Do Children Know God Without Being Taught? The Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) writes of a vision in which a four-sided form, representing the wisdom of God, is connected by a channel to a fetus in the mother’s womb. Through this channel to the child a “fireball” is transmitted, which “pours itself through all the limbs of the person and gives the greenness of the heart and veins and all the organs to the entire body as a tree gives sap and greenness to all the branches from its root… A fireball possesses the heart of this child.
Because the soul, burning with the fire of deep understanding and not having the form of human members, discerns different things in its journey of understanding. The fireball…comforts the heart of the human being because it exists so to speak like the foundation of the body” (Fox, 55. ) Hildegard’s vision confronts us with the idea that God may be communicating with us well before we are born. This thought, as well as my own observations of children and my own experiences of God, have led me to ask, “Can we know God without being taught? ”
The prevalent theories of faith development, and the curricula for Christian education that have evolved from them, stand in opposition to the idea that we innately know God. As well, the history of Christian thought about children has promoted the idea that children are far from holy and in dire need of instruction. In this paper, after reviewing historical lines of thought regarding children’s spirituality, and the faith development theories of James Fowler and John Westerhoff, I present alternative ideas about faith that allow or support the theory that children know God without being taught.
This idea is then examined in light of Scripture. Tradition: The Child in Christian Thought For centuries Christians have understood humanity to be marked by original sin. In the West this has been interpreted by Augustine (354-430) and Reformed theologians as a statement of our inherent sinfulness at birth; even the newborn participates in Adam’s sin. Infant baptism, for Augustine, is reclaiming the child for Christ (Guroian, 69ff. ) “By contrast, Chrysostom [347-407] maintains that newborn infants are innocents, wholly without sin” (Guroian, 70. He interprets original sin not as the passing on of sinfulness, but of mortality; sinfulness then is a result of mortality (Guroian, 67. ) Human nature “in its wholeness is mortally wounded by original sin” and its will is “weakened and prone to personal sin, but [infants] are still innocents” (Guroian, 69ff. ) For Chrysostom then, baptism of infants is not done to reclaim them, but to fortify them for a life of spiritual combat.
Thus, baptism’s importance for Chrysostom is not solely tied to its remedial power, but to its incorporation of the infant into the church, the body of Christ. Infants are baptized into the church “because they benefit from the care and discipline of adults experienced in the spiritual struggle” (Guroian, 70. ) It is of course Augustine’s interpretation of original sin that has dominated Christian thought in the West. For Aquinas (1225-1274), infants bear the stain of original sin, but are not capable of actual sin.
Aquinas allowed for the idea of the innocence of infants, since they do not yet have the capacity for reason; yet “for Thomas, children are bearers of actual – but not existential – innocence: afflicted with a fault that does not automatically consign them to hell, neither are they models of purity or virtue” (Traina, 131. ) They are, then, not spiritual models for adults to follow; “they are incomplete, lacking both wisdom and active virtue” (Traina, 128. )
John Calvin (1509-1564) not only upheld the doctrine of original sin as it came from Augustine, but “against the dominant patristic and medieval traditions, Calvin and some of his contemporaries, especially Luther and Melanchthon, understood original sin itself to consist of an inherited corruption of the entire human nature, especially of the will and of the understanding” (Pitkin, 167. ) Calvin writes, “Even infants bear their condemnation with them from their mother’s womb; for, though they have not yet brought forth the fruits of their own iniquity, they have the seed enclosed within themselves.
Indeed, their whole nature is a seed of sin; thus it cannot be but hateful and abominable to God” (quoted in Pitkin, 167. ) However, Calvin does lift up young children as examples of simplicity and humility that deserve emulation. “While he did not go so far as to idealize the faith of children… he did consider the youngest infants capable of not merely manifesting but indeed proclaiming God’s glory” (Pitkin, 164. ) Despite their lack of understanding, Calvin holds up young children (up to about age seven) as “mature proclaimers of God’s goodness” (Pitkin, 166. This, of course, becomes possible only through the grace of God intervening to save them from their fallen nature. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) followed Aquinas in thinking that infants are not born sinful, but neutral; yet the result of human frailty is inevitable sin, occurring almost immediately after birth. Adam’s sin means that humans are born without the qualities that would help overcome the natural tendency to sin. This view of children led Edwards to strive mightily to instill in children a sense of their depravity and need for conversion. Since infants inherited the stain of original sin, they were as guilty as adults. ‘As innocent as children seem to be to us,’ he explained, ‘if they are out of Christ, they are not so in God’s sight, but are young vipers, and are infinitely more hateful than vipers…’
Influenced by Augustine and especially John Calvin, Edwards insisted that even the youngest children were corrupt unless they had been ‘reborn’ in Christ” (Brekus, 303ff. For Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), childlike faith is something to be emulated if we are to enter the kingdom of God; in his novella “The Celebration of Christmas: A Conversation,” children are portrayed as having “a ‘pure revelation of the divine’ from which no conversion is necessary. ” For adults who “have become alienated from the childlike, a conversion is necessary – a conversion to become as a little child” (DeVries, 339. In a homily on Mark 10:13-16 Schleiermacher describes the quality of childlike faith that is to be emulated: “The peculiar essence of the child is that he is altogether in the moment…The past disappears for him, and of the future he knows nothing – each moment exists only for itself, and this accounts for the blessedness of a soul content in innocence” (quoted in DeVries, 339. It is living with God in the present that is “the essence of the eternal life that Christ promises to those who believe in him…adults, then, must recover this childlike perception, as if by conversion” (DeVries, 339. ) Nevertheless, Schleiermacher understands children to be equally capable of sin. “If the capacity for religious experience is an innate capability of the child, fully formed Christian faith certainly is not” (DeVries, 346. ) Catechesis and parental modeling of the Christian life are crucial for the child’s upbringing in a life of faith.
Reason: The Faith Development Theories of Fowler and Westerhoff This survey of selected notables in the Church leaves us with an idea of the natural tendency of children to sin, and of their need for instruction in the life of faith, though some authors allow for an understanding of children as limited models for adults. In studying the faith development theories of Fowler and Westerhoff, I found strong support of children’s need for instruction, and little allowance for the idea that children might have something to teach adults.
