By Tamara Hunter
Every year, in what is at once an act of hypocrisy and an ode to my childhood and the tendrils of faith which still curl around my heart, I step into the church of my youth.
The building is much the same – a modest Lego-style number, rectangular and red roofed – but inside and out, it’s been progressively prettified by a succession of female ministers.
This church, my church – I call it that even though I go only once a year – is no cathedral. But like all churches, plain or grand, it houses things far more important than any lavish embellishment. Deeply buried things. The kind which surface in the form of tears I struggle to suppress every time we get to those quiet moments after communion, when we’re back at the pew in silent reflection, the wine warming my throat and the bread still clinging to my tongue.
Is it nostalgia? Or is it faith? When I try to untangle the two, I can’t. I know it’s both, although the faith is complicated and half-submerged and not something I choose to examine frequently.
The minister has changed, yet again. She’s small, petite. Neat and a touch on the dry side. A disappointment after the warmth and booming inclusiveness of others. I eye my children nervously. Usually, the minister makes it fun.
We settle in, late, to a pew conspicuously up the front. Me and my brood, three children who’d rather be at home playing with stuff than trapped in an oppressively humid little building listening to grown-ups sing out of tune to an asthmatic organ and drone on about a baby born under a star 2000 years ago. I’ve brought them, insisted, because every year that I have done so – from the first babe in arms to this last, exuberant toddler – they’ve taken something from it in spite of themselves.
Eagerness, questions, wonder. Humour. The shared affection of a community. Peace. Pause in the chaos that is Christmas Day. And they contribute, too. A six-year-old cracking up the congregation with his frank appraisal of the nativity (“You can tell it’s not real because there’s no animal poo”); a four-year-old’s indignation at the absence of the real baby Jesus (“I thought we were coming to tell him Happy Birthday – where is he?!”); a seven-year-old’s sweet voice piping up unexpectedly as we say ‘Lord, hear our prayer’, and launch into ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’.
That’s ultimately my wish, in bringing them here. That they’ll take something from it as I did and still do, albeit intermittently. That although it may seem tedious now, at some point while they’re swinging off pews, rolling their eyes and wishing to be elsewhere, something will sink in. Gratitude. Meaning. A sense of peace. Shared faith, however privately or loosely held. Questions, some with answers, some without. A vast well into which to throw the mysteries of life, and to fish for understanding.
Connection to something bigger.