Too often, religion is presented as if it were merely an idea, a mental construct or a doctrine to receive our assent or rejection.
For children, however, even trivial or physical aspects of faith become quite formative and remain with them throughout their lives. Here are some that linger with me and sometimes bubble into clear consciousness.
Socialized into Christianity
As I was socialized into Christian faith in a German, traditional, pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic environment during the 1950s, mundane, even physical experiences conveyed to my child’s mind social and theological distinctions.
At the time, the language of the liturgy was not my own but Latin, intended to be the universal language of worship, so that much of what was said in prayers remained incomprehensible to me, even when I became an altar boy and had to memorize the Latin prayers.
Yet the religious devotion and awe arising from what took place at the altar were made even more intense by the incomprehensible mystery of faith, climaxing in the Hoc est enim corpus meum (“for this is my body”) spoken by the priest in transforming the Eucharistic elements during the mass.
Scholars of religion such as Friedrich Heiler and Gustav Mensching have taught us that the sacredness of liturgical action is sometimes enhanced by an idiom that differs from the language ordinarily spoken, although Protestants and post-Vatican II Roman Catholics have recognized the overriding importance of insight, understanding and communication in worship, and have abandoned Latin as a relic of a bygone age, notwithstanding the reverence and nostalgia with which some Roman Catholics continue to cling to the ancient liturgy.
In the church of my childhood, physical and social distinctions were already evident in the way the congregation was divided by age and gender.
Children who came to worship kneeled and sat in a special section in the front of the church and the adults in the pews behind them, largely divided by gender — females to the left and males to the right — with a few devoted couples seated in between.
Sitting in front, exposed to the ever-watchful eyes of adults behind us, forced me and others to be quite self-conscious of our deportment and distracted from the immediacy and spiritual depth we could have experienced. I find the integration of all and the family-oriented seating arrangements today much more appropriate in worship than the age and gender division I saw and felt as a child.
I felt the content of the liturgy quite physically, in particular during the reading of the Scriptures.
I was not carried away by the reading of the epistle, but quite aware of the hard benches on which I knelt or sat, since Paul’s point about the warfare between spirit and flesh in his letter to the Romans — or the language with which the writer of Hebrews attempted to convince the reader that Christ was the true high priest — were well beyond a child’s grasp.
Yet when the Gospel was read, and the whole congregation rose, I not only felt physical relief, but could follow easily the captivating narrative and understood quite well the story about the love of God and neighbour in the Good Samaritan, and the care of Jesus when he healed blind Bartimaeus or raised the young man from Nain.
Here, the literary, theological and canonical division of epistles and gospels did not have to be taught but was literally felt by the child.
Another, at first sight quite trivial, physical dimension of religion distracted me at times from the meaning of the sacramental action. I have always struggled with the physics of the thin wafer during communion.
As soon, it seemed, as the nearly weightless, unleavened host entered my mouth, gravity was suspended and the wafer attached itself instantly to my upper palate, to be pried loose discreetly with my tongue as the communion service continued, an activity that posed a serious challenge to my Eucharistic devotion.
As my Christian horizon widened and I came to appreciate Protestant worship, I found the distribution of matzos or other kinds of real bread in communion more meaningful and less distracting than the wafers that little resemble the bread actually eaten by Jesus and his disciples during the Last Supper.
On the other hand, the glass thimbles of grape juice that are often distributed during Protestant communion services, while offering hygienic advantages in our health-conscious age, diminish the gravity of the event by their miniscule size and individualize the celebration to such a degree that the symbolism of Christian unity in “the cup” may be compromised.
Religious observance was for me, as a child, not mainly theological but a bundle of experiences, some quite physical and at first sight trivial, which have had staying power and on occasion surface from the unconscious into remembrance and awareness.
Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at MUN and can be reached by email: email@example.com.