The study of children and childhood in late antiquity is a bourgeoning field. Studies to this point have focused primarily on socio-cultural conditions surrounding children in early Christianity or Late Antiquity generally, such as the education of children, children in relation to violence, liturgical practice, play, the child-parent relationship, abortion, infanticide, etc. (e.g. Clark (1994); Leyerle (1997); Bakke (2005); Horn and Martens, (2009); Horn and Phenix (2009)). This paper seeks to contribute to this fascinating area of research by exploring the spirituality of children (an important contemporary issue in theology and religious studies, psychology and anthropology which has not yet taken root in late antiquity studies) and how it functions in early Latin Christian perspectives on conversion and spiritual life, in other words, on becoming and being Christian.
Early Christians relied often upon the words of Jesus in Matthew 18.3 (‘unless you are converted and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of God’) as a model for Christian conversion and holiness: Being Christian is about becoming like a little child, so that Leo could write: ‘Christ loves infancy, master of humility, rule of innocence, model of gentleness’ (Sermo 8.3). Predominantly, the metaphor of childhood is interpreted morally, to promote a return of the Christian to the child’s outward existence of ‘innocence’. The child’s lack of concern for status, wealth, and, perhaps most often, sexual lust (e.g. Tert. De mon. 8) is held up as an exemplum of Christian virtue. However, there are texts which imply that the image of the child went beyond a passive outward example of the virtuous life. For Hilary of Poitiers, this return to childhood involves a resemblance, image, or vision of the humility of Christ himself (speciem humilitatis dominicae), and this speciem is a return to the very nature of childhood (In Matth. 18.1: reuersos in naturam puerorom). There is a sense here in which the spirituality of children, the child’s natural relation to God, and not only moral innocence of humility, is the goal of the Christian life. This paper will explore this primarily through investigating the role of the vox infantis in Christian conversion and identity formation. There are critical points in the lives of some early Christians, such as Augustine’s conversion and the consecration of both Ambrose and Martin of Tours as bishops, in which the voice of a child is accepted as the voice of God itself. The authority given to the voice of the child over the Christian and how these Christians are seen to manifest the journey of return to childhood in obedience to it, teach us something about the role the childhood metaphor of Jesus played in early Latin Christianity. To follow the voice of the child is to follow God’s own voice and, particularly with the christological connection mentioned above (what François Bovon (1999) has called ‘christology of the child’), this perhaps demonstrates that, from the perspective of these texts, in order for one to be Christian she must ‘convert and become like a child’ because God himself is childlike.