The grandchildren are visiting today for a few hours while their mom does some errands. Yia Yia Claudia is the acting conductor, managing the orchestra of Collin’s (2 and a half) ambivalence over using the potty chair and Lizzy’s (8) insatiable desire for intellectual stimulation. Matthew (6 months) is making the transition from being held and moved by others, to pushing himself up by the arms from the ground all by himself.
It’s not easy to transition to new levels of independence. It takes efforts we’re not used to making. From conception to nine months in utero, listening to the constant rhythm of mother’s drumming heartbeat and the gurgling, swishing sounds of life in a universe beyond, as a miracle unfolds, then “poured out like water with all my bones out of joint,”(Psalm 22:14) at birth, suddenly forced out into cold air and bright light, sucking breath into lungs that have been filled with warm fluid, is surely enough to give anyone contemplating making such a journey, reason to consider doing otherwise.
Conception to birth recapitulates the universe in a fruit that bears creation’s image, what the Holy Fathers call a “microcosm.” All this occurs without our having a choice in the matter and without realizing what is happening to us. It is part of the unfolding of a much greater design than that of the cosmos, for the seed of this bidden fruit contains the Image of the uncreated divinity and a potential for acquiring the divine likeness which may be realized over a lifetime, but is not guaranteed. The outcome of this venture is less certain. It requires our conscious participation with divine grace, for it is an antiphonal liturgy, a prologue to a wedding invitation between the uncreated One and the creation through the Logos.
As Kierkegaard once observed, “We live life forwards, but understand it backwards.” In conceiving a human being, the Logos performs the first anaphora by assuming flesh. “Thine own of Thine own” is offered to us in the chalice of the womb. Each child is given the gift of a potential to acquire the divine life as one’s own. The mark of such an inheritance is the acquisition of Spirit Who seeks to return whence He came bearing witness to the Great Mystery of Re-membering us in the Body and Blood offered in behalf of all and for all, in an eternal breathing between two worlds. We are brought to life in order to shed blood and receive Spirit.
After his birth, before Matthew uttered his first wail, he was brought to his mother’s warm belly and then into her outstretched arms. Her voice he had already felt as part of his own life and her warmth was the welcome of a new security. His total vulnerability and need activated in his parents a selfless service to him, a small foretaste of divine love awakened by this messenger from beyond.
Now a new kind of growth begins. Human beings are dependent on our parents longer than any being on the planet. The more complex a creature is, the longer it takes to develop all the skills and abilities that allow it to survive on its own. The more potential a creature has the greater are the freely offered sacrifices and voluntary suffering of its parents in order to bring it to fruition. Human beings have to pass on an entire civilization to each other while at the same time beginning to realize the call of faith from beyond the creation that awakens in us desire for what lies beyond the known. This process involves a second birth and lifetime of wanting, wailing and waiting, as an invisible kind of growth begins to occur.
Matthew is in the room next door to Papou’s study, lying on a blanket on his stomach at the moment of these reflections, wailing with irritation as he struggles to learn the essential skill of lifting his chest off the ground in order to look around at the world. He can only manage this for a minute or so after he’s laid down, before he begins to complain about the difficulty of it. He’s tired now and the strangeness of the crib in an unfamiliar room have combined with his aloneness to provoke a rhythmic wail. He’d rather be in his mother’s arms, or back in the midst of the familiar calming ruckus of his older brother and sister.
His irritation is mounting as the waiting seems endless to him and no one is coming to pick him up. Aloneness and helplessness are frightening whenever we experience them. He is going into that guttural rage that is half wail and half growl at the peak of intensity as only infants are capable of without damaging their throats. Any adult who put that much force into a scream would be hoarse for a week. If Matthew could speak he would be giving Yia Yia and Papou a piece of his mind for not picking him up immediately! Maybe he would be slamming a few doors and doing outrageous things to show how utterly disgusted and provoked he is, that no one is listening to him and helping him with his current misery.
It’s a good thing many of the initial lessons of life are learned when we are very, very tiny and our rage and disappointment can be easily contained and soothed. These are small acts of grace that make a profound impact on children, teaching them that they are capable of enduring difficulties in life and surviving intensity of feelings without having a meltdown. Adults with the attention span, impatience and capacity for total rage as in an infant, can create a lot of damage. Grown men (and women) with only a small child’s capacity for self-restraint and patience can be very dangerous to those they want and need, at the slightest sense of a failure to respond.
