“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” – Jesus (in Mark 9:33-37)

26 05 2013

screenshot_01I took my girls (and mother) to church today. It had been a while.

Today, as it turned out, a group of children were celebrating their First Holy Communion – sweet little girls and boys  in white dresses and miniature suits. Mass began in its usual way and soothing music filled the space. My little Luna turned all floppy and curled up into my side where she remained for the entire hour (astonishingly, without saying a single word); Philomena, meanwhile grabbed hold of a hymnal and (with perfect posture) did her best to keep up with the singing.

Catholics receive First Communion at the age of seven – this is thought to be the age of reason, when a child is old enough to participate in the life of the church. The ceremony harks back to the events of the Last Supper, when Jesus told his disciples that the bread they were eating was his body, and the wine was his blood.

The last time I was invited to attend a Communion was probably ten years ago. I remember being very keen to go at the time and remember being VERY disappointed when it was all over. So disappointed in fact, that I swore I wouldn’t subject my children to Catholicism beyond baptism, which I would do out of minimal respect for my family and tradition. When Luna was baptised in Vienna, I was so frustrated that I swore I would never attend a Catholic mass again.

On both occasions my frustration with the church had everything to do with the words chosen by the priest during his homily. At Luna’s baptism the priest used most of his homily to exhort us to have more Christian children because otherwise “the Muslims would soon take over” (thankfully the Mass was in German and I understood nothing until my equally annoyed husband translated for me later). During the Communion I attended 10 years ago, the priest spent the entire time telling the children what sinners they were or were to become – it was seriously unpleasant – not at all a celebration that left children inspired and empowered to be spiritually connected.

Since Luna was baptised we have only attended church as a family on special occasions – Christmas, Easter or weddings.

The funny thing is that out two daughters absolutely love church. Perhaps this is because it is still a novelty for them. But possibly it’s more than that.

This past term-break we were in Florida visiting family and miraculously managed to get a seat in the first pew of church on Easter Sunday. This was great because the friendly priest came around with chocolate eggs for the girls, which put everyone in a good mood.

Luna was fascinated by the simple (albeit enormous) wooden cross and carved sculpture of a dying Jesus above the alter.

– “Why is that cross up there with Jesus on it?” Luna asks.
– “Shhh. Let’s speak softly. The cross is meant to symbolise Jesus who died hoping that it would help bring us closer to God.”
– “Look at this, Luna!” Philomena whispers, handing over the hymnal and pointing to the cover.
– “Mami!” shouts Luna, “Jesus is BLEEDING! ALL OVER!”
– “Shhhh. It’s okay, it’s just a painting. I’ll explain it all to you later. Let’s just sing now. Shhhh.”

I never did much explaining later. After Mass we got distracted with sunshine and building sandcastles and I saved the conversation around Jesus being crucified/rising from the dead for another time. When she’s older it will all make more sense, I told myself, knowing full it might actually make a lot less sense the older she became.

Philomena, meanwhile, knew the story of Easter already. She had learned it at school. Her school integrates spiritual education in a non-denominational way – a school we chose not only because of the value it places on prayer and meditation, but also because of the value it places on story-telling.

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For example, Philomena can tell me the story of Satyavrata – who in ancient Hindu scripture saved mankind from the Great Flood after being advised by God to build a large boat –, just as well as she can tell me the story from the Old Testament about Noah’s Ark.  For her, these are both equally riveting stories (not dissimilar to the flood motif in Greek mythology and across Mayan and Muisca cultures), stories that contain simple messages about the cleansing properties of water and our capacity for spiritual renewal/rebirth. And they are stories of equal merit.

As I stood in church today, I listened hard to the words of the priest and tried not to be too critical. He spoke about Jesus’  final words before he ascended into heaven – to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:16-20). Like many parts of the gospel, these passages get tricky when taken literally and politicised, and I stood there wondering what was being understood by the audience of (half-listening) 7-year olds.

And this got me remembering that one of the most interesting aspects of what Jesus teaches us is that we should become like a little child – that we should have child-like faith – a faith that’s based completely on trust and doesn’t concern itself with literal truths. A faith that is based on metaphor and the symbolism of stories.

As soon as we walked out of church – after we watched the procession of girls in white dresses walk along the aisle and emerge into the sunshine – I looked over at Philomena and knew exactly what was on her mind.

– “Mami–when can I have my first communion?”

– “…”

And why shouldn’t she be allowed to walk down the Catholic path if she feels inspired to do so? And why shouldn’t I as her parent learn from her unique spiritual journey? Surely, a spiritual journey doesn’t have to be a linear path in one direction, right? Perhaps our children can embark on multiple spiritual paths simultaneously and/or at different periods of their lives?

I just wish I knew all the stories across religions to feel spiritually connected to all of them and versed enough to re-tell them.  So I’ve gone shopping for a bunch of books by Anita Ganeri…

 

P.S. When I got home and flipped through some of Karen Armstrong’s literature on God, which I always find comforting. In one article she explains: “The conflict with science is symptomatic of a reductive idea of God in the modern West. Ironically, it was the empirical emphasis of modern science that encouraged many to regard God and religious language as fact rather than symbol, thus forcing religion into an overly rational, dogmatic, and alien literalism.”

Read more of her thoughts here and here.


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