Children Wrestling with Faith & Doubt

Eastman Johnson, "Child at Prayer"

Eastman Johnson, “Child at Prayer” (1870)

Spiritual Sunday

My faculty reading group recently discussed a fine Alice Munro short story about a girl experimenting with religious belief. “Age of Faith” captures, in a profound way, how sensitive and intelligent children may turn to religion in an attempt to make sense of the world.

The story is both comic and heart wrenching. The narrator, Del, lives in the small Canadian town of Jubilee, which has five churches: the United Church, which has absorbed “all the former Methodists and Congregationalists and a good chunk of Presbyterians”; the Catholic Church, whose members “seemed bizarre and secretive as Hindus, with their idols and confessions and black spots on Ash Wednesday”; the Baptists, whose hymns “were loud, rollicking, and optimistic, and in spite of the austerity of their lives their religion had more vulgar cheerfulness about it than anybody’s else’s”; the leftover Presbyterians, “people who had refused to become United” and who were “mostly elderly, and campaigned against hockey practice on Sundays, and sang psalms”; and the Anglicans, who in the eyes of the narrator are not as interesting as the Catholics or the Baptists and not as stubborn as the Presbyterians, but “the church had a bell, the only church bell in town, and that seemed to me a lovely thing for a church to have.”

Del’s mother seems to be in a perpetual state of protest against God and the church, and when she attends services her daughter keeps expecting her to stand up and argue with the minister. Partly to rebel, Del starts going to church regularly. Many readers will identify with her mixed motives:

Why did I do this? At first, it was probably to bother my mother, though she made no outright objection to it, and to make myself interesting. I could imagine people looking at me, saying afterwards, “Do you see that little Jordan girl there, all by herself, Sunday after Sunday?” I hoped that people would be intrigued and touched by my devoutness and persistence, knowing my mother’s beliefs or nonbeliefs, as they did. Sometimes I thought of the population of Jubilee as nothing but a large audience, for me; and so, in a way it was; for every person who lived there, the rest of the town was an audience.

The following year, Del wants “to settle the question of God”:

I had been reading books about the Middle Ages; I was attracted more and more to the idea of faith. God had always been a possibility for me; now I was prey to a positive longing for Him. He was a necessity. But I wanted reassurance, proof that He actually was there. That was what I came to church for, but could not mention to anybody.

“Anybody” includes the minister. As Del explains, “I was afraid the believer might falter in defending his beliefs, or defining them, and this would be a setback for me.”

In one comic scene, Del decides to put God to the test and prays for a miracle, namely to be saved from a home economics class in which she is proving to be an inept seamstress. When the teacher finally gives up on her and exempts her, she at first believes that God has intervened. Then she generates an entirely new set of doubts:

I thought at first that what had happened was plainly miraculous, an answer to my prayer. But presently I began to wonder; suppose I hadn’t prayed, suppose it was going to happen anyway? I had no way of knowing; there was no control for my experiment. Minute by minute I turned more niggardly, ungrateful. How could I be sure? And surely too it was rather petty, rather obvious of God to concern Himself so quickly with such a trivial request? It was almost as if He were showing off. I wanted Him to move in a more mysterious way.

I haven’t begun to exhaust all of the ways that “Age of Faith” captures a complex inner life andsuggest that you track it down and read it yourself. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a version on-line, but it is to be found in Munro’s collection Lives of Girls and Women.) I’ll just mention the powerful ending where Munro kicks the story into a whole new gear. The family dog must be shot for killing sheep, and Del’s little brother, who has been watching his sister’s religious quest, suddenly become interested in the power of prayer. In response, however, Del turns into her mother, skeptical when faced with real suffering. Here’s the story’s conclusion:

I simply thought, and knew, that praying was not going to stop my father going out and getting his gun and calling, “Major! Here, Major—“ Praying would not alter that.

God would not alter it. If God was on the side of goodness and mercy and compassion, then why had he made these things so difficult to get at? Never mind saying, so they will be worth the trouble; never mind all that. Praying for an act of execution not to take place was useless simply because God was not interested in such objections; they were not His.

Could there be God not contained in the churches’ net at all, not made manageable by any spells and crosses, God real, and really in the world, and alien and unacceptable as death? Could there be God amazing, indifferent, beyond faith?

“How do you do it!” said Owen stubbornly. “Do you have to get down on your knees?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

But he had already knelt down, and clenched his hands at his sides. Then not bowing his head he screwed up his face with strong effort.

“Get up, Owen!” I said roughly. “It’s not going to do any good. It won’t work, it doesn’t work, Owen get up, be a good boy, darling.”

He swiped at me with his clenched fists, not taking time out to open his eyes. With the making of his prayer his face went through several desperate, private grimaces, each of which seemed to me a reproach and an exposure, hard to look at as skinned flesh. Seeing somebody have faith, close up, is no easier than seeing someone chop a finger off.

Do missionaries ever have these times, of astonishment and shame?

Watching Del, we gain insight into the skepticism of her mother and into our complex relationship with the divine. In children we see our own vulnerable selves and may remember when we too had an innocent faith in God before having our hopes dashed. Maybe we worry that they will be similarly disillusioned. As we collide with suffering, prayer can seem like a recklessly extravagant act, not to be indulged in by those who are hunkering down just to survive.

 

Related Post on Alice Munro: Munro’s Strategy for Emotional Survival

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