THE ETERNAL CHILD
The Highest Counsel of Perfection to Parents
Slowly the play, poor careful souls,
With wistful thoughts of Christmas cheer,
Unwitting how their music rolls
Away the burden of the year.
And with the charm, the homely rune,
Our thoughts like childhood’s thoughts are given,
When all our pulses beat in tune
With all the stars of heaven.’
Children necessary to Christmas Joy.—In these levelling days we like to think that everybody has quite equal opportunities in some direction; but Christmas joy, for example, is not for every one in like measure. It is not only that those who are in need, sorrow, or any other adversity do not sit down to the Christmas feast of joy and thanksgiving; for, indeed, a Benjamin’s portion is often served to the sorrowful. But it takes the presence of children to help us to realise the idea of the Eternal Child. The Dayspring is with the children, and we think their thoughts and are glad in their joy; and every
mother knows out of her own heart’s fullness what the Birth at Bethlehem means. Those of us who have not children catch echoes. We hear the wonderous story read in church, the waits chant the tale, the church-bells echo it, the years that are no more come back to us, and our hearts are meek and mild, glad and gay, loving and tender, as those of little children; but, alas, only for the little while occupied by the passing thought. Too soon the dreariness of daily living settles down upon us again, and we become a little impatient, do we not, of the Christmas demand of joyousness.
But it is not so where there are children. The old, old story has all its first freshness as we tell it to the eager listeners; as we listen to it ourselves with their vivid interest it becomes as real and fresh to us as it is to them. Hard thoughts drop away like scales from our eyes; we are young once more with the children’s young life, which, we are mysteriously made aware, is the life eternal. What a mystery it is! Does not every mother, made wise unto salvation, who holds a babe in her arms, feel with tremulous awe that, that deep saying is true for her also, ‘The same is my mother’?
Every Babe bears an Evangel.—For the little child is the true St Christopher: in him is the light and life of Christ; and every birth is a message of salvation, and a reminder that we, too, must humble ourselves and become as little children. This is, perhaps, the real secret of the world’s progress—that every babe comes into the world with an evangel, which witnesses of necessity to his parents’ hearts. That we, too, are children, the children of God, that He would have us be as children, is the message
that the newborn child never fails to bear, however little we heed, or however soon we forget. It is well that parents should ponder these things, for the child’s estate is a holy one, and it is given to his parents to safeguard the little heir of blessedness.
Humility not Relative, but Absolute.—Our common notion of humility is inaccurate. We regard it as a relative quality. We humble ourselves to this one and that, bow to the prince and lord it over the peasant. This is why the grace of humility does not commend itself even to ourselves in our most sincere moods. We feel that this relative humility is hardly consistent with self-respect and due independence of character. We have been taught to recognise humility as a Christian grace, and therefore do not utter our protest; but this misconception confuses our thought on an important subject. For humility is absolute, not relative. It is by no means a taking of our place among our fellows according to a given scale, some being above us by many grades and others as far below. There is no reference to above or below in the humble soul, which is equally humble before an infant, a primrose, a worm, a beggar, a prince.
This, if we think of it, is the state natural to children. Every person and thing commands their interest; but the person or thing in action is deeply interesting. ‘May I go and make mud-pies with the boy in the gutter?’ prays the little prince, discerning no difference at all; and the little boy in the gutter would meet him with equal frankness.
Children do not make Self-depreciatory Remanks.—What is the secret of this absolute humility, humble alike towards higher or lower, and unaware of distinctions? Our notion of a humble person is one who thinks rather slightingly of himself, who says, deprecatingly, ‘Oh, I can’t do this or that, you know, I’m not clever’; ‘I’m not cut out for public work of any sort, I’ve no power or influence’; ‘Ah!
