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When I Was a Child

When I was a child, the world felt safe and whole and meaningful to me. It reached out and embraced me in a comfortable, welcoming, protective way. I felt "at home in the world," to borrow from the title we use for one of our Church School curricula. I was one of the lucky ones, born a wanted child, into a gentle, loving family, bright, healthy, raised in a rural community where both people and nature were reliable and, on the whole, benevolent. I was one of the lucky few, I have since learned, although at the time I took that way of life for granted and assumed it was likewise for most children.

There are as many stories of childhood in this room as there are people. Each story should be heard—by adult peers, but also by the children who are growing up around us. Each story should be honored, both as the grounding of your individual life, and as a source of guidance as we, now responsible adults, reflect on our roles as spiritual shapers of the children of today. It is from our stories, from our lived experience, from our dreams and hurts and hopes, our endurance, that we know what we know. It is by these meanings, values, loves, that everything of worth is handed on.

We reflect today on the religious life of childhood, and I will offer three strands from the tapestry of my particular story:

  • the strand of my private spiritual experiences;
  • the strand of a strong net of home and church, supporting and rein forcing one another; and
  • the strand of the larger culture which affected the role home and church played in my life.
Of those three strands, two, I think, will carry truths shared by most of us. I did have a spiritual life as a child, as all children have spiritual lives—feelings of awe, wonder, compassion; experiences of connection, of transcendence, mystical experiences; images that held theological meanings.

The fields and forest were my playground as they have been for generations of children, and still are for a lucky few. I can remember moments of lying in a meadow, with grass and wild flowers tall above me, vast sky overhead, insects buzzing and brushing by me—moments of near dissolution into the earth, the sky , the grasses, of feeling that the boundary between me and the meadow was a permeable boundary , not clearly defmed by the layer of skin on my body, but a gentle merging of me into it, it into me. I think it is appropriate to name such moments as mystical moments, interludes of feeling a transcendent sense of oneness with something larger than myself.

Did you have such moments as a child—in meadows, on riverbanks, or beaches or mountain tops? For me they were moments of total peace and contentment. They probably didn't come often or last long, but they were potent. Perhaps for you such moments didn't occur out of doors, but rather in the contentment and safety of a particular lap in a particular rocking chair with a particular song hummed around you, or 4 before ranks of candles, or surrounded by incense, or music—organ, or choir, or orchestra.

Such childhood experiences have been researched and documented by Edward Robinson in his work The Original Vision. In interviews with adult after adult, Robinson heard women and men recalling religious, spiritual experiences from their early years, experiences which were accompanied by a profound sense of certainty , of connection, of hope and meaning, although articulation of just what that meaning was often seemed elusive.

In one of my favorite passages from his work a woman says, "1 remember sitting in my mother's lap at the age of 5, while she affectionately explained that the idea of a God was a very nice and poetic way of explaining things, but just like a fairy tale. I felt embarrassed at what seemed abysmal blindness and ignorance and felt sorry for her." [p 69]

What were such moments for you? What were your original visions? What did you know deep in your heart to be true, spiritually true? Until I read Robinson's book my memories of those "meadow moments" from my childhood had slipped from my consciousness, but hearing the stories of others brought them back to me with certainty and vividness. "...hearing the stories of others..." Listen to this poem from Shel Silverstein:

Once I spoke the language of the flowers,
Once I understood each word the caterpillar said,
Once I smiled in secret at the gossip of the starlings,
And shared a conversation with the housefly in my bed.
Once I heard and answered all the questions of the crickets,
And joined the crying of each falling, dying flake of snow,
Once I spoke the language of the flowers...
How did it go? How did it go?

We know, with childhood's certainty, we know—and then we forget. Our Unitarian Universalist faith has deep roots in the Transcendentalist movement of the early nineteenth century, a movement which affirmed that each person can have direct experiences and knowledge of the divine, of the sacred, without any mediation, without the intercession of savior or preacher. Each has the potential for immediate, personal understanding of divinity.Those Transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau, William Ellery Channing, Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, among others, had a particular philosophy of childhood which held that infants and young children were more closely connected with divinity, having just arrived from the hand of God. Children's vision, they claimed, was fuller and clearer, but that clarity faded as they grew and their minds and hearts became cluttered and confused with the things of this world. Although I would not frame my own convictions in quite this way, I believe that there is a time when we know with childhood's certainty, we know—and then we forget.

When I was a child, the church of my village was literally across the street from my home. I saw it from my living room window, played on its steps, heard its bell every Sunday morning, and freely came and went through its doors throughout the week. Its smells, its light, its people are deeply embedded within me. As in Alice Walker's poem (earlier reading), when I was three feet high, there were 'bosoms for leanin.' I love that image of strength and stability and nurture—and for me it was reality.

This was a community church, attended by almost all the churchgoing folks of the village. The social, spiritual, and business lives of those people were intertwined in an organic way which I took for granted, and now see as rare. My religious life as a child was also organic, integrated into all my living. The church was no small part of that integrated spirituality, its messages and meanings reflected and reinforced in the fields, woods and streams, and in the trustworthy care of family and of community.

It was a rich and nourishing spiritual life. The snowfalls were pristine and magical and the swamps teemed with life. The church celebrated a "wonder-filled" response to such mysteries. Of course there were hornets and snakes as well as bluebirds. There were bullies and shadows and polio and scarlet fever. There was treacherous ice on which my mother fell and for a short time lay bleeding and unconscious and for the first time I knew that my parents were not invulnerable, and that I could not be sure they would always be there for me. I was shaken, but at some deeper level felt assurance that there was a larger net of safety and care that would cradle me. This was the Universalist message of my church, but it was also the reality I experienced, and trusted.

When I was a child, there wasn't much on Sunday mornings to compete with going to church. There were no soccer games, no malls, no television programming. There was a Sunday paper, thick with comics, there were cows to be milked, and, for the moms, a Sunday dinner to prepare, but not much else laid claim on the day. Except for these minimal tasks, work came to a halt. Entertainment and recreation were largely homegrown affairs, so there was no external pull away from family and community.

It was easy to go to church. There was nothing to deter one, except sloth. It was what most people did on Sunday mornings. There was even a certain peer pressure to go to church, or at least send your children to Sunday school. It was easy to go to church. But that was then and this is now. Now, making time and place in our lives for the sacred is an uphill struggle. Religious community now is viewed as an optional kind of "add-on"' to be dabbled in when it is convenient, to put on the list of resolutions in seasons of new beginning—like intentions to diet and to keep one's desk free of clutter. It is to be fit into one's weekend, if there isn't too much else going on—if there are no house guests or sports playoffs; if the laundry and bills are caught up, and the leaves are raked and the garden is in and the ski season hasn't started yet. It is not assumed and easy. It is not, in our collective cultural consciousness, a high priority.

We are a secular culture. Whatever our personal, private convictions may be, publicly, collectively, we honor technology and human achievement. We invest in material goods, and value the dollar above all else. We may nod politely to the spiritual life, but do not really allow any room for the transcendent to be weighed seriously in our shared journey of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For any individual or family to place a valuing of the spirit, and of religious community high in their priorities they must swim upstream against a current of materialistic secularism.

Let me offer an example. Consider, if you will, the powers to which we turn for healing. We know that spiritual well-being—hope, faith, inner peace—all contribute to physical well-being. It has been well documented that people who are devout, who are clear in their faith, people who are meaningfully connected to religious communities, who are actively engaged in prayer or meditation, recover more quickly and fully from serious illnesses and injuries. We know that the surest way to health is with a blend of medical, social, and spiritual attention. We know this with scientific survey, but to this knowing we pay only lip service.

There have been many cases over the years in which parents who are Christian Scientists have been challenged for neglecting to secure medical attention for their children. Parents have been sued, penalized, vilified, even imprisoned for placing all their hopes for healing in prayer and in faith. But the reverse never, ever occurs. It simply never happens that parents who secure adequate medical attention for their children are publicly challenged or criticized for withholding from those children the healing powers of faith or prayer or religious community.

It strains the limits of our imagination to conjure up such a scenario, to imagine that parents who take their children for regular checkups, see that they are up to date on their inoculations, consult a doctor if fever persists or injury occurs, but fail to give these children a grounding in religious faith might be called to account if a child were to fall gravely or even terminally ill. Imagine a lawsuit against parents who fail to pray with or for their children, who fail to feed their spirits as well as their bodies. In the village of my childhood there was at least one doctor who would sometimes say to the minister of the tiny church, "I have done all I can for this person. Now it is up to you."

In my years as a minister, I have never had a doctor say the same to me. Such is the world in which we and our children live. In clinics and laboratories and cyberspace we have lodged our faith—and it is not sufficient. It is not easy to go to church, to make religious community a priority, yet in this secularized, pressurized world, we all—children and adults—are even more in need of sacred times and places, gathered communities of the spirits. It is not easy to live in a centered, holistic, spiritually sound way.

Extended families have often extended themselves across the continent and beyond. Neighborhoods in which doors are left unlocked.and everyone knows everyone else are nearly a figment now of nostalgia. Our time is a time of pervasive mistrust and of isolation, when we encounter mostly strangers. We and our children desperately need communities of trust, support, stability , nurture, but perversely our culture pulls us away—from such community.

When I was a child I experienced these three: moments of spiritual knowing; an interconnected nurturing community of family and church; and a culture that supported the feeding of my spirit. So much has changed, yet so much remains the same. Children still feel moments of intense compassion and empathy, of heightened and delightful sensory awareness, of healing and renewal, of creativity , even of magic. This is a given of our human nature. Whether they pause to savor such moments, to name and nurture them, to call them spiritual and to evoke a response of gratitude, this is up to us. Whether they learn to be intentional in using such insights to guide their behavior is up to us.

In some ways this may be the easiest part of the challenge of nurturing children's spiritual lives, because this is within our personal control. We need to talk with our children about matters of the spirit, about God, about what it means to embody the holy within yourself. We need to tell our spiritual stories and to hear theirs, to validate and empower their experiences, their stories by our hearing, our honoring.

These may not be easy conversations because many of us have not done the work of putting our own thoughts and feelings into language, of crafting, articulating, naming that which we feel in our hearts to be true. This is a hard piece of work, but a piece that can be supported by sharing in a community such as this where such conversations are encouraged and valued. It is hard to talk with our children about matters of the spirit also because these are intimate matters. As in discussions of sexuality we may feel embarrassed, vulnerable. These are matters of great tenderness and fragility , but they are matters that become stronger and clearer as they are articulated and shared.

But the larger matters of community and culture are even harder. Over these we have less control, yet we cannot simply abdicate because what is at stake is too precious. It is the souls of children, children who have a right to feel 'at home in the world,' to have the security of bosoms to lean into, to have the support of a tradition which can offer words, images, symbols to give definition to those yearnings and bondings, those affirmations they experience with such intensity .They have a right to feel an encompassing love which births them and then holds them in a cushion of care throughout life and into death. The family is primary in providing this cushion of love, but it is not really enough. Something larger is needed—something to be there when mom slips on the ice and lies unconscious.

We must become countercultural, gathering our determination, and gathering together in community to resist the mighty forces of secularism. We must be creative in motivating and supporting families in their connections with religious community , and in shaping ways for these families to link the meanings of this community with their larger social context. In our segmented, disconnected, chaotic culture where there is so much loneliness in the midst of crowds, and so much hope and faith that is unsupported and unreflected, spiritual communities can make a profound difference in the lives of children, and in the lives of parents who will always remain the primary religious educators.

In Africa there is a tribe that counts a child's birthday from the day it first appears as a thought in the mother's mind. She sits out in the forest listening for the child's song. When it comes to her, she returns to the tribe to find the man she wants to be the child's father. She teaches him the child's song, so that as they make love, they can sing it and invite the child to join them. The mother sings the child's song to it while it is in the womb. She teaches the song to the tribal midwives so that they can sing the child's song to it when it is born. The whole village learns the child's song so that when it is hurt, it can be held and enfolded in its song. Even in death, the villager is cradled and cared for by their song.

How rich and safe our whole world might be if every child could feel so honored, so worthy, so cared for!

When I was a child—but now I am grown. I cannot simply put aside my childish things for they are a part of me forever and ever. They are within me, but I must add to these childish things, the adult responsibility for shaping the religious nurture of children of today. What a gift and a privilege that is. What a gift and a privilege is before us. Let us be intentional and collaborative in carrying forth this work.

About the Author

Jeanne Nieuwejaar

The Rev. Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar, a retired Unitarian Universalist (UU) minister and religious educator, is the author of Fluent in Faith: A Unitarian Universalist Embrace of Religious Language (Skinner House, 2012).

For more information contact worshipweb@uua.org.