The Latin root of the word innocent means "not wounded" (not harmed, corrupted, or hurt). There is a certain calm clarity, an openness of heart that comes from not having been wounded, especially early in life. This can allow one to see without the cynical filters of mistrust, fear, anger, victimhood, blame, or excessive self-protection. This can be a great head start to all of life, spirituality, and relationships.

However, innocence can also have a dangerous and debilitating meaning, which we would normally associate with naïveté, gullibility, lack of experience, or guile. This type of innocence can prevent people from seeing evil or evil motives even when they are obvious. Such poor judgment on their part can also make them very poor leaders and bad decision-makers. Because of their failure to cultivate a healthy mistrust, others often have to pick up the pieces Thus, while these people communicate a certain beauty, they are prone to being taken advantage of or being manipulated by those who want power and control.

There is also a "false innocence" that is often cultivated by pious, patriotic, or religious people who refuse to face their own shadow selves or the shadow side of their country, religion, family, or ethnicity. It allows them to project a cultivated and pure self-image, which has little to do with actual reality. Such false innocence becomes a form of denial and eventually delusion. Normally such people must retreat into closed systems to maintain such false innocence, even though there is a low-level happiness and peace in such enclaves.

Finally, there is a "regained innocence" which might be a word to describe the highest states of enlightenment. This is the clarity and freedom of a person who has been deeply wounded, but after passing through a purification comes out the other side with the best of both worlds--they are cleverly wise and yet not over-defended or guarded. I suspect this is exactly what Jesus represents and what he is attempts to describe when he tells his disciples to "Go out into the world as wise as serpents but as gentle as doves" (Matthew 10:16).

"Innocence" was first published as Fr. Richard Rohr's introduction to the Fall 2015 edition of Oneing, Volume 3, Number 2, Innocence. Copyright 2015 the Center for Action and Contemplation.