Several years ago in Germany, while giving the sacrament of confirmation, a bishop was questioning the children who were about to be confirmed: “Who can administer the sacrament of confirmation?” he asked. A young girl answered: “Any bishop, once he's attained the age of reason!”
Our old catechisms used to tell us that we reach the age of reason at, roughly, age seven. At one level, that's true, we can be responsible for ourselves then in a way we couldn't when we were toddlers or in kindergarten. But it takes a lot longer than age seven, a lifetime really, to be in full ownership of ourselves. And so, at another level, we might better peg the age of reason sometime after age 30, when we have a more responsible sense of who we are, what our lives mean, and what decisions we need to make in order to bring life to ourselves and thers. It's takes a long time before we can be really responsible.
And this bitterly limits how well we can love and especially how fully we can give life. Let me illustrate this:
In the gospels we are told, within a single story, how Jesus cured two women who, on the surface, seem to have very little in common. The story runs this way:
Jesus is approached by a man named Jairus, who asks him to come and cure his daughter who is thirteen years old. As Jesus is making his way to Jairus' house, hemmed in by a curious crowd, a woman who, we are told, had been suffering from internal haemorrhaging for eighteen years and had spent all her money on doctors without getting any better, approaches him surreptitiously, saying to herself: “If I but touch the hem of his garment, I will be healed!” She does just that and, the gospels tell us, instantly the flow of blood stopped. Touching Jesus did for her what doctors couldn't do, it stopped her internal hemorrhaging.
Then, as Jesus is approaching Jairus' house, he is told that the man's daughter is already dead, but he enters the house anyway, goes to the young girl's bed, takes her by the hand, and brings her back to life.
What these two women have in common is this: For different reasons, both are unable to get pregnant and give life; the young girl, because she dies at puberty, just as she has the radical possibility of getting pregnant, and the other woman, because the forces inside her that are meant to give life are damaged and hemorrhaging, making it impossible for her to hold a pregnancy. What Jesus does is give back to both women the possibility of giving life, in one case by stopping the flow of blood and in the other by starting it.
We all need a similar miracle: By the time we're finally ready to give life some deep parts of us have already died and are too cold and lifeless to ever become pregnant. As well, like the woman whose internal bleeding makes it impossible for her to get pregnant, we too are wounded in ways that have us forever hemorrhaging out the life forces we need in order to give life. Parts of us have died and parts of us have been wounded and we are forever hemorrhaging in body, heart, and soul. It's hard for us to give life.
How do we, like the woman, touch the hem of the garment so as to be healed? How do we, like Jairus' daughter, let Jesus take us by the hand and restore to us our fertility?
I remember a comment made to me by a young man who had been struggling for a long time to break an addictive habit in his life. He said: “It took me a long time, and countless failures, to realize that you can't change your life simply by willpower. You can only change it by grace and community.” Alcoholics Anonymous has always known this. Willpower, while important, is not enough. Only by touching some higher power—and this is most easily done inside a community—can we actually change our lives. Therapy too is helpful to a point, but only to a point. In the end, the power to give life can only be restored to us through grace and community, through letting a power beyond give us something that we cannot give to ourselves.
Then, and only then, will those parts of us that are dead or diseased begin again to give life.