Updated: Nov 26, 2019
"Today we often discount the direct knowing that emerges as an inner sense or voice in favor of the measurable observation or logical that the science and reason value. Essentially, adult society has grown a cataract on the eye of contemplation — we have made it cloudy with mistrust. But the direct sight of contemplation is alive and well in most children; they are natural contemplatives." — Tobin Hart, The Secret Spiritual World of Children
In this article I will explore three characteristics of children's innate contemplative spirituality, how we can nurture it, and what it shows us about our own path to a deeper spirituality.
1. Affectionate Love
“The soul needs love as urgently as the body needs air. In the warmth of love, the soul can be itself.” — John O'Donohoe, Anam Cara
Research on infants show that human biology is wired for affection. Besides physical protection, nutrition and care, babies need affectionate love for survival. God designed us to need love. Children innately know this and unashamedly ask for, and express their affectionate love for others. Their spontaneous bursts of affection and invitations for intimacy flow effortlessly. When children do this, they express the core of their spirituality: love.
Christian contemplation is not about emptying the mind as an act of self-denial, but rather about remembering who we truly are: the beloved images of a God who is Love. Contemplative prayer invites us to become still and open so that we can experience and receive God's affectionate love for us.
Our minds seek to know ourselves love-able, our hearts long to feel loved, and our bodies ache to be held in loving embrace. In contemplative, listening-prayer God whispers our name and beckons us to a loving union with himself. Christ invites us to know him through his affectionate love and care for us, and in fact, he says that this is the only way we can truly know him and ourselves.
Nurturing Child's Affectionate Love:
Treasure the hugs, love notes, holding of hands and the blowing of kisses. Practice becoming a generous receiver of children's expressions of affection.
Find moments for simply holding children (or their hands), looking them in the eyes and telling them about how precious and deeply loved and valued they are by you and God. (Remember their bodies need affection as much as food, sleep and movement!)
Guide the children to imagine God looking at them and smiling. Ask what they think God feels when he looks at them, and ask what God really likes about them. You may want to use my Felt-Peace prayer tool as a prompt for a guided prayer of felt-sense of God's love.
What is it like for you to feel loved for who you are and not for what you do?
What is your experience of God when you pray? How do you imagine he feels toward you when you come to him in prayer?
Make a list of things about yourself that you think delight God.
2. Silence and Stillness
"When the children have become acquainted with silence... they walk lightly.... These children are serving their spirits." — Maria Montessori, Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook
We are all born from silence into a noisy, busy world full of words, with an inability to use words ourselves. Infants teach me that relationships are not formed, nor sustained by words and activity. They invite me to relax my wordy, busyness and open up to a presence and union that does not need words in order to exist and flourish. I think that every baby is a messenger of God from heaven, who reminds us to listen and attend with our bodies and hearts to ourselves and the other. Infants in their silent, nearly immobile vulnerable, and fully receptive state remind me that I am a receiver, and God is the Giver and Initiator of the life of love he calls me to.
Unfortunately, even small children suffer from noise pollution and pressures of busyness, and are deprived from lack of silence and peace in their daily lives. Today, many mental health professionals are raising awareness about the importance of silence and slowness for children's mental and physical wellbeing. In her book, The Soul of Education, Rachel Turner talks about children's longing for silences and solitude as she explores "gateways" to children's souls. And an Australian researcher on children's spirituality, Brendan Hyde urges us, "Give children time for moments of solitude and silence during the day. A consideration of those things that are of ultimate value and meaning requires times of silence."
Nurturing Child's Silence and Stillness:
Create windows of time in the day when children are invited to enjoy silence and when they don't have to do anything. Some examples are; being in nature, taking a nap, engaging in art & crafts, such as beading (I created a tool how to use beads in nurturing children's spirituality, learn more in section "Peace Beads" ), quiet physical free play, e.g. building things and making puzzles, and tending for animals or garden.
Be mindful of the background noise in the children's environment. Is the radio on while driving? Could the television and other devices be switched off while eating and spending time together?
