My first trip overseas was to London, where I drank in the sights and sounds, the cobbled laneways and old buildings, the galleries upon galleries, like a man who had just crawled out of the desert.
I’ll never forget that first walk in Hyde Park when, after flying through the night, in London it was late afternoon and everything looked so different that we might have landed on another planet. O brave old world! After only a few days in the city, immediately upon leaving I felt an intense desire to return. I longed just to get back there and imbibe more of that intoxicating culture. It had never occurred to me that the land of my family origin, which I had never even wished to visit, could exercise such a deep tug on my psyche. Paris left me cold but England won my heart. And so we returned the next year and toured the country from top to bottom.
It’s not difficult to go to England. But how might a grown-up return to the country of childhood? Is there not something amusing about adult theologians attempting to write a volume of reflections on the theology of the child? Are we not like so many monkeys at computer terminals? We do our best, but the telephone lines to authentic childhood have been cut, the roads flooded, the airports closed.
One need not read all 4,215 pages of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to know that the narrator’s taste of a madeleine cake dipped in tea triggers a nostalgic memory from his childhood, which in turn sets in motion the entire seven-volume novel. Here is a writer who knew that the route back to childhood is not intellectual but sensory. My own trigger was not a madeleine cake but a daughter. And not just having a daughter, but having a daughter combined with a midlife crisis. Suddenly the idea of recovering my childhood was not just interesting but a vital necessity. At thirty-five I was, essentially, a man without a childhood, the roots of my depression buried in places I could not access. As I wrote in an early short story, “People who have had no childhoods are old at forty. They have lived their lives, they can see no way forward. There is nothing left for them but to go back, back where they have never been. This prospect is terribly frightening. Imagine being frightened of becoming a child! It’s like being afraid of ice cream.”
Fear (gelatophobia?) is just one of the monsters blocking our path. Another is the practical difficulty of locating our childhood, which may as well be in the Garden of Eden. Where is it, exactly? Where did we leave it? We’re like the old woman who lost her glasses and cannot see to find them, when all the time they’re perched on top of her head.
Enter Heather, my little daughter. As she grew, each stage of her growth reminded me of certain events—and, less specifically, certain feelings—from a comparable time in my own childhood. At first these flashbacks seemed random and inscrutable, until I began to discern a consistent message in them. I was being invited to re-enter, deliberately, my own childhood through the doorway of my daughter. Indeed, if I was to learn to parent her well, it was essential that I embark on this journey, for to be a good parent is first to be a good child.
This was the insight that inspired my book The Mystery of Children. What arrogance to presume we can parent from on high, without stooping to our child’s level to accompany her on her own turf. Is this not what our Heavenly Father did for us, entering our world as a little Child? Here is the ultimate compassion: to embrace the weakness of the weak, the pain of the suffering, the littleness of the young.
How can we do this for others if we have not done it for ourselves? To embrace the weakness and littleness of our own childhood we must learn the truth about those years, enter the dark places hidden from our adult selves, confront suppressed traumas. With each foot of ground gained into this secrecy, we make way for the Holy Spirit to shine where He was never before admitted, and in this way—as little children—we enter the Kingdom of God.
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The above essay, the second of seven parts, is excerpted from An Introduction to Child Theology, edited by James M. Houston, pp 220-29.
I’ve also written on the theme of childhood and childlikeness in my book The Mystery of Children: What Our Kids Teach Us About Childlike Faith, available as a free ebook on this site, or in paper from Amazon.