Juggling life through a bi-polar lens. Sometimes up, sometimes down. Mostly trying to tread water in the middle. Creating a likeness to a normal life. Whatever "normal" is...

Saturday, 26 January 2008

When Hymns Harm

My Primary school (infant + junior) was a smallish Roman Catholic affair, now greatly expanded from the 300 or so intake of the 1970s, when I was there.

Once a week we had an Assembly. I'm astonished to hear that schools now have to have this daily. Once a week was quite enough! In we would troop, class by class, as line by line the floor of the Dining Hall would fill up with children sitting cross-legged, trying to claim as much room as possible before a teacher came and told everyone to squeeze up again. Line after line of children in ever increasing size till the eleven-year olds squeezed in at the back and braced themselves for half an hour of boredom.

I can't remember a single thing that was said to us in any of these sessions.

I do remember what came first though, before any of this wildly memorable instruction began: the hymn.

The Headmistress, a nun in black called Sr Callista who looked to us about 90 but who, from contemporary photo's, I can see was probably around 45, did love to hear us sing. She especially loved to hear us sing at Mass, every Wednesday morning. Several parents stayed on for this event, and Sr Callista made it her personal goal to present them with children who walked in line and bellowed loud enough for them to hear the words. This way, they knew that she was an excellent Headmistress. And so the Assembly became a perfect time for Singing Practice. You couldn't get away with a mumble into your jumper. It had to be sung, and sung high and loudly and you had to smile and learn it and enjoy it.

But other than presentation, did any of the teachers ever wonder what we made of the words?
Sr Callista introduced new hymns. After all, she was looking after young children. So the Thees and Thous were replaced by a pale blue Celebration Hymnal and "folk" hymns were used. As we sang she beamed with pride. Aren't we good? Don't we like the new hymns? Isn't this all marvellous?

Here's one of them, as much as I remember from 30+ years ago:

[chorus] Suffer little children to come unto me,
for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven!
Suffer little children to come unto me,
for theirs is the kingdom of the Lord!

[verse] And Jesus said, "Children, little children,
(can't remember that line)
[repeat, then chorus again]

The tune was monotonous and I now loathe it. I've noticed that many of the hymns people of around my age count as favourites, I can't stand at all. Probably because of how much we had to sing them back then. But there is a more serious reason for my hating this one.

At this time, I was being seriously bullied at home. Emotionally, verbally and physically. "I lived in fear" sounds like a cliche, but it describes it exactly. I was regularly hit. Mostly it was across the face. But thighs were targets, too, while brothers preferred forearms. More elaborate options included holding my hand against the wall behind a door, then slamming the door open against it, so that the metal handle bruised my palm, wrist, fingers or knuckles. I still have trouble with my hands today.

The unfairness of it all is what stings when I look back. It's the unfairness of it that ripples into my present and causes problems. The physical pains can't be re-experienced, but the sting of injustice lasts. When I'm low it haunts me, like a ghost walking his same path night after night anew.

Why didn't I speak up?

Why didn't I find a confidante?

Why didn't I write about it at school, try to tell someone that way?

Well, there was this hymn, you see. And in it, it said that little children had to suffer to go to Jesus- "Suffer little children to come unto me..."

Of course, "suffer" in this sense, means "cause" or "encourage". But I was an adult a long while before I knew that. I thought I must be being blessed with all this suffering... and prayed for more.

photo's taken last summer at Fountains Abbey


Rachel said...

Oh, what a heartbreaking story. It's awful that your brothers bullied you that way, and you felt like you couldn't tell anyone.

And how sad that you interpreted the hymn that way.


Your post was a reminder to me that we need to be more aware of kids in our lives and really listen to them and try to advocate for them.

Helena said...

Thanks, Rachel!
Although, my brothers weren't responsible for all of it, someone else was.

My partner is a teacher, and they were going to use this song at his school. I pointed out how it could be misinterpretted and he said he hadn't thought of that. Maybe I was the only one it affected that way!

david mcmahon said...

Dear Helena,

You have always been one of my favourite bloggers and this post just reminds me of the sheer power with which you place your past before us.

My heart goes out to all those who suffer at any stage in their lives.

My mother would have loved to explain the gentle affection of that hymn to you.

Great pictures, too - and an unforgettable post.

God bless you


Calamity Jane said...

Oh Helena, that post made so angry - I always get angry when I hear of children being abused, and that it was done by your brothers who are supposed to protect their sister not beat her up, floors me. I'm sorry, I don't know what else to say, other than I'm sorry.

As for the hymns, most of them baffled me as a kid but when I was at primary school we used to sing Morning Has Broken quite a lot and I was intrigued by the phrase "he then sore play" which of course I know now to be ""Eden saw play ...

lime said...

visiting from david's. good reason why we should be careful to make sure people understand the flowery language of hymns and scripture. my hearts breaks for your tender child's heart that was broken right along with fingers.

Amrita said...

Dear Helena, i am sorry about what happened to you in your childhood.And understand why you misunderstood the hymn.

Jesus loves little children, specially the hurting ones.

Helena said...



It makes me angry that they didn't rephrase it, as, as a child, I loved pictures of Jesus surrounded by children and used to imagine him sitting and listening to me as I talked to him.

It isn't a faith I have any more, but as a child it helped me through. For much of my life, in fact, though of course, the imagery chaged with age.

Re the photo's- I took literally hundreds that day at Fountains! I'll have to go through them and highlight some more unusual ones!

Helena said...

Calamity Jane,

THanks for visiting! It means such a lot as I know you're so stuck for time, and feeling so unwell lately... hugs!!!

Actually my brothers didn't do most of it. Most was done by an adult, but I can't say who on here, incase people who know us both read it.

Re misheard lyrics- in JC Superstar, when he sings "God, your will is hard" I'm afraid I always hear "God, your willy's hard." I'm sure in some circles I'd be set alight for saying that. LOL!

Ah well. If there IS anything up there, I'm sure he/she/it has a sense of humour. If they didn't, they'd surely have pulled the plug on us a long time ago.


Helena said...


thank you for visiting, and thanks for the thoughts.

Helena said...

Thank you, Amrita!

Lynda (Granny K) said...

Helena, I'm so sorry to hear that you suffered this way. As a species, we are far from civilized, and at times I despair.
The news this week has been truly horrific. I can't watch it.

Celebration of Life said...

I wept when I read your post! I am sorry you were abused as a child; please know that it wasn't your fault and you didn't deserve it. I too was abused as a child in a sexual way. I have devoted my life to helping victims of crime whether they be children, teens or adults. Please know that I am here for you if you ever need someone to talk to!

I also wanted to tell you that I love your blogs with Dilly and Bob. You have a great sense of humor and are very talented. I count myself blessed to have met you!

Victorya said...

Ah Helena, thanks so much for this post. I had those same issues, the Bible thrown around as a weapon though. My mother always talked about honouring thy mother then of course there was the repay someone ten fold (which was, in her mind and the way it was forced into that of us children, we did something wrong we'd get punished ten times worse for it).

It's sad that it wasn't explained that it confused us even more, that religion is used consciously or unconsciously to propogate abuse and to accept it.

Which reminds me of the Lord's Prayer, I used to think it was "Our father who aren't in heaven" and that we were praying to Satan. There are still days where I wonder if he would have helped more though, you know?

Shrink Wrapped Scream said...

Oh Helena.

You grew to be a caring, gentle and giving soul. But yes, you are right; physical signs of abuse heal, sadly the emotional scars can sear the soul forever. You have overcome so much, you are truly amazing.


Dragonstar said...

All I would say has already been said.

But you are strong enough to see the beauty.

Stay strong.