Fowler’s theory of faith development is based on stages of cognitive development. As the human develops psychologically, faith may develop in stages that increase in complexity of intellect. Use of a spiral diagram to portray the stages conveys a progression from lesser to greater. The stages are hierarchical (one stage integrates and builds upon the previous stage), sequential (one stage follows another in a logically necessary way), and invariant (stages cannot be skipped over) (Ford-Grabowsky, 26. Fowler writes that “more developed structural stages of knowing are, in important ways, more comprehensive and adequate than the less developed ones; the more developed stages make possible a knowing that in some senses is ‘more true’ than that of less developed stages” (Fowler as quoted in Ford-Grabowsky, 38. ) In Fowler’s theory, adults at stage five or six have a greater understanding of God than children, adolescents, or young adults. I might add that his theory would also place mentally handicapped persons in the stages of lesser relationship with God.
The faith development theory of Westerhoff is diagrammed as tree rings (in contrast to Fowler’s spiral. ) He leans away from the strictly hierarchical stages of faith, describing the circles of the tree ring as styles rather than stages. Yet these styles are also dependent upon cognitive development; the first style of faith accessible to us, Experienced Faith, “results from our interactions with other faithing selves” and is typical in the preschool and early childhood years (he does not specifically address infancy) (Westerhoff, 91. As we develop, we may keep adding tree rings (styles of faith) on top of each other: …A tree grows if the proper environment is provided, and if such an environment is lacking, the tree becomes arrested in its expansion until the proper environment exists. Each tree, however, does its own “growing” and has its own unique characteristics. Similarly, we expand from one style faith to another only if the proper environment, experiences, and interactions are present; and if they are not, then our expansion of faith is arrested.
Of course no style of faith is natural to any particular age and everyone can expand into a new style providing the proper interactions with other faithing souls are present. (Westerhoff, 88. ) Westerhoff is careful to say that a tree with only one ring is a complete tree; added rings do not make for a more whole tree, but an expanded tree. Despite this claim, and the claim that the styles are not dependent upon age, Westerhoff’s choice of language does convey a hierarchy.
The faith of those who do not reach the expanded styles is referred to as “arrested” faith, and the analogy of tree growth connotes immature versus mature faith. Westerhoff sees faith development as living into our faith potential; it only seems logical to conclude that if four styles are potential, and someone stops at the first style, that person’s faith is less than that of someone who reached the potential of the fourth style. Westerhoff’s update to his chapter on styles of faith (chapter four) moves more forcefully in the direction of valuing all styles of faith equally.
Here he discusses the student-teacher relationship as that of co-pilgrims on a shared journey. Each “is in need of” and “contributes to the life of” the other (Westerhoff, 103. ) Reason Revisited: Alternatives to Cognition-Based Faith Development Theories When I watched a professor draw Fowler’s six-staged spiral on the chalkboard and heard the explanation that each stage brought one to a fuller experience of God, I couldn’t help wondering: what if we have it backwards? What if, as infants, we start out closer to God than we will ever be in this life, nd as we physically and psychologically develop, we are prone to increasing distance from God? I thought of Jesus’ words, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3. ) Was Jesus proposing that adults, not children, are the ones with a lesser relationship with God? Sandy Eisenberg Sasso presents a Jewish theology of childhood, beginning with an account of a rabbinic legend. While a child is still in the womb a light burns above its head. The foetus is able to see from one end of the world to the other. It learns the entire Torah.
But as it enters into the air of the world, an angel comes and strikes it directly above the mouth and makes it forget the entire Torah (Sasso, 22. ) Throughout life the Torah is reclaimed through learning; yet there remains a sense of the inherent spiritual life of children. “Rather than teaching of ‘original sin’ Judaism proposes ‘original virtue’, the innate spiritual endowment of the child who perceives the unity of all” (Sasso, 23. ) This understanding leads to incorporation of children into the faith rituals of the Jewish community, so that their involvement is central to sacred ritual.
For example, the Passover Seder begins with a child asking questions. The ceremony cannot proceed without the child’s participation. At the end, the children search for a hidden piece of bread; the Seder cannot conclude until they find it. Sasso explores other rabbinic interpretations of Scripture that uphold the claim that “adult appreciation of the sacred is not better, only different than the child’s…God speaks in many voices and each voice, including the child’s, is but a partial apprehension of the Divine.
The more voices one comes to know the closer one comes to understand the One God who includes all voices” (Sasso, 24. ) A similar openness to children’s experiences of God allowed Sofia Cavalletti to observe young children and notice a telling depth of spiritual experience, revealing an understanding of God that one would have assumed to be beyond their cognitive ability or domain of experience. Her book reveals such experiences in children up to the age of six, which she observed during twenty-five years of work as a catechist in schools.
Cavalletti observed and “attempted to document the existence of a mysterious bond between God and the child. This bond…subsists in early childhood even in cases of spiritual ‘malnutrition’ and appears to precede any religious instruction” (Cavalletti, 22. ) Cavalletti speaks of children as equal to adults in both receiving and proclaiming the Word of God. “…In the presence of the Word of God not only is there no longer neither Greek nor Jew, but, we believe, neither adult nor child. Before the Word of God all are hearers of a message that God addresses to His people through events and words.
Such a message can be grasped only through a choral listening in which the child’s voice may have at times stronger and more profound tones than that of the adult” (Cavalletti, 23. ) As a Montessori teacher, Cavalletti is careful not to behave as if the teacher possesses knowledge and the students do not; rather, she “is open to listening, and…not forgetful that one may speak only in the measure that one listens” (Cavalletti, 49. ) Such openness to listening allows her to hear the experiences of very young children and recognize their understanding of God.
Where Cavalletti departs most clearly from the theories discussed above is in stating that at times children are the spiritual leaders. What did she observe that led to such a bold statement? She observed that, despite what we are prone to believe, children know God without being taught. Some examples from her book are included here. The first comes from her predecessor Maria Montessori. Maria Montessori, in her book Spontaneous Activity in Education, records the account of Professor Ghidionescu at the International Congress of Pedagogy in Brussels in 1911.
He reported the case of a child who had not received any religious education; one day the child suddenly burst into tears, saying: “Do not scold me, while I was looking at the moon I felt how often I had grieved you, and I understood that I had offended God. ” In the same work, Montessori adds other examples that she herself witnessed or that were related to her personally. She cites the example of a seven-year-old boy, also deprived of any religious education, who had been told the theory of evolution according to the principles of Lamarck and Darwin. After the explanation the boy asked: “From whom did the first creature come? “The first,” answered his friend, “was formed by chance”; at these words the child laughed aloud and, calling his mother, he said excitedly: “Just listen; what nonsense! Life was formed by chance! That is impossible. ” When he was asked how life was formed the child responded with conviction: “It is God” (Cavalletti, 31. ) At age seven, logical deductions such as the one above are developmentally within the child’s scope (Cavalletti, 31. ) Examples from younger children who have not reached this stage of cognitive development are thus even more surprising.
