The previous installment of “Spiritual Childhood” showed how the sacraments are the primary means by which we participate in the Sonship of Christ and become spiritual children of God. This reality is a metaphysical sonship, but this is not enough. We must also increase in a genuine spirit of childhood, and this is accomplished by several psychological influences of the liturgy. While it is certain that “in the present economy, the normal and official manner in which Christ’s grace comes to us is through the sacraments He has instituted,”1 “we do not think enough of the power of sanctification that Christ’s humanity possesses, even outside of the sacraments.”2 The additional sources of grace and growth in the divine life are found principally in the liturgy. The liturgical year, the orations, and the ancient and venerable rites constitute the mysteries of Christ. “These mysteries of Christ that the Church causes us to celebrate each year are still living mysteries…that belong only to the mysteries of Christ celebrated by the Church; not that they contain grace as the sacraments do, but these mysteries are living, they are sources of life for the soul…. [T]he mysteries of Christ were first lived by Him, but in order that we may live them in our turn in union with Him. How can we do so? By being inspired with their spirit and appropriating their virtue, so that living by them we may be made one with Christ.”3
These psychological influences that the liturgy exerts on souls fall into three principal categories: simplicity, docility/dependence, and joy in repetition.4
One of the most crucial hallmarks of childhood is simplicity. In the Gospel of Luke, Christ admonishes his apostles, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Luke 18:16-17). In his sermon on this passage, St. Ambrose asks, “why does [Christ] say that children are more fit for the kingdom of heaven?”5 If it were simply a preference of age then there would be no motivation to grow up or mature. Further, children are not enviable because of their often-erratic temperament or inability to reason thoroughly. No, “it is because they are ignorant of” sinful acts and passions, “but to be ignorant of these things is not virtue, we must also despise them. For virtue consists not in our inability to sin, but in our unwillingness. Childhood then is not meant here, but that goodness which rivals the simplicity of children” [emphasis added].6
The scripted liturgical prayers are an invaluable pedagogical tool for simplicity. In ordinary human discourse or discursive thought, the soul develops thoughts independently and then produces speech or writing to convey those thoughts. In the liturgy, however, the Church provides speech for souls (in the given texts of the Missale or other rituals) which are spoken or read in order to arouse specific thoughts. Because a hallmark of maturity is the development and acuity of discursive reasoning, the contrary practice in the liturgy aids the soul in returning from the complex reasoning of adults to the simplicity of children. St. Paul’s words are even more profound regarding this discipline: “we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26). The pre-scripted nature of every rite, for the ministers and faithful, continuously reinforces a childlike simplicity.
Additionally, the inversion of the thought-speech paradigm teaches the soul to be utterly dependent upon God. By being given the prayers to say and actions to perform, the soul demonstrates an incapacity to cultivate the spiritual life independently. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Christ said (John 15:5). We must look to the Word of God in the Scripture, especially in its liturgical context, for guidance concerning our growth and development.