well, I hope he’ll be a better man than his father, I don’t think much of myself anyway’; ‘Your children have great advantages; I wish mine had such a mother, but I’m not a bit wise.’ Such things are often said, in all sincerity, without the least soupçon of the ‘Uriah Heep’ sentiment. The thing we quarrel with is, that the speakers are apt to feel that they have, anyway, the saving grace of humility. It is worth while to reflect that there are not such self-depreciatory utterances ascribed to the Example of that ‘great humility’ which we are bound to follow; and if there is not the slightest evidence of humility, in this kind in the divine life, which was all humility, we must re-cast our notions. Children, too, never make self-depreciatory remarks; that is because they are humble, and with the divine Example before us, and the example of our children, we may receive it that humility does not consist in thinking little of ourselves. It is a higher principle, a blessed state, only now and then attained by us elders, but in which the children perpetually dwell, and in which it is the will of God that we should keep them.
Humility Unconscioius of Self.—Humility does not think much of little of itself; it does not think of itself at all. It is a negative rather than a positive quality, being an absence of self-consciousness rather than the presence of any distinctive virtue. The person who is unaware of himself is capable of all lowly service, of all suffering for others, of bright cheerfulness under all the small crosses and worries of everyday life. This is the quality that makes heroes, and this is the quality that makes saints. We are able to pray, but we are hardly able to worship or to praise, to say, ‘My soul doth magnify the
Lord,’ so long as in the innermost chamber of our hearts we are self-occupied.
The Christian Religion Objective.—The Christian religion is, in its very nature, objective. It offers for our worship, reverence, service, adoration and delight, a Divine person, the Desire of the world. Simplicity, happiness and expansion come from the outpouring of a human heart upon that which is altogether worthy. But we mistake our own needs, are occupied with our own falls and our own repentances, our manifold states of consciousness. Our religion is subjective first, and after that, so far as we are able, objective. The order should rather be objective first and after that, so far as we have any time or care to think about ourselves, subjective.
Children are Objective in Tendency.—Now, the tendency of children is to be altogether objective, not at all subjective, and perhaps that is why they are said to be first in the kingdom of heaven. This philosophic distinction is not one which we can put aside as having no bearing on everyday life. It strikes the keynote for the training of children. In proportion as our training tends to develop the subjective principle, it tends to place our children on a lower level of purpose, character, and usefulness throughout their lives; while so far as we develop the objective principle, with which the children are born, we make them capable of love, service, heroism, worship.
Every Function may have its Subjective or Objective Development.—It is curious to observe how every function of our most complex nature may have its subjective or its objective development. The child may eat and drink and rest with most absolute
disregard of what he is about, his parents taking care that these things are happily arranged for him, but taking equal care that his attention shall not be turned to the pleasures of appetite. But this is a point that we hardly need to dwell upon, as thoughtful parents are agreed that children’s meals should be so regularly pleasant and various that the child naturally eats with satisfaction and thinks little or nothing of what he is eating; that is parents are careful that, in the matter of food, children shall not be self-regardful.
Fortitude.—Perhaps parents are less fully awake to the importance of regulating a child’s sensations. We still kiss the place to make it well, make an obvious fuss if a string is uncomfortable or a crumpled rose-leaf is irritating the child’s tender skin. We have forgotten the seven Christian virtues and the seven deadly sins of earlier ages, and do not much consider in the bringing up of our children whether the grace of fortitude is developing under our training. Now fortitude has its higher and its lower offices. It concerns itself with things of the mind and with things of the body, and, perhaps, it is safe to argue that fortitude on the higher plane is only possible when it has become the habit of the nature on the lower. A baby may be trained in fortitude, and is much the happier for such training. A child should be taught that it is beneath him to take any notice of cold or heat, pain or discomfort. We do not perceive the sensations to which we do not attend, and it is quite possible to forget even a bad toothache in some new and vivid interest. Health and happiness depend largely upon the disregard of sensations, and the child who is encouraged to say, ‘I am so cold,’ ‘I am so tired,’ ‘My vest pricks me,’
and so on, is likely to develop into the hysterical girl or the hypochondriac man; for it is an immutable law, that, as with our appetites, so with our sensations, in proportion as we attend to them will they dominate us until a single sensation of slight pain or discomfort may occupy our whole field of vision, making us unaware that there is any joy in living, any beauty in the earth.
