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Innocence, complexity, and sanctity

October 8, 2015
Father Ron Rolheiser

Some years ago, I officiated at a wedding. As the officiating priest, I was invited to the reception and dance that followed upon the church service. Not knowing the family well and having church services the next morning, I left right after the banquet and the toasts, just as the dancing was about to start. When I was seemingly out of earshot, I heard the bride’s father say to someone: “I’m glad that Father has gone; now we can celebrate with some rock music!”

I didn’t take the remark personally since the man meant well, but the remark stung nevertheless because it betrayed an attitude that painted me, and others like me, as religious but naïve, as good to sit at the head table and be specially introduced, but as being best out of sight when real life begins; as if being religious means that you are unable to handle the earthiness and beat of rock music, as if church and earthy celebration are in opposition to each other, as if sanctity demands an elemental innocence the precludes human complexity, and as if full-blood and religion are best kept separate.

But that’s an attitude within most people, however unexpressed. The idea is that God and human complexity do not go together. Ironically that attitude is particularly prevalent among the over-pious and those most negative towards religion. For the both the over-pious and the militant-impious, God and robust life cannot go together. And that’s also basically true for the rest of us as is evident in our inability to attribute complexity, earthiness, and temptation to Jesus, to the Virgin Mary, to the saints, and to other publicly-recognized religious figures such as Mother Teresa. It seems that we can only picture holiness as linked to a certain naiveté. For us, holiness needs to be sheltered and protected like a young child. As a result we then project such an over-idealization of innocence and simplicity onto Jesus, Mary, and our religious exemplars that it becomes impossible for us to ever really identify with them. We can give them admiration, but very little else.

For example, the Virgin Mary of our piety could not have written the Magnificat. She lacks the complexity to write such a prayer because we have projected on to her such an innocence, delicacy, and childlikeness so as to leave her less than fully adult and fully intelligent. Ultimately this has a negative effect religiously. To identify an unrealistic innocence and simplicity with holiness sets out an unattainable ideal that has too many people believe that their own red blood, with its restless stirrings, makes them bad candidates for the church and sanctity.

In the Roman Catholic rite of baptism, at a point, the priest or deacon pronounces these words: See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven. That’s a wonderful statement celebrating the beauty and virtue of innocence. But it celebrates an innocence that has yet to meet adult life.

The innocence of a child is stunning in its beauty and holds up for us a mirror within which to see our moral and psychological scars and the missteps we have taken as adults, not unlike the humbling we can feel when we look at bodies in a mirror when we get older. The beauty of youth is gone. But the disquiet and judgment we feel in the presence of a child’s innocence is more a neurosis and misconception than a genuine judgment on our sanctity and moral goodness. Children are innocent because they have not yet had to deal with life, its infinite complexities, and its inevitable wounds. Young children are so beautifully innocent because they are still naïve and pre-sophisticated. To move to adulthood they will have to pass through inevitable initiations which will leave more than a few smudges on the childlike purity of their baptismal robes.

A friend of mine is fond of saying this about innocence: As an adult, I wouldn’t give a penny for the toward a second naivete purity of a child, but I would give everything to find true childlike innocence inside the complexity of my adult life. I think that what he means is this: Jesus went into the singles’ bars of his time, except he didn’t sin. The task in spirituality is not to try to emulate the naive innocence and non-complexity of our childhood. That’s an exercise in denial and a formula for rationalization. The task is rather to move, a post-sophistication which has already taken into account the full complexity of our lives. Only then will we have again the innocent joy of children, even as we are able to stand steady inside the rawness of rock music, the power and complexity of human sexuality, the concupiscent tendencies of the human heart, and the uncanny and wily maneuverings innate inside the human spirit. From there we can write the Magnificat.

Oblate Father Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.

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