The original vision of childhood is not ‘an imaginative fancy but a form of knowledge that is essential to the development of any mature understanding’. This quote is from Alister Hardy’s foreword to a book by Edward Robinson of his study of religious experiences. This is not to do with theological orthodoxies or conventional ideas of what religion is but rather people’s early experiences of the ‘divine flame burning throughout one’s life’. When people were invited to send their experiences of a power beyond themselves to the religious experience research unit (then at Oxford and now based at Lampeter University- where you can do a research MA) it was found that 15% of the then 4,000 started by going back to something that happened to them in their earliest years. ‘All my life I have been able to look back and remember …’
Here’s an example from a woman aged 55 who at the age of five is sitting in the garden watching a colony of ants and realising that she was large to them – invisible to them except perhaps as a shadow over their lives – but she had the power to destroy them although outside the sphere of their knowledge.
‘Turning away from them to my surroundings, I saw there was a tree not far away, and the sun was shining. There were clouds and blue sky that went on for ever and ever. And suddenly I was tiny – so little and weak and insignificant that it didn’t really matter at all whether I existed or not. And yet, insignificant as I was, my mind was capable of understanding that the limitless world I could see was beyond my comprehension…’
She sees that any watcher of her would be vaster than the world and space and yet ‘I was aware of him, in spite of my limitations. At the same time, he was, and he was not, beyond my understanding.’ The realisation was also that the whole could not be complete without her own particular contribution and yet she was so insignificant as to be almost non-existent. ‘Every single person was a part of a Body, the purpose of which was as much beyond my comprehension now as I was beyond the comprehension of the ants. I was enchanted…’
‘It was a lovely thing to have happened. All my life, in times of great pain or distress or failure, I have been able to look back and remember, quite sure that the present agony was not the whole picture and that my understanding of it was limited as were the ants in their comprehension of their part in the world I knew.’