Collin is three and his one year old little brother Matthew, the “walking man,” has suddenly discovered how fast he can move around the world on two legs. He’s still a bit wobbly and moves between sudden safe landings on his derriere to unplanned tumbles forward that frighten him for a few seconds. When he’s up and about I can see a spark of attention in his eyes as he watches his older brother do that he can’t yet. Climbing up the back of the couch where he would surely fall off is something he repeatedly attempted and was furious when yiayia prevented him. There are possibilities that seem to have the allure a certain apple in a primal garden once had.
“Why did you pick it?”
“Just because it was there.” Like the mountain. If it has never been climbed before, it becomes a challenge. If it can be done, it eventually will be. Whether or not it is good to do, or safe, doesn’t seem to have the same power of persuasion.
Father’s day weekend, we were entertaining our two grandsons. Collin spent a good hour with Papou looking at one book after another and again and again at his gentle insistence. Matthew lasted a minute or so, because Collin was doing it, but books aren’t that interesting yet. He wants to move and travel the world upright on two legs.
I was surprised by the continuity of Collin’s attention and how easy it was to be with him as he explored the pictures in the books with great detail. After a while we went outside to join yiayia and Matthew in the front yard. Collin pulled a pinwheel out of the garden and began to blow on it. For the next thirty minutes the pinwheel was the center of the world…but not quite. Something else was percolating beneath the surface that had to be explored. A different kind of mountain, but from an old, old story for sure. Invisible. But very real.
There is a long drive way in front of Christi and Tommy’s house. Collin started running down the driveway holding the pinwheel as he discovered the wind made it spin faster than when he blew on it. “Look! Look! Did you see it?” he called out excitedly. Then back up the driveway toward the street to do it again.
“That’s far enough Collin,” yiayia called, “Don’t go past the car.” He stopped. I could see there was a slight hesitation. This battle between the spoken word and his obedience has already been the battleground of many tests. A few weeks ago it was in the blueberry patch in our back yard. Collin was pulling blueberries off that weren’t ripe. He knows the difference. I quietly asked him to stop and he continued, slowly and deliberately, knowing he was being disobedient, waiting to see what kind of response he would get. What was he trying to fathom?
I had just been reading the chapter on the family in the book by Serbian Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica on raising children and how the child’s love and obedience for the parent later in life becomes transferred to God. He says “A child should be taught obedience especially before the fifth year. Parents should teach their children absolute obedience during that period. When a parent says something the answer should be, “Amen.”
Of course, you can’t do that simply by overpowering the child. “The child must feel love. Parents should never spank their children when provoked by anger. If you are going to correct someone when you are angry you will achieve nothing.”
It has to come from love and from a very good quality of attention and presence linking the adult’s world with the child’s world so that the child trusts you and doesn’t want to disappoint you. “If you want to bring a person on to the right path you must humble yourself first and talk to the person with a lot of love.”
Along with the elder Thaddeus I have been reading about natural horsemanship and begun training in equine-assisted therapy. You can be a cowboy and dominate the horse with ropes and spurs and bits and whips and make it do what you want, but it will never love you and do this willingly. Natural horsemanship by contrast, enters the horse’s world and takes pains to understand it on its own terms. This requires a lot of patience and careful observation. The horse is a prey animal. It first of all seeks safety and is keenly alert to the potential of being eaten by a predator. Once safe it seeks the company of other horses and there is always an order in the herd. Horses follows as their leader, the alpha horse who proves to the others that it is strong and reliable and will keep them safe.
Children are not so different. Like horses, they have to test the limits of the parent’s love and leadership. Unknowingly they also search out what makes the parent upset. God knew this when He created Adam and Eve. God practices natural humanship. Christ draws so near to us that we experience God both as another human being and as an invisible, intangible source that speaks silently in the depths of the heart so humbly that He can be disobeyed in a hearbeat. Yet he supports us in discovering that He is the strongest, most faithful protector, as well as the humblest, waiting patiently for us to draw near and be obedient freely on our own out of love rather than out of fear of being whipped for being disobedient or because he will dominates us in some way against our will.
I guess this was all in the back of my mind as yiayia went inside to give Matthew a bath, along with remembering how Collin had been slyly and provocatively disobedient in the blueberry patch a week or so before. I was watching him move back and forth on the drive way, using it like a runway to make the pinwheel fly expecting him to push the limits and he did. Each time he went back to the top of the driveway he inched a foot or two farther, past the car where yiayia had told him to stop. I could see his slow inchworm hesitation as he did this. Sometimes he would glance my way stealthfully waiting for a reaction. I didn’t say anything the first few times he did this. What was I doing? He would run down the driveway at top speed and then start over, each time gleefully asking if I saw the pinwheel flying!
