When I was a child, one of the prayers I said was prayer to St Joseph, patron saint of a happy death. Children don’t think of death but I learnt and said whatever prayer I was taught. As I remember it, the prayer goes, ‘O great St Joseph, patron of a happy death, pray for us and obtain for us the grace that we may die a happy death, as thou didst in the arms of Jesus and Mary, that we may receive Jesus before we die.’
At that time, the stories of apparitions of Our Lady to Lucia, Francis and Jacinta at Fatima, and to St Bernadette, at Lourdes left a deep impression. To me then, receiving Jesus was seeing apparitions of him or Mary. I reckoned being a child, I had a chance of seeing apparitions. I stared at the sun, hoping to see the sun do tricks like at Fatima but my natural instinct stopped me from looking at the sun for too long.
(We cannot look at the sun directly just as we cannot see God’s face and live). I had received Holy Communion by then but it did not occur to me that receiving Holy Communion is receiving Jesus. Like people of any age, it was the extraordinary, the apparitions that appealed to me, that I wanted.
After a while, my hopes of seeing apparitions waned, and I gave in to seeing them in dreams. So I added to the prayer, ‘that we may receive Jesus before we die or in dreams.’
Over a long period of time, I had two dreams. In one, Mary was standing on the roof of the Methodist Church that was opposite our house; she handed me a rose. Looking back, perhaps it was one of the roses that St Therese promised to shower upon the earth after her death. Mary was telling me to look for God in the ordinary things of life as St Therese did, not in spectacular, extraordinary phenomena. A few years later, St Therese became my favourite saint and hero.
In another dream, I saw Jesus in a long flowing cloak that holy pictures depict him wearing, with his back to me, walking into the clouds. Seeing God’s back could mean that God has turned his back on me, or it could mean that he has been with me and is walking away temporarily. As a child, I did not question the dream at all, why I saw only God’s back. I was happy to see God, back or front, even if only in a dream.
In 2014, an article by Ron Rolheiser, Faith means that God is with us, reminded me of this dream and provided an explanation for seeing God’s back. In the book of Exodus (33:20-23), God said to Moses, ‘You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ God says that Moses will see his back as he passed by him. We see God’s back because we cannot see God’s face and live, and it could be easier to see God’s presence in our past than in the present.
This was echoed by James Martin in The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, who put the Examen in a new light for me, that it is built on the insight that it is easier to see God in the past than the present moment.
There have been a couple of times last summer when I had a God-experience, I think. On a warm summer evening, when I went for a walk, I had a déjà vu experience, like I was back in my childhood, with a feeling of being with God. Maybe it was a moment of God that I felt once when I was young, and a moment of God that day. A few weeks later, in the morning, as I got out of my car, walked to join a group for meditation, that feeling came over me again. It was a warm day again. Maybe it has to do with the warm weather which reminds me of home and young days, maybe it is nostalgia, not just for childhood but for the sense of God’s presence that was so abundant in my childhood. It was an experience of God in the present and in the past at the same time! God is timeless. God was in the past, is in the present and will ever be in the future. He is not limited by time.
Using a retrospectoscope with psychological lens, my childhood was a deprived one but with spiritual lens, it was rich with the wonder, awe, simplicity and mystery of God. Memories of the spiritual wealth of my materially poor childhood come to me as consolation during periods of desolation in my adult life, which can sometimes seem like an eternal dark night.
Jesus tells us to be childlike. Children are simple, innocent, accepting of faith without questioning. Our adult minds like to complicate things, intellectualise, try to understand that which is beyond understanding – God, who is Mystery.
For the spiritual richness of my childhood, I thank my mother, who inherited her faith from the British nuns who looked after her and many other children in the orphanage. The best, most enduring gift we can give our children is faith, the nurturing of their innate sense of God, so that God takes root in their hearts and becomes the ground of their being. The seed of faith, the word of God, is best planted on the fertile soil of childhood before the rage of pubertal hormones of teenage years takes over, when our influence as parents grow weaker while that of their peers and others grow stronger, before the age of reason and the egoic mind gains the upper hand and could potentially edge God out (EGO).
The past is often given a bad rap now. We are often asked to forget the past and live in the present moment. It is true that the here and now is where and when we can experience God.
So we keep being mindful of God’s presence, or being Godful, in present moments that will become our treasury of memories of past present moments. Memory is a great gift we can use to remember the God times, the good times. When we do an Examen of our past, our childhood, may we see God’s bountiful mercy and let gratitude wash over us.
‘Gratitude is the memory of the heart.’ Jean-Baptiste Massieu
Susie Hii is a Melbourne writer and author of Happy, Healthy, Holy.