The Child as Mystic

Issue XII

Sofia Cavalletti, biblical schlolar and founder of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, noticed that the child possesses a mysterious knowledge of God. This is the hallmark of the mystic as well. In fact the mystic and the child’s religious experiences share many of the same attributes. This paper examines the parallels, especially in relation to Jesus’ insistence that entrance into the kingdom of heaven requires becoming as children and Evelyn Underhill’s observation that the mystic is a special voice which God places within the Christian community for the special purpose of making the divine desire for communion with God known.

by Pam Moore

Pam Moore is the Director of Children’s Formation at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, IL. In addition to being a catechist, formation leader and writer, Pam offers atrium-based family events at the beginning of each liturgical season. She is currently expanding CGS to adult formation through teaching, preaching and hosting retreats. She received her Masters in Theological Studies from Seabury Western Theological Seminary. 

A group of children are invited to create their own gifts, which they will bring forward at the offertory. Within minutes one seven-year-old girl shows her catechist two origami paper cups, one is much larger than the other. Pointing to the larger cup she says, “This is God and Jesus.” Then taking the smaller cup and placing it inside the larger one, she says, “And this is me. I live in Jesus.” 

A nine-year-old makes a drawing of a cave-like structure. It is brown with blue sky and green grass all around it. In the center of the white space inside the cave she writes: “You are all alone with God.” 

A six-year-old draws the globe and over it she draws a cross with a smiling person on it. She says, “This is a person wearing the cross. She likes the cross so much she walks with it always.” 

Children’s artwork such as these confirms Montessorian Adele Costa Gnocchi’s observation that “God and the child get along well together” (Cavalletti 1992, 44). Sofia Cavalletti makes a similar observation saying that the child appears to be a metaphysical being, one “who moves with ease in the world of the transcendent and who delights in – satisfied and serene – the contact with God.” (Cavalletti 1992, 44). That is to say, children’s visual and verbal expressions of their experience of God mirror that of the mystic, for both the child and the mystic are persons who experience God in a profound way, respond to that encounter with his or her whole self, articulate that experience in striking ways, and draw others to God as a result. 

Renowned scholar on mysticism Evelyn Underhill names the most essential characteristic of the mystic as the “clear conviction of a living God… and of a personal self capable of communion with Him … [creating] a double movement, a self-giving on the divine side answering to the self-giving on the human side” (Underhill 1920, 3-4). Through their visual and verbal responses, children show us that they, like the mystics, speak to God as true partners. This is the essence of the covenantal dynamism—God and human beings living as one life, one love, one spirit. Yet while adults tend to concentrate on the second moment of the covenant—the human response to the gift of divine love, the child lives in the first moment of the covenant—pure enjoyment of the gift of God. Cavalletti observed that the child’s religious attitude is such that s/he seeks the love of God not because of a deficiency that needs filling but a richness that seeks a corresponding quality of love. It appears that what adults spend years striving to attain, children already possess. So it is no great leap to say that children are “original” or “natural mystics” (McLaughlin 2003, 5). The deeply satisfying joy expressed by children resembles the ecstatic experience of union with God described by mystics. Julian of Norwich speaks of “the supreme spiritual delight in my soul” (204). And Teresa of Avila tells of “a deep interior joy” even in the face of suffering and persecution (Lynch 1979, 183). 

A comparison of Underhill’s study of mystics and mysticism and Cavalletti’s observations and conclusions about children’s religious experiences reveals numerous similarities between the child and the mystic, supporting the claim that the child is indeed a mystic. But what is the value in making such a claim? I believe that seeing the child as mystic can help us come to terms with the disturbing proclamation made by Jesus: “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Articulating the childlike qualities of openness, trust, honesty, and vulnerability has not produced the required conversion to childlikeness commanded by Jesus. However, seeing children as mystics may open the way for adults to see that by turning toward children and understanding and honoring their relationship with God, adults can rediscover that unique relationship they once had. Like Nicodemus adults need a way to understand how one can be “born again” (John 3:1-9). Evelyn Underhill offers a starting point when she says the mystic is 

a special organ developed within the Christian body for a special use …[and] since human lives interpenetrate… the more we… are willing to accept the claim of the mystic, and receive what he tells us in the spirit of humility instead of a spirit of criticism; the more completely he will be able to share his treasure with us, the more deeply we shall be able to enter into that consciousness which he represents, which he brings in his own person into the human scheme (Underhill 1920, 42). 

