Wednesday 6 August 2014

Entering Through Their Little Doors: Doing Theology With Children

By Edmund Lo, S.J.

About a year and a half ago, my niece Monica asked me a question: “So, how do you know what God wants you to do?” How on earth do I answer her? As I kicked my mind into high gear, she was quickly distracted, as a six-year-old would.

I thought about my niece's question for quite a while afterwards. If Mony were to demand an answer from me again, I would tell her that we know what God wants us to do by a peace and happiness that we find within us. It is different from the short-lasting happiness of a piece of chocolate; rather, it is a happiness, or “joy”, that lasts. This has to do with the Ignatian understanding of consolation, that we are being oriented towards God, and we can concretely detect this in our lives. Perhaps you have found yourself in a similar situation before, where a child asks you a question that requires a complicated answer.

One summer, about two years ago, I was working at Camp Ekon, a Jesuit camp for youth, in the Ontario wilderness. One day, while I was working with some teenage girls, one of them asked me why I became a Jesuit. I wanted to tell her in a language that she could understand, without backpedalling into a kind of theological language that was incomprehensible for her. I had to reflect for a while. How would I tell her about vocation? My answer was that I wanted more. Not just doing more things, or having more exotic experiences, but that I wanted more for my life. I wanted more meaning, more depth, more available to God, and being a Jesuit seemed to be the best fit for me.

When it comes to questions on spiritual matters as such, there are three possible outcomes:
  1. We give a watered down answer to temporarily appease the child. This would be similar to only teaching “God is love” or “God wants us to be happy” to children without properly addressing the nuances. For example, it is true that God wants us to be happy, but happiness is not the goal; rather, it is to grow closer to this God who loves us, and growing pains (which do not bring this emotional high) are beneficial.

  2. We respond to the child as if she is an adult. This assumes that she understands all the terminologies and analogies. It leaves the child in a state of greater confusion.

  3. We try to be true to the spirit of the question and come up with a creative answer.

It should be clear which answer I personally prefer. Truths about living a life in God need not be painstakingly difficult to understand, nor does they have to be overly simplified. I see this as the missionary approach which St. Ignatius of Loyola calls “entering through their doors”: We take the other's perspective and context so to share a common ground. By doing so, we are trying to get the other to “exit through our doors”. In the end, we are trying to help the other to build a deeper relationship with God. But this is more than just building bridges.

Not only do we explain to children with words that they can understand, but such a perspective has great value in itself. The reason is simple: We are loved children of God. Seeing and loving God from the eyes of a child makes sense for us as well. Indeed, Jesus says that the kingdom of God belongs to those who are like children (Mt 19:14). St. Thérèse of Lisieux was a master at this with her understanding of the Little Way. This reminds me of a conversation with a friend, Grace Urbanski, who works at the Apostleship of Prayer (AoP) head office in the United States. She is involved with the children branch of the AoP. Grace commented that not only are the materials meant for children; they are equally as helpful for the parents as well. In fact, some have found it so useful that they use the materials themselves to nourish their prayer lives. 

There is ample room for good catechism for children through sound theology without sacrificing its richness and profundity. It is perhaps not without reason that St. Ignatius wants Jesuits to catechise children as one of our main priorities. Entering through those little doors can be challenging; but if we know how to enter through children's doors, it sets us up for the other doors that we would encounter. We may even discover that our doors become smaller as well, and it leads to that Little Way of St. Thérèse. Here is an invitation to us to be creative and authentic about our catechising of children, because we benefit from it as much as they do.

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