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The Way of the Lamb: The Spirit of Childhood and the End of the Age
by John Saward
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999
(170 pages; $13.95, paper)
by R. Andrew Newman
The sin of the century is the sin against the child,” writes John Saward, a professor of theology at the International Theological Institute in Austria. “The tears of Rachel have become an ocean.” In The Way of the Lamb, Saward draws upon the work of four great Catholic thinkers of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, G. K. Chesterton, Charles Péguy, Georges Bernanos, and Hans Urs von Balthasar defended and celebrated the child, both the childhood of chronological years and the spiritual childhood to which all Christians are called.
Saward’s book is timely. The attack on children didn’t end when Nazi Germany fell or the Soviet Union came to an end. We don’t need to turn our eyes to China, where forced abortions are a matter of public policy. The ostensibly enlightened and liberal West has declared war on the child. The victims of abortion continue to amass in number. Sexual hedonism rules the day to the point that it is hard to raise children without them getting bombarded daily with sexual imagery. The contraceptive culture has all but removed any connection between the sex act and procreation. So ingrained is this mentality that to be against birth control in most circles, even Christian ones, is greeted as though one were arguing that the Apollo moon missions were faked. In the world’s eyes, children are something to be prevented and controlled, not new souls to be cherished. The current celebration of homosexuality is also anti-child; the child isn’t even a possibility. What is celebrated today is perpetual adolescence.
His book reminds readers that the connection between the Christian faith and childhood is as strong as it is ancient. He quotes Balthasar: “Everywhere outside of Christianity the child is automatically sacrificed.” Today’s religious liberals think it is appalling to oppose abortion. Early Christians, however, stood squarely against infanticide, abortion, and pederasty. While so noble in most of its thought, the classical mind erred about the child. Classical thinkers saw a child as not being wholly human because he had not reached rational adulthood. The ethicist and philosopher Peter Singer, who was notoriously appointed to a prominent chair at Princeton University not long ago, holds a similar position.
The writers Saward draws upon faced an age besmirched by Nietzsche and Marx. To be young meant to be undeveloped, incomplete, or not evolved. Religious liberalism was on the rise. What the world needs, the liberals said, is a grown-up religion. “It was the Nihilistic Nineties, in 1892 in fact, that Adolf von Harnack and twenty-four other Liberal Protestant Prussians published the ‘Declaration of Eisenach,’ which stated that no ‘decisive significance for faith’ could be attached to the ‘narratives found in the opening of the first and third Gospels.’” The target was the Christ Child and his Virgin Mother.
Saward provides a good introduction to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who strapped on spiritual armor and sword for battle against those who would erase or ignore either the Virgin or the Child. As St. Thérèse herself says, the Little Way is “the way of spiritual childhood, the path of confidence and total abandonment.” Saward considers it an “exercise of the Theological Virtue of Hope: trusting and abandoning ourselves, in the manner of a small child, to our heavenly Father. To be little means to resist all temptations to the Nietzschean Will to Power. To have a childlike soul is to remember one’s poverty and utter dependence, in all things of nature and grace, upon the heavenly Father.”
Charles Péguy was no saint and Saward doesn’t make him out to be one. But this poet and political writer, who had one foot in and one out of the Church for most of his life because his wife didn’t convert, refuted those who saw experience as superior to innocence. Saward doesn’t explicitly say so, but Péguy’s message is especially important today. Taking ironic, cynical poses passes for wisdom these days. Experience, especially of a sexual nature, is seen as the test of adulthood or at least of perpetual adolescence. Péguy, long before the word “postmodern” entered the intellectual vocabulary, knows such worldly folk have lost any sense of wonder: “What you call experience, your experience, I call / dissipation, diminution, decrease, the loss of innocence.” Humility, a sense of wonder before the faith and an abiding trust in God are the marks of childhood and also, even more importantly, of the spiritual childhood available to those who shed the old age of sin for the new life of Christ in baptism.
Likewise, the novelist Georges Bernanos only wanted “to be faithful, to the end, to the child I used to be. Yes, what honour I have, and my bit of courage, I inherit from the little creature, so mysterious to me now, scuttling through the September rain across streaming meadows, his heart heavy at the thought of going back to school.” To remain in contact with this child doesn’t mean imitating Peter Pan, but rather partaking in the mysteries of baptism and regular confession. Childlike saints make frequent appearances in Bernanos’s novels.
Saward’s admirable little book ends with a discussion of how similar Balthasar and Chesterton are as Catholic writers, especially in their devotion to the Christ Child and his Mother. The fact that Chesterton appears in every chapter will make the book attractive to many readers. Saward calls him the master of ceremonies. “In each chapter he offers a generous word of introduction and makes a grateful speech of conclusion.”
The Way of the Lamb challenges readers to look into their own lives, to see if they themselves are becoming children of God. The book’s cast of writers demonstrates that, with God’s grace, such a transformation is possible.
R. Andrew Newman is a writer in Scottsbluff, Nebraska.