Knowing what we don’t know

During the homily last Sunday, the priest made a comment about “opening your heart to God.”  Matthew, who was playing with his Matchbox cars on the seats, suddenly stopped and turned to me, with a look of slight consternation.

“We can’t open our hearts,” he said, “because we have bones.”

I pulled him a little closer.  “What?” I asked.

“We can’t open our hearts, because we are mammals, and we have bodies and things,” he said.

“No honey,” I said,  “that’s not what the priest means.”  I cast around in my mind for a way to explain.  “Open your heart’ means to let yourself think new thoughts, and be open to God and to other people when they talk to you.”

Matthew looked thoughtful for a moment, then resumed his play.  I settled back in the pew and tried to pick up the thread of the homily, but it was hard, because I was diverted by a few thoughts.

On one level, the practical: Wow, I told myself, that preschool tuition is totally worth it. On another note, I marveled at the fact that, in spite of his vehicular pursuits, Matthew was actually paying attention to the homily (who knew?).  And I also realized this was the first time I’ve ever explained the difference between literal and figurative language to my son.  His comment was an amazing little glimpse into a tender mind that takes things at face value, that has no reason to believe it could be otherwise.  It was a reminder of just how much he doesn’t know.

One of the most amazing parts of being a parent is simply seeing, over and over, how a human being develops. It’s all there, right in front of our eyes, the stages and phases.  And we’ve all been there.  This incident  made me recall that when I was in kindergarten, I thought “heart attack” was when someone literally attacked your heart.  I remember hearing my mom talk about some acquaintance who had been thus afflicted, and I envisioned this woman standing in a field, clutching at her chest as people shot arrows at her.  (Yes, it was disturbing.)

It must be challenging, to see the world so literally.  As an English teacher and writer, I’m glad I don’t anymore; I’m so glad I’ve grown into a stage where I can appreciate poetry and metaphor and hyperbole and all those other things that make communication so fascinating. But at the same time, I have to wonder: Is there some way in which I am like Matthew, stuck in a rather basic level of understanding?  Is there some way in which I am too literal, too unaware of what is really being said or communicated?

I think it’s true with faith, actually.  Don’t get me wrong; I read about my faith, and I study it, and I pray.  But the longer I live, the more I recognize that when it comes to certain knowledge about God and the workings of this world, there’s a  lot I just don’t get.  I don’t think any of us, with our limited human understanding, can totally grasp the mind of God, or why things happen as they do.  I’ve blogged about this before, as it relates to my own pregnancy history, and somehow, I just keep coming back to that quote from Scripture: Now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. (1 Corinthians 13:12).  There are a lot of things, I think, that we humans just won’t be able to grasp in this world and in this lifetime.  There’s a mystery to God that eludes philosphers and mystics alike. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand; it just means that we need to remind ourselves that, in some fundamental way, we are like a preschooler, not able to grasp some higher  level of truth and insight.

And when we know that we don’t grasp it, we’re making progress.  That’s when we open our hearts to the mystery of it all, letting ourselves prickle with the awareness of things unseen and unknown.

In spite of the Matchbox cars, Matthew learned a lot in that homily.  So, it seems, did I.

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