Welcome to our third issue of Editions, created to complement the conversation packs we will be producing at regular intervals over the next few years.
Stephen Wright is used to working with adults in spiritual direction, but talking about faith and life with his grandchildren is something different. He reflects on this and invites us to remember adults who impressed and helped form us when we were young.
Karen Turner tells us how a recurring Bible passage about Jacob’s ladder gave her family comfort at a time of change and upheaval and then how they established a novel prayer routine on the stairs of their new home …
Roz Stockley has been involved in introducing pupils and teachers in primary schools to the practice of daily meditation as a whole school activity. Her experience is that even children as young as four ‘get it’ quite quickly and settle naturally and calmly into a time of silence together, with marked effects on behaviour and learning.
Hannah Field, Mission Development Worker for Girls’ Brigade (GB) England and Wales, works to ensure that GB groups are welcoming places full of openness and expectancy, where it’s okay to ask challenging questions, explore and simply be.
My second grandchild was born only a week ago, as I write this. I am once again, as when my children were born, blown away by the experience of holding a tiny baby and looking her in the eye and she looking in mine – searching me out.
Introducing the first of the conversation booklets that accompany this magazine, Mark Davis writes: ‘psychologists inform us that the quality of welcome received by infants is highly significant to their development’. I trust that as a second-time nanny I will not only warmly welcome my granddaughter, but also be open to what I learn in seeing the world afresh through her eyes.
We welcome your personal reflections and responses to the ideas we raise in these pages.
We are grateful for the sponsorship of the resource by Methodist Women in Britain who suggested the overall theme and also contributed to its production.
Note: Scroll down to read this issue of Editions. This is designed to display best on a tablet device or laptop, and a page turner version is also available here, but a hard copy of this beautiful A3 publication, printed on high quality paper, can also be purchased from our shop for only £5.00 + p&p.
Minding my own language Stephen Wright, spiritual director and grandfather, reflects on how his ‘god-talk’ conversations with his grandchildren challenge him to be authentic, to ‘walk the talk’ and to find language and stories that fit with the children’s real world experience
My 8-year-old granddaughter came home from school and announced that there had been an outbreak of mumps. “It’s God’s punishment” she asserted. Moments like this are opportunities for ‘God’ talk. Where did she get this idea of a punishing God? What was God really like if not like that? Is there ‘God’ at all? That’s how spiritual guidance tends to work with kids; it has to be spontaneous. This can be scary for grown-ups, pushing us into the difficult terrain of doubt about our own beliefs and how to express them before a child.
I’m used to working with adults in spiritual direction, but children are a very different kettle of fish. They do not process information or possess the personality structures or life experiences of adults. Children tend to come at things from a much more direct, uncluttered perspective. They want to know, they want fixity and they want to work it all out. A mature spirituality tends to leave behind black and white articles of faith and can be anything but fixed and certain. Explaining this to others, not least a child, can be a tough call.
“living in a way that is congruent with what we say is true, mirroring those qualities of the divine that we want children to know…”
My children and grandchildren know something of my religiosity – they’ve been to church with me, seen the books I’ve written, shared grace at mealtimes. I resolved long ago never to proselytise, but such a resolution from an adult requires that we feel no need to make children believe what we believe, that we are not afraid that they won’t get it ‘right’ without our instruction, that we trust God is at work in them. God talk, when it comes up, can thus be part of ordinary conversation.
When children raise those spiritual questions, such an encounter is full of opportunity to edge them towards truth. But the adult has to respond from a place of self-awareness and clarity of intention; we bring all our unconscious and conscious stuff into such encounters. The nature of our relationship to the Beloved – the degree of love, trust, fear – leaks into any adult-child discourse.
Perhaps one of the greatest services we can offer to children in their spiritual formation is to get ourselves out of the way, to put all our stuff to one side and seek to really be with the child, to see the world from their point of view and find language and stories that fit with the child’s real world experience – not just ours. And to do so authentically – ‘walking our talk’, speaking and living in a way that is congruent with what we say is true, mirroring those qualities of the divine that we want children to know. Indeed, to children we are Gods, but they also have the knack of sussing out hypocrisy and deception. Truth is sabotaged when we speak of a loving God, then behave brutally.