This directive toward appropriate attitude in front of the mystic leads to the second essential characteristic of the mystic—engagement in a process of sublimation, particularly the movement into greater consciousness of the unifying principle of the universe: the eternal, loving presence of God. The mystic perceives the truth that divine life permeates all things, embracing and drawing all toward the Source of life. The child who put the smaller cup inside the larger one and announced, “I live in Jesus,” exemplifies the process of sublimation as a process not merely of self-effacement, but rather of deep awareness of the human urge for and enjoyment in communion with God. Although not known as a mystic, Maria Montessori fully understood and proclaimed this underlying truth about the constant movement of all life toward unity in God. 

[H]umanity is being drawn toward a unifying whole. This concept must not be presented as some ideal imposed upon humankind in order to judge their actions, but as a pre-existent reality, which is constantly unfolding. We are not talking about the forcing of human beings to cooperate with each other so as to be united. Rather, we are speaking about elevating human consciousness to something that already exists and demand that human beings consciously adapt to the real state of things in which they live (Cavalletti 2002, 33). 

“To know this first hand—not to guess, believe or accept, but to be certain – is the highest achievement of human consciousness, and the ultimate object of mysticism” (Underhill 1920, 7). For children this is not so much a goal as it is the reality in which they live. The child’s drawing of a person who likes the cross so much that she wears it always reveals children’s mysterious knowledge of God, an awareness of God that goes beyond what they have been taught and sometimes precedes any initiation into the Christian faith. 

Underhill notes that for all of the great mystics of the Church, the process of sublimation or movement toward greater consciousness of self in relation to God involves three distinct stages. Although the language varies from mystic to mystic, the basic steps are the same: purification, illumination and union. 

Purification involves an expansion of the mind and pursuit of true wisdom both of which enlarge our vision of the world, opening us to the way God sees the world and humanity. During this stage much attention is given to specific disciplines in prayer, scripture reading, interpersonal relationships, and daily living. Ascetic practices are the norm yet mystics always warn against being so severe that the lack of food, sleep or shelter creates false visions or become ends in themselves. Underhill notes: “True asceticism is a gymnastic not of the body, but of the mind. It involves training in the art of recollection; the concentration of thought, will, and love upon the eternal realities which we commonly ignore” (Underhill 1920,15). Gradual conformity to this perspective or will of God is the intent of the ascetic disciplines. Put another way, discerning the will of God involves discerning the divine desire for communion with all humanity. All work, all activity, all spiritual disciplines are for the sole purpose of delighting in God. 

The experience of delighting in God through the re-conforming of one’s heart, mind and soul requires perfect humility. Therefore all the mystics name humility as the crucial posture at this first stage. By humility the mystics mean full awareness of one’s self in front of God. “Know thyself” is the mantra at this initial stage. This self- knowledge includes both awareness of one’s limitations and sin and a growing awareness of the gift of divine grace which not only nullifies sin but holds it within the divine embrace of love. Cavalletti describes the resulting joy as “the paradox of humility” because it appears that “the smaller we feel, the greater our joy” (Cavalletti 2002, 24). In other words, the confession of sin begins in the confession of the grace of God. The purpose of humility then is not to humiliate or degrade one’s self but to see one’s self within the light of divine love. As St. Paul says so eloquently, 

The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Rom. 8:26-7). 

Humility prepares the way for the second stage of consciousness— illumination and the elevation of one’s mind to the realities of God’s plan to bring all into full enjoyment of divine life and love. At this stage the mind through contemplation is set afire by love. Here one is both motivated by love and drawn by love with increased intensity. There is a deepening sense that God is searching for us as much as we are searching for God. In fact, the whole spiritual journey involves human beings reaching toward God as God seeks to bestow on humanity all the grace of divine light and love. The psalmist articulates this dual desire perfectly: 

“For God alone my soul in silence waits; from God comes my salvation” (Ps 62:1). 

Through contemplation the heart, mind, soul and body move into greater consciousness of the divine presence. 

This presence is given in its fullness at the third stage, union, for here “the mind is carried up to contact with truth in its pure simplicity” (Underhill 1920, 10). Here, the mind, heart, and soul are so transformed by God that union with the divine life and love is experienced. One is drawn to God alone, dwelling in God as God dwells in us. As the nine year old child exclaimed visually and verbally, “You are all alone with God.” Similarly St. Paul insists, “It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Some mystics describe this fullest experience as becoming like God. We have been made in the image of God. In fact, the human desire for God is the desire to be who we are meant to be—god-bearers and imitators of Christ in the world. 

