children.
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (NRSV)
I’ve read this passage a thousand times, as no doubt have you. It was only when I read these verses in the Passion Translation that I began to wonder what it was to be a child. The juxtaposition of this story of Jesus and the children with Jesus and the story of Jesus and the rich young man helped me to begin to reflect more deeply.
What does it mean to become a child?
In the Passion Translation, verse 15 reads like this: “Listen to the truth I speak: Whoever does not open their arms to receive God’s kingdom like a teachable child will never enter it.”
Listen to the truth I speak. Jesus is teaching us something important. Truly I tell you. Listen up. Amidst all of the voices attempting to teach us with their opinions and agendas and emotional reactions, Jesus says quietly, “Listen to the truth that I speak.”
Receive. Children are not in the position to earn their own keep. They receive everything from those who care for them. They even received their very life (as all of us have). In the innocence, fragility, and dependence of a child, our own absolute creaturely dependence, connection, and relationship to God for our very existence become apparent to us. We are all children before God, for we are all created by his very hands.
What are we receiving as a child? God’s Kingdom. The kingdom of God is a gift that God desires to give us, is ready to give us.
What does receiving this gift depend on? The Passion Translation interestingly adds the word teachable as an attribute of a child. A child needs to learn everything through experience and through the teaching of others who are older and wiser than they. They have no real knowledge and experience of their own. In fact their every reaction is based on their sensitivity and emotions, rather than on principle.
This is where I began to get a little uncomfortable. Teachable.
Pause. What makes me teachable? First, I would need to know I need to learn something that I can’t figure out myself, receive something I can’t give myself. Second, I would need to want to learn or receive this gift of wisdom. Third, I would need to place myself in the position of a learner, in humble submission of mind, will, sensibilities, affections, desires, and imagination. Fourth, I would need to know how to listen and have the patience to grow in knowledge and experience through the work of a teacher who would be the one to determine the times and the seasons for my growth. Fifth, I would need to practice and persevere in this practice. Finally, I would need to remain ever grateful to my teacher, not appropriating to myself what I had received or falsifying it to flatter my own pride and self-love.
Jesus lays his hand on each child and blessed each one. GIFT.
The story of the rich young man is a perfect foil to the narrative of Jesus blessing the children.
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mk 10:17-23 NRSV)
After the almost pastoral vision of Jesus with the children, this man punctuates the Scriptures with his haste. As Jesus begins a journey, he runs up, casts himself on his knees before Jesus, and blurts out, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.” I am made almost uncomfortable by the urgency with which the young man made a display of himself.
Close your eyes and picture this scene…. What does it make you feel? Uneasy? Does its very unpredictability create uncertainty in you? Contrast this with the sense you have from being with the children who are at play.
This young-man-in-a-hurry calls Jesus a Teacher. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Having contemplated Jesus’ praise of the teachable child, this address of Jesus as a Teacher is the key that can help us unlock the complexities in this eager youth’s soul.
Is he as “teachable” as a child? He certainly realizes there is something he doesn’t know that he is hoping Jesus can tell him so he can achieve his goal. “What must I do to inherit eternal life.”
What one thing. The young man is looking for just one thing that will open up the whole treasure house to him. We might think also of Mary at Jesus’ feet: “Only one thing is necessary….”
Am I required to do. There must be one more thing that he hasn’t done because he realizes he hasn’t captured his prize! I. Required. To do. These are not the words of Gift. They are not the attitudes and aptitudes of a child. Of a teachable child. Of someone who realizes his complete dependence on God for everything.
These are not the words of blessing, as Jesus blessed the children before he left. He did not require anything of them to receive this blessing. Holiness was not something for them to do, but to receive.
The young man, although he was asking Jesus for the key to eternal life, was assuming it was something he had to do through his own power. Eternal life, he assumed, would depend on how well he did it.
To gain. Eternal life, for this young man, was another thing to gain, to conquer, to achieve, to accumulate perhaps for his own benefit.
In a footnote for verse 22 in the Passion Translation, the Greek word that identifies this man as very wealthy implies that he was a landowner.
Having land or property, a house or mansion, gives one a sense of stability, security and status. Being a “landowner,” particularly a very wealthy one, would give a person significant independence and autonomy, prestige and power in the community. Often what a rich person builds on land they own or how they develop their property becomes a monument to themselves and makes a public statement since it becomes clear to others that they can afford this extravagance.
A child has none of this security. A child plays.
Jesus says to this very rich landowner with love, “Sell it all. Give it away to those who can’t thank you. Like a child, toss it all to the wind. Then come back to me and become my follower. Be someone who needs to receive as I receive everything from the Father, to be taught as I receive everything I say from my Father, who has given up status as I gave up mine when I was born on this earth, is homeless as I who have nowhere to lay my head. Become a child as I am a Child, Son of my Father.”
To become a child is to become like Jesus
Jesus shows us himself how to become a child. How to receive. How to let go and give up and sell all and lose everything for the sake of the Kingdom. Paul paints a picture of Jesus as our model for becoming a child in his letter to the Philippians:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:3-11 NRSV).
Indeed, unless we become as children, Jesus has told us, unless we become like him in every way, we will not enter into eternal life. Jesus was giving the rich young man the key for which he was looking.
Pause. Is there a place in your life in which Jesus is asking you if you will say YES to having no stability, no security, no status, no independence, no ability to create self-made monuments…. A place where he is calling you to become a child. To trust. To play. To depend. No doubt these opportunities for becoming a child may seem small, somewhat trivial. Yet, at the same time, we may feel them deeply. This is what makes it so hard to say this YES even if we know that God loves us and that we are secure in handing ourselves over to his care like a child. When God comes close to us, he lets us see more clearly that everything else is paltry beside his glory.
Saint Mary of Jesus Crucified was born in Galilee in 1846. Little Mariam felt the attraction of God’s love for her, particularly when she spent time in the beauty of the nature that was all around her. One day she heard within her spirit God’s promise to her: “Behold everything fades away, but if you want to give me your heart, I shall remain with you always.”
Behold, everything fades away. All that we build for ourselves fades away. All that we accumulate. All that we achieve. All. Everything. Only God remains. Only God remains with us always.
Let us allow Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity to guide us in prayer in this journey to becoming more and more a teachable child.
Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, Discalced Carmelite in Dijon France canonized October 16, 2016, shares a spirituality that is remarkably similar to her contemporary Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. She is most known for her Prayer to the Trinity. One of the paragraphs of this prayer can become the source of deeper contemplation this week:
O Eternal Word, Word of my God, I want to spend my life in listening to You, to become wholly teachable that I may learn all from You. Then, through all nights, all voids, all helplessness, I want to gaze on You always and remain in Your great light. O my beloved Star, so fascinate me that I may not withdraw from Your radiance.
Come before Jesus as a child, asking for his blessing, the one thing you are required to do. Ask for the gift of YES in those areas of your life in which you find it most difficult to turn everything over to him. Instead of seeking that last one key to your holiness, tell Jesus instead, “Jesus, you take care of it. I trust you. Have your way with my life even in this. I love you.”
Photo Credit: Photo by Sachin C Nair: https://www.pexels.com/photo/waterfalls-during-sunset-954929/; Jesus Blessed the Children: Howe, Henry, 1816-1893, publisher; Howe, Henry, 1816-1893, copyright claimant; Middleton, Elijah C., publisher; Middleton, Elijah C., copyright claimant, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Jesus and the Rich Young Man: Heinrich Hofmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Jesus is Worth Everything: Photo by Emma Shappley on Unsplash