Stephanie's almost eleven now. Lucia's only eight. When Lucia speaks about "God's heart" and draws her many cheerful pictures in which hearts are prominent, it isn't always clear to what degree her sentiments are still inhabiting the world of grade-school valentines. She wanders back and forth between the saccharine and the sincerely moving. But Stephanie's tenacious in rejecting oversweetness. She lives with far too many serious concerns to get relief out of banality.

I asked her once, "What makes you cry?"

"I cry . when I miss my father," she replied, "or if my mother would pass away."

Her brother Matthew says that when he grows up he would like to serve in the Marines or the Army. Stephanie's two years younger than her brother but reacts to this as if she were his mother. "I want you to stay right here," she says, "I don't want you to die."

She has reason to be scared that people dear to her may die. "Some of my family members passed away," she says. "My grandmother's nephew, his mother, and his sister."

Matthew explains that first "the daughter and the mother died of AIDS" and "then the son"--his cousins--died from being shot here on the street.

When people pray, says Stephanie, they "don't only talk to God." They also "talk to whoever is dead in their family."

I ask if that's the meaning that it has for her to pray.

"Yes," she says. "I talk to people in my family . and the angels."

I once asked her what she thought the angels looked like.

"To me," she said, "they have the faces of the people that I love."

Stephanie and Matthew are two of the nicest and most honorable children I have ever known. Their religious convictions don't seem superficial. The imagery they use may be suggested by the words they hear from grown-ups or the liturgies they hear in church; but they transmute these images and make them into something of their own. "God's presence in the world" is a familiar, somewhat dulling notion, often heard in church. "God's heart" at work in pumping love into the world sounds more ambitious and, to me at least, it's more consoling.

I wish I could believe in God the way the children do; but there are many days when other kinds of "pumps"--the pump of ideology, the pump of avarice, the pump of injured dignity--appear to have a more relentless power than the heart of God. I guess the truth is that the vividness of Stephanie's beliefs--especially her nice idea of coaching God to do a better job--seems beautiful to me and yet I can't help saying to myself, "It's just a metaphor."

The effect her language has on me is not, I am afraid, authentically "religious" in the way most priests or ministers would use that word; it has to do with a desire to believe, more than belief itself. And yet the images the children use have a compelling hold that is much more, for me, than simply grown-up fascination with the various particulars of juvenile belief. Their words entangle my imagination. They "encircle" me somehow. When I reply to them I find I'm asking questions that might almost presuppose that I believe the things we talk about are real.

Teachers and clinicians comment on this now and then. They ask me if the questions I ask the children in this kind of interchange are calculated in some way that will "elicit" their beliefs by seeming to participate in their imaginary world--or, as one physician put it, by "appearing to walk right into their fantasies."

I would be glad if I deserved some credit for such careful planning, but I don't think this is true. It would be closer to the truth to say that when a boy like Elio or a girl like Stephanie is in a thoughtful mood and chooses to reveal a hidden place within the secret world of their imagination or belief, it feels to me as if I've just been handed a gold-plated invitation to come in and visit someplace where I've never been before. Once I look into that room, I want to enter.

I cannot receive the bread and wine when they are offered at the altar railing of St. Ann's. The state of mind in which they are received remains unknown to me and holds an element of mystery for my imagination. But there are many other mysteries to be discovered in the classrooms and the garden of an old stone church in the South Bronx, and one of the most perfect ones is when a child, for no reason you can think of, feels the impulse to unlock a secret from her soul. Sometimes it happens when we're sitting at a table in the after school, sometimes when we're walking in the garden of the church, sometimes in a whispered message through the heated tunnel of a child's hands placed right beside my ear.

Faith, says the author of the letter to the Hebrews, is "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." A friend of mine in the newspaper world who views religion skeptically, and seems embarrassed when I speak of the beliefs of children in a way that sounds too credulous to him, does what he can to credit me with a degree of rationality. "It's nice the way you play along with them," he says--I'm sure, not meaning to be condescending. "It's probably good for kids like them that they believe these things because there may be little else they can believe in."

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