When you pray with children, practice taking time to just be silent and still together. You may prompt this by saying, "Let's just sit quietly for a minute. I wonder if God would like us to tell us something if we are really quiet for a bit."
Either create for children, or encourage children themselves to create their own silent spaces in homes, schools and churches. More ideas about creating silent spaces and protecting children's silence can be found in an e-resource I created "Children Love Silence". (Get your free copy when you sign up to my newsletter.)
How much of your prayer life relies on language and activity?
What is it like for you to be present to yourself, others and God in silence?
When was the last time that you sat in silence for an extended time? What did you notice?
“Childhood is a time of wonder and awe. The world is sensed through fresh eyes and ears. ... The capacity for being lost in the moment — absorption — is a capacity that is natural for children and necessary for experiencing a mystical moment. During such a moment, boundaries blur between me and “not me”. — Tobin Hart, The Secret Spiritual World of Children
We are born into receptivity that enables us to be open and curious. Young children do not possess mental faculties for analytical, logical or critical thinking — all that they have is what is right now, here, present to their senses. This receptive stage opens them up for wonder. Every new experience and sensation has an element of surprise in it and everything seems possible in their world of unknown and unpredictability. Children know with their felt-sense, and are eager to experience and absorb life in all of its facets, (including spiritual dimensions,) with all their senses. A spiritual director and author Jane E. Vennard put it simply, "Children live a sensuous theology."
Children's fascination with the supernatural, attraction with beauty, receptivity to the present reality, and comfort with mystery all speak about their innate spirituality, and longing for the transcendent.
Nurturing Child's Wonder:
Allow children time for gazing or staring, wondering and curiosity in the daily life as much as possible. When you notice that a child is caught up in wonder, honor the exploring child by giving him/her space. If you are invited to join them, show that you delight in sharing with their experience of "something special" by showing curiosity and joy.
Go on wonder walks or exploration adventures in your neighborhood, park, woods, beach, grandparents attic, local museum or cathedral, places that speak of beauty and wonder. To prompt further wonder and connection with the Sacred, engage in a guided prayer such as prayer of simple regard as described here.
Join in the "spiritual questing" of the child by listening without a need to give answers, and asking curious question out loud yourself. For example, when looking at the birds together, you might say, "I wonder what it would feel like to fly like a bird". My new Advent and Christmas resource "Prince of Peace" aims to invite curious wondering around the season of Christmas and beyond. I have also compiled a list of journaling prompts that can help such a questing.
When you were a child, what things or places fascinated you, and had a sense of wonder and sacredness around them to you?
What is your first experience of God, or "the Holy"?
What mysteries of life are you currently holding before God? How does it feel like to you to sit in the mystery, unknown and wonder?
Peace Beads: A Listening Tool for All Ages (e-book) by Kaisa Stenberg-Lee
Prince of Peace: A Journey of Wonder (Advent e-guide) by Kaisa Stenberg-Lee
Using Christian Contemplative Practice with Children: A Guide to Helping Children Explore Stillness and Meditation in Worship by Sonia Mainstone-Cotton
SSSSHHH Contemplative Silence with Children an articly by Sonia Mainstone-Cotton in Children and Youth Work Premier online publishing, pages 18-21
Children's Spirituality: What It Is and Why It Matters by Rebecca Nye
Stories of God at Home: A Godly Play Approach by Jerome W. Berryman
The Secret Spiritual World of Children: The Breakthrough Discovery that Profoundly Alters Our Conventional View of Children's Mystical Experiences by Tobin Hart
Children and Spirituality: Searching for Meaning and Connectedness by Brendan Hyde
The Soul of Education by Rachael Kessler
Children and Prayer: A Shared Pilgrimage by Betty Shannon Cloud
The Secret of Childhood by Maria Montessori
The Gift of Wonder: Creative Practices for Delighting in God by Christine Aroney-Sine
Walking in Wonder: Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World by John O'Donohue
Find a curated list of picture books that nurture love, silence & stillness and wonder on my Pinterest board here.
Collection of ideas for whole-person, tactile prayer can be found here.