This [example] involves a three-year-old girl who grew up without the slightest religious influence. The child did not go to nursery school; no one at home, not even her grandmother, who was herself an atheist, had ever spoken of God; the child had never gone to church. One day she questioned her father about the origin of the world: “Where does the world come from? ” Her father replied, in a manner consistent with his ideas, with a discourse that was materialistic in nature; then he added: “However, there are those who say that all this comes from a very powerful being, and they call him God. At this point the little girl began to run like a whirlwind around the room in a burst of joy, and exclaimed, “I knew what you told me wasn’t true; it is Him, it is Him! ” (Cavalletti, 31ff. ) Examples such as this, where the child seems to know God in a way different from logical understanding, prompt Cavalletti to ask, “Does there exist in the child a mysterious reality of union with God? ” (Cavalletti, 32. ) Further examples point to the child’s knowing God in a way that is not merely cognitive.
One day [Linda, before the age of 6] noticed a butterfly in flight and she felt drawn to it; she followed it and suddenly “everything seemed to open up around me. ” It appeared that she was able to see everything more clearly, and she “felt filled with joy and warmth throughout my whole body” in a way she had never experienced before. The sensation was so strong that the little girl burst into tears of joy, ran to her mother, and said, “Mommy, I know God. ” Only much later, in thinking over that event, did Linda associate it with love; at the time it was something “very new and different, for which I had no reference points. It was something that the child did not perceive with her mind; what she had said afterward to her mother “was not an explanation, it was an exclamation” (Cavalletti, 35ff. ) Monica [age 6]…began to work again with the altar models, her back turned to the class. All of a sudden she stopped, turned around and said: “How happy I am today that I went to church! Mommy never takes me to church, she never has time. At last today there is someone who saves me and I feel free. ” These are words that, either by formulation or content, seem to surpass a child’s capacity…(ibid. , 36. )
As well, the words of Francesco (five years old) do not seem to correspond to a child’s level: Francesco must have understood that his mother was not a believer, and he asked her: “Whom do you love more, me or God? ” The mother naturally replied that she loved him more and the child responded: “I think this is your big mistake” (ibid. , 36. ) The following account is of a little girl who, while visiting a priest, saw the faces of Jesus and Mary for the first time in her life, represented in icons. This account, and others, demonstrate a child’s knowledge of God coupled with a desire to know more. having rushed into my room and seen the icons, the little girl began asking me questions;…with eyes wide open she fastened her gaze on the faces of Jesus and the Mother of God, which she was seeing for the first time in her life. Although with effort, I explained to the child…the meaning of what had struck her in a way she could understand. But my worries proved to be superfluous. “You know,” she said to me, “I knew He existed and I have always talked with Him before going to sleep; I knew He was everywhere and that He sees me when I get into mischief, only sometimes I was afraid of Him.
How can I speak with Him? ” Moved by the child’s words, I taught her the sign of the cross, and I experienced an extraordinary feeling watching those small hands making the sign of the cross… “And now can I kiss Him,” she continued to my great surprise, but not on His face or cheek, not the way I kiss Mommy? Because He is greater than my mother, He is better than my mother. He sees everything and He doesn’t scold me. He is better than everyone, and He loves me. Give me the icon please, I want to see it always. I’ll put it beside my bed, and the icon of His mother too.
Give it to me as a gift! ” When her mother arrived the child said: “Mommy, quick, come here. Kiss Him. He loves you too. At last I’ve seen His face, but I’ve known Him for a long time. ” Before her mother’s embarrassed silence the child continued: “Mommy, why don’t you say anything? Mommy, tell me about Him; I need to hear about Him. ” But the icon was taken away from little Irina. Her mother described the child’s reaction: “She cries, she asks to hang it above her bed, saying, ‘I want to see Him, I need to talk to Him’” (Cavalletti, 38ff. )
Cavalletti observed in children a remarkable desire to know more about God, to spend surprising amounts of time in prayer, to interact seriously with catechetical materials such as miniature altars or figures from parables, to spend more than the allotted time with the catechist, and to attend church even when it was not the family’s custom. …We would like to speak about the impassioned attraction the child has shown when faced with the religious fact, so much so that he will forget or disregard the things supposedly more pleasing to children…Francesco was two years and two months old.
As a Christmas present he received the first tricycle of his life; almost at the same time his mother spoke to him of the meaning of Christmas and gave him a manger scene. Francesco took it happily; completely forgetting his tricycle, he wandered around the house carrying the various pieces of the set, showing them again and again to his grandmother so that she would retell the story of Christmas (ibid. , 37. ) A woman who had not raised her son in the church recounted another example of a child’s strong desire to repeat a spiritual experience. She and her husband…took a trip to Italy with their five-year-old son; later she reminisced with her husband: “Weren’t you struck by the way Pieterke, who was only five years old, followed the services in the churches we visited in Italy? Think of the ceremonies of the cathedral in Siena and in the Roman basilicas: they were never too long for him and he did not want to leave. For such a restless boy the opposite would have been natural and understandable!
He thought the celebrations were magnificent. I don’t think I have ever told you what he asked me as soon as we returned to Uccle from our trip to Italy: ‘Mother,’ he said to me one day, ‘why don’t we ever go to church as we did in Italy? ’” (Cavalletti, 38. ) Cavalletti recounts several occurrences of unexpected behavior in children, who will trade their normal behavior or typical sources of enjoyment for the time set aside for catechesis.
Enrico (six years old), Paolo (seven years old), and Massimo (six years old) were meeting for the first time with an inexperienced catechist; Paolo did not really want to come because that was his only free day and he would have preferred to stay at home and play peacefully; for the catechist’s part, she was totally inexperienced and without any equipment that could have helped the children – she had only the Bible. The catechist opened to the first page of the Bible, read it, and helped the children to enter into the text.
