“Once upon a time,” said kind Uncle Chestnut, “we were all little children and we lived in a place called wonderland.” Looking up from the book of fairytales that he was reading for the umpteenth time, he smiled sadly at his nephew. “The problem is that we forget that we were children and we lose sight of wonderland.”

“Enough!” exclaimed his nephew, who had recently completed his first semester at college. “Enough of such saccharine sentimentality! Enough of this Never-Never Land naiveté! That stuff is for innocent kids, uncle. You’re old enough to know better. Isn’t it time you grew up?”

Uncle Chestnut put the book to one side. “Innocent? Grown up? None of us were ever truly innocent and some of us never grow up.”

“Well,” said the nephew, whose name was Eustace, “I wish you would grow up!”

So, who is right? Uncle Chestnut? Or Eustace? Is wonderland merely a place for wishful thinking? Is it just for children?

“When I was a child,” says St. Paul, “I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Isn’t St. Paul agreeing with Eustace? Shouldn’t Uncle Chestnut put away childish things and just grow up? But what of the words of Christ: “Unless you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Clearly St. Paul would not disagree with these words of his Mentor, his Master; clearly, therefore, St. Paul means something different when he speaks of those things that are childish from what Christ means when He speaks of the necessity of becoming child-like. It is this paradoxical difference between childishness and childlikeness that holds the key to understanding the difference between the relative perspectives of Uncle Chestnut and Eustace.

The first thing we need to remember is that Christ Himself is a storyteller. He teaches many of His most important lessons through the telling of stories, or parables to give them their “grown-up” name. We think of the Prodigal Son perhaps, or the Good Samaritan, two fictional characters who, as figments of Our Lord’s imagination, become figures of truth for all generations. He tells us stories because we are His children and these stories are the best way for us to understand what He means to tell us. If we will not become child-like, listening like children, we will not see the truth in the story, the moral that it teaches. The fact that the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan never existed in the “real world” but only as characters in the story does not make them less real. On the contrary, they become such powerful archetypes that there have been countless “prodigal sons” and “good Samaritans” in every generation since Christ first told the story.

And what is true of these stories can be true of other stories, each of which is the product of the God-given gift of the imagination. This is what Uncle Chestnut means when he praises wonderland and laments that we forget the wonderland we experienced as children. It is not that we forget that we were children, it is that we forget that we are children. There are some, to be sure, the victims of wicked stepmothers (or stepfathers), whose experience in wonderland was not much fun. There are others, led astray by ugly sisters or uglier friends, who turn their wonderland into a place of real ugliness. We forget, at our peril, that wonderland is not only full of wonders but wicked witches also. We forget that wonderland does not only contain wolves but, much more dangerous, wolves in sheep’s (or grandma’s) clothing. Wonderland is not a place of idyllic and unrealistic innocence or naiveté, as Eustace seems to believe, but a place where the virtuous struggle heroically against wickedness. In short, it is very much like the world in which we actually live.

But wait a minute, we can hear Eustace exclaim, the world in which we actually live does not have wolves that disguise themselves as granny. It does not have magic wardrobes through which we can pass into other worlds. It does not have beautiful princesses that sleep for a hundred years until a noble prince awakens them with a kiss. It does not have pumpkins that turn into carriages. At this point, Uncle Chestnut might remind his nephew that the world is full of wolves who disguise themselves as sheep or grannies. They include baby-kissing politicians, or advertising executives who launch marketing campaigns employing traditional values to sell poisonous products. He might also remind Eustace that every good book or good movie is a magic wardrobe that transports us to other worlds. Perhaps he might smilingly suggest that his nephew is himself a sleeping beauty who needs to be awakened by the kiss of goodness and truth. And as for pumpkins, Uncle Chestnut would insist that a pumpkin is more miraculous than a carriage and that we should learn to be as astonished at the appearance of the pumpkin on our plate as was Cinderella with the appearance of the carriage on the night of the ball.

On a more wistful note, the kindly uncle might warn his nephew that there are real dangers in not believing in the real magic of wonderland. There is a real danger that those who do not believe in dragons become dragons. There is a real danger that those who do not believe that Jack could slay the Giant become servants of the Giant and slayers of Jack. Such people, who are very successful in politics and law, are placed in the Giant’s pocket and are used by him to ensure that Jack remains powerless and that the Giant’s monopoly over the goose that lays the golden egg is safeguarded.

The cause of the singular blindness that prevents people from seeing the wisdom of wonderland is that people know their ABC’s but have forgotten their p’s and q’s, their pleases and thank-yous. To say “please” is to ask for something in the proper manner, to say “thank you” is to show the appropriate gratitude. This is true of our relationship with our friends and family but is especially so of our relationship with God. It is no surprise that please is connected etymologically with plea and plead and is, therefore, connected practically to the reality of prayer. More important, the act of thanksgiving is a sign of our gratitude for the wonders of Creation and for the wonders of our existence within it. Giving thanks, showing gratitude, is a sign of humility and it is to the humble of heart that the vision of wonder is given. An ungrateful heart that believes it has nothing for which to be thankful is a proud heart incapable of wonder. As if by magic, wonderland becomes invisible to these proud-hearted souls. They cannot see it and therefore believe that it does not exist. This is, of course, the warped and defective logic of the relativist. For this sort of “realist” all reality is in the eye of the beholder. As such, all reality that they do not behold is ipso facto unreal: “I do not see it, therefore it is not real.” Needless to say, such logic is childish and here we return to the difference between the childish and the childlike. The childish, lacking gratitude, fall into the sin of cynicism that blinds them to the beauty of truth; the childlike, grateful for the gift of life, see through the eyes of wonder and behold the wonderful wisdom of wonderland. And this beautiful vision is but a shadow of the Beatific Vision, the ultimate Wonderland where people truly live happily ever after.