OUR FOUR-YEAR-OLD BELIEVES that every night while he sleeps, firemen come and inspect our house. They recycle all loose paper. They level all toppling towers. They untie rope and string that might slow our exit in case of a fire.
When Toby wakes in the morning, pads downstairs in pajamas, and says in outrage, “Who took my paper? Who untied my string?” I respond, “The firemen did it.” He nods, calms down, says okay. He accepts the firemen’s authority on such matters. On a class trip, Toby climbed inside the cabin of a fire truck and looked at the carefully stowed supplies. He opens a library book and traces the classic layout of a firehouse. Here, the place where they eat and sleep. There, the pole they fly down when the sirens wail. He trusts that if our house catches fire, the firemen will save him.
I shouldn’t tell lies like this. Parental shortcuts never turn out well. Once the secret is out that the firemen’s nightly sweeps are a myth, something I invented, he’s more likely to copy my act of treachery. But this isn’t what bothers me most.
In our solemn conversations about the firemen, in our statements of unconditional loyalty and trust, I realize that maybe instead of the moral authority of God in our household, I have given Toby the firemen. Brave and noble, yes, but a shabby substitute for the Almighty. I want Toby to take responsibility for his creations and not leave them willy-nilly about the house, but more importantly I want him to have access to the deeper matters of spirit, to be able one day to take responsibility for his own soul.
When I open psychologist Robert Coles’s The Spiritual Life of Children, published in 1990, I expect to be immediately transported into a child’s crayon-like depiction of faith, to see angels with sketchy halos and wings, a God standing regal and slightly off center, bathed in the light of orange and yellow smudges. Midway through the book some children’s drawings appear, but Coles begins not with the spirituality of children, but with his own difficulty in reaching them. He limns his discomfort with children who talk about God, who hold their hands up and fold them in prayer. He listens politely but feels that these discussions are outside his purview as a psychologist. His work is elsewhere, in some other terrain of the child’s mind. And so, he devotes his first chapter not to children but instead to Freud, that pinched face, the father of psychology. In doing so, Coles opens up the possibility that psychoanalysis and religion might sometimes overlap, might share company in his young subjects’ minds, no matter what Freud said.
Why do I struggle to pray with Toby?
The last time I consistently attended mass at a Catholic church, I was in graduate school. In my courses I studied creative writing and early American literature, winding my way back and forth from past to present. In my college-town apartment, I read of the Puritan way of worshipping, of the sacred and somewhat restrained fires they burned. I studied the colonists’ religious explanations for what they saw in the rivers and streams, forests and fields. I paused over descriptions of the burial practices of Native Americans, whose traditions were altered by the work of missionaries who spoke of sin and salvation. I read of a Pequot girl buried with a medicine bundle containing a bear’s paw and a page torn from the Bible with these words: “O sing unto the Lord a new song, for he hath done marvelous things.”
But even with that richness, when I attended Catholic services, I couldn’t bring myself to take communion or confess my sins. I went like a researcher into a church in a mill town a few miles from where I lived. I looked at the men wearing football sweatshirts if it was a game day, the children kicking the pew in front of them in boredom, an echo of my own childhood during long masses when I sometimes sat on the floor turning the pages of a book and eating Cheerios. These people, as I imagined them, entered the short stories I wrote, but I didn’t actually know them.
I could find beauty in the rituals of Catholicism, but the teachings, the doctrines, the vocabulary, and the core of the Christian faith didn’t permeate my soul. And when people talked to me or smiled at me at church, a part of me wanted to shrink away, to avoid the handshake or blessing. I felt unworthy of such welcome. I didn’t want to be known. And now I find myself pondering what that desire, that need for such privacy has to do with my son or the firemen who come nightly through our house to save us all.
One of the crevices in childhood faith: When I was in middle school, my parents sued the Catholic priest who had sexually abused my father when he was a boy. At a time when I began to wonder about my own body’s mysteries and secrets, they told me the barest of details about what had happened to my father’s childhood. The altar boys at our church, who followed the priest from the sacristy to the altar carrying the processional candles, who stood beside him holding offerings, who performed the sacred duties of the church with their scuffed brown shoes and loose robes, must have looked something like my father had, and they were about my age, too.
But still my parents ushered me weekly through the doors of the neighborhood church. Even in their sadness and pain, they offered me the repetitions of the liturgical year, the lyricism of grace, forgiveness, and redemption. “For I was lost, and then was found.” “Heaven and earth, amen.”
Sometimes I recall the stories my parents used to tell when they gathered with my aunts and uncles and didn’t think I was listening—stories of nuns and priests, teachers and mentors, field trips and classes, so much Latin and ecclesiastical celebration. No matter what they talked about, they always seemed to come back to the religion of their childhood and adolescence, and then adulthood, for Christianity was so tightly woven through their daily lives. Rosaries, ashes, saints. The sacraments. Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae.
My public school education, my additive catechism classes, did not seem so rich or memorable. What was I to do except persist in my poetry and dreams, my quiet supplications for things to be easier at home, for me to have the strength to bear it?
I go to Coles’s book now not because I want advice on how to be a better parent, but because I want a window into his subject—the spiritual life of children, especially those who were children when I was a child. I want to go back to who I was at age eight, to get a sense of that diligent, spiritual girl, who one teacher once described in a report card as “overly conscientious,” in a way that suggested she hoped I would just relax. A dance teacher of mine used to call out to me, “Hey, where’s the fire?” as I sped through my steps, not slowing my pace to the music. I read Coles because I wonder—some part of me wonders—if I have rushed through my pirouettes exactly so that I might not see all the beckoning invitations to craft for myself a spiritual life.
