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The Spirituality of Children
"As she followed her father down the passage Arietty's heart began to beat faster. Now the moment had come at last she found it almost too much to bear. She felt light and trembly, and hollow with excitement."
—Mary Norton, The Borrowers
At the age of ten, Jessica stands poised on a threshold, feeling the same excitement as the fictional character Arietty. Jessica is entering the process of Christian initiation, a unique blend of contemporary experience and ancient heritage.
It helps to know Jessica's background. She had been best friends with Lupe ever since first grade three years ago. They lived in the same neighborhood, went to the same school and took turns spending Saturday night at each other's house. Both families were accustomed to the sight of Jessica's auburn braid beside Lupe's glossy black hair, bending over a project together.
Jessica is entering the process of Christian initiation, a unique blend of contemporary experience and ancient heritage.
Sometimes, Jessica went to church with Lupe on Sunday, and there she realized that Lupe's family had something her own family lacked. While her mom and dad were good people, they did not belong to any formal religious tradition. They saw Sunday morning as a welcome relief from the hectic, dash-to-work schedule of other days.
At Lupe's house, Sunday morning meant church, and Jessica enjoyed being squished in the car with the whole Montoya family. At Mass, she liked to hum along with the music, smell the incense, hear the stories and watch the sunlight on the flowers. When the community prayed for homeless, hungry or warring people all over the globe, Jessica sensed a much larger world than her own small orbit of school, mall, playground and home.
Jessica probably does not know that she steps onto an ancient path, renewed and enriched within the last twenty years.
While Jessica felt that Mass was meaningful and enjoyed participating, she also felt a little sad. She wanted to be part of this group, but at the same time, she knew she didn't belong to it. She envied the way the Montoyas' religion with its stories, beliefs, attitudes, celebrations and practices gave meaning, order and variety to their family life. Jessica asked questions that her mom couldn't answer from vague memories of Sunday school. Finally, after a particularly moving midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Jessica told her mom she wanted to have what the Montoyas had.
Jessica's mother talked it over with her husband and after much discussion, approached Lupe's mom. The two women talked, then Jessica's parents met with the parish coordinator of initiation. Thus, Jessica was invited to begin, with her family, the process that would lead to full initiation in the Catholic Christian community.
Jessica probably does not know that she steps onto an ancient path, renewed and enriched within the last twenty years. She begins the process as did Euphemius, a hypothetical ten-year-old of the late fourth century. Aidan Kavanagh describes Euphemius's initiation at the Easter Vigil.
Purposely not told what to expect, the boy is almost drowned in the baptismal pool, gasps for air, is anointed with an enormously expensive oil whose fragrance fills the room, leads the procession to eat bread and drink wine and milk mixed with honey. Damp, oily and fragrant, Euphemius carries a terra-cotta lamp to symbolize that he represents Christ newly risen in his new life. Kavanagh concludes: "Euphemius had come a long way. He had passed from death into a life he lives still." Sixteen centuries later, Jessica will have a similar initiation.
Hidden Mysteries of Childhood
Meeting Jessica for the first time, an initiation director might see scraped knees, disheveled hair and freckled face. Yet familiarity with a child's spirituality, development and learning style provides insight into a rich inner world. It is toward that hidden mystery that the whole initiation process is directed.
Jesus appreciated the mystery of children's spirituality. He welcomed children. He blessed them and taught that unless adults receive the kingdom of God as humbly and responsively as a child, they cannot be part of the kingdom (Mark 10:14-16).
The realm of children's spirituality is vast. Yet those who prepare children for initiation would do well to begin by adapting the stance of Robert Coles, the author of The Spiritual Life of Children. Coles advocates humility before children's exquisitely private moments of "awe and wonder and alarm and apprehension." His research was rewarded when he abandoned one-sided inquiry and joined in speculative conversation. Similarly, the appropriate model of the initiating church is a big ear, reverently inclined toward the child.
Coles' research found that children ask the eternal questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Although they may give no external indications, children have thought long and hard about who God is. Various forms of "Kids' Letters to God" are perennial favorites because, beyond their humor, the children hint at deep truth.
"Children are messengers from a world we once deeply knew, but we have long since forgotten." At times children take refuge in silence, wisely understanding that they cannot express the inexpressible. A deep sigh of satisfaction after hearing a scripture story can be their prayer, "Thanks be to God." Their silence can speak through gesture, art, recounting a dream. Quiet or seeming apathy can camouflage a lively inner landscape. Initiation directors are often astonished by the children who appear to have been bouncing around the room, not paying attention, but then reveal profound insights.