“I find it hugely enriching to see faith and myself, warts and all, through the eyes of children.”
It is common in spiritual direction to meet people seeking the reality of God who are blocked by unhealthy projections onto God acquired from parents during childhood. One woman I met was frightened by God – to her a remote male figure always ready to punish if she ‘failed’ him. Here spirituality and psychology overlap – for in exploring her relationship with her father, guess what he was like?
Recently my 13-year-old grandson and I took off for a holiday to Iona. I was reminded how ‘side to side’ moments – in the car or walking the hills – provide a different milieu for conversation. Facing outward rather than each other we talked and talked over every aspect of meaning in life. The ordinary moment cohabited by the young and old person is full of potential for truth seeking. It’s always a mutual process too; I find it hugely enriching to see faith and myself, warts and all, through the eyes of children.
As for that incident with my granddaughter and the ‘punishing’ God, it made me much more circumspect about church services. I have resolved not to expose any of my grandchildren to language that tells them they are anything but beautiful, precious and worthy and loved by God as they are. To do otherwise would be a kind of child abuse.
It is worth reflecting on adults that impressed and helped form us when we were young with their loving virtues. Are they not with us still, and thus enjoying a kind of immortality? We adults are doing the same now with the adults of the future. Who we are and what we do now is helping to form the legacy of Truth in them. That is the measure of the responsibility we bear. How will they hold us in their hearts long after we are gone?
Stephen Wright works with organisations developing the practice of healing, spiritual care, conflict resolution and staff support. He is an ordained interfaith minister and spiritual director and brings a rich experience of spiritual practice from many faiths to his work. The Sacred Space Foundation, Fell End, Mungrisdale, Cumbria CA11 0XR t: 01768 77983 w:www.sacredspace.org.uk e: email@example.com
Praying as a family Halfway up the stairs of their new manse, a mysterious little cupboard gave Karen Turner the idea of a new family routine…
I went on a wonderful retreat when my youngest son was 18 months old. It was very hard to leave him, but to be honest it was also amazing to enjoy some solitude and some silent time with God.
When I returned, however, I realised that my experience felt strangely disconnected from the rest of my life. I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to have the kind of spiritual life that was just waiting for the next retreat (however good they may be). I wanted my spiritual life to be about all of my life and to include the people that I live with. In fact, I wanted my family to be a bit like a monastic community. Why not? Aren’t families what monasteries are modelled on, after all?
I know that all families and households are different, but in our case there are four of us, and our boys are 9 and 12. Several years ago when we were in the process of moving to where we currently live, there was a Bible passage that kept popping up. You know how that sometimes happens?
It was the story of Jacob’s dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth in Genesis 28 .In that time of upheaval and mourning and change, it comforted us, reassuring us that, even if it didn’t feel like it, God was with us in that place. ‘Wherever you go,’ God says to Jacob, ‘I will watch over you’.
As we explored our new home, one of the things we first noticed was that the house had a relatively large landing halfway up the stairs with a mysterious little cupboard in the wall. Almost immediately, I think, we thought that it could become a kind of prayer corner for us in this house and we called it the ‘prayer stair’.
“When grandparents come to visit, they join us on the prayer stair because that is what we do.”
Our boys, then both primary school aged, chose what colour to paint the inside of our cupboard on the prayer stair and then they did the painting. We talked about what we would do there and how we would do it .We filled the cupboard with things that we thought would help us to pray: Bibles, books, a candle, holding crosses, pictures and a chalkboard where we could write the names of those we wanted to remember.
We don’t have a set-in-stone formula that we use, although we usually have a Bible reading taken from a lectionary and we usually choose one of several ways to pray together out loud. Sometimes we use liturgies and set forms of prayer. Occasionally the boys take the initiative to lead what we do – either by typing up their own liturgy or even by making a PowerPoint. We’ve sometimes listened to a song or sometimes have sung one.
