Maturity is a difficult word to define. It’s also a difficult state to reach definitively, saying to ourselves, “Finally, I’ve arrived!” How do we know when we’re considered mature? Do we reach it by a certain age? Proverbs says so of parents:
Hear, my son, your father’s instruction,
and reject not your mother’s teaching;
for they are a fair garland for your head,
and pendants for your neck (Prov 1:8-9).
T.S. Eliot would say quite the opposite:
Had they deceived us
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?
There is, at best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience (“East Coker,” II).
Eliot prefers the wisdom of poets and mystics, to that of moms and dads. Maybe both are valuable. And maybe we can’t settle this debate here in a blog post. One different evaluation of maturity, which I’ve recently found, comes from Luigi Giussani. He gave a Lenten Retreat in 1975 to the members of Memores Domini, the lay consecrated branch of Communion and Liberation. In one passage, he says:
The person who has simplicity of heart doesn’t judge the other but, before the other, only tries to respond to God’s admonition to his own maturity, an admonition expressed through the attitude of the other—the attitude of the other, be he a good or a bad example, is the way God calls me to my maturity . . . The presence of the other is the existential, historical way God calls me—calls me!—to my maturity, admonishes me toward my maturity.
This seems very difficult, because it means I would have to overcome the categories in which I usually place people from my own limited and imperfect perspective:
Person Of Greater Maturity = Show Deference
Person Of Equal Maturity = Speak Freely
Person Of Lesser Maturity = Ignore or Instruct
Too much of the first or third categories seems problematic. Deference to our elders is good, but mere deference leaves no room for friendship. Or in the third case, faced with someone less mature, do I ignore them or even do all the talking? Can we instead act in the second way, as Giussani suggests, and speak openly with all? Can all people be an invitation to a mature response on my part?
Difficult though it may seem, it also seems more realistic than other musings on maturity. Perhaps it’s not a state to be achieved in our lives, but a growing attitude in how we treat our neighbor. We hear general admonitions like “treat others as you wish to be treated” or “maintain a professional attitude.” But do these mandates actually hold up in real situations with real people? And not just a few people, but a whole lifetime’s worth of different personalities walking into my life? I suppose that great and troublesome line of my fellow neighbors, which wraps around many blocks of many past and future years, is either a guaranteed headache or a gift from God meant for my growth.
Failure also helps us: for instance, when we’re not mature but still smart enough to drag ourselves to God, who forgives us and for very good reasons of his own. We hear in Scripture something we may pass over quickly, but has so much to teach us:
If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt,
Lord, who would survive?
But with you is found forgiveness:
for this we revere you (Ps 130:3-4).
God isn’t Puritan, holding us to the strictest of standards. It is his forgiveness which attracts us! It’s been his strategy from the earliest pages of the Bible. Even while He’s escorting Adam and Eve to the garden’s exit, we read: “The Lord God made for the man and his wife garments of skin, with which he clothed them” (Gen 3:21). They were immature, but He hasn’t rejected them and will still care for them. He is still their God.
May we, despite our failures, go to God for forgiveness. May we deal with one another—however mature that other presently is—just as He deals with each of us.