Two hours passed by quickly, and when Paolo’s mother came to take him home his eyes filled with tears; he did not want to leave. Massimo was willing to give up the music lessons he loved because he wanted to come to catechesis “every day,” because “this is more important” (ibid. , 40. ) At another catechetical center, the children figured out how to move the hands of the clock ahead so they could go to catechesis earlier (ibid. , 40. ) Children at other centers revealed their enjoyment of catechesis in the comments they made to their parents who came to pick them up: “Why have you come so soon? Almost two and a half hours had passed. ] I was doing so well,” protested Lucia (ibid. , 40. ) Laura (six years old) said: “I’d like to sleep here, even on the floor” (ibid. , 40. ) In many of the examples here, the children’s responses are often physical as well as verbal. Cavalletti and others note a “particular joy” in the children they have observed “when praying, and…when the child is involved in religious activities his ‘whole being vibrates, becomes tranquil, and rejoices” (Cavalletti, 40. ) Remember the little girl above (pp. -9) who ran around the room joyfully when she heard about God as the creator, and the active youngsters who somehow remain calm through the hours of instruction or church services. “The response the children give to the religious experience is such that it seems to involve them deeply, in total gratification: ‘My body is happy,’ said Stefania after praying a long while with her young friends” (Cavalletti, 42. ) Cavalletti comments that the child’s understanding of God is a kind of knowledge different from academic knowledge. The facility and spontaneity of the child’s religious expression and prayer…lead us to believe that these arise from the depths of the child’s being, as if they were natural to him” (ibid. , 42) (my italics. ) She poses that this knowledge is in direct response to the basic need of the child to be loved and to love (a basic need for all ages, I assume – but the child is more transparent about this need. ) Cavalletti discusses this here in the children’s characteristic response to the parable of the Good Shepherd: …The parable is so deeply rooted in the child that it appears to be natural to him.
It returns constantly in the children’s discussions, reflections, and prayer. The child does not know the parable in an academic way, but vitally; it is not knowledge imposed on the child from without; rather, it is through the parable that the child’s silent request finds response and gratification: the request to be loved and so to be able to love. The child never forgets the parable because the affective integration, which psychologists call ‘affective ratification,’ is complete; the image of the Shepherd is by now a part of the child’s very person (ibid. 74. ) I find intriguing Cavalletti’s observation that children’s religious expressions (here, their response to the parable of the Good Shepherd) appear to be “natural. ” In her discussion of the introduction of Pentecost to the children, she writes, “With regard to the Holy Spirit, it is striking to see the facility with which the children enter into relationship with Him. The Holy Spirit’s work appears obvious to them, and they know how to recognize it spontaneously…”(ibid. , 117. This seems to invite my question, Are children responding to something that is already part of who they are – and are adults merely giving them the words to name what they already know in a way other than cognitively? Cavalletti poses that the child responds to the parable of the Good Shepherd because it answers a very basic need (the need for love); I ask, could the child be responding not only out of need, but out of recognition? Let us imagine that the Jewish legend retold by Sasso were true; could the child’s “natural” response to the parable be more of a remembrance than an assimilation of something new?
That would certainly account for its seeming natural to the child. The writer of the foreword to Cavalletti’s book poses an interesting idea: I have become sure that there is a primary question in [the children’s] hearts and minds: “Who are you, Lord? ” I do not believe this question arises from confusion or uncertainty. Rather, I believe it is a question like that of the people who gathered around Jesus when he walked on this earth, those people who felt his touch and heard his voice and saw his face, a question that is really saying, “I’ve seen you; I’ve heard you; I know you, but there is more of you to know.
I need and want to know more” (Rebekah Rojcewicz in Cavalletti, 17. ) The acknowledgement that one might know God other than in a purely cognitive way certainly invites us to consider children’s spiritual experiences seriously, even if we do not go so far as to imagine that they are remembering God instead of learning about God. It invites both children and adults to claim spiritual experiences that are affective or intuitive as well as cognitive. Edward Hoffman, in a book entitled Visions of Innocence: Spiritual and Inspirational Experiences of Childhood, briefly recounts the history of various religions’ treatment of child spirituality.
He writes, “Historically, the world’s great religions have always recognized our childhood capacity for closeness to the divine,” and mentions Biblical passages, Jewish tradition, and Native American tradition, among others (Hoffman, 3ff. ) His book documents experiences that people had as children, which were pivotal experiences for their understanding of life, God, and the world. The adults report experiences they had even sixty years ago, that are still vivid in their memory, despite insistence by parents, friends, etc. that they discount their experiences.
The book is filled with experiences that are far from merely cognitive, many occurring in very young children. Similar findings are mentioned in a book by David Hay and Rebecca Nye. In an account of scholarly attempts to document child spirituality, Hay writes of the “shortage of competent research” and the difficulty of “the intellectual bias of much of the modern psychology of education”: During the 1960s one of the most influential students of religious education in the English-speaking world was the psychologist Ronald Goldman….
Goldman was a follower of the cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget, and his personal assumptions led him to ignore the possibility that spirituality might feature in the lives of children. In the second chapter of his most important book, Religious Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence Goldman took the view that “the mystics, who claim to have direct sensations of the divine, are exceptions, but as they are extremely rare cases, rarer in adolescence and practically unknown in childhood,” he would ignore them.
The mistake he made was to assume that spiritual awareness is always something extraordinary, equated with mystical ecstasy, instead of holding open the possibility that it might be a very ordinary aspect of young children’s everyday experience…. Goldman’s opinions continue to have influence, despite sustained critiques of his position by a number of scholars (Hay, 41. ) Hay continues: During the 1970s and 1980s, evidence of the reality of spiritual awareness in early childhood began to flow from the work of Edward Robinson, the successor of Alister Hardy as director of the Religious Experience Research Unit in Oxford.
Robinson noticed that a sizable proportion of the 5,000 or so accounts of religious experience which had been sent in to the Unit were reminiscences of events occurring in childhood, sometimes in very early years. As a result of pondering on these stories, published an account of them in his book The Original Vision. This was a pioneering attempt to question the educational validity of the Piagetian model as applied by Goldman to the area of religious understanding.
What first impressed Robinson was the way that these childhood experiences had remained vivid in the memories of his correspondents for the whole of their lives. People repeatedly spoke of them as having the greatest personal significance when they were contemplating their personal identity and the meaning of their lives. No doubt there had been a considerable development in the interpretation and perhaps embellishment of these experiences as the individuals thought about them over the years.
Yet Robinson found it hard to ignore the power of the initial impact of the event which had generated this wealth of reflection. Could it be that Goldman and his followers were giving a great deal of attention to the language and thought forms of religion, whilst ignoring the direct awareness out of which it grows? (Hay, 43ff. ) Hay summarizes an article by Lorelei Farmer in which she “points out that no amount of refinement and blending of the cognitive theories of Piaget, Kohlberg or Erikson will bring us closer to understanding religious knowledge. Farmer states that spiritual knowledge is a different kind of knowledge, “much more like a direct sensory awareness,” and that “we must…allow the possibility that direct knowing may be independent of the growth of intellectual abilities and emotional capacities” (Hay, 52. ) Hay mentions research that even supports the idea that children may have more spiritual experiences than adults (Hay, 66. ) Scripture: Another Look at Passages Honoring Children The authors above invite us to take children’s spirituality seriously, and even to acknowledge that children are at times the proclaimers and adults the listeners.
