My memories go back before I was two years old, and I do not remember a time when I did not know the word ‘God.’ I believe I learned this name simply as I learned the words Mama and Dada, while my mother prayed.
Prayer was a constant part of our daily life as a family. We prayed at meals, before setting out on the daily round, at dinner-time devotions and before bed. Prayer was the rhythm of our lives. Perhaps this is why I, to the chapel born, am nonetheless attracted to liturgy and the prayers of the daily office. The rhythm of prayer.
I was the much desired first child of parents who had been childless for a biblical seven years. Before my conception, I was prayed for. My mother’s pain and yearning was evident in pictures taken with her multitude of nieces and nephews. Coming from a large family, she was the only one of ten to struggle with infertility. Thirty years later, I would pray the same prayers and feel the same shame, undiminished since the days of Hannah. It is no different now. While couples may decide to remain childless and take steps to insure this, those who are not childless by choice feel that they have been denied a blessing, the fulfillment of a very human expectation and an inescapable biological urge.
My mother had many false intimations of pregnancy during those seven years. Yet, in the January before my birth, she was given an assurance from God. Before she had missed a period, she knew that she was pregnant. She felt this with unswerving conviction, but my father, Zechariah-like, disbelieved. He was not rendered speechless, but believed only when the pregnancy had progressed beyond all doubt. Unlike my mother who had a simple and unquestioning faith, my father's lifelong position was: “I’ll believe it when I see it."
At birth, I was considered to be a child of blessing. In the line of Isaac, Joseph, Samuel and John the Baptist, I was set apart for God. In the second half of the twentieth century, the fact that this particular child of blessing was a girl was tolerated. I wonder, now, about those female children of blessing whose names were excluded from scripture by patriarchy. This was not a thought which troubled many minds at that time.
Quite early I intuited that to be an answer to anyone’s prayers exacted a weight of goodness, and one which I might not always be willing to pay. One of my mother’s sisters took one look at me and pronounced, “She’s too good to live.”
Beware what you intone over the cradles of infants. They may be listening.
What could my aunt have meant? And why would she have uttered these words? Mystery. My life has been a struggle to achieve some rapprochement between being good and actually living . A major breakthrough has come in later life as I have accepted that being good doesn't demand perfection so much as authenticity. This, I have discovered, is living.
From the beginning, the burden of sanctity was heavy. No one intended this. Least of all my parents. This legacy was a simple consequence of the context of my birth. When parents take scripture more or less literally, children also believe. The words of scripture were sonorous: "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you." That was it. The primary, elemental attachment to God. It was inescapable.
When, in due course, I was dedicated in the manner of our denomination this primary connectedness was further strengthened. These were the words spoken over me:
In the dedication of this child you now declare your willingness for the Lord to take possession of her, and you wish that she shall always and only do His will. You must be willing that she should spend all her life for God, wherever He may choose to send her, and not withhold her at any time from such hardship, suffering, want or sacrifice as true devotion to the service of Christ and The Salvation Army may entail.
You must, as far as you can, keep from her all intoxicating drink, tobacco, finery, wealth, hurtful reading, worldly acquaintance, and every influence likely to injure her either in soul or body; you must let her see in you an example of what a faithful Salvation Army Soldier should be, giving all the time, strength, ability and
money possible to help on the Salvation War.
(Salvation Army Ceremonies, 1947, p. 15)
Be careful what you speak over a sleeping child.
So, I was a desired child, loved, cosseted by parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and older cousins. Beloved. But being a child of blessing did have this dark side. In my family, at least, being a child of blessing meant being a child of self denial. Suffering. Want. Sacrifice.
I slept through the dedication service oblivious. My huge extended family witnessed my parents' declaration. They rejoiced that my mother's prayer had been answered. Throughout childhood, I, too, would watch other parents willingly pledge their children to a Christian life defined more by hardship than grace. There was, for me, a tough stoicism about this take on the godly life. The words were not so much in theological error as seriously devoid of joy. Vaguely romantic dreams of dying for the cause of Christ filled my head. Was this how one pleased God? And I was deeply aware that, should God call, my parents would deem it a high honour to see me in God’s service. Was entering ministry the best way to please my parents?
How complicated things are when we are young. How inscrutable the ways of God at any time, at any age. That I would eventually come to experience God on my own terms was nearly, though not quite, inevitable. If we can rebel against attachments within the family, then certainly we can reject our Divine attachment. Free will is a given.
This is the context into which I was born. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that I had a highly developed sense of right and wrong and a tender conscience. Nor is it surprising that I would have a personal encounter with God at a very young age. My mother recorded in her diary for October 5, 1953, "Connie gave her heart to the Lord." I was six years and one day old. But I knew, even as she wrote, that what I had experienced could not be encompassed by these traditional words. These were her words, her understanding, her interpretation of my experience.
What I experienced was other. Bright Light of Knowing. Radiant Comfort. Divine Presence. Eternal Truth. Transcendent Compassion. Oneness. From the other side of my life, it seems not so much that I gave my heart to the Lord, but that the Lord gave his heart to me. From this awareness, neither my failures and doubts, nor the cynicism of a liberal arts education have ever been able to shake me.