“Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has known a real Christmas has ever afterwards, whether he likes it or not, an association in his mind between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars. His instincts and imagination can still connect them, when his reason can no longer see the need of the connection; for him there will always be some savor of religion about the mere picture of a mother and a baby; some hint of mercy and softening about the mere mention of the dreadful name of God.”
—G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
The happiest memories I have from childhood revolve around rich sensory experiences. Certain songs, smells, tastes, or images will trigger those memories, bringing back a flood of reminiscences. Some examples: my father used to pull out one of his favorite records, start it up, and then half-walk, half-dance around the dining room table, kids following behind and mimicking his movements. Silly and fun. Now that I have children of my own, I do it occasionally as well, marching around the sofa in our living room.
In the evenings, my mother would read to us. A ritual eventually developed: brewing some tea, setting out a plate of home-baked digestive biscuits (called “diggy biscuits” by us, after a line in the movie Gaslight), and then settling down to read. Mom read everything from fluff like the Hardy Boys to classics by Dickens and Twain. We read through The Lord of the Rings, Nicholas Nickleby, E. Nesbit’s fantasies, the Chronicles of Narnia, and beyond. Some of the children would fidget or play with toys instead of listening clearly, but the words were still there and available to absorb.
The Catholic liturgy also fed us in this way. Though the liturgical experience of our home parish was frequently dominated by the banal, the solemn beauty of feasts like Christmas and Easter came through: it was when incense and candles and traditional hymns would for a short while become the norm. Sacramentals and images surrounded us at home, and seasonal practices like the Advent wreath were participated in by all.
Allowing children to become submerged in these sorts of sensory experiences increases the chances that, as they mature, they will be attuned to and desire good things. Music, food, smells, images: all can trigger that sense of belonging and joy.
However, sensory experiences can cut both ways. Things that in another context would be good could also recall fearful or traumatic experiences. It’s always tragic to hear about people who were raised in families or cultures where fear and punishment were associated with religion and family life, and so the sensory experiences associated with that culture can hold nothing but bitterness for them.
There’s a powerful exploration of this notion in the book The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussel. He tells of what happened to the boys who were fed heroic tales and sentimental Victorian depictions of chivalrous battle, then sent to face machine guns, trench warfare, and poison gas in World War I; how many of them returned to bitterly tear down the idea that goodness and beauty mattered. They had been given the ideal without the corrective of the real.
In many ways, our current culture is still reeling from the wars of the 20th century and the cynicism and bitterness exhibited by those who have lost the ability to trust. This has been compounded in some places by public scandals involving Catholics and Christians.
What kind of response can we have to this? I think one is to try and make the sensory experience of good culture part of our home life. Religion should be communicated with joy. Harshness should be rejected. Children should never be forced into “appreciating” things that they are uninterested in; they should be led enthusiastically by parents and teachers to sample art, music, food, and literature. A negative association can last a lifetime just as a positive one can.
Just as cynicism and bitterness are culturally contagious, joy and enthusiasm are as well. Well-formed imaginations and tastes that come from attuning senses to the good are an important foundation to any artist. In this way, home and family life can be an important contributor to building and sustaining the culture around us. We can joyfully show the world how to trust again.