by E. Clifford Cutler
Many years ago our oldest son determined in second or third grade that there was no Santa Claus. This really was a terrific loss for him.
“Well,” he concluded, “maybe there is no God either.”
When I shared this with some Sisters of St. Margaret, they were horrified. But it is a little boy’s reasoning things out. It shows an intellectual curiosity. At the time, I answered that some things last and others pass away.
I was thinking of Psalm 103, our days are like grass in that they pass away, “but the merciful goodness of the Lord endures forever … and his righteousness on children’s children.” Now I didn’t cite chapter and verse but conveyed the general idea.
As I consider our son’s loss of belief and intellectual struggle now at some remove, I recall the famous passage about love from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “Love never ends … When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways … And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
What lasts or abides is not the wonderful story of Santa Claus but the even more wonderful story that reveals a love and goodness that is at the heart of all that is and is greater still, what we know as God.
More than 100 years ago a little girl named Virginia wrote in a letter to The Sun newspaper in New York, “Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.” It would not have been current then as it is now in the 21st century to admit some of my little friends say that there is no God. This is not to belittle but to explore our children’s intellectual curiosity.
One of the things I like about the Godly Play ministry at Saint Paul’s is that it engages children’s imagination and wonder. The reporter Francis Pharcellus’ response in The Sun is still interesting. He begins with the importance of humility. We seek mastery over our universe and well we should but we need to take stock.
The writer Walker Percy advised, “We ought to stop, every once in a while, and ask ourselves who we think we are. I’m not just talking ‘existentialism’ here; I think I’m talking about moral self-examination – as in exactly who do you think you are?! There are times when we get so full of ourselves – we’ve lost all modesty.”
Pharcellus, in his response to Virginia’s query, next argues how dreary the world would be if all were reduced to sense and sight. We would lose the sense of mystery and transcendence that draws out the best in us and gives us joy.
I have been reading the French paleontologist and theologian Père Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I like to think of him as bilingual. He speaks the language of science and he speaks the language of mystery and can shift language to talk about the same thing expressing it more fully and understanding it more deeply.
There is nothing dreary in Teilhard’s world. He writes, “After harnessing space, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, (humanity) will have discovered fire.”
Our children may struggle with loss at the passing of Santa Claus. In 1897 Virginia wanted proof. She wanted to see it in The Sun newspaper. Today, our children may want to see proof of God. But God is to be found more in relationship than in proof. We discover relationship in community.
God is the love that abides, the goodness that endures. God is the one before whom every once in a while we give ourselves moral pause. We may need more than one “language” to understand God and ourselves. We are that deeply layered.
We sit with our children and as the days draw near we ask, “Wait. Something is missing! I wonder what it could be?” A baby is born, the Christ child who embodies the love and goodness of God. Some things pass away, but the “merciful goodness of the Lord endures forever.”
The Very Rev. E. Clifford Cutler is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill.