When I Was a Child: The Beginnings of Faith
One of my favorite sages, author Robert Fulghum, said all he really needed to know, he learned in kindergarten. That’s true for me, too. But at the bone-deep level, I know that everything I needed to know about faith and spirituality, I learned at home. Home was not only the protective and loving abode my parents provided me, but also the home that extended beyond its door to the neighborhood where I spent the earliest years of my life.
Although both of my immigrant parents were Christians (and Presbyterians), it was my mother who saw to my religious upbringing, and she created a visual and aural environment that laid the foundation of my spiritual sensibility and taught me about God and faith.
Some of these instructional methods were homemade, such as an ingenious chart my mother rigged up, which had the alphabet printed on one side and the Lord’s Prayer on the other: a meeting of the secular and the religious. At night, in imitation of a wooden plaque over my bed bearing the image of a golden-curled little girl, whose blue eyes gazed heavenward, I knelt at my bedside with palms pressed in prayer as I recited “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” The passage that says, “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take,” always troubled me; but from it I learned the meaning of trusting in God’s protective love.
Other household iconography included a découpage of the Last Supper group, showing Jesus and the disciples at table set against a background of glorious butterfly wings (which came from already dead butterflies, I am certain), carefully placed in a wood inlay-trimmed frame, which emigrated with my mother from her native Guyana, and which graces a wall in my present home. There was also an image of Christ praying in the garden of Gethsemane, which, despite its now faded and slightly cracked surface, has given me comfort whenever my eyes fall upon it.
TV and radio programming added an additional layer to my faith lessons. There were the dramatized Bible stories (cheesy costumes and bad wigs, notwithstanding) on “Lamp Unto My Feet,” and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, whose weekly homilies provided answers to the various moral predicaments that people got themselves into. Although it was a Roman Catholic program, my parents were fans of “The Ave Maria Hour,” which was produced in cooperation with the Greymoor Friars in Garrison, New York, on Sunday mornings, airing radio plays on the life of Christ and of various saints. Unlike its television counterparts, “Ave Maria” spoke more powerfully to my imagination and acquainted me with the names of holy people from the past who had dedicated their lives to God.
With no Presbyterian congregation in our area, I attended Sunday school at the local Methodist church. There was Bible study, hymn singing, and participating in short plays of Bible stories à la Greymoor for parents and other adults. Picnics and fairs added welcome dollops of fun.
I would many years later join the Episcopal Church; but it was within the sacred confines of that modest Methodist edifice where I learned about and took part in formal worship. And it was there where I watched on many a Saturday afternoon the redoubtable Mrs. Singleton, our elderly neighbor, carefully arrange the altar flowers in readiness for the next day’s service. “Maybe one day you will arrange flowers, too,” she said to me with prophetic confidence. In my present church, I became a member of the Altar Guild. Close enough, Mrs. Singleton.
The pictures were not high art, the religious programs were low-tech, and the pages of the first Bible I received for my tenth birthday are dog-eared and foxed. But they all occupy a special place in my memory, and I look back with loving gratitude on the roles they played in forming my early faith life. When I was a child, I learned important lessons from them, and continue to do so today.