Playing With God, by Tracy Cochran

Photograph: Girls exploring rock pools - Cameron Bay by State Library of Victoria Collections, 1909

Photograph: Girls exploring rock pools, Cameron Bay by State Library of Victoria Collections, 1909

“Religion isn’t for me,” announced my eight-year-old daughter, Alexandra, as we ate dinner together one January night. “I think of it like an old spider on the wall. I know that it’s there but I try to ignore it.”

Alexandra took a bite of pasta and studied my reaction.

“When I pray it’s usually just for ordinary things, like ‘Please, please, let me get an A on this test,” she added.

Since Christmas, Alexandra had been making provocative statements about religion and prayer.

“I don’t believe in God, I believe in Nature,” my daughter continued. “Everything comes from Nature. We are Nature, Mommy. Church makes everything seem boring. Even a nice song like ‘Jingle Bells’ sounds really slow in church.” “Jiiiinnnnglllle Bellllls…” Alexandra lowered her voice and sang a kind of funeral dirge to underline her point.

On Christmas Day, my husband and I had taken Alexandra to Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. We rarely took Alexandra to church, but we had wanted her to see thousands of people from around the world praying together and solemnly rejoicing about the appearance of the miraculous earth. I was trying to delicately engineer an impression that would lead her to suspect there is a finer intelligence or reality behind the world of appearances. But Alexandra hated the cathedral that day. She found it crowded and cold, and wailed that we were ruining Christmas for her by bringing her there.

A wise man once said that trying to impart your understanding to others by talking is like trying to fill them up with bread by looking at them. Since Christmas, Alexandra has been struggling to give me bread. She has reminded me that kids know how to touch this finer world inside themselves although they rarely call this intimate connection prayer.

That January night I asked Alexandra if she ever thought about where the universe came from, big questions like that.

“Of course, but that’s science!” she exclaimed. “I love science so much I would rather go to school naked than not be able to study it.”

It is becoming clear to me that “science” to my little daughter isn’t a strictly intellectual discipline but a license to explore with all her senses and imagination. The “scientific” ideas and questions that catch fire for her—“Is every atom made up of matter?” “What if you could make a machine that could look into a dog’s brain? Would it even be worth it?” —are fresh and generative. Shot through with a sense of wonder at creation, Alexandra’s “science” is akin to our most ancient way of being spiritual. Like other children who speak but aren’t yet too adept at arguing for their own feelings and beliefs, my daughter has been inhabiting her body and the natural world with a sense of deep connection and curiosity. In his collection of essays, Living By Wonder, the educator Richard Lewis describes this childhood state as the time of “the incandescent virtues of ‘why?’”

At the Christmas Mass, a big stern-looking priest, one of many serving Communion that day, came and stood in the aisle a few feet from our pew. The faithful flowed forward, including Alexandra’s grandmother, who had accompanied us. A young Mexican wearing a red hooded sweatshirt over a battered leather jacket followed by Alexandra’s grandmother. He was followed by a willowy matron in a fur coat, who was in turn followed by a tiny old woman dressed in black.

“The Body of Christ, the Body of Christ,” the priest repeated as he held up the Communion wafers. Some people reached out with cupped hands like small children. Others opened their mouths to be fed in the traditional infant-like pose of surrender to a greater power. Alexandra slumped at the end of the pew and sighed and glowered. “It’s just that I don’t really feel comfortable anywhere there aren’t plants and animals,” she explained to me later. After the Mass, I took her up to inspect the life-size creche near the altar. I told her the Christmas story again, picturing it as a kind of time-release capsule of higher truth that would take effect in the future. I was providing Alexandra with a cosmic vision, with food for prayer. She asked me how the wise men picked Jesus to be this “big deal baby.” I told her the wise men followed an unusual star that shone over the manger.

“I know about the star,” said Alexandra. “But a star is as big as the sun, so that’s like saying the sun is over your house. It’s not really over your house, it’s over the whole earth.”

As we walked up an aisle toward the cathedral’s main entrance, my husband pointed to a gaunt, haunted portrait of Christ above the altar tiered with flickering candles. He explained to Alexandra that this face was based on marks that were left on the Shroud of Turin.

“Excuse me?” asked Alexandra. “Has anybody seriously looked at this man? Like maybe he could use a shave or something?”

I knew Alexandra was trying to provoke me, but there was a visceral question under her words that galvanized my attention. I wondered how any child could feel a connection to this tortured-looking man who lived two thousand years ago.

I thought of telling her that Jesus loved children, or that she could try to feel a connection by saying his name in her heart. But these answers felt cheap. Alexandra regarded me with a calm, grave expression. She looked very small and very present in this cold, cavernous, crowded place.

“They kept calling Jesus ‘the king,’” Alexandra continued. “How can one baby be the king of the whole world?”

“He didn’t call himself a king,” I said. “He called himself the son of man. He wanted to show us that we all can be like him.”

“Then why did he want to be worshipped in a huge, fancy place like this?”

“I’m not sure he would have wanted to be worshipped like this,” I replied.

“Then what are we doing here?”