There is an important, paradoxical relationship between growth in spiritual childhood and ordinary, human growth and development. In the sensible world, children progressively grow independent of their parents (psychologically, socially, and physically). In the spiritual life, however, the exact opposite is true. Paradoxically, more growth means greater dependence upon God. There is simultaneously legitimate maturity and increased dependence. Benedictine Sister Mary Totah, using unpublished texts of Dom Delatte, summarizes the paradox well: “Spiritual infancy consists in docility, confidence, self-abandonment, simplicity…, [and] the perfection of the supernatural life consists in returning to that state: no temptations, no desires, no sufferings; God is the one treasure in the soul. The little child has no duty at that moment other than to gaze and to rest in that ecstasy in which God has established it…. Christ does not attain to his perfect age in us unless we return to that spiritual infancy in which there is nothing of ourselves in us…. [I]n the supernatural life there is no coming of age, no emancipation; we remain forever little children, we remain forever beggars…, we are always little children…. [T]he true law of our supernatural life is childhood… [and] that dependence, far from diminishing as we grow, increases in direct ratio to our supernatural life.”7
This is not surprising given that dependence upon parents is fundamental to children. Our goal is to increase in a childlike spirit—not grow out of it. Further, as was demonstrated above, the Eternal Son of God is and has always received life from the Father through his divine procession. Therefore, if the Son, in whom Christian souls are initiated and participate, is always receiving life from the Father and always dependent upon the Father for that life, then it is all the more necessary for us to be perpetually dependent upon God and to never outgrow such a relationship.8
Joy in Repetition
Within the corpus of liturgical texts, there are variable portions (i.e., Propers) and recurring portions (i.e., Ordinary). The former alternate depending on the day of the liturgical year, while the latter are consistent in each celebration (e.g., Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Gloria, etc.). Even the variable portions, however, repeat at the very least on a yearly basis. For example, each year sees the celebration of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and thus the Propers of that Solemnity are repeated. Certain other texts occur not daily but frequently throughout the year, such as the texts for a feast of an Apostle. Multiple times a year those specific texts are used depending on the ranking and convergence of feasts. Ultimately, every single text will re-present itself to the faithful on a daily, weekly, or annual rotation.
Because the texts are given to the ministers and faithful to recite and because they repeat on a regular basis, Catholics have historically been accused of being pharisaical. Many Catholics who have protestant family or friends can share G.K. Chesterton’s sentiments. In defense against his accusers, he identifies “the charge which I most lament; the charge of being flippant. Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is the thing of which I am generally accused.”9 Likewise, Catholics are frequently accused of violating the admonition of Christ: “and in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8). Yet, this admonition is often artificially detached from the passage that immediately follows: “pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven…” (Matthew 6:9-13). Clearly Our Lord does not consider reciting the Word of God to be empty words. As soon as he condemns hollow prayers, he also tells his disciples the exact words to pray. The overwhelming majority of liturgical texts, therefore, are rightfully taken from the Scriptures and commanded by Christ himself through his Bride, the Church.
Catholics, furthermore, detest the accusation of being pharisaic because the belief that repeating the same words or phrases automatically equates with empty expressions is extraordinarily superficial. A man’s repeated declaration “I love you” to his wife does not become hollow on account of frequent repetition. What is vital is not the exact words which are spoken but the heart’s intent when speaking: “Therefore, let us consider then in what manner we are always in the sight of the Divinity and the angels, and thus let us stand to sing, in order that our mind might be in accord with our voices.”10 If the heart is vivacious and attentive, then repetitious phrases pose no threat to the spiritual life. On the contrary, they are a wonderful source of growth in spiritual childhood.
The relevance of repeating specific words and phrases to spiritual childhood might not be apparent at first, but such repetition is a participation in eternity. Chesterton, perhaps better than any other writer, was able to draw the connection between childlikeness and eternity: “All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary…. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still…. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have grown old, and our Father is younger than we [emphasis added].”11
Such purity and love of repetition is undeniably characteristic of childhood, and, as Chesterton pointed out, in a certain sense it is characteristic of God—an image and representation of his eternity. Aquinas concludes his definition of eternity with the statement: “thus eternity is known from two sources: first, because what is eternal is interminable—that is, has no beginning nor end (that is, no term either way); secondly, because eternity has no succession, being simultaneously whole.”12 While it is impossible for temporal beings to experience eternity in the same manner as the Divinity, the liturgy disposes us to participate in eternity to the greatest possible extent in this life. Just as children rejoice in the monotony and repetition of a game or joke, the frequent repetition of the liturgy, if approached with a docile spirit, forms us in an ever-deeper spirit of childhood. As we grow in the spiritual life, frequent the sacraments, and sincerely apply the exclamations of the liturgy to ourselves, then we will be able to interiorly exclaim “Do it again!” at every Introit and “Do it again!” at every Gloria and “Do it again!” at every celebration of Vespers.
