Dr Noel Keating
Spirituality can be considered to be an innate dynamism of the human person which inspires us to live life with authenticity; for many it is linked with a specific understanding of the sacred and the transcendent in life.
Western culture today tends to undermine any expression of spirituality in the public sphere. It is never easy to come to terms with the mysterious experience of our own spirituality and all the more difficult to describe it.
However, meditation helps us to create space for encountering that essential element of our being. As we grow in our practice of meditation and as we begin to experience this mystery for ourselves, we come to apprehend that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought, and that thought is only a tiny aspect of that intelligence.
Sometimes we have to call on poetry or art to help us to give expression to it. Heidegger once wrote that poetry is language in service of the unsayable and the artist Francis Bacon claimed that the job of the artist was always to deepen our intimate connection with mystery.
It is one of the fruits of meditation that it gives rise to the discovery of the true self, to our true nature at the deepest level of our being and to have faith in the validity of this discovery. We learn to value both mental and spiritual knowledge and this gives rise to a more balanced way of knowing which ultimately changes our way of seeing and being in the world. Spirituality, then, is not an airy-fairy concept or an abstruse set of beliefs but something very practical which, when we choose to access it, informs how we live our lives.
Despite the growing awareness of the innate spiritual capacity of the human person, it was considered up until the late 1970s to require a cognitive capacity beyond the reach of young children. In other words, young children could not be spiritual because they had not yet reached the age of reason, they lacked the capacity for rational thought.
However, it is now recognised that children do indeed have an innate capacity for spirituality, although they lack the ability to adequately verbalise their spiritual experience. The theologian Karl Rahner believed that all persons, including children, are innately oriented toward God. In other words, our spirituality arises from within, from the very fact of our existence and it finds expression in all kinds of human experience. He considered that children had a special capacity for ‘infinite openness’ which enlivens their spirituality.
My recent research into the child’s experience of meditation confirms that in the silence and stillness of meditation many children experience their spirituality as a sense of spaciousness within, which, they intuitively understand, is intimately connected with the Divine. In Christian terms, children’s spirituality may be understood, then, as that deep, albeit obscure, inner awareness of their true essence, of the true-self, of the reality that we are all beloved children of God.
Children are too young to understand very much about life. In their simplicity, they are comfortable with the limited and emergent nature of their knowledge, with not-knowing; they know they have so much to learn about the world. Because of this they remain open to possibility. They have a trust in their innate way of knowing, in their perceptual knowledge.
By comparison, as we grow into adulthood and our capacity for intellectual knowledge enlarges, we begin to doubt the validity and value of perceptual knowledge. As we become more rational in our thinking, we tend to believe that everything can be explained in words and we tend to distrust anything that can’t.
While adults generally feel the need to analyse, to explain and to control their environment, children are open to allowing life to unfold its mysteries. They are able to leave themselves open to whatever may transpire in the silence of meditation, without having to understand it or explain it. They are comfortable with the mysterious nature of spiritual experience.
While it is not easy to describe their experience in words, they can make wonderful use of metaphor in speaking about it, as described in my book Meditation with Children. One 12-year-old girl has described how, when she hears the bell ring three times at the start of meditation, she imagines it is God ringing her doorbell and she opens her heart to let him in.
The children’s insightful use of metaphor has now been captured in song in a new CD just released. Called Meditation with Children: Songs and Reflections, the 10 songs are based on how children themselves have described the rich fruits of meditation in their lives. The CD is now available from Veritas, iTunes and elsewhere online and can be used to initiate meaningful conversations with children about their own spiritual experience.