A month ago I was at Stratford City railway station, part of the new city under construction at the 2012 Olympic site in London, and I saw a sign to Southend-on-Sea. A sudden urge arose within me to buy rover tickets on the rail network and spend the day visiting my childhood and teenage stomping grounds. But the long queue waiting at the ticket office cured me of that fantasy, along with the thought that Google Earth makes a nice armchair substitute for the toil of travel. Jean and I went to the V and A Museum in South Kensington instead and saw the wonderful Bernini sculpture, Neptune and Triton, and enjoyed the galleries of Victorian paintings and the ceramics collection. But what is the meaning of that urge or longing to return to childhood? Is it mere nostalgia or is something deeper at work?
A psychotherapist might guess it is an indicator of unresolved issues with my parents, but I’m sure I resolved most of those many years ago. Or is there unresolved grief over leaving one country and settling in a new one (I emigrated from England to the USA at 25 years of age)? The sense of being uprooted is surely part of the longing. I am not noted for being at ease with change. But I believe there is something deeper at work.
So I ask myself what does “returning to Southend-on-Sea” represent? Returning to childhood represents several longings: the chance to make a fresh start, to begin again, to undo some of my many mistakes, to recapture the fun and freedom of youth without all the anxieties of growing up and struggling at school. Childhood represents newness and growth, a creative and loving energy, a capacity to be loved. The sea plays its part in the longing because looking out to sea is a form of looking for God. It is a longing to be born anew on the waves of God, to be loved by God, without psychological baggage blocking that love.
A couple of artists in the Northern European romantic tradition who capture the renewing energy of childhood are Philip Otto Runge and Vincent Van Gogh (see the illustrations included here). The energy of the sun radiates through these children, which is another way of saying that God radiates through them. So I believe that the longing to return to childhood is at a deeper level the longing to return to God. Jesus tells us to change and become like little children to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 18:3).
There is a theme in mystical theology which takes us back before childhood, before our physical birth and teaches us that our origin is in God’s love and that our destiny is to return to that love. Julian of Norwich captures this in almost the last words of her book, Showings (Paulist Press, 1978, p.342): “And I saw very certainly in this and in everything that before God made us he loved us, which love was never abated and never will be…in our creation we had beginning, but the love in which he created us was in him from without beginning. In this love we have our beginning, and all this shall we see in God without end.” The longing for childhood is a reflection of this longing for the love of God out of whom we were born and to whom we return. The theme of emanation from God and return or consummation is regularly echoed in mystical theology (e.g. see Bernard McGinn’s summary of Bonaventure’s theology of our return to God in The Flowering of Mysticism, 1998, pp. 88-91).
So the takeaway from this experience of longing to return to childhood is my awareness that I am part of a great stream that comes from God and returns to God. I am not alone. Awareness of this stream comes in memories, in contemplation on a work of art or music, in being part of a movement for justice, in helping my neighbor, in hiking in the countryside, in whatever helps me find my true self. It helps me to know that I belong to a stream greater than me, a stream of love that flows from God and returns to God. And that belief helps me to heal, to accept the failings of the past, to love myself with all my imperfections, and to start again each day in the renewing and returning love of God.