In Pursuit of Innocence

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

In the novel, The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence describes a woman, Hagar Shipley, who, after overhearing a very unflattering comment about herself one day, goes into a public toilet and examines her face in a mirror. She’s taken aback by what she sees, scarcely recognizing herself. What she sees in the mirror is a face grown old and hard in experience - bitter, cynical, full of disdain. There’s nothing left in her face of the innocent child or young woman she once was and still imagines herself to be.

She’s stunned and asks herself: How can this have happened? How can one, imperceptible to one’s self, change and become so different, so cold, so lifeless, so devoid of freshness and innocence?

It can, and does, happen to all of us. Most of us have long ceased being the type of person that the child we once were would want to be friends with. In a word, we’ve lost a lot of our innocence and, with that, a lot of the freshness, wonder, and fire that we had when we were little. We pay a heavy price for that.

Towards the end of his life, the American Educator, Allan Bloom, wrote a book he entitled, The Closing of the American Mind. In it, he suggested that our perspective on life is narrowing, that our minds are in fact closing, and that what has perhaps contributed the most to this is precisely our progressive loss of innocence as we have grown more and more sophisticated.

For Bloom, innocence means chastity, not just sexual, but in every area of our lives. Chastity, for him, means experiencing things only if and when we can experience them in such a way that we remain integrated. In simple language, this means we lack chastity and we lose innocence whenever we have experiences that unglue us, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, or sexually. Obviously a lot of healthy experiences, necessary to growth, will do that to us, but there are experiences that unravel a deeper, moral part of our being. It’s these experiences that close our minds and harden our faces.

In Bloom’s assessment, today many of us have lost too much of our innocence and this manifests itself both in a certain hardness and in a lack of idealistic fire inside of us. He coined a phrase for this - “erotically lame”. For him, there is a kind of sophistication that takes the fire out our eyes and out of our dreams and leaves us limping when we walk anywhere inside the arena of sublimity. We have already, he believes,become somewhat unglued.

How do we recover our innocence?

Adult innocence should not be confused with the natural innocence of a child. Children are innocent precisely because they are still children, naive, and inexperienced in life. For an adult, innocence, has to mean a certain “second naivete”, a “post-sophistication”, that has already accounted for experience. Childishness is not childlikeness. The former takes its root in naivete and lack of experience; the latter takes its root in an experience and a knowledge which is both wise and chaste enough to take on the wonder of a child.

How do the Gospels look on this? Jesus challenged us to innocence by inviting us to have both the heart of a child and the heart of a virgin. ... “Unless you have the heart of a child you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven.” “The Kingdom of heaven can be compared to ten virgins waiting for their bridegroom.”

For Jesus, the heart of a child is one that is fresh, receptive, full of wonder, and full of respect and the heart of a virgin is one that can live in inconsummation, without experiencing the finished symphony. The child and the virgin both have to live inside a great patience because many of the things they intensely desire cannot not be had just yet. Both hearts may not test their God.

Deep down, we all still long for this. Just as any healthy child spontaneously longs for the experience of an adult, any healthy adult longs for the heart of a child. But it isn’t easy to keep the heart of a child.

Innocence, Pulitzer-Prize winning author Annie Dillard suggests,

“is not the prerogative of infants and puppies, and far less of mountains and fixed stars, which have no prerogatives at all. ... Like any other of the spirit’s good gifts, it is there if you want it, free for the asking, as has been stressed by stronger words than mine. It is possible to pursue innocence as hounds pursue hares: single-mindedly, driven by a kind of love, crashing over creeks, keening and lost in fields and forests, circling, vaulting over hedges and hills, wide-eyed, giving loud tongue all unawares to the deepest, most incomprehensible longing, a root-flame in the heart, and that warbling chorus resounding back from the mountains.”

It’s time to pursue innocence as hounds pursue hares, single- mindedly, crashing over creeks, keening in lost fields, driven by a kind of love.