Certain Scripture passages that have been used to support these claims are given here. With an openness to the idea that children may be closer to God than adults are, we may look at such Scriptures anew. Psalm 8:3 Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings you have founded strength. Sasso’s article cites the verse above to support the claim that “Nursing infants, even foetuses, are said to be aware of God’s presence” (Sasso, 23. ) Psalm 71:17 NRSV O God, from my youth you have taught me… Jeremiah 1:4-8 NRSV
Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations. ” Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy. ” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD. ” Matthew 18:1-4 NRSV (Mark 9:33-38)(Luke 9:46-48) At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. ” Cavalletti’s commentary on the passage from Matthew speaks of the child’s natural openness to what is both great and essential, enabled by the capacity to listen humbly and unselfishly: The world of the child’s religion is a different world from that of the adult.
The adult no longer has that open and peaceful relationship with God which is natural to the child; for the adult, the religious life is sometimes strain and struggle. For the adult the immediate reality at times acts as a screen to the transcendent reality that seems to be so apparent to the child. And above all, the adult has lost in his relationship with God the essentiality that is one of the most characteristic aspects of the religious personality of the child. The younger the child the more capable he is of receiving great things, and the child is satisfied only with the treat and essential things.
The child’s interior life is deeply serious and without trappings” (Cavalletti, 47. ) Conclusion Do children know God without being taught? The literature reviewed here supports the theory that children know God in ways beyond their cognitive capabilities. Children, and adults describing their childhood spiritual experiences, do indeed reveal the capacity to understand God without formal instruction. Where might this conclusion take us? In Christian education, the need for curricula which honor children’s seemingly inherent spirituality is apparent.
Two examples of programs which treat children seriously as spiritual persons are Cavalletti’s Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and Jerome Berryman’s Godly Play, which builds upon his study with Cavalletti. Where might this conclusion take us personally? The first fruits of such a theory are readily apparent as we value children’s experiences of God. As an example, I have included in an appendix the comments of several classmates and professors who were asked for their observations of young children at the altar rail.
I asked if any had observed poor behavior at the altar rail; a priest had commented to me that he could not remember a single instance of children misbehaving during communion, so I asked the seminarians and seminary professors around me to provide evidence to the contrary. Surprisingly, most of the replies I received supported the priest’s observation. Do children know what is going on during communion, or at least, do they comprehend more than we give them credit for? Their behavior certainly supports this conjecture.
Even more rewarding than the comments of my classmates was the wonder and even excitement they conveyed in discussing these questions. We could not help smiling ourselves as we talked about children’s behavior at this holy moment. Perhaps the greatest treasure to be found here is our own openness to God’s mysterious work in us at every age. In humility, we become like children, wide open to the wonder of God. Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar: Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy! Shades of the prison-house begin to close Upon the growing Boy But he Beholds the light, and whence it flows, He sees it in his joy; The Youth, who daily farther from the east Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest, And by the vision splendid Is on his way attended; At length the Man perceives it die away, And fade into the light of common day. -from Ode: Intimations of Immortality Wordsworth BIBLIOGRAPHY Abrams, M. H. , ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975. Adams, Kate. “God Talks to Me in my Dreams: The Occurrence and Significance of Children’s Dreams About God. ” International Journal of Children’s Spirituality v6 no1 2001, 99-111. Austrian, Sonia G. , ed. Developmental Theories Through the Life Cycle. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Berryman, Jerome W. Godly Play: An Imaginative Approach to Religious Education. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1995. Brekus, Catherine A. “Children of Wrath, Children of Grace: Jonathan Edwards and the Puritan Culture of Child Rearing. ” In Bunge, Marcia J. , ed.
The Child in Christian Thought. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001. Cavalletti, Sofia. The Religious Potential of the Child: Experiencing Scripture and Liturgy with Young Children. Chicago: Archdiocese of Chicago, 1992. Coles, Robert. The Spiritual Life of Children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990. Coogan, Michael D. , ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. DeVries, Dawn. “ ‘Be Converted and Become as Little Children’: Friedrich Schleiermacher on the Religious Significance of Childhood. ” In Bunge, Marcia J. , ed. The Child in Christian Thought.
Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001. Eaude, Tony. “Shining Lights in Unexpected Corners: New Angles on Young Children’s Spiritual Development. ” International Journal of Children’s Spirituality v8 no2 August 2003, 151-162. Ford-Grabowsky, Mary. The Concept of Christian Faith in the Light of Hildegard of Bingen and C. G. Jung: A Critical Alternative to Fowler. Princeton Theological Seminary dissertation, 1985. Fox, Matthew. Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen. Sante Fe, NM: Bear & Co. , 1985. Guroian, Vigen. “The Ecclesial Family: John Chrysostom on Parenthood and Children. In Bunge, Marcia J. , ed. The Child in Christian Thought. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001. Hay, David, with Rebecca Nye. The Spirit of the Child. London: HarperCollins, 1998. Hoffman, Edward. Visions of Innocence: Spiritual and Inspirational Experiences of Childhood. Boston: Shambhala, 1992. Loder, James E. The Logic of the Spirit: Human Development in Theological Perspective. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998. Pitkin, Barbara. “ ‘The Heritage of the Lord’: Children in the Theology of John Calvin. ” In Bunge, Marcia J. , ed. The Child in Christian Thought. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.
B. Eerdmans, 2001. Reiss, Michael J. “Loves that Have a Quiet Voice. ” International Journal of Children’s Spirituality v6 no2 2001, 243-5. Sasso, Sandy Eisenberg. “When your Children Ask – A Jewish Theology of Childhood. ” In Erricker, Jane, Cathy Ota and Clive Erricker (eds. ) Spiritual Education. Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 2001. Traina, Cristina L. H. A Person in the Making: Thomas Aquinas on Children and Childhood. In Bunge, Marcia J. , ed. The Child in Christian Thought. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001. Westerhoff, John H. Will Our Children Have Faith?