This happens most nights but not all nights, for various reasons. It could be that one of us has to rush out for a meeting or someone calls round. Sometimes the boys complain about going on the prayer stair. I should be quick to say that the prayer stair only happens most nights because my husband is quite good at keeping us to it – I tend to be more forgetful.
Just in case I’m painting a very pious image in your mind, I should also say that it sometimes happens that one of us gets the giggles, and, catching as they are, it has been known for us all to laugh until tears run down our faces. This, too, can be a gift. (And to be honest, some parts of the Bible are really funny.)
The most surprising thing to me about our prayer stair tradition is the people who have joined us there. When grandparents come to visit, they join us on the prayer stair because that is what we do. There isn’t usually another time during their visit when we pray together so this has felt really precious.
We recently had some young people from a former youth group visiting. They joined us on the prayer stair. It was a bit of a squeeze. Even babysitters and our children’s friends have joined us on the prayer stair. I think it doesn’t feel weird because it has become normal for us.
When storms rage outside or within us, the prayer stair offers a moment of sanctuary that we are sometimes able to accept. At times this has felt life-saving.
It may be that the prayer stair pattern won’t work so well when our children are teenagers, or if we move to a different house, but whatever form our prayer takes, I hope it will be as normal a part of our lives as the stairs that we walk up and down each day.
Of children and christian meditation Roz Stockley explains the benefits of children’s regular meditation times
Children are natural contemplatives so if we encourage them to be still and open their hearts to the divine love within, they will have a gift to last the rest of their lives. Sowing the seed of meditation in the young child allows God do the work of God and provides the foundation for paying attention, which is love1.
Why is it that children understand about Christian meditation, when it may take a lifetime for adults to find this out? You would be amazed that children as young as four ‘get it’ quite quickly, without the agonising and prevaricating that often haunts their older relatives, friends or teachers. After being introduced to the mantra, or prayer word, which is to be repeated throughout the silent time, children settle into this silence naturally and calmly. There is no objective, we tell them, but to spend time with Jesus. And that is what they do – once a day, every day, in many Christian schools in the UK and in 25 other countries throughout the world.
“Sometimes the children who benefit the most are the children with special needs”
It was in 2005, through the initiative of Bishop Putney, in Townsville Diocese, Australia, that all school children were introduced to Christian meditation, following the practice adopted by Dom John Main and, after his death, by The World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM). Once the practicalities had been worked out and the programme implemented, it began to have a powerful transformative effect on children. Through teaching the children the value of silence in a very noisy and busy world and introducing them to prayer that is not talking to God but listening to him, the teachers began to notice the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22) – joy, peace, love, understanding, patience etc. – developing in their students. This was alongside improving academic performance. Moreover, the children themselves began to understand that they were becoming different through meditation. Praying together in this way – Christian meditation is often called the prayer of the heart – seemed to be developing community in a way that had not been obvious before, where children become more aware of the other and more considerate towards them.
Following on from this wonderful example, Meditatio, the outreach arm of WCCM, adopted the practical principles and developed a programme for introducing meditation to primary school children in the UK and other countries. This programme involves, as a general rule, introducing meditation to all the school staff at one time, to enable them to take it to the children themselves, at a time in the school day where it is most appropriate. As a consequence, it is a whole school activity, although year groups will meditate for different time periods. The rule of thumb is that each child will eventually meditate for one minute per year of age, even though the start point can be as little as one minute in total. The most common time to pray in this way is after the lunch break, when children return to a classroom bathed in gentle music and prepare to meditate. A timer installed on the school server enables the start and end of meditation to be selected by the teacher before meditating so that all staff present can meditate with the children.
Sitting together in meditation where there is no competition, no judgement, children from all backgrounds or with special needs are equal in this genuinely inclusive practice. Some of the children come from very difficult backgrounds; some are unduly pressured by parental expectations of academic success, but no matter what their background is, it seems that all benefit from periods of silence and stillness and enjoy the opportunity of building a relationship with Jesus through silent prayer.
Of course, introducing children to meditation in school is not the only pathway and grandparents, parents, First Holy Communion and confirmation classes can help a child to know the inner room of prayer. All it needs is the belief that God is with them and that this silent time is a lovely place to meet him. And as one school governor said “The child probably knows far more than we know already … and it is they who will teach us.”
