Children’s books and church: 3 The Sparrow Child

Does our childhood reading influence our faith?

The Sparrow Child by Meriol Trevor (first published 1958)

The church I grew up in offered me only a two-dimensional Christianity: I was there to learn and attend services (worship seems too strong a word for what I was actually doing.)

Luckily, I had books to fill the gaps. 

Books added depth and excitement to what I experienced in church; they told stories of encounters with an active and mysterious God and encouraged me to think and wonder and make connections.  As an adult I realise how much they framed my theology – and still do.      

Recently a comment on Twitter has made me think about the relationship of light and dark.  “How does it feel,” they asked in the context of Black Lives Matter “if dark is always portrayed as evil and light is always shown as good?”

And I am instantly taken back to this:

“Perhaps there is a heavenly darkness as well as a heavenly light.  There would be nothing dreadful in that night.  Perhaps you could call it rest, and the brightness energy and delight. Or that day would be speech, as the poet in the psalm says, and the night wisdom. Or we could even call the light in heaven, knowledge and the darkness, love.”

The Sparrow Child, Meriol Trevor 1958

I find Meriol Trevor a very uneven writer.  Many of her books (especially her adult romances) are formulaic with little depth or characterisation.  She was a convert to Roman Catholicism and her uncritical admiration of John Henry Newman tends to overwhelm several of her novels for both children and adults.    

But The Sparrow Child and The Rose Round (for children) and A Narrow Place (for adults) are in a different category.

In The Sparrow Child thirteen year old Philip is sent to visit his unknown adult cousins at their old house in Cornwall, while his mother recovers from her illness.  Here he meets Jenny, the housekeeper’s daughter and is later joined by his difficult cousin Mirabel, whom he has never met.  There is a search for a lost chalice (found) and a fight to stop an area of wasteland being turned into an atomic station (successful).  Philip learns to overcome many of his fears.   

So far so predictable.  But the main theme of the book is about the healing of relationships.  Philip’s cousin Carey is unable to walk as the result of an accident.  He was once in love with Mirabel’s mother, who left him to marry his stepbrother Rex, Arnold’s son.  (Yes, it’s complicated!) Growing up, Carey was the one who made a stand against his stepfather’s bullying, both for himself and his brother and also for Rex, Arnold’s own son.  Angry, unhappy Mirabel becomes a pawn in a fight for her affections that both Carey and Arnold intend to win.

Unusually in children’s books, The Sparrow Child shows adult development and adult healing of relationships.  The adults have no more arrived than the children.  It is Carey who has to turn back towards Arnold and ask for forgiveness before the story can be resolved for a happy ending.  His family are baffled as it seems clear to them that Arnold is far more to blame for the situation than Carey. But:

‘And suddenly Philip saw, and said to himself, “It’s our own dragons we must worry about, not other people’s.”  Carey could not make Arnold be sorry, but he could be sorry himself, and that in turn made the beginning of a change in Arnold’s mind.’   

I return to this phrase whenever I need to remind myself that it is my own dragons, rather than other people’s, that I need to be concerned about. 

The Sparrow Child is rich in mysticism and symbol.  Philip dreams of the Grail, the destruction of the house and its resurrection and looks to his cousins for understanding and interpretation.

Is the missing chalice the Grail, the holy cup used at the Last Supper, that will bring both physical and spiritual healing? 

“Ah but what is the Grail?” says old Joseph Thorne, Carey’s grandfather who is described as ‘lying between the two worlds of time and eternity and all his life he’s been more in the great world than this.’

“It is not the cup, however old, however sacred.  It is what the cup carries to us.”

All through The Sparrow Child there are these short passages that shaped my theological thinking.  But perhaps it is this one that most defines my own faith:

‘Philip gazed at the tabernacle, with the small flame burning in the silver lamp before it.

“Why does our Lord always hide?” he said at last.

“I don’t think it is that He hides,” said Carey slowly.  “I think it’s that we don’t expect Him to be where He is.  People thought of the divine Saviour as an emperor descending from heaven, but He came into the world the way we all come and lived as we all live. They expected Him to rule them like a King but instead He gave Himself up to be executed like a slave.  Even now people expect to find Him organising the ideal state on earth but instead He is giving himself as bread to feed those who are hungry for love.  He is hidden, but it is we who hide Him.  We are blind people: it takes Him a long time to open our eyes.” ’  

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