Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Religion: Through the Eyes of a Child

            What does a four year old really comprehend about religion? God is abstract, an unseen being to whom our elders encourage us to pray. Faith, they inform us, means trusting in his existence without proof. But four year olds need things to be concrete – they need to see, touch and feel for something to be real. In my son’s room, statues of Buddha, Ganesh and Jesus stand guard beside his bed. When his friends visit, he explains, “They protect me when I sleep.” He speaks to each of the deities, carrying on conversations with them before bed. He is familiar with their histories and has brought each statue into school for show and tell. Enthusiastically, he spoke about how Ganesh’s father, in fit of passion, chopped his head off; how to appease his brokenhearted consort, he resurrected Ganesh with an elephant’s head. Studiously, my son informed his class that Buddha spent his life fasting and meditating; he preached compassion and non-violence as the cornerstones to one’s life. And finally, he explained to his class that Jesus was born in manger and that he had two fathers – Joseph and God; when he grew up he would die, but not really, because he is alive in heaven. Innocently, my son confuses theologies and asks if Jesus and Ganesh are friends in heaven. He thinks Jesus is real, he knows Buddha existed and he loves that Ganesh looks more like an animal than a human, but this doesn’t mean that he has internalized any of it or that he honestly believes in God the same way an adult might. 

            Eleven months out of the year he is Buddhist because I’m teaching him to meditate, Hindu because we attended a religious festival and Christian because he goes to church. But come December, he emphatically declares himself to be a Christian. His reasons some might condemn or label as being less than pure, but remember he is only four. In December, for many Christian children, being Christian means believing in Santa. And unlike God, or the statues in his room, Santa is real. Go to any mall in America and children can see, feel, touch and speak with Santa. There are apps for phones so that Santa can speak directly to children. And best of all, Santa’s existence is confirmed annually by the pile of presents he places under the Christmas tree.  Though children never catch a of glimpse of him coming down their chimneys, the gifts are distinct proof that the man in the red suit exists.

            As adults, we are wiser. We know that Santa doesn’t exist, that he is just a myth meant to entertain children. But if you think about it, one could argue that he is a metaphor for God, a stepping stone for children to comprehend or even forge a more personal relationship with God. Many Christmas traditions have counterparts in religious worship. Prayers, for many people, are synonymous with petitions to God to have their dreams and desires fulfilled. Dear God, please let my grandmother live, please let me pass this test so I can earn my degree, please let me have the child I so desperately want, please let me find a job, any job. This form of prayer is strikingly similar to letters that children address to the North Pole, requests for toys and games that will make them happy. Dear Santa, please bring me Star Wars Legos, please bring me the book about Beowulf, please bring me a toy gun, please bring me a stuffed animal.  If you are good, if you do as you are asked, if you live a good moral life God will reward you by granting your wishes and permitting you to spend an eternity with him in heaven. Children who behave get presents from Santa. Adults who sin or lead reprehensible lives are condemned to hell. Children who cry, pout and misbehave find coal in their stockings. In sort, be a good adult and God will reward you; be a good child and Santa will reward you. Be bad and you will be punished. 

            But for now, Christmas is over and my son has moved on to obsessing about his birthday. He no longer asks me daily – and I Christian?  For the immediate reward of believing in Christ has been removed. But his interest in religion - thanks to his uncle – hasn’t dwindled. His uncle, knowing of his interest in deities gave him a statue of Hanuman – the Hindu Monkey God - for Christmas along with a children’s version of the Ramayana – one of the two great Hindu Epics. The story tells of Rama’s journey of which Hanuman is a central character. Before bed, I have been reading him the story, a few pages at a time. Tonight, when we encountered Lord Shiva in the story, my son’s eyes grew wide as he excitedly interrupted my reading. “That’s Ganesh’s father,” he exclaimed. 