In Coles, I read again and again how our connection with God is influenced a great deal by our relationships with our parents, those first gods. But what happens when you turn away from a parent? My parents separated when I was a junior in high school. For a time, I met with my father, shared meals with him, watched movies, but at a certain point, I stopped seeing him. Perhaps it is too easy to link my break with my father to my break with Catholicism. I was leery of the reminders of our church, the prayers, the sermons, the services, the readings and hymns; the relentless emphasis on forgiveness resonated too intensely. I didn’t know how to pray my way through this—through adolescence, its tumults, through my father, through all the things I knew and didn’t know. I didn’t know how to give over, to allow the treatises of religion to soothe me.
Now every Sunday my husband and I take our son to the Unitarian Universalist Church in our neighborhood. We share a pew with Buddhists and Jews and Catholics and Presbyterians, people who sometimes worship at other churches and temples at different times and days. In the stained glass of our church, built in 1897, I see Jesus standing upon the waves. A blue sky ripples with clouds. A wash of light at the front of the church sends a golden splash through some interlaced vines. In another window, a loose circle of angels whisper to each other; one angel faces the congregation, as if looking right at me. Below her a banner ripples with a proverb, “They that seek me early shall find me.”
After a few opening songs and the lighting of the chalice, the minister usually calls the children to the front of the church, where they sit with crossed legs on the carpet and listen to a miniature sermon. Then, as the children make their ceremonial exit to their Montessori-inspired religious education classes, the congregation sings “Go Now in Peace” or “Shabbat Shalom.” One child carries a lit taper set in sand in a mason jar to light a chalice in each of the classrooms downstairs.
My son’s teachers in “Spirit Play” encourage love and kindness, wonder at the natural world, and a sense of connection with humanity. Toby brings home paint splashed on a large empty sheet of paper: the creation of the earth? Is that a cross? A peace sign? A circle? The crossed rings of infinity? Or just splashes and drips? I must study his work and ask more questions, not just offer pat praise. I learn from Coles that when we ask questions about faith, children will provide answers that startle and provoke, and often ask questions of their own. Children want to be part of this process of discovering faith. And they will use what they have—this biblical story, that hymn, that stained-glass representation of Jesus—to connect God to themselves.
Often when I leave our church, I dwell on what was missing. At this church, we stand and sit but do not kneel. We do not bend our heads in supplication or even fold our hands in prayer. We enter the “spirit of meditation,” candles flicker—signs of our “joys and sorrows”—but this religion seems softer, less dramatic than the worship of my youth. There is no talk of sin, nor of salvation. Yet I may need the threat of damnation in order to appreciate the love offered me, the forgiveness, should I only bend, open, and yield through prayer.
Do I want my child to bow his head, to ask forgiveness, even when he is unsure why? Do I want him to seek salvation in a weekly rehearsal of death?
Yes, I think, and my answer surprises me.
One of the Puritan poets I read so many years ago was Anne Bradstreet, a mother of eight. Her house in North Andover, Massachusetts, burned down, and she wrote on loose paper “Verses upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666.” In rhyming couplets she frames the fire as an opportunity to know the heavenly promise of the Lord. I imagine her at the time of the fire, at the age of fifty-four, in New England, still a new world for her. And in her house, the wooden boards and planks, books and candles and chairs are her bulwarks against the wilderness, the familiar pieces upon which she shaped a life for herself and her family. I imagine that smoke-filled home, and how she escapes with her family to the open sky, the stars, the moon; the air on their bodies surprisingly cold after being inside an inferno.
When I return to her poem now, I expect to see her children. Her youngest would have been around twelve when the house burned. But her children don’t appear in the poem. When Bradstreet writes of the fire, she writes of her faith. This poem is not about them, their bodies or souls, but her own.
And so I, too, must begin with myself. My own doubts and fears and fires. Bradstreet describes waking to the flames: “I, starting up, the light did spy, / And to my God my heart did cry.” Her response, instinctual, immediate. Fleeing her house, she asks God “To straighten me in my Distress / And not to leave me succourless.” The fire consumes her house; all her “pleasant things in ashes lie.” But not her prayers. “And when I could no longer look, / I blest His name that gave and took.” Do I want prayers like Bradstreet’s? I want psalms like songs I can sing till I know them by heart.
My father died three years ago. We lived too far away to go to the funeral. On the day he was cremated, I took my son to toddler story time at the library. I went to eyeglass repair shops, trying to get someone to fix the glasses my son had broken. I wore sunglasses inside. Something I kept explaining to people as if it were the only thing on my mind.
A few months after my father’s death, there was a solar eclipse. With a toddler, I couldn’t find a way to really see it, and so that day, on the stairs of my split-level house, through the windows in the kitchen, I both looked and did not look. Aware of a transformation, an unusual transfiguration in the sky, even when all I saw was earthly, a rushing of leaves. The air turned cold around my body. While Toby slept, I was completely alone, and yet I wasn’t.
My way of grieving my father’s death was like that day I spent thinking of but not seeing the solar eclipse. Aware of his absence but also his presence. The moon passed in front of the sun like a coin placed upon an eye. While my child slept oblivious to the current of clouds, the monumental sweep from light to dark to light again, I did chores and prayed, everything afire, everything aflame.
Featured image: “Fire” by Travis Bara.
Rachel Sturges is working on a collection of essays called Backyard Studies. Her writing has appeared in Commonweal, Terrain.org, Literary Mama, and Earth Island Journal. She lives in Canton, New York.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.