A few days ago, I was reading an essay by Jack Miles on his experiences as a Jesuit and how the spiritual initiation seemed design to return the novices to preadolescence in regards to their sexuality.
As I thought about his argument, I was struck by how infantilizing certain aspects of Christianity are. We are to have “child-like” faith, admit that we are completely helpless to save ourselves, and depend entirely on Christ. All this is possibly the most objectionable aspect of my faith.
Who wants to be reduced to a child-like anything? After all the wrestling and grappling and tearing apart of our childish ways as we move through adolescence, no one wants to return.
I equate helplessness with either infants or the old and dying. There’s nothing exciting about losing bladder control or muscle tone or memories. Many fear this dependency upon the goodness of others. (Is it because we know all too well the depravities hidden in the crevices of our hearts: the ones that the evil act upon, the ones that the decent will not confess even to themselves.)
The dependency of old age.
The helplessness of infancy.
Both mimic the degradation of acute mental illness. At my worst, I cry, inconsolable as an infant denied her bottle, or I scream, outraged at the loss of control over my emotions. Sometimes, I take a kitchen towel and snap it on the counter edge. Snap, snap, snap! I whip that granite counter into submission.
The granite, unremarkably, never moves. It wouldn’t matter if I banged the towel or a crowbar or, as on one memorable occasion, a bagged loaf of bread.
This was the time period, several years ago now, when I was crying over Prince Caspian, and sitting on the sofa, staring into space, and certain that I would never, ever write another word again. Overwrought, I grabbed the bag and slammed it against the counter.
Bread scattered across the kitchen, under the cabinets, in the sink, across the counter. For a few minutes, I doubled over, giggling hysterically, like a toddler who is delighted to discover that Lego blocks break apart if thrown against the wall.
I morphed into a responsible adult and picked up the now-inedible bread. But I overlooked one piece, and later my husband asked why a stale hunk of bread hid in the corner. At my sheepish explanation, he raised his eyebrows and continued eating his spaghetti. What was there to say?
I’d never write another word ever, ever again, I thought, except maybe a grocery list. We need bread.
How was I supposed to know that a plastic bag of bread might explode?
A level-headed adult would’ve known.
But in that moment, I was a child, trying to deal with an emotion and an energy that demanded release. The only grown up aspect about me was my weapon of choice. I chose something that couldn’t be hurt—bread and plastic do not feel pain—and cannot hurt something, or someone, else, even when it’s flying across a kitchen at whatever speed bread flies.
I was helpless.
I was dependent on others’ best judgments.
I was desperate.
Desperation can be enraging, but it also is humiliating. Not in the embarrassing way, but in the realization that I cannot do anything for myself. Nothing. Not achievements. Not appearances. Not good works.
I need help.
In those moments, I am besieged by doubts, but paradoxically, I’m overcome with certainty. If there’s a way out, if there’s a God, if he’s really listening, then the help is God-shaped.
I’m a child again, waking up from a nightmare and shuddering in the dark. My mama and daddy are in the next room. I can’t see them, and in the confusion of the sleep-wake state, I doubt their reality but scream anyway. “Mama! Daddy!”
That shivering, sweating helpless feeling. I feel that at my worst moments, as I’m sure many of you do as well. I detest that feeling. Every ounce of competency disappears; every trace of maturity is gone; all my adolescent wrestling was for nothing. I’m a child. An infant.
But it narrows down my universe until it’s only the feeling, me, and God.
The feeling scares me.
I scare myself.
I strain toward God, even when he feels far away.
My medications are a blessing, of course. I wouldn’t be stable without them. But stability can lure me into complacency. There’s no urgent need for God. He is stuffed into a box like an outgrown play toy that would be embarrassing for my cool friends to see in my bedroom.
Really, though, I need him whether I feel the need or not. My feelings aren’t accurate—the bread bag explosion proves that—and my need is there. Being reduced to child-like helplessness is sad. But it’s also a reminder of birth and death, not just mine, but Christ’s.
The Son of God humbled himself, taking on the helpless body of an infant.
The Son humbled himself again in death. Rejected, bleeding, hanging from wood, helpless and dependent upon the mercy of merciless killers. Dying, and yet triumphant in his death. Without death, there could be no resurrection.
In that death and resurrection, I find my God-shaped help. I’m a child again, shivering in the dark, not knowing where anyone else is, until I feel his hand reaching for me. And I am safe, even when I am most helpless.