The Self-regardful Child no longer Humble.—But these are the least of the reasons why a child should be trained to put up with little discomfort and take no notice. The child who has been allowed to become self-regardful in the matter of sensations, as of appetites, has lost his child’s estate, he is no longer humble; he is in the condition of thinking about himself, instead of that infinitely blessed condition of not being aware of himself at all. Nor must we permit ourselves to make an exception to this rule in the case of the poor little invalid. For him, far more than the healthy child, it is important that he should be trained to take no account of his sensations; and many a brave little hero suffers anguish suffers infinitely less than if he had been induced to dwell upon his pains. We say, induced, because, though a child may cry with sudden distress, he does not really think about his aches and pains unless his thoughts be turned to his ailments by those about him.
No Spartan Regimen.—I am not advising any Spartan regimen. It is not permitted to us to inflict hardness in order than the children may learn to endure. Our care is simply to direct their consciousness from their own sensations. The well-known
anecdote of the man who, before the days of chloroform, had his leg cut off without any conscious sensation of pain, because he determinedly kept his mind occupied with other things, is an extreme but instructive instance of what may be done in this direction. At the same time, though the child himself be taught to disregard them, his sensations should be carefully watched by his elders, for they must consider and act upon the danger signals which the child himself must be taught to disregard. But it is usually possible to attend to a child’s sensations without letting him know they have been observed.
The Altruistic or Egoistic Direction.—This, of the sensations, is only one example of the altruistic or egoistic direction which the various operations of a child’s complex nature may receive. His affections, again, are capable of receiving a subjective or objective direction, according to the suggestions which reach him from without. Every child comes into the world richly endowed with a well of love, a fountain of justice; but whether the stream of love shall flow to the right or the left, whether it shall be egoistic or altruistic, depends on the child’s earliest training. A child who is taught from the first the delights of giving and sharing, of loving and bearing, will always spend himself freely on others, will love and serve, seeking for nothing again; but the child who recognises that he is the object of constant attention, consideration, love and service, becomes self-regardful, self-seeking, selfish, almost without his fault, so strongly is he influenced by the direction his thoughts receive from those about him. So, too, of that other fountain, of justice, with which every child is born. There, again, stream may flow forth in either, but not in
both, of the channels, the egoistic or the altruistic. The child’s demand for justice may be all for himself, or, from the very first, the rights of others may be kept before his eyes.
‘It’s not Fair!’—He may be taught to occupy himself with his own rights and people’s duties, and, if he is, his state of mind is easily discernible by the catchwords often on his lips. ‘It’s a shame!’ ‘It’s not fair!’ or he may, on the other hand, be so filled with the notion of his own duties and other people’s rights, that the claims of self slip quietly into the background. This kind cometh forth only by prayer, but it is well to clear our thoughts and know definitely what we desire for our children, because only so can we work intelligently towards the fulfilment of our desire. It is sad to pray, and frustrate the answer by our own action; but this is, alas, too possible.
During each coming festival of the Eternal Child, may parents ponder how best to keep their own children in the blessed child-estate, recollecting that the humility which Christ commend in the children is what may be described, philosophically, as the objective principle as opposed to the subjective, and that, in proportion as a child becomes self-regardful in any function of his being, he loses the grace of humility. This is the broad principle, the practical application will need constant watchfulness and constant efforts, especially in holiday seasons, to keep friends and visitors from showing their love for the children in any way that shall tend to develop self-consciousness.
Humility the Highest Counsel of Perfection.—This, of humility, is not only a counsel of perfection,
but is, perhaps, the highest counsel of perfection; and when we put it to parents, we offer it to those for whom no endeavour is too difficult, no aim too lofty; to those who are doing the most to advance the Kingdom of Christ.
 William Law.