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The Spiritual Guidance of Children: Montessori, Godly Play, and the Future

The Spiritual Guidance of Children: Montessori, Godly Play, and the Future

by Jerome W. Berryman

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This new book is an important “history-of-traditions” work in which Godly Play founder Jerome Berryman re-visions religious education as spiritual guidance and traces the history of Montessori religious education through four generations. Berryman then highlights the development of the Godly Play approach to spiritual guidance within this context and


This new book is an important “history-of-traditions” work in which Godly Play founder Jerome Berryman re-visions religious education as spiritual guidance and traces the history of Montessori religious education through four generations. Berryman then highlights the development of the Godly Play approach to spiritual guidance within this context and concludes with thoughts about the fifth generation and the future of the tradition.

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The Spiritual Guidance of Children

Montessori, Godly Play, and the Future

By Jerome W. Berryman

Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2013 Jerome W. Berryman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-2841-3


Children and the Quest for Spiritual Maturity

What do children need from adults and what do adults need from children for the spiritual quest? The answer is the same for both: spiritual guidance. Children require adult spiritual guidance, because they need the permission and the means to develop their spirituality. Adults require children's spiritual guidance, because by being who they are, children can refresh and re-center spiritual growth in adults. Without this mutual blessing children and adults are likely to lack the dynamic wholeness and authenticity they were created to enjoy.

What are the means for spiritual guidance? They are the same for children and adults. They come in a toolbox called "classical, Christian language." Children need to begin learning the art of how to use these tools as early as possible to live meaningfully within the existential edges of their being and knowing. Adults need to continue developing this art by renewing what they knew as children of God's presence, so they can think about what this means for their daily lives in richer and more flexible ways.

The phrase "classical, Christian language" may be offensive to some. It sounds pretentious and overbearing. The phrase feels historically stuck. It snarls and can signify dysfunction. I understand these connotations because I have felt them myself. Still, be patient. Relax. Enjoy the story. It's about crawling out on a limb.

* * *

When I was a child we lived in a brown house on a corner. I could look out of my bedroom window and see my grandmother's white house on the other corner. Between us was her overflowing flower garden. Across the street I could see the playground of the grade school where I spent eight years and just beyond grandmother's corner was the solid brick church with its square bell tower. Not every child gets to grow up with such a correlation of space and destiny or the safety and freedom to explore it.

One summer evening I was listening to the grown-ups talking on my grandmother's porch while I was catching lightning bugs in the twilight. Someone said, "He'd crawled out too far," and everyone laughed. I moved closer and asked, "What's 'too far'?"

"Oh, you know, when the limb breaks off."

"How do you know when that's going to happen?"

"You just do."

"What happens then?"

"You fall." Everyone laughed again.

"What happens then?"

"Go run and play." I did, but the next day I began to look at the trees in my grandmother's yard in a different way.

Then it happened. I climbed up into a large apricot tree and crawled slowly out on a limb, farther and farther and farther. It began to bend. I didn't hear the sound, like a big stick breaking, until I was on my back in the grass looking up. I was lying amid ripe apricots with the splintered limb beside me. We—the limb, the apricots and I—had all fallen. I can still smell the rotting fruit and hear the buzzing insects. Were they laughing? I was!

* * *

The tree this book explores is about Godly Play, a well-developed way to provide spiritual guidance for children and adults together. Its goal is for children to enter adolescence with an inner working model of the Christian language system. By a "working model" I mean the ability to use classical Christian language to create meaning about life and death. Since about 1984, Godly Players have thought about this goal in terms of "speaking Christian" as a second language.

"Speaking Christian" as a Second Language

If "speaking Christian" is a second language, what is the first one? It is the language of everyday, which is a loose collection of phrases from technical languages such as engineering, physics, medicine, psychology, and law combined with regional and family colloquialisms.

We usually think of a "second language" as a foreign language, such as Spanish or German. In those cases we are aware that we need to get the words and gestures right to communicate. We also understand that knowing the cultural context is fundamental to understanding the meaning of the words. The same is true for specialized languages within English, such as law or medicine. Each has its technical vocabulary, gestures, and a cultural context. It may take years of graduate training to learn to speak such languages. Speaking Christian is also a specialized language within English, but its "foreignness" often goes unnoticed or underappreciated.

Learning "Christian" as a second language is more complex than often realized, because the language system is so odd. Its toolbox contains sacred stories, parables, liturgical action, and contemplative silence. Each of these four genres requires a different skill, awareness of tone, and a special art for using its form and content to make meaning.

