Like a child

September 14, 2009

“These little ones taking milk are like those on their way to the Kingdom.”

—Logion 22, the Gospel of Thomas

Earlier
this summer I led a retreat on contemplative spiritual practices for a
group of pastors in upstate New York. In the opening session I
discovered that one of the participants, the only one not ordained, was
Samantha, a seven-month-old baby. I must confess that I was a little
rattled by what felt like an additional challenge to the usual
getting-up-to-speed with 15 new faces and the flow of the retreat. I
wondered whether Samantha’s crying and fussing would be distracting to
our quiet, our seeking of a contemplative space.

Long before the
end of the retreat it was clear to me, and I think to all the
participants, that Samantha was the greatest contemplative among us. In
each session there she was, gazing with those big, dark eyes, holding
steady with what was right in front of her. She was always ready to lock
her gaze on another participant, drinking in the other’s presence,
beaming out with pleasure in the looking, in the sharing. She is “fresh
from God,” as the Celts would say.

Those of us who have been in
this world for decades struggle to remember this. We go on spiritual
retreats to find our way back home to God and to ourselves. We struggle
on the way with all the usual suspects of ego states: our need to get it
right in thought and word and deed, our longing to be enough, our
posturing for position, our eagerness to be noticed. Samantha was
clearly at home in her own skin and in her world. She knew when she was
hungry and when she was tired; she cried out when she needed to. But she
was present in it all, gazing out in what seemed like love and speaking
in tongues foreign to our ears but somehow resonate with what she knew,
in her immediate way of knowing.

As I spent time with Samantha,
that spirit of immediacy kept calling to me. There I was in a leadership
role while my own barriers to presence were actively engaged--in my
concerns about how things were going for the participants, thoughts of
what needed to be added or taken away from my plan for the day,
preoccupations about the flow of the teaching and attachment to my own
perspectives.

On the afternoon of the first day we were entering a
block of individual retreat time, and I had set participants up to
spend some of the time outside. Just as we began, the heavens opened and
the rain came down. Many of the participants headed for their rooms,
but as I looked at Samantha looking at me I knew what I had to do. I
took off my shoes and my socks, removed my watch and wallet, and walked
outside.

It was a gentle, warm rain, the kind of rain I loved to
walk barefoot in as a child. Now as an adult, what do I fear in getting
soaked? Why do I dash through the few rains I get “caught” in? Is there
anything in my life that can’t be made better by the saturation of a
summer rain? As I walked the grounds my eyes opened, my skin came alive
and something asleep in me came awake. I saw everything with Samantha
eyes—every flower, every drop-covered quivering leaf, every flash of
bird wing overhead.

Additional lectionary columns by Mitchell appear in the September 8 issue of the Century—click here to subscribe.