Brought to a full stop, I asked Alexandra where she would like to celebrate Christmas.

“In the African savannah surrounded by animals,” she said. “Only I wouldn’t make the animals celebrate. They should be what they are and I would observe them.”

Alexandra lit up as she spoke of this. It occurred to me that I had been too busy trying to teach Alexandra to stop and listen to her. As she talked, I remembered that the heart of prayer was the experience of being seen and heard by a loving, boundlessly accepting attention.

Months before Christmas, while spending a weekend at the wooded upstate New York community of Omega Institute, I had watched from a distance as a young camp counselor led Alexandra and a group of other children through the woods blindfolded. They were identifying different kinds of trees by hugging them and smelling them. When Alexandra took her turn she looked so radiant, so deeply engaged in the life around her that I knew, as I had the first moment I laid eyes on my daughter, that she was already part of that other world that I was trying so hard to lead her to. She knew innately how to feel her way into the heart of things.

In Living By Wonder, Lewis describes how children are able to “fuse with the object of their play.” According to him, children innately seek to understand the world around them by drawing on their own sensations and feelings, their own bodily understanding of growth and change. Imagination in children, according to Lewis, is their ability to project their inner images and experiences on to the world as a way of sympathetically knowing.

“Did the tree hug you back?” I had asked Alexandra.

“I don’t like when you talk that way,” she’d answered, although she knows that I’ve caught her saying hello to things as if they were alive.

In the Spell of Sensuous, philosopher David Abram describes the way indigenous people have preserved our innate “carnal, sensorial empathy” with the natural world. More in touch with their bodies and “animal senses” than modern city dwellers, indigenous people are more aware that the natural world around us is awake and speaking. I have seen that children also have this capacity to listen to the world around them with their “animal bodies,” and they don’t stop at the natural world. They fuse their sensations with their earliest feelings of well-being (and fear of abandonment) to know the One behind the world.

Although Alexandra would never use these words, there’s a chance that when she was hugging trees she was finding God in the flesh of life. I know this because once I was a kid and risked playing at prayer.

When I was a little girl, there was a game I played when I couldn’t sleep. Although, I never thought of it as a prayer or used those words, it was my way of seeking God. I would peel off my blankets and slip down to the cold hardwood floor (I remember doing this mostly in the winter). The first few moments on the floor were my leap of faith. Freezing and feeling utterly exposed and alone, I thought of all the people and other beings who had no beds, no blankets, not shelter at all. These thoughts were a ritual that always made me feel gratitude or a stab of empathy. They made me feel connected to the rest of the world. I would also feel brave in a special way, as if I were daring to venture out on my own. I was not only dipping into dangerously big subjects, I was risking being seen by the unknown.

As I lay there a shift always took place. The labels I had about “cold” and “hard” gave way. I noticed that the polished hardwood was soft in its own way, more giving than stone or steel. As I listened to the wind blowing outside my bedroom window (the winter temperatures in Watertown, New York often hit twenty and even thirty below zero), I imagined what it was like outside, and truly valued that I was in a warm, life-saving shelter. As I broke through the isolation of my thoughts and sank into the experience of my body, I began to sense that everything in the world had emerged from a mystery. Why was there a world and not nothing? As a child I couldn’t help but ask the question with my whole being, and as I asked it I felt vibrantly alive and present in a living world.

I would scramble back up to my bed and experience its incredible softness, wondering how I could have been numb to it before. I would pull up the sheet, savoring its smoothness. I would pull up the blankets and quilt one at a time, feeling unimaginably rich and relaxed and provided for. Even the air that touched my face was luxurious. I felt cradled in a benevolent, listening silence, and I knew without words that I had drawn closer to God by going deep within myself. It was a state that I would recapture many years later in moments of meditation and prayer.

Not all imaginary play expresses an impulse to prayer, of course. I played other games in which I was a deadly, superintelligent black panther named Striker. Striker liked to crouch in trees and stalk the other kids who came to play in my backyard. Like a fairy tale, this game let me play with some of my wildest energies. My prayer game, on the other hand, harbored the wish to see and be seen by finer, larger intelligence.

Recently, Alexandra and I heard Kaddish recited for the first time. The prayer was so exalted, so utterly above sentimental condolence that it occurred to me that, as tradition says, it really may have been given to man by the angels. I resolved to read Alexandra the Beatitudes and the Psalms, and to teach her the Lord’s Prayer.

I still have to restrain myself, in other words, from the impulse to drag Alexandra to the threshold of sacred truth. Yet on a deeper level I know that I have to let her find her own way. I try to remember now that what becomes truly meaningful to any one of us are those truths which we have discovered inside ourselves.

Still, there is a reciprocal exchange between Alexandra and me. A few nights ago, there was a new development. I found Alexandra curled up in bed with a book of Bible stories.

“I’m not religious, you know,” she said, studying me over the top of the book. “But could you just let me read for five more minutes?”♦

Tracy Cochran, “Playing with God,” A child’s response to religion, PARABOLA Volume 24, No. 2, Summer 1999: “Prayer and Meditation.” This issue is available here. Like what you’ve read, why not subscribe?