Caleb and I are in the back of a cab headed to a soccer tournament, early Saturday morning.
“Mommy? Have I ever been in a church?” he asks, apropos of precisely nothing.
I think to myself that surely he must have been in a church, at some point in his eight years on the planet. I stall: why?
“Well,” he says. “We were looking at an exhibit of chairs and we saw one of those church chairs for Christians–wow, that’s a lot of “ch” sounds–and anyway, I looked at that church chair and told Mrs. Allen that I’d never been to church.”
With the flair of a natural-born storyteller, Caleb paused and looked at me. “And then,” he continued, drawing it out, “the entire class looked at me with wide eyes and said what? you’ve never been to a church?”
I am triumphant: Notre Dame! We went to Notre Dame when we were in Paris!
Caleb shakes his head, disappointed. “That’s not what I mean. We were just looking at things, so it wasn’t really church.”
Kid’s got a point. We were tourists, not worshippers, but his question has sent me into a parental tizzy of “shoulds:” I should be taking the kids to church, I should be reading to them from the various holy books, I should be better about explaining the principles of world religions…
“Actually, mommy, do we know other people who don’t pray?”
Add that to the “should” list: praying, instructions thereof.
I point out that none of his aunts, uncles, or grandparents pray, although one aunt has lately become a Buddhist, so she meditates. He snorted. “Meditating is not praying.”
For a heathen, he’s pretty clear about his spiritual definitions. “But besides, that’s all family. I mean regular people we know who don’t pray.”
True, our family is not exactly what you’d call “regular,” but luckily most of our friends are unchurched, so I rattle off some names.
I grew up going to an Episcopal Church, which I liked mostly because of the word itself, which I stretched across my tongue: e-pissssss-co-PAY-leeeeee-an. I found out many years later that we went to church because of my mother’s own “should” list: she taught Sunday School because she “thought she should,” even though she didn’t like doing it and wasn’t much convinced about the existence of god.
Now I live with my children in a country where religion is an inescapable presence, from the mosques on every corner, to the adhan that sounds across the city five times a day, to the sprawling grounds of St. Andrews Church, which is used by all manner of non-Muslim congregations. The sheer physical fact of religious practice here makes our family’s absence of religion much more noticeable than if we still lived in New York. I like to think we’re raising our children in basic humanity 101: treat others as you would be treated, be grateful and generous with what you have, look for ways to make the world a better place.
But I wondered there, in the back of that cab, if somehow my son was feeling some profound spiritual absence, some gap in his life that only rituals could fulfill.
I took the plunge and asked the question: would you like to start going to church and learning prayers?
He looked at me, shocked. “No,” he said in those slow tones that children only use when their parents are being particularly idiotic. “I mean, maybe. But only to look around. I don’t want to do any of that church stuff.”
He’s a chip off the old heathen block, that boy.