the age of innocents

i have been thinking lately on what a beautiful thing innocence is.

i don’t mean naivete, or obtuseness, or ignorance, or victorian strait-lacedness (for all they could be shocked so terribly i’m not sure they were really so innocent).

no, i mean something much more ancient and new than that. perhaps it’s because i’ve been trying to imagine being the first people in the world. perhaps it’s because it’s spring and i have seen the morning sun illuminate individual blades of new-grown grass until they look like a field of bright green flames. or perhaps it’s because i have a swiftly increasing pool of friends under the age of three.

at any rate, it’s been on my mind, and “innocence” the word always reminds me of innocent smith the protagonist of g.k. chesterton’s brilliant story “manalive,” which is easily one of my favorite novels.

at one point early on in the story, innocent smith explains to his comrades that man values gold not because it is practical, but because it is pretty — thereby upsetting the tired maxim “all is not gold that glitters.”

here’s how chesterton paints the scene (and i do mean paint, because what rembrandt did with pigments this man did with words):

The French windows, thus flung open, let in an evening even lovelier than that of the day before. The west was swimming with sanguine colours, and a sort of sleepy flame lay along the lawn. The twisted shadows of the one or two garden trees showed upon this sheen, not gray or black, as in common daylight, but like arabesques written in vivid violet ink on some page of eastern gold. The sunset was one of those festive, and yet mysterious conflagrations in which common things by their colours remind us of costly or curious things. The slates upon the sloping roof burned like the plumes of a vast peacock, in every mysterious blend of blue and green. The red-brown bricks of the wall glowed with all the October tins of strong ruby and tawny wines. The sun seemed to set each object alight with a different coloured flame, like a man lighting fireworks; and even Innocent’s hair, which was of a rather colourless fairness, seemed to have a flame of pagan gold on it as he strode across the lawn towards the one tall ridge of rockery.

“What would be the good of gold,” he was saying, “if it did not glitter? Why should we care for a black sovereign any more than a black sun at noon? A black button would do just as well. Don’t you see that everything in this yard looks like a jewel? And will you kindly tell me what the deuce is the good of a jewel except that it looks like a jewel? Leave off buying and selling, and start looking! Open your eyes and you’ll wake up in the New Jerusalem.”

“All is gold that glitters:

Tree and tower of brass

Rolls the golden evening air

Down the golden grass;

Kick the cry to Jericho,

How yellow mud is sold;

All is gold that glitters,

For the glitter is the gold.”

“‘And who wrote that?’ asked Rosamund, amused.

‘No one will ever write it,’ answered Smith, and cleared the rockery with a flying leap.”

with all this sort of idea simmering vaguely on the back burner of my mind, then, the perfect day happened.

i was on the plaza, waiting for an appointment, more or less, but enjoying being alive. i sat in the sun by the penguins’ fountain, watching two sparrow-like birds hop around in the bradford pear tree next to me, listening to the folk trio across the street sing about something that was probably world peace or the evils of capitalism, but was undeniably pretty, and wondering if the sky could possibly be any bluer and the clouds sailing across it any whiter.

a little girl and her parents walked down the sidewalk toward me and the fountain, and the little girl ran to it, looked at the coins in the water, and said “it’s a wishing well! a wishing well!” well, of course her dad had to give her something to throw in. the little girl said “a baby sister — twins!” and her mum said “that’s right, a boy and a girl. make your wish and throw it in the water.” so the little girl, with an expression of wonder and delight that could’ve made a curmudgeon crack a smile, repeated her wish to herself (very concentratedly) and then threw the coin into the fountain.

that, i think, is what i mean by innocence.

we adults, we get our hearts broken and our wonder stripped away, and we end up all jaded and cynical and crotchety. we get used to things, until we expect the sun to rise every morning, and we expect spring to succeed winter without autumn intervening. why? that’s not very interesting. isn’t it marvelous that the sun does rise every morning, even if the sky is overcast and or we don’t see it come up? isn’t it marvelous that things do bud and bloom and burst into full riotous being before they die again in a blaze of glory?

oh, where has all your wonder gone, world? is it possible that sin abolished the age of the innocents?

or is it just possible to regain that innocence of the beginning when we look at the stars and realize they’re pinpricks through the glass in which we see darkly, and that the most glorious being imaginable calls them all by name, and is closer to us than the very skin He stretched over our bones?