Friends, this a fairly lengthy and deep revelation for me. I ask that if you start reading this, you finish it; it is a full-circle story, and there are things throughout that might make you feel uncomfortable and want to stop. Stick with me, please. It’s approximately a 7-8-minute read. First published on Easter Sunday, 4th April 2021.
I was brought up Christian. Loosely. My parents had differing views, and what won out, in the end, was that my brother and I were not baptised as children but encouraged to choose our own path. With a view that should we choose to follow the Christian faith, we could get Confirmed as young adults. But schools then all followed a particular religion, as most still do. And both my primary and high schools were Christian based.
One of my earliest memories of my relationship to this faith practice was as a very little girl attending Sunday School, sitting on the floor, legs crossed and hands in my lap. Until I raised one to ask: “But what is God?” (or something similar – you’ll forgive me for not recalling the exact words I hope – given the time-lapse). The Sunday School teacher promptly responded, and with a kind of sharpness, “you do not ask that question”. I remember the jarring feeling her answer had in my body for the curious little mind that I was. Even then, I knew there were no questions one should not be allowed to ask.
In primary school, every Friday, we had an assembly. We’d all line up in our classes, be shushed by the teachers, and then told to sit down after our headmaster had walked in. He would read us a captivating story from his black book of never-ending stories, possibly also faith-based, but what stuck with me was their call to goodness, to be kind, respectful, generous children. And we’d pray. And sing – I think. Those assemblies, whatever they were in reality versus my recollection of them, left me feeling good. They created a horizon of goodness and made me feel it was possible that I could live into it.
I also remember kneeling at my bed on difficult days and praying to God for help. Crying into my clasped hands at whatever childhood misery had befallen me – being called fat by a horrible boy on the school bus or having done something nasty to my brother that made me feel so, so bad. I don’t remember getting answers, or if those little calls for help came back to me in any form, certainly they didn’t in any way I can recall today, but I also know that memory is an unreliable thing, and the mysteries of the universe are beyond our full comprehension. We didn’t attend church; I’m not even sure there were regular church services in Mhlume, where I grew up, a tiny little sugar cane village in Swaziland (now Eswatini). We’d go to the dam instead quite often on good-weather Sundays – and for me then, that was a whole lot better than any church service could offer: nature. Sun, swimming, skiing, jumping off the dam wall and swimming as fast as possible back to shore in case there was a crocodile nearby. The best kind of fun!
In high school, we had chapel twice a week, I think on a Thursday morning and then on Sunday for the boarding school girls – which I was. We had the most wonderful Chaplain. He had the biggest smile and the gentlest, kindest heart tucked behind his grey and white clerical collar. And he went to great efforts to make his sermons interesting for us girls. Once, he brought a basketball into the chapel – a prop for his teaching. I don’t recall the teaching, but I do recall the laughter, and togetherness and grace we felt in that chapel. And the songs, which we’d often take with us from the chapel all the way up the hill back into the boarding establishment and into the day.
I also attended an outside Youth Group, which met weekly, I think, on a Friday night—these evenings turned into mild delinquency (youthful exploration and a good jol – I’d call it now) and an opportunity to meet boys. But I still loved the teachings and the singing. I eventually decided on Confirmation, I think after a particularly powerful school trip at the Lábri Outdoor Centre, which unlocked some of my personal struggles in the world and a Christian counsellor, and my school friends were there to catch them. So, I “handed myself over to God”.
I remember a particularly peaceful time after that. My heart had been powerfully turned towards generosity and selflessness, and I’d found a container into which I could offload my worries (which were no worse than most, but there nonetheless). The time between this and my disillusionment with Christianity is blurry and can’t be linked to any one time or place. My thinking mind started to question, question, question everything like both my parents had always encouraged me to do. My fascination with psychology started taking shape (I went on to study it), and back then, psychology was seen as a deviation from the kind Christianity that I had become accustomed to. A devil’s study. Possibly because it made people reflect on their own beliefs, and people started to realise they didn’t fully agree with everything religion preached. At university, I had gay friends who I loved dearly. How could I follow something that declared they were not acceptable? I could not. What I’d previously experienced as unconditional love was now conditional. I also studied religious studies at university and discovered Buddhism and realised that all faiths at their purest essence are attempts to move people towards goodness. Towards love. How could one be more important than the other when we were so often born into them, choiceless?