Liturgical repetition is propaedeutic for an additional stratum of participation in eternity: contemplation. Frederick Bauerschmidt does a wonderful job of breaking down what exactly contemplation is according to Aristotle and St. Thomas and the concept’s relation to theology. He asserts that “for Thomas Aquinas, contemplation is an anticipation of the eternal beatitude to which we aspire in hope while now pilgrims but will one day delight in as comprehensors.”13 This is the crux of Aquinas’ mystical understanding of contemplation—it is a foretaste of, a real and true participation in, eternal life while still on earth. This is perhaps most fully demonstrated in Book III of the Summa Contra Gentiles, chapters 60-63. First, Aquinas reiterates that “again, the supreme and perfect happiness of the intellectual nature consists in seeing God, as proved above.”14 Since man’s fullest happiness cannot consist in successive acts, for that is not rest, but only in an everlasting act, “whatever we see in the beatific vision of the divine substance is all seen by us actually, and therefore not one thing after another.”15 Consequently, “it follows from this that by the aforesaid vision the created intellect is made a partaker of eternal life.”16 This must be the case because God is eternity and the beatific vision is man’s final and ultimate participation in the divine life: “whatsoever is seen in it is seen at once and at a glance”17 just like God’s own knowledge and vision.
Aquinas then sums up this section by defending “how in that ultimate happiness [of the beatific vision] man’s every desire is fulfilled.”18Now, there is little if any dispute with his assertion that the beatific vision will fulfill all of our desires in a supreme and unsurpassable manner. The last paragraph of this section, however, reveals his mystical and monastic understanding of contemplation. He writes that “in this life there is nothing so like this ultimate and perfect happiness as the life of those who contemplate the truth, as far as possible here below…, for contemplation of truth begins in this life, but will be consummated in the life to come.”19
The influence of monastic mysticism on Aquinas is readily apparent. Viewing contemplation as the beginning of eternal life is a teaching as old as monasticism itself. Dom Delatte boldly declares: “Eternal life is not only life in eternity, life after death. Eternal life is what we have carried within us ever since our baptism, in the sanctuary of our heart. Eternal life is a revelation of God as he is, of God in three Persons; it is union by entering into the life of God through living communion with our Lord Jesus Christ who is himself of the Trinity, and who carries us with him and brings us into it with him. And the essential act of our present life is almost exclusively to become conscious, in ever greater faith and love, of the society in which we live, of the uncreated realm, of the living homeland in which we find ourselves…that is already eternal life, and it begins here and now. The likeness [to the Trinity] is already begun, since we are already in our Lord Jesus Christ…the likeness will be perfected in eternity.”20
According to the monastic tradition, and perhaps most adequately explicated recently by the Congregation of Solesmes, because of our baptism “we are not in the state of those who are moving toward their perfection. Why? Simply because we possess our end, our perfection, in our heart. For if the supernatural life is not the indwelling of God within us, it is nothing.”21 Aquinas understood and was formed by this idea of already possessing in seed form that eternal life which will blossom in heaven. As was shown above, for Aquinas, contemplation is the means by which we can increase our participation in eternity while on earth. Contemplation produces growth in the supernatural life of grace.