Learning how to use this odd language is like learning any art. For example, how does one learn to be a painter? Can you learn this art by selling paintings, studying art history, manufacturing paintbrushes or paints, being the curator of an art museum, or knowing painters socially? No. To be a painter you need to paint. The same is true for the art of speaking Christian. You have to use it to know it and the earlier you begin to know it, the easier it is to become fluent, as with any language. Godly Play helps children learn this art early, so they can become artists of the Christian life.

The way Godly Play contributes to this art is by helping children associate Christian language with the creative process while they are using it to make existential meaning. This grounds them in their tradition and yet leaves them creatively open to explore the world with a kind of playful orthodoxy. This phrase, playful orthodoxy, sounds like an oxymoron only because orthodoxy and play are seldom associated. Orthodoxy usually stands for closure and playful nods toward openness. Together, however, they provide a safe place to venture out from and return to with the passion to know new people and ideas, as well as to meet the future in creative ways. Helping children get a feel for playful orthodoxy, as they learn to speak Christian, is more important than one might think, because Christian language needs to be absorbed and activated by the whole person, since our existential limits involve every bit of who we are. This is why Christian education is bigger than you may think.

Christian Education Is Bigger Than You Think

Teaching a specific religion to children today is sometimes quietly dismissed or loudly rejected, but this response is largely irrational. It comes from thinking too small about Christian education. There are at least seven reasons for this. Most people, growing up inside or outside the church, have never experienced Christian education's comprehensive wholeness, which is more like spiritual guidance than education in the narrow sense.

First, most people don't usually realize that Christian education's larger vision involves communicating with and caring for the wholeness of the child's body-mind-spirit unity. When the body and spirit are ignored you get Christian education reduced to memory, reason, and will. The teaching becomes a transfer of church "facts," the telling and memorizing of Bible stories in clever ways, or learning reasons to believe. When the mind and spirit are trimmed away the result is adult-created art projects for children to copy, activity-as-entertainment, and force fed, high-energy games to keep children busy and out of the way. When spirituality is ignored, religion is taught as an empty practice, which is fruitless and obnoxious. When any truncated version of Christian education is substituted for the larger vision, then the teaching and learning loses touch with the existential reality of the children's lives.

Gabriel Moran, the great Roman Catholic educator, theologian, and linguistic philosopher began teaching and reflecting on teaching religion in 1958. After about forty years of experience he reduced what he was doing to two words in the title of his book, Showing How. You probably already agree with him. Have you ever said ironically, "Do as I say but not as I do," and then laughed? The laughter shows that you already know that Christian education is about "showing how," rather than talking about something the children are supposed to think, feel, or do. It takes the whole person to show how the whole person is involved in the Christian life. This is why showing how is more important than explaining how in Christian education.

Christian education is also larger than commonly thought because it involves children in absorbing and activating the whole Christian language domain. This immensity is missed, because many adults are unclear themselves about the scope of Christian language as a system and the uniqueness of how its sacred stories, parables, liturgical action, and contemplative silence are integrated into a way of speaking and living. Some adults have also not realized that the primary function of this language domain is to make existential meaning, which is to think personally about who we truly are and the limits to our being and knowing. This may sound boring, but children are very happy to have a way to cope with their existential limits.

It is sometimes thought that children are not aware of their existential limits, so it is assumed that they would not be interested in learning how to cope with them, but that is an adult fallacy—one that results in the repression of childhood memories and gives too much credence to adult language and routine. Children grow so fast and experience so much chaos that they are always in touch with their limits. This is why Christian language is important to children and makes them happy to find adults who will help them cope with their boundaries by giving them this language.

The third reason many think too small about Christian education is to hide rather than celebrate God's vastness. Since God's presence is overwhelming, we often try to reduce God to something more manageable than infinity to teach.

In the middle of the last century when Christianity was supposedly in its modern ascendency, J. B. Phillips, a biblical scholar and theologian, published a little book with a big challenge: Your God Is Too Small. He described thirteen small gods, which often masquerade as the God of Christianity. They are: the "Resident Policeman," "Parental Hangover," "Grand Old Man," "Meek-and-Mild," "Absolute Perfection," "Heavenly Bosom," "God-in-a-Box," "Managing Director," "Second-hand God," "Perennial Grievance," "Pale Galilean," "Projected Image," and "Assorted." He concluded that there must be more than elusive sparks and flashes of the divine when one takes seriously what might happen if God really did enter life on our planet. How would that work? Would not God need to be completely divine and completely human at the same time? But that's impossible, isn't it? It is only impossible if your thinking about God is too small. Christian education is about the big God.