My spiritual journey since then has been one of exploration and trying on to see what fits; less religion, and more philosophy and practice. For many of those years, Christianity was one place I refused to revisit. It had failed me and people I’d loved, and so it became an outcast in my world. And I’m ashamed to say, a source of mockery as well. Knowing what I know now of the human mind, I can forgive myself this. We often mock what has damaged us as a way to escape the hurt of it. Christianity had lured me in with its promise of a benevolent world, an all-loving God, and then broke that promise by not loving all after all. And with age, demonstrating to me a world that is not only not benevolent, but cruel beyond measure.
It had also contributed to a global belief that man is above woman, and worse, “man” (denoting humanity but crudely excluding the feminine) is above nature, a cause which I was born to defend: the rights of nature. It preached that Jesus was THE Holy Man. To me, Jesus was A Holy Man, one of many men and women who have brought grace into the world in infinite proportions. [I want to point out here that I fully acknowledge that many branches of Christianity and individual churches have since shifted from these original beliefs. I honour them for their courage and foresight, but this was my reality at the time, so I am naming it for what it was then].
And so, for many years, there was this vast crevasse between Christianity and me; although I still loved my Christian friends and family just the same; I respected their choice and their understanding and hoped that they respected mine.
In describing my spiritual beliefs and journey to friends over a glass of wine or coffee, I’d always lament how envious I was of Christians for the community they had access to and how much I’d missed the singing in church. Community is so important for our wellbeing, and I’d lost that in my move from university to the working world with no system to bring me into large gatherings of people trying to be good and to support each other in that difficult task. Of course, I had and have that in family and friendships, but there is power in numbers and having a whole community behind you in your struggles and a weekly ritual of it is a blessing for sure. And the singing – oh how I missed that chorus of song. There is something inexplicable about how music gets into your bones; the sound pierces through your skin, plants a seed of feeling that grows into a giant redwood inside you. And when it’s singing of being loved unconditionally and all-supported, it makes you believe that everything is going to be okay and that you’re okay, for all your failings and imperfections.
Today, I feel I have come full circle on my journey with Christianity through music. I have a collection of traditional and modern Christian songs I listen to regularly, and when the singers sing of “In Christ alone” or “Him”, I just expand it out into ALL in my heart and mind. The value of monotheism, like polytheism or pantheism, is metaphoric, and as the mystics point out, the metaphors shift as our understanding grows; I don’t think literal interpretation of metaphor was ever the intention of the wise. I do believe (perhaps metaphorically) that there is a benevolent force in the universe, and these songs have brought me back to benevolence at a time when the world is so utterly filled with fear, cruelty, and despair. Along with all the suffering, of which there is much, there is also love. And we can be generators of it.
All the stories, sermons, and songs of my childhood and youth spoke of this love. Together with regular loving-kindness meditations and many other rituals and practices and communities I have in my life now, these memories and this music have taken a beautiful hold of my bones, body and heart.
To my Christian friends, I celebrate with you on this your special Sunday. And I thank you for the love you bring into the world. As I do my Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Agnostic and spiritual-or-not friends. My connection to and support for any practice or religion - and an individual’s interpretation of its metaphorical storytelling - begins and ends with its ability to bring unconditional love into the world. That’s all that matters in the end, I believe. That we leave this world having put as much love into it as we are able, and our call is to do and practice whatever we need to make that possible.
Here, I pay homage to how Christian music does that for me.
With thanks to my childhood friend Andrea Kirk, for giving me the extra courage I needed to write and share this piece, to Mnemosyne, the muse of memory, who took me back into my childhood, bringing up delights I’d long forgotten, and to Roz Cryer, gone four years today, but not forgotten.
This piece of writing forms part of a series inspired by a nine-month-long course I am doing, led by Judy Bekker and Kerry Sandison; Dancing with the 9 Muses, inspired by the book by Angeles Arrien, “The Nine Muses, A Mythological Path to Creativity.” This piece born of Euterpe, Muse of Music.
Photo: Hands holding heart, ceramic artwork by Roz Cryer
ArtSpace, Durban, South Africa
25th September 2012