Tony Kelly on the ‘saturated phenomena’ of the child

children-1I have posted earlier on the theologies of childhood proffered by Calvin, Schleiermacher, Barth and Jensen (all Reformed perspectives), and on that of Karl Rahner. In this post, I turn to Australian Roman Catholic theologian Anthony Kelly on the ‘saturated phenomena’ of the child[1]. In his essay, ‘Spirituality and the Child’, Kelly identifies five phenomena of the child:

1. A unique ‘revelation’. The child comes in the form of a unique ‘revelation’, breaking into the experience of human community as the ‘occurrence of the new, at once a gift and a promise given into the heart of life’. In this way, the child is a ‘focus of wonder at the generativity of the universe’. The child calls the whole human family to a ‘new responsibility, if parents and relatives are to receive this gift of a new beginning in reverence and care. Consequently, the child invites certain questions: In a child, what new thing is being given and revealed?

2. An ‘event’. The child is an ‘event’. Despite the vulnerability of both the child and parent, the event or advent of a child has the potential to affect the lives and thinking of all around it. It evokes a new sense of both the past and the as-yet-undetermined future. Consequently, the arrival of a child is ‘an open-ended, transformative event. It is no fait accompli in terms of assignable causes and predictable effects, but an advent whose significance overflows as a unique new presence within the constitution of family, society and even world-history. To this degree, it is in the nature of such an event to resist calculated prediction of outcomes, but to inspire waiting, fidelity and hope, if what is given is to be received in its incalculable significance’.[2] The event – or advent – of the child also poses a number of questions:

  • What has really happened in this coming?
  • What might be its effect on parents, siblings, wider family, society, creation?
  • How might the Church wait with couples in pregnancy?
  • How might the gift of child be played out in church, family and in event of creation itself?
  • What is the nature of hope?

children-33. A gift and event. Kelly writes:

Despite the possibilities of violence and exploitation inherent in a grossly sexual objectification of relationships, the child is a witness to something else. He embodies, within the intimacy, ecstasy and generativity of our incarnate existence, a distinctively personal order of relationships. For she implicitly demands to be received as something more than a biological product of two sexual agents, and so to provoke a larger sense of life.[3]

This invites further questions:

  • What is this larger sense of life?
  • To what mystery/ies of life does the event of child point?
  • How, in the Christian phenomenology of life centred in the Incarnation, is the child related to the Word who is himself made flesh, given into creation from the eternal generativity of God?

4. Something akin to a work of ‘art’. Like any work of art, the phenomenon of the child resists one-dimensional interpretations, resists detainment, resists ‘pre-designed space’. Instead, ‘its power is to command its own space and change the place given it’.[4] Kelly cites the poem, ‘Five Days Old’, by Australian poet Francis Webb (1925-1973). For most of his life Webb suffered with mental depression and was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1950s. ‘He spent most of his adult life in and out of psychiatric hospitals, writing poetry against terrible odds’.[5] In England during the war, he was being treated by a young Canadian doctor who had invited him home around Christmastime. The young parents put their five day old Christopher John in the poet’s arms, and left him alone for a while. This poem was the result:

Christmas is in the air.
You are given into my hands
Out of quietest, loneliest lands.
My trembling is all my prayer.
To blown straw was given
All the fullness of Heaven.

children-4The tiny, not the immense,
Will teach our groping eyes.
So the absorbed skies
Bleed stars of innocence.

So cloud-voice in war and trouble
Is at last Christ in the stable.

Now wonderingly engrossed
In your fearless delicacies,
I am launched upon sacred seas,
Humbly and utterly lost
In the mystery of creation,

Bells, bells of ocean.

Too pure for my tongue to praise,
That sober, exquisite yawn
Or the gradual, generous dawn
At an eyelid, maker of days:
To shrive my thought for perfection
I must breathe old tempests of action

childrens-shoesFor the snowflake and face of love.
Windfall and word of truth.
Honour close to death.
O eternal truthfulness, Dove,
Tell me what I hold –
Myrrh? Frankincense? Gold?

If this is man, then the danger
And fear are as lights of the inn,
Faint and remote as sin
Out here in the manger.
In the sleeping, weeping weather
We shall all kneel down together.

  • In what ways is a child like/unlike a work of art?
  • How does the coming of such vulnerability change/disrupt the life of a family? Of a faith community?
  • How does the coming of such vulnerability call for new vision and ecclesiological modus operandi?
  • How does the coming of such vulnerability call for ‘reconciliation among those whose murderous demands have foreclosed on new possibilities and made the world a dangerous place for children’?
  • How might childhood point to the open-endedness of life?
  • How might childhood resist calls to shut down eschatological hope?

children-25. The ‘face’ of an other. So Kelly:

The face of the other is not a projection on one’s part of the other as an object, useful, exploitable or ignored … It stands for the totality of the reality of the other as given, calling me to responsibility. To allow oneself to be ‘faced’ by the other in this way, is to be called out of oneself, to make room for this other, however unsettling this may prove.[7]

Again this raises a series of challenges:

  • Children are often easy to ignore in our communities. How might the children in our communities pose a challenge that we cannot afford to set aside or to palm off onto others?
  • What does the child call those engaged in Christian ministry to?

[1] The phrase ‘saturated phenomena’ is taken from Jean-Luc Marion, De Surcroît: Études sur les phénomènes saturées (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2001).

[2] Anthony J. Kelly, ‘Spirituality and the Child’ in Children, Adolescents and Spirituality (ed. Marian de Souza and Winifred Wing Han Lamb; Adelaide: ATF Press, 2008), 14. Italics mine.

[3] Ibid., 15.

[4] Ibid., 15.

[5] Carol Treloar, ‘Poetic Australians’, The Advertiser, 7 September 1991.

[6] Francis Webb, ‘Five Days Old’ in The Oxford Book of Australian Religious Verse (ed. Kevin Hart; Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 225. Italics mine.

[7] Kelly, ‘Spirituality and the Child’, 17.


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