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Center for Action and Contemplation

Like a Child

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

“Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” –Matthew 18:3

Therapist and spiritual director Fiona Gardner draws a deeper understanding of the value of our lost innocence from the writings of Thomas Merton:

One of the characteristics of infants is that they are often seen, especially in the spiritual sense, as innocent. . . . In his essay “The Recovery of Paradise” Thomas Merton writes of the Desert Fathers and their search for “lost innocence,” which they saw as [the] emptiness and purity of heart “which had belonged to Adam and Eve in Eden. . . . They sought paradise in the recovery of that ‘unity’ which had been shattered by the ‘knowledge of good and evil.’” [1] . . . This unity that had been lost was, as the Desert Fathers saw it, the unity of being one with Christ. . . .

Jesus’ teaching tells us that the gift of being like a child is vital and necessary for entry to the kingdom—it is a command: “unless.” This extraordinary teaching is consistent in the three synoptic gospels but the meaning of the teaching is less clear. In fact the mystery of what it might all mean is revealed only to babies and toddlers, in other words those who are not yet able to speak: “At that time, Jesus said, ‘I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants’” (Matthew 11:25). The message is that for us to see and to be close to God we have to relinquish the part of us that feels important and knowledgeable as a grown-up and turn in a state of not-knowing to God. . . .

Moving from knowledge to innocence regained is a way of temptation and struggle; “it is a matter of wrestling with supreme difficulties and overcoming obstacles that seem, and indeed are, beyond human strength.” [2] 

Gardner compares Jesus’ teaching in Matthew to a Zen koan, which invites listeners to hold two contradictory statements together until a new awareness arises:  

If we consider Jesus’ command to the would-be adult disciples to become as small children as equivalent to a koan, then the work is to hold the lost innocence and the knowledge until the breakthrough can emerge. . . . As Merton knew from his reading on the Desert Fathers and his own spiritual practice it is not possible as an adult to regain innocence without knowledge. . . .  

Purity of heart is the recovery of divine likeness where the true self is lost in God. . . . This as Merton writes is “only a return to the true beginning.” [3] For this is where Christ is—in the beginning and in the becoming. This is the rebirth or a fresh start where Merton believed the preparation took place “for the real work of God which is revealed in the Bible: the work of the new creation, the resurrection from the dead, the resurrection of all things in Christ.” [4]


[1] Thomas Merton, “The Recovery of Paradise,” in Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York: New Directions, 1968), 117.

[2] Merton, “The Recovery of Paradise,” 124.

[3] “The Recovery of Paradise,” 131.

[4] “The Recovery of Paradise,” 132.

Fiona Gardner, The Only Mind Worth Having: Thomas Merton and the Child Mind (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 16, 17, 24–25, 26, 27.  

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Claudia Retter, Lily Pond (detail), photograph, used with permission. Arthur Allen, Untitled 10 (detail), 2022, photograph, France, used with permission. Claudia Retter, Lake Wale’s Pond (detail), photograph, used with permission. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge the image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: We see the simplicity of these black and white photos: the lines of the leaves, the focus on just one flower, one stem, one patch of grass. Innocence, in its state of simplicity and grace, is not deluded by a desire for more; it accepts what is.

Story from Our Community:

In Minnesota, the large flocks of geese heading south, tells us winter is coming. My grandson misses the geese and whenever and wherever he hears their honking on a fall day, he rushes to find them in the sky and waves “goodbye.” It is a privilege to share nature with children. —Irene M.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.


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