Does our childhood reading influence our faith?
Heidi by Johanna Spyri (first published 1880) Contains spoilers
Heidi is an intentionally Christian book, which is interesting as Johanna Spyri’s own deepest belief seems to be that only the mountains can offer healing and wholeness. By contrast the city is sickly and soul destroying.
Both the depressed doctor and the invalid Clara are cured by their visit to the mountains while Heidi’s own health becomes precarious when she is away from them. This isn’t a Biblical view: Jesus went into the mountains to pray but he wept over Jerusalem. Much of the gospel action takes place there and the Bible ends with the revelation of the heavenly city.
Despite this belief in the effect of the mountains, it is Grandmamma, Clara’s grandmother, who has the most thought through faith in the book and she is very much a city person. The old blind grandmother who lives in the mountains has faith, but her worries get in the way. She is in a permanent state of panic that Heidi will be taken away from her. Heidi, rather than God, is at the centre of her world.
As a child I took Grandmamma’s instructions about faith on trust. Now I am not so sure. In Frankfurt she tells Heidi that God always wants the best for us and that if we wait, he will answer our prayers. We will look back and realise that his way has worked out much better for us than our own original choices. This becomes Heidi’s own experience: an earlier return to the mountains would not have brought the same benefits (friendship and gifts for the blind grandmother) as her later return does. But this theology has its drawbacks:
“But what if God Himself has sent the sorrow?” asks the doctor, whose daughter has died. Heidi’s response that if we have patience, “something will turn up and we will see quite clearly that all the time it was all for the best” doesn’t quite work. I cannot believe that such things as the neonatal deaths of our twins were in my best interests all along. I can’t believe it was in their best interests either. They were real people with real lives, not just a walk on part in mine. Eternity may prove me wrong but until then it is in my box “awaiting further light”.
In all fairness, Johanna Spyri does acknowledge this problem:
“You see Heidi, when someone has a great grief he cannot enjoy anything lovely, and beauty, like this around us, only makes him more sad…” the doctor responds.
The author doesn’t seem to have any real answers to this (who has?) except for Heidi to recite one of the blind grandmother’s favourite hymns. Towards the end of the book she reverts to the simple God knows best. Heidi tells Clara:
“… we must say then (to God) ‘Now I know, dear Father, that you have something better in mind and I am glad that you will make it all right in the end.’”
Often things are not “all right in the end”. And yet, paradoxically, I continue to pray “Thy will be done” and mean it most of the time.
Although Grandmamma never misses an opportunity to share her theology, she does understand people. I have always felt that Peter had a raw deal. Heidi’s attention is always centred on the person she perceives as needing her most and Peter rarely makes it to the front of the queue. (Even when she teaches him to read it is so that he can read hymns to his blind grandmother rather than for his own benefit!)
It is not surprising that Peter is jealous of Clara and pushes her wheelchair down the mountain. Grandmamma talks to him about his conscience, and instead of punishing him rewards him. Even as a child, I was glad someone gave him some attention.
I first came across Heidi at about five or six years old and have re-read it many times since. How do I discern how it shaped my faith as a child? I think the way to do this is to look at what has stayed in my memory.
Firstly, the mountain pastures. Once the children reach them, they stop there. It is a place to be and to wonder, rather than a doing place. Here there is that sense of timelessness and peace, the lack of interruption that I needed as a child and still do.
Heidi’s exile in Frankfurt also made a strong impression on me. In the city the inner kingdom is stifled and there is nothing in the sterile streets to bring Heidi close to what she has lost. Even the wind in the trees turns out to be carriages rumbling by. I found Clara a more interesting character than Heidi (she has far more sense of humour!) but in Frankfurt I identified with Heidi, exiled from Eden.
But more than anything else I took away the idea that sin is turning away from God and that it is possible to turn back and be welcomed. Although the Alm Uncle’s wrongdoings are mentioned at the beginning of the book (gambling and drinking) it is the way he has chosen to live, at outs with God and people that is wrong. It is not the counting and classifying of sins that matters but what you turn towards.
The innocent child who redeems the hardened old sinner is a recurring theme in fiction, but this passed me by. It was the story that mattered, the story that Heidi shared with the old man that spoke to him. Looking down on the sleeping child, the old man repeats the words of the younger son:
“Father I have sinned against Heaven and in Thy sight and am not worthy to be called Thy son.”
It is this image and these words that have stayed with me.