Innocence in Today’s World
Timothy Danaher, O.P
“The tears of one child, one innocent child... that is bigger than all the universe together. Everything to me is questioned by the tear of suffering in an innocent child.” These are the words of Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, from his interview for the film The Human Experience.
Innocence is a sort of litmus test for what is good and evil in life. Children more readily smile at what is good and cry at what is evil. In his letter Salvifici Doloris, John Paul II defined evil as a “lack, limitation, or distortion of good”. So when a child cries because dad is leaving on a business trip, those tears speak truly. His absence is a certain evil, so it is sad that he’s going away, even though it may be necessary. Far worse, however, are the tears shed at the distortion of good, at the many unnatural family and societal situations children are raised in today. Yet in so many cases, there are not tears but a growing belief that anything is normal.
Still, that numbness cannot go unquestioned. I recently sat on a bus trip next to a very talkative woman in her 30s. After our first greeting, without further ado, she proceeded to recount all the drama of growing up in foster care: widespread abuse ending in criminal charges, adults treating children like business items for profit, all of it leading her to act out as a teenager, eventually moving in with her boyfriend just to escape. After an uninterrupted hour, she fell asleep, leaving me to wonder why in our brief window of acquaintance she jumped right to that topic among all others. Our childhood years are still with us, and damaged innocence doesn’t heal easily.
Innocence is strong
Innocence can sometimes surprise us with its strength, however. While writing his book on the problem of evil, in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, David Bentley Hart said he had in mind a photograph from the Baltimore Sun. It was of a Yemeni girl from the lowest social caste, dressed in rags and dancing with a great smile across her face in the middle of the slums. “To me that was a heartbreaking picture… but it was also an image
of something amazing and glorious: a child who can dance amid despair and desolation because her joy came with her into the world and prompts her to dance as if she were in the midst of paradise.”
What is this life of ours? All at once, we are beleaguered by sorrows and made whole by gratitude. All at once, hidden fears fill our head, while deep down we protect a primordial optimism, a conviction that no matter how bad it gets, life should be better.
Innocence is not only a litmus test or a vulnerability. It is a strength which still believes life is good deep down, made by God, and must move towards Him. This strength is needed not only in situations of grave poverty or natural disasters (above), but especially in the face of slower, everyday threats: pervasive technology, growing divorce, and especially the loss of having both a mom and dad in the home. Why does it matter? Because man and woman first educate one another in life, in a way unique to each of them, found nowhere else in the world. Then they pass that onto their children, each in his and her own way. There is no substitute for what God has so carefully and delicately designed for each one of us arriving in this world. This education is one concerning the Faith, hard work, navigating relationships, the ways of the world, and a million other details and perceptions and lessons. It also includes innocence, how to protect their dignity, how to “be good.” That simple word is full of import. In Marilynne Robinson’s book Gilead, the preacher protagonist looks out over his Iowa fields and says: “I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word ‘good’ so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing.” If we can say such things about the good earth, what also about good parents, teaching their children truly, each in his and her own way, how to be good.
Innocence has a power of its own, especially when fostered by good parents. Even when that’s not the case, it can surprise us with how it endures. I remember once discussing divorce with a class of 12-year-olds, how the fact of divorce didn’t disprove God’s design for fidelity. Towards the end of class, one boy whose parents separated long ago remarked: “It’s like a recipe. Just because one cake didn’t turn out well, doesn’t mean the recipe is bad.” He still held in his heart deep hopes for fidelity. It’s a glimpse at true innocence, still hoping underneath that his life can be good.
Innocence can grow
To most of our contemporaries, innocence is something to be lost. It’s cute to see kids think and behave the way they do, but eventually they have to abandon all belief in fairy tales and deal with real life. For the Church, however, it is something to be restored. The gift of God’s grace restores to us some of the innocence our first parents lost. Grace doesn’t only heal us from sin, but it flowers into all sorts of thoughts and motivations and instincts, replanted in the soul by God.
John Paul II speaks about this in his own rhetoric in Love and Responsibility, when he describes the “absorption of shame by love”. Shame is a protective reaction we each have in a sinful world, not wanting to be used by others, personally, sexually, etc. In marriage, however, it begins to be absorbed by love, opened to the other, with less hiding and more total openness. It’s a real process of renewed innocence among spouses, the work of grace in their family.
Another prominent theme in the Wisdom Literature of the Bible is the “fear of the Lord”. This too is the fruit of restored innocence, not so we live our days frightened of God, but cautious about offending Him, knowing well where our sinful nature has led us in the past. To love innocence and keep God’s law is to grow stronger in grace and fear of the Lord.
As much as we can discuss and try to alleviate both familial and societal woes, we are ultimately reliant upon grace, whether we’re from a picture-perfect family or a broken one. Family is still family, and in no place is it easy to endure unscathed. God alone can preserve and restore innocence, not as something infantile but very much part of Christian maturity. Thus the final exhortation of Paul to his beloved community in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Br Timothy Danaher OP writes from St Dominic’s Priory, Washington, USA.