Questions of children

Near the beginning of Lark Rise to Candleford — Flora Thompson’s trilogy remembering an 1880s childhood around & about a dusty hamlet of north-east Oxfordshire — the children in the stonemason’s house ask seven searching theological questions:

— Who planted the buttercups?

— Why did God let the wheat get blighted?

— Who lived in this house before we did, & what were their children’s names?

— What’s the sea like?

— Is it bigger than the Cottisloe Pond?

— Why can’t we go to Heaven in the donkey-cart?

— Is it farther than Banbury?

These are haunting questions, when a child asks them; which is why I class them all as “theological.” To the child, buttercups & wheat are known; Cottisloe Pond & even Banbury can be known; birds & beasts & donkey-carts are known. The mysteries within them may not yet be detected. But sometimes they have, & even the most familiar can become suddenly numinous: “Who lived in this house before we did, & what were their children’s names?” It is the sort of question recognized by the inspired writers of Scripture.

A few paragraphs later, a little girl has a leaf in her hand, from a flowerpot, & asks an old lady, “What’s it called?”

“Tis called mind-your-own-business, an’ I think I’d better give a slip of it to your mother to plant in a pot for you,” the old lady replies.

This is not, to my mind, the best pedagogical procedure. It is true that children will ask nuisance questions, questions to which they know the answers, to which they don’t want to know the answers, questions only begging for attention like an ostrich tapping on the window pane. But in the main, I have found from children — my own & other people’s — that there are benefits to be had, on both sides, when a grown-up truly listens to a child’s question.

I say, on both sides, because children teach as well as learn; not only through the questions we cannot answer, but from having seen things we haven’t seen. They start from being smaller & shorter, & that alone gives them another angle. Their minds are necessarily freer from preconceptions. But sometimes it goes quite beyond that. The smallest children seem sometimes aware of presences invisible to us, whose world-weary eyes are practised at deletion. And in their cruelty & their empathy, their dramas & their superstitions, their delight in rhythm & rhyme, they open & close many secret doors:

          Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,
          Your house is on fire, your children are gone,
          Except the little one under a stone,
          Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home.

There is something childlike in the innocence of the saintly & wise, though of course there is, too, something adult in them to our own childishness. In each consultation of the Summa Theologica, I am the more struck by both operating together — yoked, as it were, & in tandem — in the mind of Thomas Aquinas. He is, to a shocking degree, capable of posing the naïve question, from the one side; & from the other, capable of listening to it, with an unearthly calm. Again & again I am astounded by the richness & depth in replies which catch not only the subtlety I have missed in a question, but also the obvious I have missed. Yet this is the man who stopped writing some months before the end of his life, though still well, confiding to an old companion that after a vision he had received, everything he’d written seemed to him as straw.

Without vision, yet working from cumbersome analogy, it seems to me the theological questions disputed most rancorously, by myself & even by members of the Commentariat, are like the questions asked by children. That, perhaps all theological questions are like this — necessary as they may be to answer, or to decide, given the often horrific consequences of getting them wrong. For so often they have life-&-death implications. Yet some adult — some imagined person who has put the childhood of human life behind him, & gone on to his reward — might smile at the questions. For no, the sea is not larger than the Cottisloe Pond; nor Heaven farther than Banbury; & yes, you could reach it in a donkey-cart; & see by Whom the buttercups were planted.

In an old Scots version of the Lord’s Prayer, expanded or exploded as if to parse each phrase, & meant to be sung, “we children” are invoked in a wonderful way:

          Our father God celestial
          Now ar we come to pray to thee.
          We are thy children thairfore we call
          Heir us father mercifullie …