Sunday School

It was, mostly, in the hall of the Presbyterian church at the end of our block, diagonally across from the headmaster’s house on the corner of the primary school. There, while the parents, notably excepting ours, or, I should say, excepting our mother, worshipped, the children were instructed in the basic tenets of the faith and in the virtues, until the day they could join the adult congregation, to be exposed to the more risqué passages of the Bible and dark talk of temptations and sin which would run off the steep flanks of their incomprehension, along the erratic, parabolic gradient from innocence to experience that ran through the listeners, to collect on the eroded terrain of others’ experience in pools of remorse and baptismal grace. I say our mother, because it was as though our father spoke a foreign language with no correlates to “church” or “religion” and could not comprehend this Sunday morning activity, and so ignored it. At our mother’s insistence we went, and grumbled at going. There was, despite this, much that I enjoyed about it. There was much that, to my later surprise, I remembered.

Here, at the hands of a small group of volunteers such as maintain so much of the social life of communities, we learned the Creed, worked our way through the graded teaching materials provided by some sedulous teaching apostolate, learned and sang our hymns. The Apostles’ Creed was problematical. We were enjoined to recite, I believe in the Holy Ghost, but my conception of ghosts was formed by the comic strip Casper, and not, to my great good fortune, Industrial Light and Magic; the holy Catholic Church, but I knew from my mother what an unspeakably awful thing the Catholic Church was, and my distress and suspicion were only slightly mollified by being assured that catholic here referred to universal, whatever that meant.

The hymns we learned to sing included standards like Onward Christian Soldiers, which I thought I comprehended, and Rock of Ages, which I did not. Much metaphor escaped me at that age —and subsequently— and the image of crouching in a crevice in a rock left me nonplussed. Why would you want to do such a thing? I cannot remember learning Amazing Grace there, although it beggars belief that we would not have sung it.

Then there were the hymns for children. Jesus wants me for a sunbeam I remember, and remember finding it childish, even then, though somehow that did not inhibit my singing. Jesus loves me, though, was always a pleasure without let or snag; a smooth, simple, direct, tuneful elevator of the spirit. I sang it with a delight very like to joy.

Jesus loves me,
This I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong,
They are weak,
But He is strong.

Yes, Jesus loves me;
Yes, Jesus loves me;
Yes, Jesus loves me,
The Bible tells me so.

There is a story widely told with slight variations that I wish to believe is true. Karl Barth visited the US in 1962, towards the end of his life. Asked to summarise his most important theological insight, Barth replied, Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. All unbeknownst to me, the logic of the Faith, parcelled into these hymns, and wrapped in the hooks of their melody and rhyme like so many velcro burrs, was being scattered in my memory.

In a time soon enough, and in another place, a school-friend and I took to visiting churches in my small orbit in order to argue the toss with bemused suburban pastors. It was a very daring and almost adult thing to do. During Mum’s long illness, I experienced a revival of, if not faith, at least a belief in God, before her death threw me into confusion. In all the emotional turmoil that followed, it never occurred to me to seek solace in church. The closest church was a Salvation Army meeting hall, and I had never settled in there.

Three decades later, through agnosticism, atheism, and agnosticism again, I came back to belief. On a suggestion of Dad’s, I went to find out about Catholicism. It should have been a long way from the Sunday School, but I found that the things I had learned there had embedded a surprisingly complete theological perspective in me; one which informed all of my study of Catholicism—to my detriment, some would say. I haven’t found it so, then or now. I’m grateful to all of those, now anonymous, labourers in the vineyard.

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