Updated: Apr 22, 2022
Grown-ups often think that the process of communicating the most important truths in life must be through words, either written or spoken. The reality is that for children, even more than adults, actions speak louder than words.
One picture can indeed tell a thousand stories. The way in which adults - parents, teachers, neighbours - are seen to live their own personal lives is deeply influential. The first, and in many ways, the most enduring truth I remember learning about religion was what I recognised in a single picture.
It must have been nearing Christmas time. I remember there was a party at our church. The old well-used side building containing the public event and food preparation areas was thronged with people. Peering through any spaces I could find between the coats and skirts and trouser legs that pressed in all around me, I caught glimpses of various church dignitaries, of parents and children and ....fairies!
I was astounded. Until this moment I had found attending church a marathon effort, requiring lots of being quiet and not wriggling or wanting to use the toilet for what seemed like super-human - well, super-four-year-old human - expanses of time. Suddenly there were fairies. Suddenly the possibilities of what it meant to attend church were revolutionized.
The fairies floated through the throng in their gauzy dresses and gossamer wings passing out lollipops to the children who crowded excitedly around. Some of the rowdier boys behaved in less than saintly fashion in their determination to seize their share but I did not. Although the lollipop that I eventually emerged with was just a plain golden toffee one, I immediately recognized that it had magic properties. When I held it up to the light I saw that it was translucent, like a golden window to another world in which everything was suffused with a warm glow. Blues became a magic shade of green. Reds took on the glowing oranges of the sun.
Trancelike, I wandered around the room exploring this new world, once grey and sparse yet now transformed. And then my eyes fell on a single picture on the wall. Even without the super powers of my new lollipop vision I could see that it was beautiful.
In the centre of the picture was a figure that I knew from our books at home to be Jesus. He was seated on a rock on the side of a grassy hill, and his hair flowed loose and golden around his face, framing the kindest of blue eyes and the most tender and loving of smiles. (It would be some years before many religiously-inspired artists in my world came to recognise that Jesus was not a European Christian like themselves after all, but an Aramaic-speaking Jew, and would begin to depict Him accordingly).
Jesus’s arms reached out, drawing towards Him the throng of children who responded trustingly and eagerly to His all-embracing welcome. And the children wore the clothing of many different cultures. There were pale little blondes like myself, and a ginger-haired boy like the one who lived down the road, and brown-skinned children with ornaments hanging around their necks, and dark-haired children wearing garlands of flowers on their heads, and golden-skinned children with almond eyes, and beaming black children whose skin shone in the sunlight.
It would be several years before I could read the quotation printed along the bottom of the picture, but the words were scarcely needed; "Suffer the little children to come unto Me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven".
That was it. Just that simple. For ever after, I determined on the spot, I would search for this magic Kingdom where people of all colours and cultures and backgrounds would come together like one great family, treating one another as Jesus had taught us to. And so that is what I did.
Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, my soul privately set out on a journey that, over the years to come, would take me to many strange and unexpected places to meet many unusual and challenging people and situations. As I made my way along this journey, greater than all other journeys, often I would stumble. Many times I would both hurt and receive hurt, but in retrospect not one part of it would I have willingly missed. Eventually I would find my magic kingdom, but it wasn't the one that others had expected for me.
By the time I was five and old enough to begin primary school, I was also expected to begin Sunday School. Sunday mornings found me wriggling ineffectively, struggling to resist my mother's steely grip as she strove to make me presentable, licking fiercely at her floral handkerchief to scrub away at the breakfast jam accumulated at the corners of my mouth. All efforts to escape this humiliating treatment proved ineffective as she fussed and primped at my hair, trying to coax the vestiges of a curl into its straight plain fairness. Finally she waved me off in the care of Bruce who - stereotypical oldest sibling - was always ready to assume the role of my patient carer when called on.
Perhaps, as my mother waved us goodbye, through those devout eyes she imagined herself overseeing her only daughter's first independent steps into the safe and loving arms of Jesus. But in my five years I had already come to learn that, unlike the strong and heartfelt faith that my mother seemed to possess, my own path of spiritual growth would be a very complex and confusing one. It was a matter requiring a great deal of wariness, search and contemplation. My spiritual education thus far seemed to have raised many more questions than answers and secretly in my heart I was still pondering their implications.