How to explain the Annunciation to a child

The Annunciation by Francesco Albani (Wikimedia Commons)

What Catholic parent has not been faced by a child at some stage in their religious education stating “I don’t know if I believe in God”.  And what parent – perhaps especially a mother – has not suddenly been faced by the difficulty of presenting something seemingly abstract and invisible in a concrete way that would sound convincing to a child. This statement starts the introduction to Sally Read’s readable and thoughtful account of her highly original way of helping her daughter, Flo, grapple with the supernatural mystery of faith.

In Annunciation: A Call to Faith in a Broken World (Ignatius Press) she has the inspired idea to reflect on the story of the Annunciation as it has been recorded in St Luke’s Gospel and – a difficult feat in itself – to explain its significance in language that her young daughter (whose questioning came two days before her First Communion) could understand. To do so Read has harnessed her imagination as a published poet alongside her own conversion story, her response to learning she was pregnant with Flo and incidents from Flo’s own childhood that touch on aspects of Our Lady’s  moment of learning her supreme vocation.

Read tells us that the book was written six years after her conversion (a dramatic story she has told in her book, Night’s Bright Darkness) when her little daughter was then aged four. A print of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, which played a large part of the author’s consciousness “long before I believed in God”, hangs above Flo’s bed in their house near Rome – a superb visual aid to mother-daughter conversations and a way to anchor the structure of the book within Gospel reality.

Flo sounds a somewhat precocious child, serious beyond her years. Aged six and listening to stories of the early Christian martyrs, she told her mother “I don’t want to be a Christian”; later she asked, “How can I pray when there is so much suffering in the world?” Her mother is honest about her years of not believing in God before her conversion. This understanding of adult struggles will I think make it easier for Flo to come to have an authentic faith of her own as she grows up. Read describes her worries about the fear of abnormality during the early stages of her pregnancy, adding that although as an atheist at the time she accepted abortion in theory, she also “had the insight that no pregnancy would be perfect…The strangest word presented itself in my head: “Trust”.”

The “broken world” Read alludes to in her title is one she knew well from her past; thankfully, presented with the beauty and truth of faith in the person of Mary and in her own home, it is a world that her daughter may never know: “The existential aloneness…the cigarette at 3 am, the dregs of whisky and the seduction of hopeless songs is not your inheritance. Not any more”, her mother assures her; a reminder of what many of Flo’s peers will face as they grow up.

Read has given Flo a gift to be treasured; it is also a gift for any mother who wants to pass on her faith to an enquiring or doubting child who is – especially today – pulled sharply in two directions: the one inward, trustful and an invitation to prayer and to sacramental grace and the other – alluded to by Read – dominated by the constant distractions of smartphones and screens.