When he moved to a point that was close enough to the street that I was not comfortable for his safety, I spoke up clearly and definitely, “Collin, that’s too close to the street, come back.” He obeyed without protest and then made a few more runs. After enough mosquitoes had bitten my legs, and I was itching, I got up and said, “Let’s go inside Collin. The mosquitos are biting me.” This was an invitation, placing my comfort above his delight. He wasn’t ready to come in.
His reply told me instantly that he understood this as a word he could question. “Mosquitos don’t bite.” He said.
”Yes they do” I responded, without thinking.
“No! They don’t bite. Cockroaches bite and then they run away and hide.”
“Cockroaches don’t bite.”
“Yes they do!” he insisted. The debate was on.
I leaned up against the door and was silent as I awakened to the fact that I didn’t want to debate this with him and I had no need to correct him about his assertion. What was at stake was my request that he come in. He was negotiating and stalling.
When I didn’t respond, still in the same spot at the top of the driveway, he called out powerfully “Papou! I’ll be in in a second!”
I remained silent, relaxed and unmoving, just watching what was happening.
“Papou!” His voice was a little more insistent now with a tone that conveyed maybe I hadn’t heard him the first time. “I’ll be in in a second!” he yelled, pronouncing each word very clearly and emphatically. It was a tone of assertiveness that was perhaps open to more debate and negotiation.
No response from me. I stood there leaning against the door silent.
“Papouuuu! I’LL BE IN IN A SECOND!!! He said with even greater insistence.
Still nothing. What was going on in his mind? Why wasn’t Papou answering?
He must have repeated himself ten times, louder and louder and more insistent, until finally he began to slur all his words together at once uttering a kind of angry-frustrated-puzzled-defiant guttural speaking-in-tongues intonation rather than words. I think I interpreted his meaning clearly, but still said nothing, but attending to his frustration level. I didn’t want my silence to be destructive or punitive. I was doing something I had never done before with him, influenced by several days with the horses, where I had to be patient and allow things to unfold and wondering if my word would be enough to elicit his response. Silence is golden.
He sat down on the ground and turned his back to me putting a stick in the crack in the driveway for a moment. Was he pondering the strangeness of the situation as well? Something new and unexpected happened when he turned around to face me again. He had indeed been thinking, like the horses do after you apply pressure and then release it when they respond. “Papou, don’t make me come in!”
Still silence. He said this again and then when there was no response, he ran down the sidewalk with the pinwheel flying and stopped at the end just around the corner where I couldn’t see him. Did he think he was in trouble? That I would be mad? Or was he still trying to evoke something in me? I waited in silence another minute and as he came around up the sidewalk toward me I smiled broadly and opened my arm to receive him. His face was bright and happy with just a flicker of surprised at first I thought. He came inside and nothing was said about his long delay and he didn’t ask about my silence. Like the horses, when one establishes dominance in the herd, there are no hard feelings. Just an acceptance of the appropriate order of things and a welcoming of the protection it brings.
When his mom and dad came home they chuckled as I told them about what had happened. One real word is enough. Then we wrestle with it. It need not be repeated endlessly. It is the same in the spiritual life. God has given us the Word. He has become flesh and dwelled among us in extreme humility. We spend our lives pondering the Word and often lament the silent response we get when we question what we know to be true but aren’t willing yet to obey.
When divine Grace speaks it is usually with very few words, but each is potent with divine life. Hearing them we enter the arena where we either respond in love without hesitation and receive the life inherent to the Grace they carry. Or we hesitate and battle with our resistance to responding. Then we receive the mercy of Grace in the form of the pain of refusing the blessing offered to us in the first place.
From the front porch I had been watching an ancient story unfold. It was not only Collin’s story. It was mine. God has spoken to me and I am negotiating and hesitating…and hoping for his open welcoming arms when the fog of my beguilement clears and like the prodigal son, I return home again, for the 491st time. With fear, faith and love I draw near. I hope He was speaking to Peter in figures. “What about the 492nd time Lord?”
 Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives. St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood. 2009. p 75
 IBID p 76
 When the Apostle Peter asked Jesus how often we should forgive our brother, 7 times? The Lord responded, “70 times 7.” I have wondered, what about the 491st time?