The Grace of Childhood: What Children Taught Me about Spiritual Life in 2020
Updated: Jan 4, 2021
A dear friend recently asked me a question that left me reflecting for a long time. She asked me, "what have you learned through spiritual conversation with children that helps you orient yourself, that helps you lean into things that lead to spiritual health, when things are difficult?"
Here are a few "lessons" that listening to children with God has taught me about ways of orienting myself to God when the world is filled with grief and anxiety. Perhaps some of these lessons sound like invitations for you too as you enter another year filled with unknowns.
1. Spend Time in Nature
Research shows that overwhelming amount of significant early childhood experiences of God take place in nature. This is also true of the children whom I have had the privilege of accompanying through holy listening. Our screen-weary bodies, minds and spirits ache to be led to "the still waters and green pastures" (Psalm 23), not only as a metaphor but as a physical, experienced place of rest and healing that is found in nature. Over the past months I have made a commitment to go outside for a walk every day and it has become such a nurturing practice both for my body and soul. Walking, or spending time outside otherwise (gardening etc.), where I have removed myself from the distraction of mobile devices have led by far to the most connected times of listening prayer in the last year.
2. Hold onto Rhythms
Children thrive on rhythms. In fact they don't only thrive on routines and rhythms but they need them in order to feel safe and secure. While the pandemic has made us all incredibly flexible, resilient and adaptable in the face of constant changes and unknowns, our need for rhythms has also been highlighted. I have tried to hold onto any simple little rhythm as much as possible in order to create places and protection for my soul to stay well & fed. A daily morning prayer time alone and an afternoon tea time with my husband, a weekly gathering in our living room with a few friends for online worship, a monthly meeting with a spiritual director and an occasional trip out of town with my husband are some examples of my soul care rhythms over the past months.
3. Make Space for Silence
When life feels out of control, scary and new, the most vulnerable part of us "the inner child" has a lot to tell us. Just like a compassionate, caring adult would take time to be with and listen to a small child who is going through something scary and big, it is important that we create space for our own vulnerable parts to express themselves. Over the past months, I have often returned to listening to the part of myself that feels small and weak, and brought this little part of me, my childhood self, to God, letting God to speak tenderly to her and to hold her. This practice has brought much healing and comfort to me and constantly reminded me to live within my limitations and lean on God's grace and compassion for me.
It takes time and awareness to become still and silent enough that we hear the small parts of us to voice their fears, questions and worries. In order for us to be able to bring our tender and often undesirable feelings to God we need to create margins and times of inactivity and silence in our days filled with grief and trauma. In the recent past, it has been easy to me to be overwhelmed with news and external stimuli, and again just like children need to be protected from "too much, too fast, too soon", I have realized my own need to protect myself from "too much" as well.
4. Embrace Creative & Physical Activities
Children often play, draw and show their feelings through their bodies rather than tell them in words. All humans, not only children, carry their important feelings and experiences in their bodies. When our days are filled with external stressors, constant change, and internal turmoil, we need to find ways to let those feelings move through our bodies. Especially now, that many of us have been locked inside our homes behind our computer screens, all the more our bodies need to move. Another side effect of lack of movement and the difficult feelings storing up in our bodies is the inability to maintain focus. I have found that even simple physical activities like baking, mending old clothes, painting or folding laundry have helped me to focus on prayer, to stay present to a conversation or my own feelings. We intuitively know that when young children are out of their sorts they need creative outlets to express their frustrations, fears, sadness, worries and anger through their bodies. And after they have done that, they need lots of sleep! Perhaps the recipe is not much different for overwhelmed, soul-weary adults. In my experience "talk prayer" alone doesn't quite cut it for deep soul-drenching experiences. The book of Psalms shows us an array of full bodied expressions of prayers that honor the whole-person.
5. Look out for the Other
Unlike we are often led to assume, in my experience children are incredibly compassionate and moved by other's suffering. I have been humbled again and again when I have listened to children's responses of genuine concern about the pain and needs of others. When children hear or see someone else's pain, their spirits are touched and propelled to action. Even in the midst of their own losses, children are deeply concerned for the wellbeing of the other. Now, we as adults need to make a note of this and carry our responsibility of protecting young children from being exposed to too much of the burdens of the world too soon, but when we can join as people, young and old in shared suffering and be empowered to act together on behalf of the other in times of need, it is a deeply spiritually connecting and even healing experience.
As I said, I have been humbled by children's urge to help those in need much more than I can report about my own successful efforts in acts of kindness, yet I am ever challenged and encouraged to seek to grow in benevolence in these trying times.
Finally, both children and adults are made for connection. All of the above practices are most nurturing when they enable and lead to deeper connection with God, self and others.