The Rhythm of Life in the Atrium as a Mystical Journey 

While children appear to be keenly aware of “living in Jesus,” “wearing the cross,” and being “all alone with God,” a three step process is neither articulated by them, nor easily attributed to them. Instead, we might say the rhythm of life in the atrium allows for three distinct ways in which the child’s relationship with God is nurtured and revealed. 

I would call the first stage “Proclamation” because the initial and motivating activity in the atrium is the proclamation of the Word of God. In fact, when I visited Sofia Cavalletti in Rome in May 2005, she repeatedly told me “the Word is the most important thing.” Like the mystics, a discipline of poring over Scripture is foundational. In the atrium this takes several forms—attention to the spiritual preparation of the catechist through constant studying of Holy Scripture, the catechist’s faithfulness to the Scripture text when proclaiming the Word of God, having only the barest essentials in the physical materials depicting biblical texts so that the underlying truths might be perceived, the making of the atrium materials by hand, and the understanding that the catechist is a co-listener with the children because “through the child a new nuance of the Word comes to us” (Cavalletti 1992, 49). All these disciplines help both the child and adult absorb the biblical content more deeply, combat hurry, consumerism, and excessive efficiency, match the slower rhythm of the child as well as that of the Holy Spirit, and assist in the integration of hand, mind and heart (Cavalletti 2002, 137).  

Also like the mystics, this first stage requires an ordered environment, filled only with the essential, so that nothing is a distraction. The atrium, like the monastery or convent, is a place for the development of the religious life and as such follows specific guidelines for communal living. Therefore Cavalletti insists there is to be nothing of the academic in the atrium. “It is not a place for religious instruction but for religious life … a place of work, where the work however becomes conversation with God” (Cavalletti 1992, 56). 

While the proclamation of the Word of God is foundational to the atrium, time for the children to work with the atrium materials on their own takes up the greatest part of the atrium session. This is because the atrium materials are not teacher’s aids, but aids for the children’s continued meditation on the Word of God or signs of liturgy. This parallels the second stage of the mystical journey—illumination through contemplation. Through their work, children enter into a period of contemplation and prayer, of inner conversation with the only real teacher, the Holy Spirit. Like the mystics whose consciousness is raised to the level of having their hearts and minds set afire by love, so too the child’s heart is drawn more and more toward God through contemplation, but also through the capacity to wonder. The duel movement of humanity and God leaning into each other in mutual delight which characterizes the second level of consciousness is nothing less than wonder. 

Cavalletti describes wonder as a force that does not push us passively from behind but rather “is situated ahead of us and attracts us with irresistible force toward the object of our astonishment; it makes us advance toward it, filled with enchantment” (Cavalletti 1992, 138). She goes on to say that wonder draws us not to activism but to activity particularly to “an activity we do as persons immersed in the contemplation of something that exceeds us” (Cavalletti 1992, 138-9). Wonder helps us go always deeper into reality. As a result our whole life takes on a religious character “because [wonder] makes us live with the consciousness of being plunged into an unfathomable and incommensurable reality” (Cavalletti 1992, 139). Therefore the second stage of consciousness or way God is experienced in the atrium could be called “Wonder and Contemplation.” 

During their periods of wondering, children often make drawings and utter proclamations that show their keen awareness of the presence of God in them and all around them. Therefore, I call the third stage or way in the atrium: “Spontaneous Expression.” It is not so much a final step as the intermittent, outward expression of inner knowledge, joy, and gratitude in the child’s deep and abiding life with God. Finding a way to express their experience of communion with God is the ongoing task of all mystics. Both child and mystic are compelled to articulate their experience of God. 

Like children, the mystics paint pictures of their experience of union with God. For Teresa the image is that of entering an Interior Castle “made entirely out of diamonds or very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms” (Lynch 1979, 35). These lead to the central room where one experiences a spiritual marriage. 

In the spiritual marriage the union is like what we have when rain falls from the sky into a river or fount; all is water, for the rain that fell from heaven cannot be divided or separated from the water of the river…. Or, like the bright light entering a room through two different windows; although the streams of light are separate when entering the room, they become one. (Lynch 1979, 179). 

Julian’s Showings use the image of mother to illustrate the redemptive work of Christ. “The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courteously and most tenderly, with the blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life” (Lynch 1978, 298). According to Bernard of Clairvaux the Song of Songs provides an eloquent illustration of the mystical experience. Within that love poem the union between Bridegroom and Bride revolves around the desire to “let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (Song 1:2). 

