When I was a teacher on my first ever teaching assignment (on the payroll and not as a student teacher) I had an obstinate little child whose name was a derivative from the name Eve, an irony which I appreciated, since I was teaching preschoolers at a Catholic school. This little child, but four years old, gave me a run for my money, as the expression goes. She was the one who whined, who constantly broke the rules, who already had a reputation among the other teachers as a handful, and who never listened to a word I said. Definitely not the ideal student for a first-year teacher trying to impress. However, Eve was my favorite student.
Eve came to me at a time in my life where I was growing in my relationship with God, fighting to believe in His unconditional love for me. I was meditating heavily, per the advice of the confessor I had left behind in Charlottesville, on the story of the prodigal son. I used to go to a fairly secluded beach about five minutes from the school where I worked and walk aimlessly along the shore. It was an interesting experience, because I realized when I tried to place myself in the shoes of the prodigal walking back home, I couldn't make it all the way back. Too ashamed of who I had been and what I had done, full of doubt at a loving reception, I could not approach the center of intimate family life. I could not approach the table even for the promise of the feast.
I believe it was because of this that God gave me Eve. Eve reminded me of myself in the context of my relationship with God. Obstinate, disobedient, but also frustrated, because no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn't be as good as the other kids. Eve would often act up, disobeyed the classroom rules (and often my direct instruction) and exhausted my patience. It is really hard to have a child look into your eyes and do the exact thing you are telling them not to do. Not only does it undermine your authority, I knew as the adult that these rules were ultimately for her good and were designed to help her flourish in the classroom. I could only imagine what it must be like to be God since salvation is even more important than learning your colors and alphabet, but also because when you truly care about someone and want what is best for them, it cuts to the quick when they don't listen to you, and worse when they wind up in trouble because they did not listen.
My experiences in the classroom changed my reflections as I meandered down the shore of the beach. I eventually stopped focusing on myself as the prodigal on a tough journey home and tried to focus on the Father in the story. It framed everything in a whole new light. I saw a Father who never stops seeking His child. I saw a Father who runs out to meet the son even when it would have made him look ridiculous to his household. I saw a Father who was generosity itself. Most of all, I saw a Father whose love was constant and truly unconditional. And the growing trust changed the scene. First I imagined the Father running to meet me. Then I was able to meet the Father outside of the house and offer an awkward apology. Eventually, I made it back to the table and to my surprise, I was not seated as a headstrong woman in my early 20s, but as a very little girl marked with the insignia of the family given from the Father to the son in the parable, because I too had been dead and now I was alive again. As this new life really took hold, I gave up my seat at the table and curled up in the Father's arms, where I think children somehow instinctively know to go.
With this interior change, I found a new patience to draw from when it came to dealing with Eve, still as rambunctious as ever. But as time passed we found a way to make it work, you could even say we bonded, and she started to exhibit a curious new behavior. While she was behaving better during lessons she would shrink into private tantrums more often when she couldn't do something, particularly when I was present. I asked my more experienced coworker to weigh in and she explained, "She worries you'll be mad at her every time she breaks the rules."
I was fairly surprised that I'd reached a day where Eve would seek my good opinion, but I understood. Now that Eve wanted to be part of my class, she was worried she wouldn't be wanted in that class when she made a mistake or couldn't be like the other children. She had trouble trusting me as her teacher, since I was in charge of the classroom, and she naturally thought I would prefer the best. I knew I needed to say something to help build that trust. Being intimately familiar with that feeling, I tried to give her a sort of secularized version of what God had been saying to build trust with me and it came out as follows, "you know I am so proud of you Eve. I have seen how hard you have been working and how hard you try. And I just want you to know that whether you succeed or fail, I will always be glad to have you in my classroom." And with the smile she gave, I truly believed in God's enduring love, because in that moment, I finally understood God's mercy.
To this day, I am convinced that the story of the prodigal is not a story of the son. It is the story of the Father, because only after understanding the Heart of the Father can you become the child.