Cultivating the Spiritual Life of A Child in a Christian Tradition - A New Vision

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1 Cultivating the Spiritual Life of A Child in a Christian Tradition - A New Vision "In this series of articles, I want to offer a vision for the cultivation of the spiritual lives of children which differs from what most of us experienced as children." - Rev. Karen Gaudet, Director of Children's Ministries Stage 1 - The Young Child - Unconditional Love and Beauty Stage 2 - The Elementary Child - Forgiving Love and Goodness Stage 3 - The Adolescent - Heroic Love and Truth 1

2 Cultivating the Spiritual Life of a Child in a Christian Tradition. What is it? When do we begin? How is it done? Our western culture tends to reduce faith to a synonym for belief which is limited to thoughts and ideas, a verbal and intellectual exercise. Therefore, people conclude that children are not capable of deep and meaningful spiritual lives until they have the cognitive and verbal skills of belief. You hear, We plan to let them decide when they are old enough. This is unfortunate because it overlooks other spiritual natures for which the child has great capacity. If we truly wait until the child has the intellectual and verbal skills for belief (9-12 years old), the child will have already passed two very crucial stages: the formation of the emotional nature when the child is most receptive to loving the Holy and the development of the moral conscience when the child develops criteria for discerning good and evil and shaping their behavior accordingly. Often folks, especially in fundamental religious traditions, are on board for teaching children moral behavior; but too often this is more about being manageable by adults and obeying external authority figures than about a spiritual life. Frequently, moral and ethical instruction is begun too early and the needs of the first stage of spiritual development are pre-empted. It should be no surprise then when adolescents eventually reject such efforts to make them be good and flee or fight the authority of a God they neither love nor trust. Alternatively, progressive folks often see the fallacy of teaching moral/ethical behavior to preschool children. Because the spiritual life of their childhood was maimed by too early moral religious teaching, they protectively keep the young child out of worship and children s programs. When the definition of faith is restricted to belief and moral/ethical behavior accepted as the goal for religious education of children, it is very difficult to imagine appropriate religious material and Christian language for cultivating young children s spiritual lives. Yet there is that inner longing to give children something that will nourish them, but we don t quite know what it is or how. We can do better by hearing Paul s advice to the Romans Let your way of thinking be completely changed. Then you will be able to discover the Sacred. In this series of articles, I want to offer a vision for the cultivation of the spiritual lives of children which differs from what most of us experienced as children. First of all, we need a broader definition of the words faith and spiritual life. Second, we will need an understanding of the child s spiritual needs at different stages of life because it is the child who guides us. Let me begin by defining faith as having three natures trusting, behaving and believing. In the way of Jesus, love is the Holy One, the Ground of Being, the Force of Life, the Sacred. Thus our faith, our spiritual life, how we trust, behave and believe, is a product of our experience of Love (the Holy one, the Force of Life, the Ground of Being, the Sacred). Our spirit is not some ghostly soul lurking about us; but as one child recently said in Green Camp, it is Our whole being. 2

3 Stage 1: TheYoung Child Unconditional Love and Beauty The period of age 2-5 years is the first stage and laying the foundation for spiritual health begins at this age. Our spiritual benchmarks are that a child loves unconditionally and enjoys with wonder the beauty of the world. They are filled with curiosity and delight at all the new things of creation. They are unconditional love in search of a beloved. Of course, their primary care-giver and family are their first loves. We can enrich this by assisting them in falling in love with the Sacred, as well. This is remarkably easy for them. The adult s role is that of a matchmaker who is attempting to help the child discover yet another who loves them unconditionally. The strategy is to put God s best foot forward. Parables evoking awe and wonder at the beauty in nature ground the child in the reality of the Sacred. Stories such as the Good Shepherd, communion and the Light of Life, which assure protection, attention, and acceptance, nourish trust in themselves, in others and in God. Delight in the generosity and abundance of life fuels peace and hope. When a child falls in love with the Holy One, we can observe a profound sense of inner peace, expressions of spontaneous celebration and moments of profound awe and wonder. This profound peace, joy and loyalty are the fruits of the spirit which can grow and ripen most readily during these crucial years. Appropriately cultivated these fruits are not something that one ever outgrows, like Santa Claus or Pinocchio. These sustain one throughout all of life and are the foundation for a healthy, joyful and vigorous spiritual life. Stage 2 - The Elementary Age Child Forgiving Love and Goodness In the first article, I began by inviting you to expand the definition of faith to be more inclusive. In summary, I proposed that in the way of Jesus, love is the Holy, the Ground of Being, the Force of Life, God. Our spiritual life, our faith, how we trust, behave and believe are shaped by how we experience love. By finding new ways to think and by attending to the needs and nature of the child, we can cultivate the spiritual life of children from the earliest moments. The first spiritual needs of the youngest child are unconditional love, protection and attention. One word of clarification is in order. Unconditional love is not the same thing as accepting every kind of behavior. To communicate to a child that every behavior is acceptable is to teach a lie. There are behaviors that are never acceptable not in children and not in adults. Until the awakening of the moral conscience, however, the young child needs instruction in courtesy, manners, and simple rules with firm and clear consequences. Good manners and family rules need to be verbalized and modeled rather than developed as ad hoc responses to the child s trial and error. The predicted, logical consequences need 3

