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Stepping-stones of life

30 November, 1999

The pope’s intention for this month is: “that all baptised people grow into a mature faith, and manifest it by the choices they make in their lives”. Conal Ó Cuinn SJ illustrates the stages we go through as we grow in maturity of faith.

There’s the story of the mother with two children: eight-year-old Sarah, and Joseph who is nearly four. To Sarah, she gives two thick slices of cake, and to Joseph she gives just one. As you might expect, little Joseph is not too happy. ‘Sarah is twice your size,’ the mother explains with patience and reason, ‘and needs to eat twice as much.’

But this cuts no ice with Joseph. ‘That’s not fair,’ he complains. ‘Sarah has two slices, and I have only one.’ So Mother picks up a sharp knife and cuts Joseph’s slice in two. ‘Now, Joseph, you have two slices.’ To her surprise, it works. Joseph beams. His case has been heard. He has his two slices, just like his sister. There is justice in the world after all!

When, wonders his mother, will he come to understand that the amount of cake has not changed? In time, she knows, Joseph will learn to solve more complicated puzzles. But, thank God, not today!

It’s the same with faith as with any other human capacity: we grow, we develop. As a new-born child, Joseph responded to warmth, touch and food through his happy gurgling, smiling and sleeping. It is the baby’s way of praising God. Tagore, the Indian poet, puts it well:

When, in the morning, I looked upon the light,
I felt in a moment that I was no stranger in this world,
that the inscrutable without name and form
had taken me in its arms in the form of my own mother.

Ordinary life is sacramental, the theologian might add. The sign of God’s love is God’s love itself.

Conflicted world
Of course, it’s not all paradise for Joseph. As we have seen, his world has become more complex and competitive: he has a big sister to cope with. Here, fairy stories will help him deal with the good and the bad, gain and loss, joy and disappointment.

‘Who’s been eating my porridge?’ asks Baby Bear. Joseph is already exploring the moral contours of his world. There are fairy godmothers who put things right at the wave of a wand, or a knife in our case. God is a God of fairness, a God of two-slices-for-everybody.

When Joseph goes to school, he enters the world of facts. He makes The Guinness Book of Records his Bible. Finished with fairy tales, he loves stories that explore the real world. He loves to know what’s the highest mountain and the deepest lake.

With Harry Potter he explores the world beyond his family. Together in imagination, they learn to distinguish between the real and the imaginary. He learns how to control his world more through knowledge than magic. Magic still has its place, but more and more he sees its limits. He comes to appreciate God, the Creator of the real, holding things together in consistent ways.

Let’s jump some few years ahead to Joseph, the teenager. The world of things now recedes in importance. He no longer blindly accepts answers from parents and teachers. He’s now asking more searching questions.

A new world of roles and relationships begins to appear. Who am I? Where do I fit in? Music, dress and in-language bond him to his gang as they explore together their newly emerging world. His new Bible is likely to be Lord of the Rings or the film, The Matrix, in which the cosmic drama of good and evil battle it out. Not that he’d ever say it like that. But such stories nourish his moral imagination, helping to prepare him for future ethical action in the world of work.

Sport, too, will be a testing ground for Joseph. On the playing field, he will encounter competition, rules and the need for fair play. There too he will learn the art and skills of working with others as a team.

Though he enjoys being with his peers, he does not want to stand out from the crowd. The iPod will become his emotional crutch, allowing him to be trendy with others while, at the same time, enabling him to cut himself off behind the ear-phones and dark sun-glasses if they are allowed. They are his emotional armour, as he learns to explore the land of relationship.

At this stage, he may need to distance himself from God, at least for a while. He may claim he no longer believes in God but, as exams loom, he’ll probably pray to the get-me-my-exams God. As one American sticker has it: ‘As long as there are exams, there will be prayer in schools!’

Love and life
As an older teenager or young adult, Joseph begins to want to relate more intimately. He yearns to love and to be loved by ‘a significant other’. Books, television and movies can be ways of exploring the confusing world of sexuality and relationship.

He may now be able to understand the power of certain phrases from the Bible – ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love,’ for example – and wonder if he can ever love and be loved in such a way. He will be blessed if he can explore such yearnings with other young people in a faith-filled context, such as that provided by Youth 2000 or the Jesuit-run Slí Eile, among others.

He may come to know the Jesus-looked-at-h im-and-loved-him God. At times, sadly, he may back off, believing that all this face-to-face stuff is too much for him right now.

Later, Joseph’s love may blossom into marriage, and then into fatherhood. He may know the thrill and terror of holding his first child, the awe and wonder of being co-creator with God.

He will exercise the muscles of love, commitment and consistency through the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows. If he is tempted to unfaithfulness as the ‘being-in-love’ feeling wears off, Don Williams’s song may give him courage: ‘I’ve a wife and a child and I go to bed tired, and I can’t get to you from here’.

Isaiah’s words about God’s love and fidelity may come alive for him: ‘Can a woman forget her baby at the breast, feel no pity for the child she has borne? Even if these were to forget, I shall not forget you. Look, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands’ (Is. 49:15-16).

Of course, Joseph may experience God’s love and care in a different way, and feel called to respond by dedicating himself to God and others as a priest or religious, or as a single person. God’s call – however it comes – will certainly be for Joseph a call to the fullness of life.

Older age
Later, in older age, Joseph wonders about the meaning of it all. Time has whisked him through the stations on the journey of life. He may ask with C. S. Lewis, ‘Is it time soon to think of taking down one’s case from the rack? Are we nearly there now?’ Until recently, only other people have died; now death becomes a real possibility for Joseph. He identifies with the lead-kindly-light God of John Henry Newman, who composed his famous poem aware of life’s sunset fast approaching. This phase may bring struggles with fear and anxiety, opening out to a calm of completion and gratitude, God’s gift in old age.

As Joseph cradles with blessing another of his newborn grandchildren, his prayer is to the God of Simeon, the one who held the child Jesus in his arms as he was presented in the Temple: ‘Now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation’ (Lk.2:29-30). He may be able, in faith, to sink in peace into the mystery of death. Tagore’s words may encourage him:

In death, the same unknown will appear as ever known to me.
And because I love this life, I know I shall love death as well.
The child cries out when from the right breast the mother takes it away,
in the very next moment to find in the left one its consolation.

Life is indeed a journey of developing faith, as we walk the stepping-stones of concrete, God-given choices.

This article first appeared in the Messenger (October 2006), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.      


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