1Born Contemplative: Introducing Children to Christian Meditation, Madeleine Simon
Eyes open wide Hannah Field is blessed by an encounter with openness and expectancy that reminds her that “God has lots He wants us to see”
I’m not usually a fan of traffic jams. To be honest, I don’t think they’re generally that keen on me either; especially given their track record of occurring whenever I’m in a hurry! Today though was different. Today, the traffic jam brought a smile to my face. You see the queue had been caused by people eager to get into church.
Over the past few weeks the Girls’ Brigade (GB) team has been sharing in local schools about the opportunity for children to join the adventure of exploring life and faith. People had been praying that the youngsters would come along to the group to find out more, and God certainly answered in a massive way – in a way that was far beyond anything that we had even dared to imagine. Our expectations were blown away.
While we busily put out more paint pads, pom-poms and packets of stickers, more and more children bounced through the doors; their hearts, minds and eyes expectant.
We greeted them enthusiastically, looking forward to revealing many new things to them, whereas actually, it was to be them that revealed many new things to us. In particular they revealed much about journeying spiritually – and the importance of being open to God, as demonstrated by this young child’s comment, whilst clambering through a hoop: “Keep your eyes open wide – God’s got lots He wants us to see.”
She, and her friends, were expectant.
“it’s important we recognise the different needs and passions of the children.”
It is a blessing to encounter openness and expectancy like this. It is one of the great things about working for and being a volunteer with GB, as week by week I have the privilege of walking alongside children; of seeing God’s world through new and fresh eyes; of exploring, imagining, hoping and dreaming. It’s great to be able to journey and grow together.
After all, no matter who we are, or what our age, we are all made in the image of God (Genesis Ch.1:26) and as shared by Kathryn Copsey: ‘It is not just when a child begins to take an interest in and respond to Christian teaching that he or she suddenly develops spiritual qualities: they are within the child from the moment of conception.’1 There’s lots that we can learn from one another on this journey – and it’s often the case that children have the best vantage point; pointing out the things which I can so often fail to see! Children, after all, are naturally inquisitive; they will dive in and explore, pray the bold prayers and see afresh those things which can so easily become over familiar.
Rebecca Nye explains how this helps the journey, as ‘Spirituality depends on our being open and willing to go deeper;’2. As a mission movement, working with and among children, this is something that we at GB are passionate about nurturing as we long to see people discover who and whose they are; to discover life in all its fullness (John Ch.10:10).
Volunteers work hard to ensure groups are welcoming, where children are known, cared for and encouraged. Places which are full of openness and expectancy, where it’s okay to ask challenging questions, explore and simply be. While groups have programme material to follow, they are encouraged to see this, not as tasks to be accomplished, but as tools to be used; to help unlock potential and encourage discovery. According to Nye having structure like this can help as: ‘So much of spiritual life involves surprises, ambiguity, mystery and creativity, that having a certain number of known reference points can give us confidence to go farther and deeper.’3 A range of experiences are needed.
Alongside this it’s important we recognise the different needs and passions of the children. For some, they will be helped in their spiritual journey through outdoor adventures; boating, camping and searching for treasure. For others, it’s the opportunity to simply sit on a bean-bag and be still. It’s amazing how God reveals Himself and it’s always helpful to remember He’s not limited by any of our plans, programmes and approaches. As shown earlier, we will indeed often have our expectations blown away.
And so, the next time that I’m in a traffic jam (most likely tomorrow, M25 here I come), instead of pointlessly weighing up which lane is likely to move the fastest, I will instead smile. I will remember the spiritual lessons revealed by God through children. I will keep my eyes open wide.
God certainly has got lots He wants us to see!
1 Kathryn Copsey, From the Ground Up: Understanding the Spiritual World of the Child (Oxford: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2005) p 24
2 Rebecca Nye, Children’s Spirituality: What it is and Why it Matters (London: Church House Publishing, 2009), p. 49
3 Nye, Children’s Spirituality, p. 61
And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said,
“Speak to us of Children.”
And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
and though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
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