4 to be swift, fair and consistent. About the age of seven or eight the brain begins to develop in new and different ways. Thus, the child s spiritual life begins to be shaped by the growth of a moral conscience. This moves the child into the second stage of faith development faithful behavior. The goal of a Christian moral conscience is for the child to develop an internal desire to imitate the compassion and justice of a loving God. Honing the ability to distinguish good from evil and to bring one s behavior and choices into harmony with one s loving, moral conscience is a long and difficult journey. This internal desire, this constantly evolving discernment is very different from acquiescence to externally imposed rules. The truly moral person is like a tree that produces delicious fruit. The merely acquiescent person is like a tree decorated with ornaments. No matter how beautiful the ornaments, they are still not real fruit. Awakened moral conscious is characterized by empathy for others and a sense of one s responsibility for mistakes and failures. Children need to learn to use failure productively, to test values and to experiment with behavior and its consequences. Having a multiplicity of chances to try again and again is very important. Unconditional love naturally furnishes the forgiving-love necessary for the life-long journey towards a mature acceptance of responsibility for all of one s emotions and behaviors. Without forgiveness our failures become unbearable. Knowing that one can be honest about failures and limitations because there are more chances fosters humility, honesty and courage. When you don t have to pretend or disguise, you are more open to repentance and change. If you have more than one chance, you can take more risks for doing the right thing. A keen awareness of our own personal limits and failures also promotes tolerance and patience with others. These spiritual fruits are essential to live in a constantly changing and challenging world. Once established on an unshakable foundation of Holy unconditional love, an elementary age child can be offered a lot of very helpful materials from Biblical texts and the Christian community, which precedes and surrounds us. At St. Andrew s small groups for these children are for accepting and loving friendships, for safe places for questions for which one must find one s own answers, and for developing criteria for testing values and behaviors. Character and conscience developed from within are authentic and lasting. When a child has a strong internal moral compass, a parent will find that the final stage of childhood, adolescence, is far less hazardous than when the child has been taught mere acquiesces to externally imposed rules and authorities. 4

5 Stage 3 The Adolescent Heroic Love and Truth In part 1 and 2, we discussed the first two stages of a child s spiritual life: the young child experiences the unconditional love of God with awe and wonder and rests peacefully in the unfailing protection and care of the Holy One. The early elementary age child lays claim to God s forgiving love as (s)he begins to learn values and skills for faithful behavior. In the first stage the child is most attracted to beauty and responds to creation with joy and delight and to Jesus as the Good Shepherd who cares for and protects them. In the second stage the child seeks goodness and attempts to reconcile behavior and conscience and needs the patience of God. Adolescence is the final stage of spiritual life in childhood. There are adult stages, but we ll leave that for another series. In this stage the child begins to answer the question How can I be the hero of my own life? and is most attracted to truth. You may recall how folks at this stage see things as either black or white and have very little tolerance for gray. This is faith as belief and what is needed are models and experiences of heroic love. They are seeking persons they can imitate and admire. Their intellectual powers and abilities to articulate are developing, and they begin to use the tool of doubt to fashion a received faith into their own faith. Identity and ideals are forged at this time. Unlike the young child who lives totally in the present moment, teens have a history and they begin to realize their abilities to prepare for a future. They are all about forming relationships with their peers and moving beyond their family. The desire to imitate a loving and just God now informs what it means to be a hero. They are most attracted to Jesus as a role model for heroic loving and loyal relationships. When the unconditional, forgiving and heroic love of the Holy One have been experienced in sufficient amounts in the proper sequence, a child will know the Sacred as the Source of beauty, goodness and truth. The three natures of faith (trusting, behaving and believing) will blossom with spiritual fruit embedded in the child s disposition and character thus inwardly transforming the mind as described in Romans 12: 1-2 so then you will be able to know the mind of the Holy One what is pleasing and good and perfect. How tender that love! How deep that wisdom and knowledge! How great is our inheritance! All creation waits with eager longing for God to reveal God s children... But it is not just creation alone which groans; we who have the Spirit as the first of God s gifts also we groan within ourselves as we wait for the Holy to set our whole being free. Romans 8:19 and 23. 5

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