Several years ago I came across a fascinating study of childhood development that has significantly affected how I understand human life. In this study, one group of children was born in prison and raised in harsh, even unhygienic conditions, but they were raised by their mothers. The other group of children was raised without their mothers but by trained nurses in well-equipped, hygienically impeccable institutions. The result of the study was shocking. In regard to the children’s overall well-being, in terms of mental and physical health, the children raised in prison were far better off (Pieper, 175). It was not that the nurses did not care for the children raised in affluence. They provided food and warmth and safety. But they did not provide the kind of love that says, “It is so good that you exist! I am so glad that you exist!”
“Milk” refers to the basic necessities of life: food, water, shelter, clothing, and so on. “Honey” symbolizes the sweetness of life and the happiness of existing. Love means communicating to a person, “How good it is that you exist!” The children raised in the institutions never heard those words. They were provided with the “milk” but not the “honey.” The need to hear these words is not only true for children but true for all people. We need more than our basic needs met. We need people in our lives who also provide the honey. In fact, Italian educator Maria Montessori wrote in her last book, “The whole secret [in education] lies in two words: milk and honey” (Montessori).
“How Good It Is That You Exist!”
Early Christians began to build their communities around a certain kind of love. These first Christians used one of the Greek words for love, agape, to explain the kind of love that is willing to sacrifice for the good of others. According to author David Bentley Hart, it was the agape love demonstrated by Christians in the midst of the dark and violent Roman Empire that was the secret of the growth of the church. The early Christians, for example, spoke out against the practice of exposure, in which unwanted infants were left on the side of the road to die. It was common in the Roman Empire. Life was cheap. Christians not only spoke out against exposure, they responded to it by rescuing these infants and raising them in their homes.
In so doing these Christians were not merely willing the good of these infants by taking them in. That would certainly be the milk. The actions of these Christians also spoke to these children, “How good it is that you exist,” which is the honey. Yes, we all need the milk in life to survive, but it seems that we need the honey in order to thrive. Perhaps this honey is the secret ingredient needed not only in relationships but in our institutions as well. While both Christians and non-Christians are capable of communicating “I am so glad you exist” to one another, Christians have an added reason for this posture toward one another: the love between members of the Trinity.
Pieper, Josef. Faith, Hope, Love. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986.
Montessori, Maria. On the Education of Man. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson, 1966.
James Bryan Smith is the author of ten books, including The Good and Beautiful God. He is a professor of Christian spiritual formation at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, and is the director of the Apprentice Institute. For information about the undergraduate and graduate programs in discipleship and formation that Dr. Smith oversees, visit apprenticeinstitute.org.