A Developmental Approach 

Another way of seeing a parallel between the mystics’ threefold spiritual path and the child’s progress in consciousness is to outline the child’s quest for understanding of God and self at each developmental stage. At the three-to-six- year-old stage of development, the child’s primary religious question is “Who are you, Lord?” Here the child is aware of this greater reality we know as God but is seeking a name for that which s/he already knows. Living in the sensitive period for language, this child is seeking the name for all things, but especially the name of Jesus which is above all names. From six- to-nine-years of age the child is in the sensitive period for social, moral and cultural norms and therefore begins to ask, “Who are we?” That is, the child’s awareness of the interconnectedness of all people, things and God increases and s/he wants to know how as social and moral creatures human beings are to live in peace and mutual blessing. The nine-to-twelve-year-olds’ social, moral, and cultural critique narrows down to self. His or her question becomes “Who am I?” By twelve years of age the child is leaning toward a definite moral response in terms of later vocation and habits of behavior. While the younger child’s inner plea is “Help me come closer to God myself,” the older child’s plea is, “Help me know how I am to work with God.” 

While this scenario appears to be the reverse of the adult mystical experience which begins in self knowledge and progresses to union with the divine, in both processes the goal is the right ordering of love. The child who begins in love seeks expression of that love in numerous ways and increasingly in moral behavior. Adults on the other hand, begin in awareness of misbehavior and progresses toward the gift of union with God, which also leads to assuming a perfectly moral life. Either way conforming to the ways and will of God motivates one to love both God and neighbor totally. This is the real gift the mystics bring to others. They find and feel the Infinite not only for themselves but for us. Evelyn Underhill likens them to creative artists who “mediate between the truth and beauty which they know and those who cannot without their help discern it” (Underhill 1920, 65). They are “the gates through which messages from the Transcendent come to man” (Underhill, 42). So the final essential characteristic of the true mystical experience is its benefits to others. 

The union with God experienced and articulated by the mystics is like “a flash of light that shines vibrantly then fades away” (Bibb 2003, 2). Though fleeting, that brilliant flash of light awakens the mystic and many others to the reality that is God drawing all into the divine embrace. Like the mystic, the child is a special organ which God places within the Christian community for the special purpose of making the divine desire for communion with God known. The prophetic vision of the Peaceable Kingdom confirms the reversal of roles within the reign of God: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isa. 11:6). Jesus also announces children’s unique position within the power structure of society: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (Matt. 11:25-26). 

It is to our benefit that we pay attention to these little ones and the flashes of light they give us. Our task however is not so much to emulate their virtues as it is to take seriously their vision of God, humbly receiving it as a gift given to us in order that we might also know God fully. While the mystics give us some helpful guidelines for orienting ourselves toward God, they are clear that it is all gift. The child mystic shows us this by naming only the gift, only the joy, only the union: living in God, being alone with God and wearing the cross of Christ with great delight. If we were to meditate only on these proclamations; perhaps we would find changing and becoming like children less intimidating; perhaps we would realize how accurate Underhill is when she says the mystic pushes against the protective edges of the Church in order to bring it back to its own highest ideals; perhaps we would live within the divine vision of children possessing a unique leadership role; perhaps we would be overwhelmed with the same joy children know and could let wonder carry us forward to our own heart’s desire for God; perhaps the necessary disciplines of humility, prayer, and self-denial would seem as nothing because we would know what the children know—that “the real goal and joy of the Christian life and faith is to live a life hidden with God in Christ” (Cavalletti 1992, 3, 4)—hidden like a small cup inside a larger one, hidden as within a safe enclosure, hidden within the cross of Christ, and hidden within the child, a mystic and a light to enlighten us.  

Bibliography 

Bibb, Teri. “A Flash of Light: Children and the Mystical Experience.” Echoes. Vol. 7, No. 2 (2003): 2-3. 

Cavalletti, Sofia. The Religious Potential of the Child. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1992. 

_____. The Religious Potential of the Child Six to Twelve Years Old. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2002. 

_____. “The Royal Road of Holy Joy,” The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Journal. No. 17. (2002): 8-11. 

Lynch, Kevin A., C.S.P., Ed. Teresa of Avila: The Interior Castle. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1979. 

_____. Julian of Norwich: Showings. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978. 

_____. Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987 

McLaughlin, Lindsay. “Natural Mystics.” Echoes Vol. 7, No. 2, (2003.):5. 

Underhill, Evelyn. The Essentials of Mysticism. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1920. 

Occasional Papers is a publication of the Center for Children and Theologycopyright © 2006 

This paper is copyrighted and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the publisher’s written permission. 

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