We are all familiar with the moving image of Jesus placing a small child in front of his disciples and counselling them that unless they changed and became like little children, they would not enter heaven. We might ask, though, how is that change to be accomplished? What do we have to do to become a child again? In the meaning of the wise, what IS a child?
One notable quality of the very young is innocence, a word that can mean guilelessness, or a lack of hidden motive. Hazrat Inayat Khan tells us that innocence is a sign of the purity of the heart. When the heart is not covered over with thoughts of ‘me’ – what Hazrat Inayat calls the rust of the heart – then the mirror is bright and the heart reflects the divine light clearly. Therefore, to become like little children does not mean to become infantile, but to become pure of the self-preoccupation that habitually clouds our mind and heart. When our thoughts and feelings are purified in this way, the intention to harm vanishes, and that is, in fact, the origin of the word ‘innocent’, for in English, at least, it comes from a Latin root meaning without harm, or not hurting. And of course, a heart without harm in it is also loving, and the love of a child, direct and simple, is a spiritual lesson in itself.
The counsel of Jesus was given, we are told, in response to a question as to who is the greatest in the heavenly kingdom. Perhaps that is why the Master told the disciples they had to ‘change’ – for such a question, although well-intended, contains a seed of ego in it. Any system of ranking inevitably includes a place for ourselves – ‘I may not be the greatest in the kingdom, but perhaps I come in the top ten or twenty.’ And even if we come at the very bottom, at least we are in the same league as the greatest! So, if we sometimes ponder just where we are on the spiritual path – whether we are making progress, and when we can expect the divine bolt of illumination to fall on our heads – we can at least console ourselves that we are making the same misguided inquiries as the disciples of Jesus.