Harrisburg, PA: Anglican Book Centre, 2000. Yust, K. M. “Toddler Spiritual Formation and the Faith Community. ” International Journal of Children’s Spirituality v8 no2 August 2003, 140-9. APPENDIX An email request to the seminary community read as follows: This question is for those of you who have young children (age 6 and under), or those of you who are good at observing children of this age. I am exploring the idea that children know God without being taught. My reading (which supports this idea) has led me to watch children closely when they come to the altar rail for communion or for a blessing. An amazing experience, by the way – watch their faces during the blessing! ) It occurred to me, in relating my observations to a priest, that I cannot remember seeing children misbehave at the altar rail, with the exception of when they wish to receive the bread or wine but are denied it; or, one time I gave a little one a piece of bread, and he said, “That’s not big enough! ” The priest also could not think of instances of poor behavior in all the years he has blessed the little ones and given them communion.
If our perceptions are incorrect about young children’s behavior at the altar rail, would you please reply with your experiences? Those who responded included: Shelby Owen, Ellie Thober, Leslie Chadwick, Lonnie Lacy, Sarabeth Goodwin, Lucia Lloyd, Betsy Bagioni, Jessica Hitchcock, Pat Grace, Adam Trambley, Jeff Adams, Adele Dees, Tom Pumphrey, Jeff Fisher, Sean Leonard, Fran Gardner, Jane Trambley, Marlee Norton, Carla McCook, Scott Walters, Judith McDaniel, Julie Murdoch, Mark Wilkinson, Mark Dyer, Kate Sonderegger, Alexandra Dorr, Sarah Sherrill, and Sarah Kinney.
I also include comments from Ed Kryder and George Kroupa about their experiences. —– I give out communion bread each Sunday at my field ed site and therefore have a wonderful opportunity to observe children who come to the rail. Whether they actually receive the bread or a blessing, it seems to be a holy moment for them. I have never seen any what I’d call misbehavior. They seem for the most part to appreciate the mystery and want to be there. —– I agree–the only time I have seen a young one “act up” was with a child under a year who was not happy before he went to the rail.
He continued crying, though quieted during the blessing. One of the most wonderful things I observed was a young child skipping down the center aisle after receiving communion. She was probably about 6 years old. —– Nothing makes me feel more joyful than watching the faces of children receiving communion. They are very open, deliberate, and free in the way they approach communion. —– I had a 7 month-old baby with me on Sunday. She’d been distracted throughout the service, but when we went up to communion, she settled down, stared at the candles, lights, her reflection in the cup, and listened to the music.
She didn’t receive, but there’s no question that’s where she belonged. —– I have been thinking about your email regarding children at the altar rail. I base the earliest hints of my own call to ministry on my first encounter at the altar rail as a 5-year-old and see it as a very crucial piece of my spiritual autobiography. I gather that you’re planning to base your research on observation of present-day little ones, but if you’re interested in hearing the perspective of an adult who vividly remembers meeting God at the rail as a child and began the discernment of a call to the priesthood on that day, I’d be happy to chat. —- Just a word about my daughter who is now 10. She was baptized at 4 and immediately began to refer to the “yummy bread. ” “When are we going to eat the Yummy Bread? ” etc. I asked her how it has changed for her now at age 10. She told me that there is “not as much joy. ” Personally I served the chalice for many years. St. Alban’s has many children and I never once encountered a child who did not come to the altar with awe and respect. —– My kids (now ages 2 and 4) have been taken to the altar rail since they were infants, and have not misbehaved there.
They have misbehaved in plenty of other places, I can assure you! I’m not sure I completely agree with your premise that children know God without being taught. I think worship can give young children an experience that something holy is happening. I think that children who receive the bread and wine also feel part of the community of faith in a very important way. But it seems to me that teaching is important. If you want a story, I have one not from my children, but from my 5-year-old niece.
She is my goddaughter (baptized in the Episcopal Church), and I’m going to have my work cut out for me in keeping my godparent promises. When we were on vacation with her and her parents this summer, her father (my husband’s brother) asked me to say a prayer with her for her pet rabbit, who had died recently. I did. Then I took her to church with me at the end of the week. Since they were leaving on Sunday morning, I took her to a Roman Catholic Church because they offered a service on Saturday. Before and during the service, I tried to do as much instruction as I could.
But I realized that she was so unchurched, that to her, prayer was not talking to God, it was talking to her dead rabbit! I’ve heard about worshipping idols, but praying to a dead rabbit was a new one for me. Anyway, I had a hard time deciding whether to let her and my four-year-old daughter receive communion. They are technically not allowed to, since they are not Roman Catholics, and even if they were Catholics they would not be old enough for First Communion. But in the end I decided that the opportunity to have her experience a sacrament was too important to pass up, so I took them up for Communion.
Instead of dipping the wafer in the chalice, as I had told her, she dropped it into the wine, and I fished it out with my fingers and put it in her mouth. I imagine the chalice bearer and everyone watching were horrified. But some of my last-minute catechesis must have gotten through, because when she saw her mother afterward, she said, “Mama, I drank the man’s blood and ate the bread and God loves me! ” —– I was at my field ed site, where kids come up to the platform with their parents. We have a children’s/no-wine-drinking-person’s cup, and for the most part the kids are very good.
I was worried about backsplash (when the kids spit back what they drink) but there’s been none of that. They are usually very well behaved. You can see some of them watching what the adults do, and sometimes the kids will actually tell someone else how it’s supposed to be ‘done’. Anyway, yesterday, a kid had a little teddy bear, and after he got the bread, he first gave some to his teddy bear before he ate the bread himself. Last year, Glenda had been communicating the bread, and gave it to a little kid: “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven” and the kid said, “I love you! I’ve had kids say “thank you”. —– – Yes, I agree – giving children communion is such a sacred experience. My memorable experience was while I was doing the chalice and a little boy attempted to dunk but with a little too much force and flung the wafer across the altar – SO I grabbed it and ate it quickly ‘cause I wasn’t going to give him a dirty wafer – HIS MOM was there – and he said “HEY – you ate my WAFER – That’s mine” – and then his dad split his (dad’s wafer) in half and they shared – —–
I, too have a story about the altar rail – from the daughter of our choir director, who was about 4 at the time – when she saw the priest, she said in a really loud voice – “look, Mommy – he is wearing “Barney” purple” – and then, when her mom indicated that she should not be served wine, she hollered out: “hey, I didn’t get nothin’ to drink”! My experience is that children always want to be included – and come to the table with joy and anticipation, from the earliest to ages, even those who have not been taught about the significance, etc. Children know instinctively what a family meal and being together means, I think. —- Sorry to disappoint you, but I have a number of such examples, the most amusing was when my daughter received the bread, then stepped back, walked far enough to one side to be out of reach, then ran under the rail up to the side of the altar where she began ringing the sanctus bells (this was at Christmas eve!! ). Of course, it did put me in a better mood. There are also regular sister stuff of “No I want to be next to mommy, not daddy, or whatever” But there really hasn’t been anything major (like, no I don’t even want to think about what they could do if they tried… . On the whole, I think you are mostly right, but my guess is that it has more to do with trying to imitate the way the “big people” are acting and not being left out (although this is part of spiritual development). —– I find that our kids are usually very reverent and well-behaved at the altar rail. Also, they respond naturally to the cues they receive from the clergy. The priest, for instance, leans far down, makes eye contact and really connects with our children when he communicates them.
