At times certain theological concerns and interests erupt into my life and refine the trajectory of my thinking, such as an undergraduate course in Catholic Social Teaching, having so captivated my religious imagination that I dropped my biology / pre-physical therapy major for a theology one (yes, sometimes that still does sound like a questionable decision!). Or realizing in my late teens that the Roman Catholic church does not ordain women, even as on this day Episcopalians celebrate forty years since General Convention approved women’s ordination on September 16, 1976. Another is my encounter with children as a parent and as director of parish-based children’s ministry, through which I am learning to listen to the deep spirituality of the child.
Prior to these encounters I had failed to see the religious potential of children, whom Jesus invited to come to him and to whom Jesus says the Kingdom of God belongs (cf. Luke 18:16). I gave no theological attention to the study of children’s spirituality, nor advocacy toward making space for the spirituality of children in our intergenerational parish communities, in spite of my leanings toward theologies of liberation and radical inclusion. My experience as a parent and as a practitioner of Godly Play – a Montessori-inspired faith formation program – has redirected my thinking. A bit of background on Godly Play will demonstrate why taking seriously the spirituality of the child matters.
Jerome Berryman’s method in Godly Play builds upon Sofia Cavalletti’s foundational work with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and on his collaborative work with Sonja Stewart in Young Children and Worship. A couple of years ago I participated in the Godly Play core training, so I’ll focus on Godly Play in this post. Both Cavalletti’s and Stewart’s work equally are meaningful methods, and I use elements of each presently in my parish’s Godly Play program.
My Godly Play training was as much a retreat as it was a training – the method itself, a spiritual practice (not unlike Lectio Divina). It opened me in new ways to the religious potential of the child. It also helped me to see the ageism that exists in our communities when we fail to take seriously the workings of God in the lives of the youngest among us, as seen in the common exclusion of younger children from parts of our liturgical life.
The main assumption in Godly Play is that God is present already in an intimate way to young children, a somewhat innocuous claim until one understands the complexity undergirding it. This assumption deeply resonates with my life as a mother, my theological training and experience working with kids in the parish setting over the past few years, and my own hidden childhood self.
Taking seriously the religious potential of the child, the task of Godly Play is to hand on the Christian language system – of sacred stories, parables, rituals, and contemplative silence – so that children can make sense of their experiences of God and are equipped to wrestle with existential questions of life and death, aloneness and freedom. Through this, according to Berryman, the curriculum “roots (children) deeply in the Tradition and at the same time allows them to be open to the future.”
Giving children the space and freedom to wonder is an important aspect of Godly Play. “Wondering opens the creative process and draws both the lesson and the child’s life experience into the personal creation of meaning.” In particular, “the wondering that follows a sacred story is about our deep identity. This type of wondering engages the great story of Scripture to give our own stories context and a larger meaning.” Wondering leads into response time, when children work with beautiful materials and art supplies and take up the big work of creating meaning as individuals and as the community of children.
This past Sunday’s gospel of the lost sheep afforded me the opportunity to present the Good Shepherd story to several children at my church. Once again I listened as children connected their lives to the sacred story, presented through wooden figures and felt underlays: the Good Shepherd and sheep, the ordinary shepherd and wolf; the grass, the sheepfold, the water and places of danger. I wonder if you’ve ever been this close to the cool, fresh waters? “I went to the ocean this summer,” interjects one child, who seemed otherwise distance. I wonder if you’ve ever had to go through a place of danger? “I was close to a forest fire when I visited my family’s country once,” offers another child who practically sits on the green felt underlay.
My own two daughters work with clay to create a paten, a large host with a cross on it, and four small hosts. I wonder if they remember the presentation of the Good Shepherd and World Communion (one of my favorites) which builds on the parable of the Good Shepherd, who shows us the way to the green grass and cool waters and, ultimately, to the table of the Good Shepherd where he feeds the people of the world – young and old – with his bread and wine. I wonder if, on a level not accessible by language, they wrestle with existential questions as they come to know the Good Shepherd who cares for and feeds them, and uniquely so in the bread and wine that becomes his Body and Blood. The space they dwell in at the moment, as hands and clay convey what words cannot, is a beautiful one. I can only wonder and watch, and am grateful to do so.