Father for a Day

When I first realized that my journey from Catholicism to Quakerism had reached a point of no return, one of the hardest things was to face the loss of united family worship. My three children were Roman Catholics, their partners were Anglicans, and my grandchildren, though all baptized as Catholics and attending Catholic schools, were happy worshipers in the Anglican tradition as well. I wanted desperately to share my grandchildren’s spiritual journeys and to have them share mine. Family worship when we were able to be all together had always been an important part of our lives, and it was a great relief for us all to realize that my becoming a Quaker would not end it. It was also agreed that, if they wanted to, my grandchildren would come with me to meeting.

Quite soon after I was accepted into membership, Ben, my four-year-old grandson, did indeed come to meeting for the first time. We have no children in our meeting, and he was a little overwhelmed by the delighted welcome he received before we went into the meeting-room. He sat beside me and looked curiously around at the "church" that was so different from the colorful Catholic church in the heart of Manchester’s Irish community where he had been taken since he was a few days old. After a while he whispered "When does Father come in?" "He doesn’t, Ben," I replied. "In this church all of us are Father." He looked astounded, was silent for a while, and then whispered urgently "Me as well?" "Yes. You as well."

As this thought took root, almost imperceptibly there was a bodily shift. He straightened his shoulders, lifted his head, and breathed more deeply. It was as if the invisible robe of universal priesthood, which can fall unbidden on any of us during meeting, had fallen softly onto his young shoulders. He continued to look around the room, studying everything and everyone intently. When the doorkeeper joined us, I took Ben’s hand and told him we were going into another room where he could look at some books and draw. "But Nanny—what about being Father?" More than a little taken aback at the seriousness with which he had taken my almost casual remark, I assured him he would continue being "Father" even in another room.

In the library, he was at first a typical four-year-old, exploring, touching, looking at picture books, and drawing with crayons. But then he came onto my lap. "What are they doing in the quiet room now?" "Some of them are saying prayers, some of them are thinking, some of them are just being quiet and waiting to see if God speaks to them." "What are they thinking about?" That week the bombers had gone into Iraq, so I told him that some of them were thinking about the war. The questions tumbled out one after the other. Why were the bombs being dropped? Who was doing it, who were the bad people, who were the good people? Why did the people in the quiet room want to stop it? Why were they thinking about it?

How could I explain it in language simple enough for a four-year-old? He looked at me with wide-eyed horror. "I thought bombs were in Tom and Jerry, not killing people, not killing children!" Arms and legs tightened around my neck and waist. On his first visit to Quaker meeting Ben had come into contact with the evil of war. How would he cope with it? "Nanny, what can I do?" Not, what can be done? Not, what can they do? Not even, what can we do? But, what can I do? The question of the peacemaker down the ages. Before I could frame a reply, he had his own answer. Worried look dissolving into a happy smile, he jumped off my knee. "I know— I’ll make the children a Valentine." What has been called "the amazing fact of Quaker worship" I saw made manifest in this small child. From the silence had come leading, concern, and action. On one level a sweet story about a sweet child, observed by a doting grandmother. On a far deeper level the movement of the Spirit.

Absorbed, he created a wonderful concoction of red heart, colorful flowers, blazing sun. And then a stop and a new worry: "I only know how to write Ben and kisses." "Would it do, if you tell me what you want to say to the children and I write it for you?" "Yes, and then I will write Ben and kisses at the bottom." He gave me his message, I wrote it on his card, and it was duly signed.

Together we returned to meeting. "Would you like to read your card to the Friends?" He seemed to take time to think about it. Was this valid ministry? This whole experience was totally new to him, yet he tested the call to ministry with the seriousness of a seasoned Friend. Eventually he seemed reassured and nodded. "Yes, I would." Standing, I explained to the meeting what we had been doing. Ben held up his card and then said urgently, "I can’t read the words." So I read them for him: "Dear children, I don’t want to drop bombs onto you. I love you. From Ben. XXXX"

Mine were not the only tear-blinded eyes in the stillness of the meeting room. Ben’s ministry was so simple and so profound. That of God in him could only think in terms of love for the children, indeed for all the people of Iraq. It had bypassed the easy partisanship of childhood. This little boy who wears his England football T-shirt with such pride, who is quick to join his cousins in a game of "my city is better than your city," was not seduced into any kind of jingoism. What he felt was pity and love and an instinctive rejection of war. All he could do was to try and communicate it.

Meeting came to an end, and Ben was regaled with orange juice and affection. Later that day I posted his card to Iraq—into an apparent void—and yet it seemed important to send it.

The next day he went back to his school where he announced, "I went to Nanny’s new church yesterday. You can have orange juice in the quiet room—and do you know what? I was Father." And who could deny it?

Shelagh Robinson

Shelagh Robinson is a member of Staffordshire Monthly Meeting (UK), attached to Stoke-on-Trent Preparative Meeting. Reprinted from Quaker Monthly, June