A woman I saw in psychotherapy told me that suddenly her boyfriend of 6 months, pulled a gun on her for not having his lunch ready on time. It was the first clearly abusive action he had taken, but the clues of his sociopathy and utter lack of empathy for her had been evident and she had chosen to ignore it because of his charm and out of her need to feel someone loved her.
Fortunately, none of Matthew’s wailing anger and frustration are off-putting or abnormal at his age. His vulnerability engenders only love and consistent attempts to guess what he needs, even though he can’t tell anyone in words. Efforts to measure how long to wait before soothing him are underway in order to give him a chance to do a little of his own work and strengthen his muscles and his lungs by his efforts. He is learning not only to push himself up, but also discovering that he can survive when wailing from his wanting goes unheeded for a few moments and also that he is loved and someone will respond to his desperation. Apart from this, he too might become unable to have empathy for others, having internalized the absence of care and soothing in his early life.
This same lesson reoccurs many times throughout our lives in a variety of forms as we move from the instant gratification of our early years, to the mature lamentations of Rachel who cannot be soothed because her children are no more, (Jer 31:15) through all the agonies and ecstasies of growing up en route to waiting for that moment that will draw us into the arms of death where we discover what God’s response is to the utter helplessness of our final letting go. All our wailing ceases then and by our wanting Him alone, and all whom He loves, perhaps we shall find ourselves transformed into His likeness, ushered into the eternal present where everything occurs all at once and endlessly without the interval of time.
After a few minutes of listening to Matthew’s struggles, Papou and Lizzy converge at the door simultaneously, both of us having heard as much as we can bear without responding to his furious, plaintive cries. Papou stands at the doorway like Peter did outside the Lord’s tomb without going in, while Lizzy, the beloved John, goes in to the brother she loves and stands beside his crib. She places her hand gently and lovingly on his back, softly stroking him. No more wailing. He is suddenly quiet and asleep within a minute, consoled by his sister’s familiar presence. He simply would “not go gentle into that good night” alone.
It is just the opposite with Jesus at the end of his life. When he cries out, “My God, My God why have you abandoned me?” (Mt 27:46) it is not with the expectation or desire that anyone will rescue him. He had already set his face toward Jerusalem and confronted the depth of divine love’s risk in the face of human helplessness. He had faced and conquered the resistance to his self-offering in Gethsemane. He would go as gentle as a lamb to the slaughter into that final night. Freely embracing death, the fruit of a fully mature human life ripens on the tree in an uncreated light.
We the people at the foot of his cross do not come to his aid. They listened to his wailing, ignored his wanting and said “Leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to his aid.” (Mt 27:49). They wanted a miracle before they would care. Jesus did not try to push himself away from death on the cross. Determined, in a loud voice he cried out a second time, forgiving all and offering up his spirit into the hands of God (Lk 23:46) for the sake of the world, especially those who see what cannot be seen.
In this particular moment, his beloved apostles had abandoned him, as he predicted they would, overcome by their own wanting to stay alive, clinging the familiar ruckus and delight of this world, all except for John, who looked beyond creation for what cannot be seen but is known in faith through love.
Jesus’ mother stood by in silence. How many times over the years had she responded to Jesus’ cries when he first struggled to push himself up from the floor? How many times had she consoled him, when he was needing her familiar warmth and the sound of her voice? Or encouraged him as a child when he was frustrated with the slowness of human progress and watched in wonder as he moved along a path beyond her comprehension?
Now she was looking upon the murder of her son, with her own inner silent wailing, while yet trusting and waiting on God with patient endurance for as long as it would take, to understand the unfathomable mystery that was unfolding according to the Spirit in its own time. The fruit of her womb had now ripened fully. It dropped from the tree.
In three days an uncreated light would dawn upon Jerusalem and all the world from the beginning of time to the end. Now we wait and hope in Him whose cries went unheeded, for that day which is coming, is now, and is yet to be, wherein “he will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:4)
And it was morning, the eighth day.