Our middle child sometimes makes a problem, because she has a very strong hand on the chalice, usually wants more and acts and verbalizes her desires. (This is a particular problem because we sit in the front pew and the chalice is very, very full. ) Also, sometimes they run and talk on their way to the rail; that can be disruptive (and even dangerous when they trip up other folk). But we have always felt that they should participate in common worship as fully as possible, and have opted out of children’s programs that do not allow such participation.
For their part, they have a wonderfully intuitive sense of what the symbolism is of the Eucharist. —– I had a similar experience at my home parish as you did—with a 4 year old. She told her mother in a loud stage whisper that I hadn’t given her enough! But I wasn’t sure that she had ever tasted wine, so I simply had touched her lips with the wine, figuring that was a safe option. Children definitely want their full share of the Eucharistic experience! I too, have noticed the reverence of children in their approach. And I value their facial expressions as they look at me as well, the one who is giving them the cup of salvation.
Pretty powerful stuff for me too. We have one little guy who’s about 2 who comes up every week in overdrive. The rector and I call him “wild man. ” He’s adorable and his mother has a firm hand on him. But he knows exactly what he’s supposed to do and is anxious to dip his bread into the chalice. It worries his mother, but I think it expresses great excitement for being fed at the Lord’s table. ———– I hate to spoil the trend, but I can think of a number of cases of “misbehavior” (of course, how might one define this? ).
Nothing heinous, just normal kid stuff, but different from what you describe. My young son has “misbehaved” at the rail, usually in paying attention to something else going on, fussing to his mom in a slight tantrum, or running over to stand in a different place from where his mom is. I also have vague memories from years back of one child next to me at the rail looking at me after we had received the bread and saying something along the lines of “you really eat this stuff! Eeeww! ” (the wafers there were on the stale and bland side, I’ll admit).
At my field Ed site last year there were two young boys who constantly were fireballs of activity and noise at the rail, yanking violently on their mother’s arms and paying no attention to the Eucharist. They would also yell for attention from their father if he was behind the rail serving the chalice. None of the parishes where these things took place had any negative attention to the children (to my knowledge). I think that most folks saw this as part of children’s behavior that needed maturing, just as at the dinner table and in the classroom or on the playground.
I think that it is true that most kids do recognize the Eucharist as a special event—my guess is that it is intergenerational and leveling: for the most part, one’s age makes no difference-it’s all from the same bread and cup, at the same rail. Grown-ups take it seriously for themselves, so kids are likely to do so as well (a la Westerhoff). I suppose my gut reaction would be to cop out and take the “both-and” approach—both learning and innate. Certainly, in one sense, God knows us without our learning.
Augustine and other catholic & Anglican thinkers might say that the image of God in us calls us back to God (though that image is clouded by sin). Puritans and Lutherans (and John Wesley—I’m writing a paper today on this) would say the image was totally lost. Anyhow, the more catholic line of thought would build on a platonic idea of starting in God and returning to God. This return, of course is enabled by redemption in Jesus, and is a process of piety and deepening relationship with God—reordering one’s loves. This whole anthropology/theology of “exitus et reditus” (exit and return) might correlate with your hypothesis. —- I, too, have not observed poor behavior at the rail…. except for, we had a father in my parish commit suicide (he had a wife & 2 young children) two months ago – has been rough on the family, as you can imagine. For a few Sundays after the death, I noticed that the little boy did act funny at the rail. He would hold his hand out for the host, then he would jerk it away as I went to give it to him. Almost as if he was playing with me, but in a mean way. His face seemed angry as he would either close his hands at the last minute or pull them away. Or maybe he is angry with God?
And I (as that sacrifical presence) become the focus of that anger???? Anyway, I thought it has been interesting to observe him acting out his grief in this way. ——– We had a little boy age three or four at our home parish who would refuse to leave the altar rail after being blessed because he told his parents that he wanted to pray. After one Sunday of having his parents try to peel him off the rail one of our deacons told them that he could stay as long as he would like. So now he goes forward, receives his blessing and stays as long as he likes then returns quietly to his parents. —— In general, I’d say that your observations are spot on. There is one family in my home parish whose children regularly misbehaved at the altar rail. They would duck out of the way of the priest giving a blessing, or run from the rail, or say, “NO” rather loudly. However, they were also pretty abysmally behaved AWAY from the rail, so perhaps this behaviour represented “better” behaviour. And, it also seems to my memory that once they were allowed to receive communion, their behaviour straightened out….. —– I can speak first hand to this!
The most upset I have ever seen my daughter in church was at a Roman service where she was told (by us ahead of time) that she would not get communion. She threw herself down on the rug and WAILED! More recently, at the same institution, she understood and bypassed the bread. But she walked right up, took the chalice and drank. The cup was held by the Prioress, who told me later better to let her partake than cause a scene. She was 3 in the first instance and 4 1/2 or 5 in the second. She has generally behaved beautifully and respectfully at the rail DURING a SERVICE, but quite scandalously outside a service.
I have found her more than once playing with the sanctus bells, peeking under the altar covering, etc. But for the Eucharist, she likes going up as a grown up, kneels, folds her hands, corrects me, shows me that she is doing it right, is very careful and quiet. Our younger daughter, likewise, has been receiving at some level since she was Baptized. She, too, enjoys going up to the rail and copying the behavior of adults (kneeling, folding hands, saying “Amen. “) Only once did she cause a scene, and it was a whopper, involving screaming “NO” and trying to drag me away from the rail.
She broke away and ran past the ushers to an empty row to throw herself on the pew. In a few minutes, she came back to get me and out we went. She was having a very bad day that Sunday, and I should have left her in the nursery. I have observed children totally engage with the celebrant. —– My experience of young children and the sacrament is absolutely identical to yours. Kids know something big is going on. I was not allowed to receive till I was 8 (Catholic) and I still remember the sense of frustration at being held back from what was going on at the altar rail. —–
My son has loved going to the rail. At age 2 he began to desire to take communion, so we’ve let him. Now at age 5 he no longer “dips” his bread, but takes the bread and then the cup like daddy does. Our infant seems to be stilled in the blessing she receives. One toddler at St. Alban’s loves communion-he tries to take more bread from the paten if you’re not careful. Children understand that it’s not a snack-it’s not just something we do. They know it’s the body and blood of Jesus. My son at age early 3 could break pita bread and pretend with a cup that it was Eucharist.