            “Yes, he is.” I answered, and watched as his face suddenly became pensive.
            “Is Ganesh real?” He asked. “Does he really exist?”
            “Ganesh is a myth,” I tried to explain. “But Hindu people believe he is real, just like Christians believe that Jesus is their savior.”
            “And he lives in heaven.”
            “Yes, but it’s a different heaven.”
            “No, there is only one heaven,” he announced definitively. “And I believe he is real, so I’m Hindu.”
            “I thought you were Christian.” After all Christmas only just ended.
            “I am Christian, but I’m Hindu too. I like all the gods so I’m Christian and Hindu and what is Buddha?”
            “Yes, Buddhist. I’m Buddhist too.”
            And all I could do was smile. Yes, he is only four, but what, I wondered, would the world be like if we all embraced religion in a similar fashion?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas in Manhattan

            Four years ago, when my son was eleven months old, my parents proposed taking him into Manhattan to see the big tree at Rockefeller Center. Over the years, it has become a family tradition. That first December, getting ready to celebrate his first Christmas, my son did not understand the hustle and bustle, all the excitement that enveloped us as we walked through the big city. Eyes opened wide, his mind spun in overdrive trying to process the experience. He had just started to walk, but his steps were unsteady, not yet ready to compete with the racing crushing crowds that descend upon the city during the holidays.  Mom pushed him through the streets in his stroller. When we reached our destinations, I lifted him up, carrying him in my arms so that he could more easily see and explore the sights.  He stared at the tree, looked in awe at the statues in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and when stopped for lunch he drank his bottle, ate some pureed fruit and nibbled on some bread.  Exhausted, after a long exhilarating day, the subway rocked him to sleep in a matter of minutes and he looked like a little angel lying sweetly in his stroller.
            Every year the core of our adventure remains the same. We rise up out of the subway to encounter the tree looming largely over the ice skating rink and then we head over to St. Pat’s where my son spends a small fortune lighting candles to nearly every saint in the church. My mother, prepared for his endless requests, brings a wad of singles – two dollars per candle – so that he will not be disappointed. This year, he especially had to light a candle to every member of the Holy Family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph. He also wanted to light one for the Christmas angel who brings him a piece of chocolate every night during Advent – a small thank you for the sugary treat. My mother ensured that he lit a candle to St. Anthony, the patron saint of finding things, and she instructed me to offer up a prayer that he would help me find a job. After five years, the plea growing more desperate each time, the job still eludes me. As we were exiting the cathedral this time, my mom reached into her pocketbook for two final dollars, guiding my son over to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. Yes, it seems I, or rather my inability to find employment has been categorized as a lost cause. My son lit the candle, and I wondered if would help – was St. Jude really listening.
            One year, when my son was old enough for us to ditch the stroller, but still light enough for me to carry a mile or more, my parents took us to the Central Park Zoo. We walked uptown from Rockefeller Center, my son clinging to my neck the entire way.  He loves animals, so seeing where we ended up zapped him with a jolt of energy. He dove out of my arms and eagerly bounced around the zoo to see all the animals.  We made a special stop at the penguin house to visit Tango, the baby penguin in one of his then favorite bedtime stories – And Tango Makes Three.
            This year, Legos are my son’s favorite toy. He has specifically asked Santa for Star Wars Legos and Superhero Legos. In prior years we always popped into the Lego Store at Rockefeller Center for something to do, a brief respite from the cold. Last weekend, however, it was a near religious experience for my son. The moment we stepped through the door, his eyes gleamed with pleasure, his face radiant with excitement. With awe he studied the Lego version of Atlas hold up the world, and immediately wanted to possess everything in the store. In earlier years, my parents bought him a duplo set to place under the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve – a gift from Santa to remind them all of their trip into the city. This year, they maintained the tradition, asking my son to pick out the Lego set he wanted most. He didn’t hesitate, heading straight to the Star Wars section. While my dad distracted him, my mom went to pay. This year, however, they veered from tradition. Knowing how much pleasure he gets out of putting the Lego sets together, how much he enjoys playing with them afterwards, they bought him a second set, one he could take home as a souvenir, a memento of the afternoon
            Even though my son gave up napping a year and a half ago, the rhythmic rocking of the subway, coupled with the afternoon’s excitement, lulled him to sleep as it did nearly every other year. Groggy, he cuddled up on my lap and snuggled his head against my shoulder. When we got to the car, Dad announced a detour. Instead of going home, he took us to Eddie’s Sweet Shoppe to cap off the day with ice cream. Hearing that magical word, all sleepiness drained away from my little man.  Legos and a chocolate sundae – what more could a little guy want?