A fourth way people try to shrink Christian education is by sending children off to be "educated" instead of being involved in the whole church. What if the energy invested in seeking new adult members were spent inviting children into the congregation with radical generosity and skill? Much of the decline in church membership comes from children leaving and not coming back. Perhaps, if we provided something useful for the development of their spirituality and they were part of the community, then they would remain. Of course, they would critique what is going on from their generation's point of view, but they would do this as insiders rather than outsiders, which is what the church needs.

Excluding children from the congregation can be obvious as well as subtle. Obvious ways have been catalogued many times, but a more subtle exclusion is to not teach Christian language to children so they can speak the language of their community! When teaching Christian language fails, exclusion is taught by default. Children may even be included politically in the church but if they are not included spiritually and linguistically they are not full members.

Ignoring children in the church is an unrealized defensive act. Children present a powerful challenge to what adults conceive of as spiritual maturity. Jesus was very forthright when speaking about this error, made by his disciples, as well as us. He said that if you want to become spiritually mature you need to become like a child (Matthew 18:3, Mark 10:15, Luke 18:17) and if you really want to know him and the one who sent him, you need to welcome children (Mark 9:37). His seriousness about this was expressed in the millstone texts, which were also recorded in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 18:6, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2).

The power of becoming like children and welcoming them cannot be understood if it is not experienced, but it can't be experienced if adults avoid being with children in the church. If Jesus' disciples didn't understand this, why should we expect people to "get it" today? One reason we should expect more from adults today is that we have a more open view of children in our society than the disciples did in the first century. This is often blocked, however, in the church by the de facto theology of children, which still functions informally. We have an unspoken theological heritage of ambivalence, ambiguity, and indifference toward children that still outweighs our understanding of children as a means of grace.

A fifth reason we think too small about Christian education is that we underestimate the role it plays in the constructive communication among all the world's religions. This lack of appreciation is changing, but Christians need a deep and solid, yet open and creative appropriation of their own language and way of life to be able to talk with people of other religions from depth to depth. This is of growing importance because the people from other religions, who used to live across the oceans, now live across the street. It is sobering to ask what we are teaching about Christianity by the way we live our daily lives and the language we use to talk about life and death.

Communicating from depth to depth is not just a matter of communicating what Christianity is. It is also about putting ourselves in the shoes of people from other religions, but this is impossible if we have never mindfully experienced walking in our own shoes as Christians. One needs to know the pinching limits and the expansive beauty of our own shoes to fully appreciate what it is like to walk in the shoes of others.

Communicating from depth to depth is the only way to build trust, despite difference, that is strong enough to deal with the stress and strain caused by the violent aberrations found in all religions. Communicating from depth to depth with perspective is how the religions of the world can become the solution for violence rather than its cause. This large and noble calling for Christian education goes far beyond fomenting suspicion or advocating for blandness as the only alternatives to religious differences. It challenges us to move forward with people of other religions to help heal the earth.

There is a sixth way that Christian education has been diminished. This has to do with gender. Children need to experience men and women working together with them in Christian education. Christianity is not about being male or female. It is about working and praying together regardless of differences. Most Christian educators know and deeply care that an all-female church school teaches something they don't mean to teach.

I can't help but smile as I write this. Thea and I worked together in Presbyterian and Episcopal parishes for nearly fifty years. The roles associated with males and females were always being challenged back and forth between us and with the parish. There was laughter, seriousness, frustration, teasing, and uproarious satire. Still, it was only occasionally that we were able to satisfy our ideal of a man and woman working together, as we did, in each Godly Play room. Teaching such wholeness is not just a matter for the church but it is important for the future health of our species.

Finally, Christian education is reduced when it does not help enrich the wholeness of our species. The wholeness I am referring to is not just about being male and female. It is about the millions of years it took to develop a brain big enough to support the kind of thinking we take for granted today and the social patterns needed to support infants, during their long apprenticeship compared with other species, to become human. This all came together about thirty thousand years ago to produce a human being, but today we are in danger of shrinking our view of humankind when we take too small a view of Christian education.

Steven Mithen combined knowledge about prehistory with modern cognitive science to stake out a theory about our humanity. First, our ancestors had minds dominated by a general intelligence. Second, their general intelligence divided into specialized intelligences, like the blades of a Swiss army knife. Finally, cognitive fluidity developed to the point that the special intelligences could work together. Art, religion, and science (making and using tools) began to blend to create the modern mind.

Excerpted from The Spiritual Guidance of Children by Jerome W. Berryman. Copyright © 2013 Jerome W. Berryman. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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