Children accept the mystery of the sacrament without questioning. They just know. —— I have a young son story that you might like. I don’t think he was 3 yet, and he had not been baptized. We were new Episcopalians. He always went up with us to communion to receive a blessing. But one Sunday the cup passed by, and he couldn’t stand it any longer. He looked at his mom and said, “Can I have some salvation? I want some salvation! Mama, I want some of that salvation! ” Would that we all wanted it that badly. I think that he actually was misbehaving by some Anglican standards.
But I really don’t think that he should take the heat for the Holy Spirit’s disruption. —– I am reminded of my niece who “misbehaved” at the railing when she was skipped over and said in a loud voice heard by all, “I want some! ” —– As a mom and as an observer, I think your observation of generally good behavior is quite accurate. That I can recall, the instances of misbehavior I’ve seen have all been either bickering with siblings (the elbow shove to the rib is a favorite tactic 🙂 or kids balking at being forced to receive by over-zealous parents.
Both behaviors seem to always stop when the priest or chalicer arrives. Oh… and there is the post-communion leap off the chancel steps, which all of my sons managed to do at one point in their church careers! —– A youngster probably around 3 at our parish was most perturbed when the person distributing the bread passed him by. He tugged on his mother’s sleeve and said, ” Hey I want some Jesus too! ” I too am amazed at the level of understanding that seems to occur with young children especially in the ages around 3 years old.
For the very little ones, it may be nothing more than they want what everybody else is given, but isn’t that then a lesson in community? Maybe that is in fact the issue. If we are a church that claims to be inclusive, why would we exclude our children from the principle act of worship? Here’s a second story: A mother at our parish said “I didn’t want my child to receive until he fully understands what this means. ” The priest answered, “Well then I suppose I should not receive either. For I certainly don’t fully understand the miracle that occurs at this table. How about you? ” —–
In my forty years as a priest I cannot remember a time when a young child behaved badly at the communion rail. When bishop, I received a call from a parish priest telling me that at communion time, at the altar rail, two young friends were kneeling aside one another. The first was allowed to receive communion by her parents. The second was not allowed to receive. Her parents wanted her to be confirmed first. When the priest gave the first girl communion and proceeded to give a blessing to the other, the girl with host still in her hand said, “If Father John will not give you Jesus, I will. She broke a piece of the consecrated host and gave her friend her first communion. —– I too have found the reaction, in body and face, of children at the rail a real gift: their eagerness to receive, their expectancy, their happiness. But I will say that I have also seen children play something like hide and seek at the rail, even when the elements were offered, and one liked to swing from the altar rail (a high brass affair. ) But those are exceptions, few and far between. —– My experience is very similar to yours. At St.
Paul’s we used to have the children gather around the altar as the communion was being prepared, and they were remarkably quiet and attentive. The little ones always did what the big ones did, and the big ones were always well behaved. All kids seem to understand without being told when they are to be respectful (if not reverent). We don’t have this practice at St. Paul’s any more–I think we have too many children for it to work very well. Your little boy who said his piece of bread was not big enough reminded me of a very funny incident when I was a chalice bearer.
The 4-year old son of our associate rector (a woman) stepped up the rail next to his father, took his bread and ate it, and then when I came along with the wine, grabbed the chalice, took a big swig, patted his tummy and said “Ahhhhh! ” I couldn’t keep a straight face for the rest of the service! —– I am the mother of George (6) and Henry (2). My husband and I grew up in the time when NO ONE took communion until they were confirmed. So, when we became parents and realized that the view of this was changing, we were not sure how we felt.
Our son George is a very picky eater, and so we waited until he showed an interest in receiving communion before deciding how we felt. (I add the picky eater part b/c my husband and I once saw a child of about 5 receive communion and then walk from the altar and spit the wafer out on the ground. We felt it unfair of the parents to allow their son to take the Body of Christ without being evenly slightly prepared. We did not want to put George in the position to do that). When George was about 3 or 4 he started to show an interest in receiving communion.
We talked to our priest who suggested we take some unblessed wafers home, let George try them, and talk to him about what they were and what they meant to us. I was amazed at how George seemed to intuitively know the sacredness of what we were doing. Without much talk from us he informed us that he knew this was Jesus’s bread and that eating it was our way of showing that Jesus is in our hearts. Wow! So, we let George start taking communion; he only chooses right now to take the wafer (he says he only likes milk and water and isn’t ready for God’s blood yet! So, we continue to follow his lead. Now Henry, he’s another kid all together. He wanted the wafer at about one and by 18 months was showing his anger over not getting what everyone else was getting. So at Easter this year, he received the wafer for the first time, mostly to keep things peaceful and get him to leave the rail. George started out getting part of my wafer or his dad’s wafer, but Henry has always insisted on his own. This summer at his first VTS communion, he chased Marge down when the cup passed him by.
She obliged and he has taken both wafer and wine since then — except on one occasion, when an “old school” chalice bearer refused to allow Henry a sip from the chalice. Henry was mad, didn’t want to leave the rail, and I had to carry him away in tears. Now, neither of my boys is particularly pleasant to sit through an entire worship service with, but they both walk to the altar, stand patiently with their little hands out, and receive their wafer, and George waits patiently while the rest of us receive the wine. It has been eye opening to watch them.
They do know much more than we think they do and much more than we do sometimes. —– I’ve never seen a child misbehave, though when one accidentally dropped the bread in the cup, his eyes got bigger than I’ve ever seen a child’s eyes get. It was funny. One child at my church hums all the way up to the rail and then hums while she’s waiting for the bread. Her mom hushes her which makes me sad. I love that the kid sings on her way to the Table. —– In Godly Play, I have observed kids of age 4 or 5 playing very seriously with the altar materials, in contrast to their rougher treatment of parable materials.
When enacting the Eucharist, there is never any fighting over who does what, or the typical shouts of “Mine! ” —– In 1971 our bishop first allowed unconfirmed children to receive communion. The children were prepared during Advent for the Christmas communion. At all services, this happened: as the people came forward, the contrast between the children’s and adults’ behavior was striking. The adults were private, solemn; the children’s eyes were big as moons, and they were joyous in demeanor and action. Children know what communion is; the mystery is known to them! The children transformed the adults!