For as long as I remember, I have turned to words to bestow names, and through them meaning, on my experiences. Yet for the past five weeks, since the birth of our first child, this chain of significance seems reversed: in every day with our baby boy, new experiences uncover treasures of meaning in words I thought I had already mined.
One of these words forms the central metaphor of the brief and beautiful Psalm 131:
Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.
Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.
Let Israel hope in the LORD from henceforth and for ever.
That word, weaned—until the past month, I had never truly understood it. Of course I knew its definition, but the metaphor failed to resonate. I loved the calm of this Psalm, and the paradoxical wisdom of the speaker’s contentment with his limited knowledge; the image of the weaned child, though, seemed only to somewhat blandly picture the idea better expressed in the first stanza.
But through five weeks of warning whimpers, of sweet, fierce newborn cries, of nights in which sleep seems the punctuation rather than the text, this psalm has been often in my mind and found new resonance in my heart. My little son is emphatically not weaned, and the way he knows me is inseparable from the way he is fed. This manifests itself somewhat amusingly in that other people can hold him and play with him, can rock and bounce him out of his fussiness—but nearly every time his mama holds him or plays with him, attempts to rock or bounce him, baby just fusses until he is once again being nursed. Nursing, for now, solves every one of life’s problems.
It is beautiful and good that my child knows me this way in his infancy, and I am treasuring these days. But I also know that someday, even soon, my son will be met by problems which nursing cannot solve, that he will be overwhelmed by needs beyond those of his appetite; and I eagerly await the time that he snuggles close to me for the simple delight of that closeness, finding rest and comfort in my love for him and my presence with him.
This, then, is what the imagery of a weaned child now brings to my mind as I meditate on Psalm 131: not so much the negative of not fussing, not demanding, but rather the positive of a child resting, delighting, finding satisfaction in the sheer presence of the mother.
And as the psalmist suggests, is this not what our Lord awaits in us as well? Does He not patiently catch us up when we cry, provide the physical sustenance we presumptuously deem all-important, satisfy even our clamorous appetite for His gifts . . . and long for the day when we will come to Him, not wailing and wanting, but resting and delighting and being wholly satisfied simply in who He is.
And, though that is the metaphor’s profoundest application, perhaps it could also apply to our learning, for the searching after truth brings us into the presence of the One who is Truth. We can approach learning’s search for truth like unweaned children—fussily demanding that everything end up in our mouths as tidy application that satisfies our appetite for what is immediately useful, practical, comprehensible. We can seem haunted by a fear that doing anything besides affixing a moral to the story teaches students to deny morality itself, that stopping in our tracks to gaze at the landscape along the path is to treat the journey as only the destination.
But what would learning look like if, instead of wrangling truths for our self-defined edification, we came to them seeking to rest in Truth’s presence? What if we practiced learning as a kind of soul-weaning, where sitting in the presence of truth prepared us to sit in the presence of the Lord?
Nurturing the “unhaughty heart” of the psalmist in ourselves and our students might look different in every discipline and every classroom. But let us remember that the virtue of humility grows naturally from a practice of simply contemplating and delighting in truth—without this, we can expect only the fussy, appetitive clamoring of overgrown infants.