In order to reconnect the latter paragraphs with liturgical formation in childhood, we need to consider why, if contemplation is a foretaste of eternity, and eternity contains the fulness of beatitude, all Christians do not spend their entire day in contemplation. Aquinas’ assessment is substantially the same as Chesterton’s, but where Chesterton approaches from an almost sociological perspective, Aquinas takes a more philosophical one: “The reason why we become weary of what we enjoyed hitherto is that it causes some kind of change, by destroying or diminishing one’s power. Hence fatigue is incidental to the exercise of the sensitive powers through the action of the sensible objects on the bodily organ—in fact, the power may be altogether destroyed by too powerful an object—and after a time they are loath to enjoy that which hitherto had been a pleasant sensation. For the same reason we become weary in mind after long or concentrated thought, because powers that employ the organs of the body are subject to fatigue, and in this life it is not possible to give the mind to thought without employing those organs.”22
In the face of man’s easily fatigued nature, Christ has given his brothers and sisters through the Church the most efficacious training ground: the liturgy. The repetitions of texts, annual celebrations of feasts, and habitual body movements and postures all assist the Christian in returning to that childlike spirit which can joyfully persist in one intellectual endeavor: contemplation. Thus, after many years of immersion in the prayer of the Church, we grow more simple, more docile to grace, and more joyful in the repeated adoration of God that will sustain us for all eternity.
In the end, however, the tools Christ has given us in the liturgy are not magical. I believe that they exert an influence upon us that (as long as we have a sincere and docile spirit) works even subconsciously. Yet, if we wish to fully benefit from the liturgy, we need to explore not only the fact that spiritual childhood is related to liturgical worship, but how do we most fully imbibe that reality. Should we spend every waking moment in liturgical prayer? How do the lessons of liturgical worship manifest within daily life? Next month, we will explore how the monastic tradition treats this question and look for insight from their practices.
For previous instalments of Steven Hill’s Spiritual Childhood from Liturgical Worship series, see:
- Part I: Introduction
- Part II: Monasticism and Christian Spirituality
- Part III: The Liturgy: The Prayer of the Church
- Part IV: Metaphysical Childhood
Stephen Hill is an MTS student in Liturgical Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Prior to this program, he completed a BS in psychology and an MA in systematic theology. All of his research was inspired by several years of Benedictine formation, and the monastic tradition continues to influence his work. Hill strives to explore the intersection of contemporary psychological research and patristic psychological writings where both fields are most fully manifested: in the sacred liturgy.
Image Source: AB/Russell Lee, 1903-1986, at Picryl
- Columba Marmion, Christ the Life of the Soul, trans. by a nun of Tyburn Convent (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1922), 70.
- Marmion, 71.
- Marmion, 318
- A quick word might be necessary about the use of the term “psychology” when discussing matters pertaining to the spiritual life. There is no danger using this term as long as one has an authentic understanding of the term psychology. If we view psychology through the lens of a behaviorist wherein all that we do is determined by biology or external causes, then the term is insufficient to describe Christian realities. Yet, if we consider psychology through the lens of the soul, then it is perfectly appropriate. Psychology should study human behavior and one of the influences upon our behavior is grace. Thus, when I discuss psychology, I am referring to an examination of our human behavior—the consideration of our behaviors in the light of grace and natural influences (such as repetition).
- Ambrose of Milan, quoted in: Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea, Luke ch. 18, lecture 3.
- Ambrose, lecture 3.
- Delatte, quoted in Spirit of Solesmes, ed. Sr. Mary David Totah (Petersham: Burns and Oates, 1997), 116-117.
- For a complementary understanding of man’s total dependence on God even while growing in sanctity, see Stephen Hill, “The Accomplished Beginner,” Catholic365, July 12, 2022.
- G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004), 3.
- Rule of St. Benedict, xix: Ergo consideremus qualiter oporteat in conspectus Divintatis et angelorum eius esse, et sic stemus ad psallendum, ut mens nostra concordet voci nostrae.
- Chesterton, 52.
- ST, I, q. 10, a. 1.
- Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt, “Aquinas, Contemplation, and Theology,” New Blackfriars, 2.
- Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles III, ch. 60.
- Aquinas, SCG III, 60.
- Aquinas, SCG III, 61.
- Aquinas, SCG III, 61.
- Aquinas, SCG III, 63.
- Aquinas, SCG III, 63.
- Delatte in Spirit of Solesmes, 54.
- Delatte in Spirit of Solesmes, 55.
- Aquinas, SCG, III, c. 62.11.