Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Advent Journal, Day 3: The Wisdom of a Child

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10, Luke 10:21-24.

"Stay childlike and be one with Heaven." So says the Taoist sage Lao-tzu in Chapter 55 of the Tao Te Ching.

In today's Gospel passage, Jesus touches on this idea of the virtue of being childlike in one's faith. He sends 70 emissaries out to several towns to prepare the way for his arrival, instructing them to preach the Kingdom of God to all who will listen, heal the sick in his name, and accept whatever hospitality is offered. Knowing that many will not accept their message, Jesus warns them that he is sending them out as lambs among wolves. Yet upon their return, the 70 joyously exclaim to Jesus that even the demons they encountered along the way were subject to his name.

Jesus in turn also rejoices and says to God, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children."

What does Jesus mean? Well, we know that he chose his inner circle of disciples not from among the great and noble and wise, but from among the common people, and in some cases from the ranks of the rabble and the despised. Peter, Andrew, James, and John were all fishermen. Simon was a zealot, a political agitator. Matthew was a tax collector, a profession that was hated then as much as it is now. There were no philosophers, scribes, or Pharisees among his chosen twelve. No scholars or learned priests. He chose his men over the people that his society would have deemed the wisest.

And what are we to learn from his deliberate choice? Well, Jesus leaves us a big clue in all three of the synoptic Gospels, when he says that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, one must become as a child. And what is that children don't do that sets them apart from adults? They trust. They're teachable. They're humble -- not yet full of themselves and convinced that they're right and you're wrong, because the world is still full of awe and potential for them.

Jesus saw that same purity of heart in his disciples. They didn't need to be academic geniuses. They only had to let go of themselves and their need to control their environment and the outcomes of the actions of the world. And they needed to do that so they could have faith in the things Jesus taught them. Thus, they were in Jesus' eyes like "little children," not corrupted by what the world would view as wisdom.

Therefore, Sophia, the Wisdom of God as revealed in the Old Testament books of Proverbs, Wisdom, and Sirach, is not the wisdom of book smarts, but of the discernment that comes from humility and faith, from emptying one of oneself. The Zen tradition recounts a story of a scholar who came to visit a great Zen master. The master poured the scholar a cup of tea. But when the cup was filled, the master continued to pour, letting the tea spill out over the table.

"What are you doing?" the scholar demanded. "Can't you see the cup is full?"

"Yes," the master replied. "This cup is like your mind. So full of ideas that nothing more will fit in. Come back to me with an empty cup."

The image of the empty vessel is a cornerstone of Taoist philosophy, since a common understanding of the Tao itself is as a boundless and eternally fruitful emptiness, in the same way as the usefulness of a cup comes from its emptiness. And just as a womb can only be a portal for new life when it's empty, so it is only in emptying ourselves that we can be receptive to the deepest truths of existence. This is what Lao-tzu means when he exhorts us, in Chapter 20 of the Tao Te Ching, to "give up learning and put an end to your troubles." It's not that worldly knowledge and book smarts are bad; it's that they aren't what true wisdom is about. You won't find your true self, or unlock the secrets of the spiritual world, by sticking your nose in a book. You can only do it by emptying yourself of the things that have filled up your head and left no room for anything else to get in. (That's a piece of advice I need to take to heart myself.)

A similar Taoist metaphor is that of the Uncarved Block, suggestive of the pure state in which we existed before the influence of the world began to chisel away at us and tell us what to believe, what to love, and who we are. Benjamin Hoff explored this idea in his charming book The Tao of Pooh, in which the beloved Bear of Little Brain is likened to that Uncarved Block. No arrogance, no hidden agendas -- just pure, childlike simplicity and wonder. And thus it is that while Lao-tzu in the Tao Te Ching sees people rushing to and fro, busy with their lives and their social obligations, wearing themselves out trying to fit in, he sees himself as drifting along without a care, like a baby, drinking from the breasts of the Great Mother -- the Tao herself.

And that state of being, likewise, is what Jesus is commending in his disciples. In the Gospel of Matthew, he points us toward the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and has us notice how they don't fret about their lives. They don't fill their heads with knowledge. They just exist, not forcing things to happen, going with the flow, and trusting that God will provide for them -- or, in Taoist terms, that the Great Mother will nourish them.

You won't see me quoting Paul very often, but even he often noted that the wisdom of men is but foolishness to God. He understood what Jesus, Lao-tzu, and the Zen masters were saying, separated as they were by cultures and centuries. They even made their points in similar ways. Consider these passages:
  • Jesus, from Luke 10:19, on addressing his childlike emissaries: "I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you." 
  • Lao-tzu, revisiting Chapter 55 of the Tao Te Ching, on seeing through the eyes of a child:

    Snakes will not bite, and eagles will not pluck your eyes.
    Though bones become brittle and sinews weaken,
    Spirit is forever robust.

This shared Christian-Taoist-Zen concept of the root of true faith and spiritual wisdom -- a state that arises from clearing out the mental clutter and returning to a state of childlike simplicity -- is probably the reason I've always been fond of the saints known as Holy Fools, or Fools for Christ. These were people who flouted social conventions to mock what most think of as wisdom, exposing the brutality and hypocrisy of a world that claimed to love God but often failed to love one's neighbor when put to the test. In a sense, they became as children to help lead others to the Way.

St. Isadora of Tabenna is one of the earliest recorded Fools for Christ, and I absolutely love her story. She lived in an Egyptian monastery in the fourth century and feigned insanity. She refused to eat with the other sisters, surviving on their food scraps and dirty dishwater. She performed the most menial tasks around the monastery without the slightest complaint and wore an old rag as her head covering. She never acted angrily toward anyone, yet the other sisters treated her with the deepest contempt, often beating her, for no other reason than that she didn't conform to accepted standards of behavior. In this way she followed in the footsteps of Christ, the humble master, who did no wrong yet was mocked and beaten for professing a way of life that flew in the face of social convention, professing love, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation in a world that thrived on hatred, division, and revenge. In other words, he confronted a cruel world as a child would, turning expectations upside down.

One day, a desert monk was given a vision of Isadora, and he went to visit her monastery. When he saw her, Isadora prostrated herself at the monk's feet and asked for his blessing. Seeing her childlike holiness, the monk in turn bowed down before Isadora and exclaimed, "No, venerable Mother, bless me first!" The other sisters, shocked and humbled by this revelation and suddenly ashamed of their abusive treatment of Isadora, begged their forgiveness. But Isadora quietly slipped out of the monastery, never to be seen again.

The lesson that Isadora and all her fellow Fools for Christ wanted to impart was the same one that Jesus expressed when he said that we must become like children to enter the Kingdom. We can't think our way into faith, as an adult would. (The Western church, with its overemphasis on an intellectual approach to the spiritual life, could learn much in this regard from the Eastern church, which is far more content to let the mysteries of faith be the mysteries of faith.) We have to let go of our rationalizations and force our critical minds to let down their defenses.

In a sense, the Fools for Christ set out to achieve the same thing a good Zen koan set out to do -- to so frustrate the logical mind that it eventually surrenders and lets the unfiltered truths of the universe come rushing in, truths that pay no heed to human understanding but work on a deeper, intuitive level. All the great spiritual masters across numerous faith traditions have understood this approach to lead to true wisdom. Jesus just happened to speak it in a language his audience would best understand.

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