Longing for God
Researchers who work and write in the area of children's spirituality explore principles that shed light on the process of Christian initiation. For example, children's spirituality is not necessarily proportionate to their environment. In other words, the child of atheists may seem drawn to God more than the child of practicing Catholics. Children know things about God that no one has told them. Sofia Cavalletti found many children, growing up without religious influence or education, can express profound convictions about God. Abundant evidence led her to believe that the young child has a special attraction to and union with God.
It is natural for children to long for love, and to find an infinite source in the God who is love. Since children are drawn so directly to God, adults can learn from them and abandon structures that are often superfluous.
It is natural for children to long for love, and to find an infinite source in the God who is love.
While any relationship with God is mystery, children try to tether the mysterious to the concrete, finding heaven and hell right here in daily life. Coles cites the example of an eight-year-old girl whose religious convictions helped her endure hateful racial warfare. She reported that as segregationists screamed at her, "suddenly I saw God smiling and I smiled."
When a child uses innovative language about God, it is a sign that he or she is probably thinking independently. For instance, Theresa described Jesus' mission: "It was no picnic, his visit here."
Relation to Church
Children's sense of morality is based more on everyday actions than on church attendance. Twelve-year-old Martin, interviewed by Coles, said, "People will fight—then with their friends, they hold hands. It's what you mostly do that counts, I guess ... Even if a [person] doesn't go to church, he can be religious, because he's doing what's right to do."
The symbols and rites of initiation speak to the mystery of a child's spirituality.
David Heller suggests that children are less interested in attendance at formal liturgies than in the quality of belief expressed in everyday ways. A lengthy, boring Mass is often punctuated by the wail of a child: "How long will this last?" Or, as a puzzled Hallie said, "We light candles on Fridays, but I don't really understand why." Heller cautions against making children "the small marionettes of religious theatre, acting ... a prepared script."
Children resist the efforts of formal religious instruction to block original or unconventional views and discourage discovery. Asked to fill in a worksheet about the Trinity during an evening catechetical session, nine-year-old Ryan protested. "But I did these for six hours in school today! I don't want to do another."
Research also tells us that children should be helped to focus less on the expectations of others, more on their expectations of themselves. For instance, Coles at first thought the Hopi girl Natalie was rude. She paused for long stretches during their conversation to observe hawks overhead. Yet when she shared her insights (and details Coles had missed), he felt like the rude one, pushing her to discuss her spirituality instead of letting her experience it.
Relevance of Research to Initiation
Summarizing the research on children's spirituality can help the initiation director to incorporate the following points as he or she begins the process:
Listen to the silence of children as well as to the questions and insights they express.
Trust the children's openness to God.
Relate all activities and discussions to the everyday experiences of life.
Understand that the symbols and rites of initiation speak to the mystery of a child's spirituality.
Believe that the relationships built during initiation are helping to form each child's life of faith.
Since the Rite is clear about a "conversion that is personal and somewhat developed, in proportion to their age" (RCIA, #253), it is important to understand the different developmental stages of those in the initiation group. Like any guidelines, they are general and should be adapted to fit the individual.
Ages Seven and Eight
Young children are fostering a relationship with Jesus as friend and brother. He is their savior; they respond in a heartfelt way to his redemptive coming as a child. As Robert Coles points out, Jesus is "often presented in church as a child, one who for a long while lived as other children do—in relative obscurity, with a family. Moreover, he was a child who later had an important mission, and for many children, intent even at eight or ten on finding out what the future holds, Christ's life stands as a concrete example."
Furthermore, children this age are natural ritual-makers. Anything they do once becomes a tradition: "We've always done it this way!" Thus, through participation in ritual they come to understand more than they can articulate. (See chapter 5, "Minor Rites and Ritual Gestures.")
Seven- and eight-year-olds display a great curiosity about formal conceptions of God. Their questions about God are triggered by particular issues in their own lives. They also express the desire to feel special, often because of the birth of younger siblings who claim a large share of parental attention. They are beginning to develop a sense of loneliness within the family as they realize that the family cannot shield them from every unknown and cannot meet every need. Their concepts of God are directly related to their interpersonal relationships, especially to the parents' absence or attention.
