by Ann Satterfield
Master of Arts in Spiritual Direction Student
The Sunday following All Saints was an occasion for a special lesson in a parish where I was recently serving in Manhattan. The reading for that day was John 11:32-44, the story of Jesus raising Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus from the dead. The older children read the passage out loud while the younger children listened. I had questions about how that passage related to the lesson on saints that I had prepared that day, but kept silent about them.
After the reading, the children re-grouped to engage in a discussion about what a saint really is. I mentioned two levels of meaning: first, that Scripture uses the word “saint” to mean believer in God. In the New Testament this also applies to belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. When asked what that meant for all of us there in the room, the children unanimously shouted, “We are saints!” That was a beautiful teaching moment. Second, I mentioned that the church recognizes certain regular people who have led exemplary lives in faith, and these people are called “Saints” with a capital “S.” I proceeded to talk about St. Margaret of Scotland whose feast day was forthcoming in the church calendar, and included details from her life.
At first, the children asked questions wanting more detailed information. For example, when I mentioned that St. Margaret and her husband, King Malcolm, had eight children together, they wanted to know how many were girls and how many were boys. They enjoyed the fact that she opened up the palace to the poor and needy and gave money away to them, even though Malcolm became worried about giving away so much money. One boy in particular was impressed by how Margaret created places of prayer in the palace, not just for herself but for people who worked there, too. This is what I call a hinge moment, a moment when some detail becomes fascinating because it touches something deep within the child. In this case, it was the desire to pray in one’s own home, not only in church.
The end of the story touched on the theme of death and new life in God as contained in the Gospel reading, but it added something more. I described how Margaret became very ill around the time that King Malcolm and some of their sons led Scotland into war against England. The king and the oldest son died in battle, but the youngest son survived and returned to his mother, who was very sick in bed. Seeing how sick she was, he did not want to tell her that her husband and his oldest brother were killed, though she intuitively knew this herself. A few days after this visit from her son, Margaret prayed to God, “Please set me free.” She died the same day.
I turned to the children and asked them, “As we just learned, saints can be living or dead. Who do you know or like who inspires you with their life?” To my surprise and happy astonishment, several children spoke of older relatives who had died but how their lives continued to touch and inspire them. One child even spoke of her long dead grandmother who, though she died before the girl was born, the girl described having a sense of who her grandmother was. The other children listened respectfully, and shared when their turn came, but the character of the group had changed. The children entered into a deep spiritual and emotional space and held it for each other. This is the nature of group spiritual direction. And group spiritual direction must not necessarily be limited to adults.
One simple idea for children’s group spiritual direction is sparked by Mary Ann Archer in her book, Shared Imagination. It is an account of how imagining a special place or environment where participants like to go to speak with God helps people. This would be especially useful if the facilitator guided the children, after reaching that imaginary place, to imagine Jesus, their best friend, entering and sitting beside them. “What would you like to say to Jesus?” and “What does he say in return?” could be further prompts. This pulls from the Ignatian teaching of being a friend to Jesus, of feeling him with our senses as well as our hearts. Why limit this approach to adults? Every child I have ever known wants to have friends, especially a close friend. Set up the space for them to interact with God and God and the children will do the rest.