Becoming like Children … Closer to God
A look at Children’s Spirituality by Erin Keller
Let the children come to me
As my eight year journey through the Christian Spirituality Program at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska drew to an end, I was surprised to find myself grieving. I had anticipated a sense of relief. For most people, this program was a three summer stop, but I was on the family plan. I began the program with a two-year old daughter and graduated with four beautiful children ages five, six, seven and ten. My classes had become a sanctuary for me, a place to rest in God and refocus. During my time at Creighton each class presented me with a fresh challenge to allow God into another area of my life. I opened to this new venture as a wife and mother of four children. Interesting enough, it was my children who would teach me more about being open to God’s presence. I became acutely aware of how they were experiencing a deep, authentic and carefree relationship with God. Children live their lives awake to the present moment and open to the love and mystery that is God.
At times, prayer can be seen as only a discipline and formula rather than the relationship it is intended to be. The experience of relational prayer is something children move in naturally. In Matthew 18:1-4, the disciples ask of Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus answers first by calling a little child to him and placing the child before them, he then says that “unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Rebekah Rojcewicz writes about this teaching of Jesus saying: “What strikes me is what Jesus did not say. He did not use this opportunity to tell us that we must protect the children (which, of course, we must). Even more pointedly, he did not seize upon the opportunity to commission us to be religious educators! As always, so it seems to me, Jesus carefully chose the moment and the words and he taught us the most important thing to know in our relationship with children: that we are to change and become like them.” (Religious Potential of the Child p.13) From this I realized I needed look no further than my own kitchen table for my teachers.
And a child shall lead them
What I have come to learn is that children, because they often do not have the wounds and burdens we gather throughout life, are wide open to God’s invitation to a deep friendship and the gift of heart to heart prayer. Scripture tells us that before all of creation existed, each of us were in the mind of God to be in union with Him through Jesus Christ. (Eph 1:4) God desires us. Because we come straight from God’s heart, our desire to be in a relationship with Him, to know His love, never leaves us. Everyone, even children, desire God, because we desire love. All of us want to connect with God. Although we should teach our children how to know and love God, Jesus encourages us to also follow their lead. One possible stumbling block for us as church, is when we discount the idea that children are capable of any religious experience at all.
Jerome Barrymore writes in his book Godly Play, “Some people have concluded that children do not experience existential questions. This is more than an error in fact. Undervaluing the existential experience of children can be very destructive for their spiritual growth” (Godly Play p.137). By denying that children have existential experiences, we are in a sense teaching them to distrust their own lived experience of God. As parents and as a Catholic community, we are responsible to walk with children in a way that enables them to remain connected to the vine … the heart of God. The Catholic Church teaches that we are created to know and love God. (CCC 44 – 49) It seems that we as church, both domestic and institutional, need to grasp and appreciate a child’s capacity to have religious experiences. It is therefore important to provide opportunities for our children to experience God, thus, empowering them to deepen their intimacy with the Lord. Through this, God becomes rooted in their lives.
Holy spaces for God-talk
Children desire to be heard and encouraged. They long for the adults they trust and love to listen, to be aware and open to what they may be trying to share at any given moment. It is in our listening that we are able to both affirm a child’s experience and be touched by God ourselves. My seven year old son Colin wanted desperately to share an experience of Jesus with me. I was busy helping my daughters organize their room and he kept telling me he found a different nail to hang his new calendar on so that he did not need to move his picture of Jesus. The picture of Jesus hung at eye level as you enter his room. After repeating this statement several times he finally asked if I would like to know why he did not want to take down his picture of Jesus. I stopped working, looked him in the eye, which is what he had been waiting for, and waited quietly to hear his story. He began, “Well, I was going to take down the picture of Jesus, then I realized that I can’t because when I look at him, he talks to me.” I replied, “He does? What does He say?” He continued eagerly, “If I am upset when I come into my room, he says, “Colin, I know you are frustrated, but buddy, you just need to calm down.” Colin continued to say, “so I decided I’d better not take down his picture and I found another nail.” I sat in awe of the openness and wisdom of this child God had gifted me with. We talked about how Jesus talks to everyone, but that not everyone slows down enough to listen. I affirmed him for the grace that he accepts in order to be open to and truly hear the words of God.
This interaction with my son showed me that in order for a child’s experiences of God to deepen and take root, they need a language in which to articulate their experience and opportunity to share it. Making spiritual conversation a natural part of their daily vocabulary is essential. When we listen to our children and give them space to share their God-moments, in their own language, we encourage their openness to God and nurture a spiritual confidence within them. The most important tool in walking our children into God’s heart, is to be actively on the journey ourselves. We can help lead them as far as we are willing to go. Often, it is our children with their pure hearts who lead us … if we allow them to.
Barryman, Jerome W. “Godly Play.” Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Press, 199
Cavalletti, Sofia. “The Religious Potential of the Child.” Chicago, IL: Liturgy Training Publications, 1992