Ages Nine to Twelve
Nine- to twelve-year-olds are often concrete thinkers who can reason about their lived experience and can generalize about cause and effect relationships. Their growing relationship with Jesus enables them to make connections between Jesus and their daily lives. Furthermore, as Coles explains: "When children flounder a bit psychologically and morally, Jesus turns into a personal guide: he has been where I am, and so he knows, and he will lead me to an outcome in this life and in an afterlife, that is 'good,' that need not be feared."
Children this age may see God as a stern judge or rule-maker. This image can be broadened by presenting stories of God as wind, mother hen, potter, bread or vine.
Ten- to twelve-year-olds may know more religious information, but also have stronger doubts. As they develop firmer self-images, they are increasingly aware of life's uncertainties. Perhaps because they feel less protected by their parents and see their families as less idyllic, they fear pain or suffering. They may ask elemental questions such as:
What is God's role in suffering?
Why does God allow pain?
Much formal theology centers on these questions. We can affirm children's musings by telling them that many great thinkers have struggled with the same issues. We honor Job, Martha and Thomas in scripture for their role as holy doubters. Jesus accepts us with all our unresolved questions. Furthermore, he is a "God who weeps with us" and feels our pain.
As children become more aware of their limitations, they ask whether God has any limits.
As children become more aware of their limitations, they ask whether God has any limits. They hope that God can compensate for the things they cannot do. In the same vein, children who come from difficult family situations find that God meets deep needs their homes fail to satisfy. "This does not mean reducing the religious fact to a substitute for what life sometimes does not give; instead, it means that the religious reality responds to what our human nature indispensably needs."
One little girl who had been sexually abused by her father, rather than turning from the image of God as father, loved the divine Father who would never hurt her.
Ages Thirteen to Seventeen
Thirteen-to seventeen-year-olds are dealing with many difficult issues, including puberty, identity questions, their own emotional roller-coaster and the growing recognition of suffering in the world. Unless spirituality is relevant to these issues, it will take second place. If scripture has no bearing on immediate problems, it is likely to be dismissed. Pat answers are suspect. Honest admission of doubt is preferable.
The very challenges of this age group can work for the catechist. Adolescents' enhanced cognitive abilities can contribute to their religious development. They are better able to grasp abstractions, to construct theories. Their idealism leads them to search out role models and reject hypocrisy. Often critical, argumentative and egocentric, they rise to the challenge to think for themselves. Starting to believe in their own uniqueness, they can come to a personal, owned faith. They may be starting to communicate with a personal God. Developing a keen sense of right and wrong, they willingly make short-term commitments to service projects.
The process of initiation offers young people the chance to challenge and test Christian faith as they seek to make it authentically their own.
While achieving independence of family is a developmental task of adolescence, recent research shows that parents remain the most important influence in a teenager's life. The Search Institute of Minneapolis studied 273,000 young people to identify assets that would provide security and contribute to healthy development. The top three were all related to the love, support and advice of parents or primary caregivers. Asked why he was joining the Catholic Church, fourteen-year-old Russell attributed his interest to the mornings he spent with his dad at "Sunday Lunch Bunch," making sandwiches for the homeless.
The process of initiation offers young people the chance to challenge and test Christian faith as they seek to make it authentically their own. Appropriate discussion questions with them are:
So what difference does this make, anyway?
Do you really believe this or not? Why?
Where in your life outside of this group have you dealt with this issue this week?
Jessica's learning style is her personal window on the world. It determines how she thinks, makes judgments and experiences people and events. Three typical learning styles:
auditory—learning by hearing and speaking
visual—learning by seeing
kinesthetic/tactile—learning by moving and touching
The most effective catechists offer varied activities for all the different learning styles in a group. School systems often make the mistake of concentrating on one style (usually the visual or auditory). The kinesthetic learner may be given short shrift in sessions that demand long stretches of sitting and listening. (The sample sessions in chapters 6–9 offer activities that appeal to each learning style.)
Contrast the following scenes of two catechists breaking open the word with children in the process of initiation. Maya reads them the story of Jesus feeding thousands with a few loaves and fishes. As she discusses it, some children join in eagerly, while others glance at the clock, tip their chairs, or examine the shoe styles of the other children. Maya concludes by asking the children to memorize a verse from the story. Some are ready to recite it in a few minutes; others are starting to act out their boredom and irritation.
Excerpted from Children and Christian Initiation: Leader Guide by Kathy Coffey, Anne Kosel. Copyright © 2007 Kathy Coffey. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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