Sittin’ in the Lap of God: The Child as Mystic Among Us
This paper flows from Genelda’s studies with the Shalem Institute in spiritual direction and her observation of and work with young children. With anecdotes of children from infancy through age six, Genelda considers children’s inherent relationship with God and the gift of that relationship for the adults in their community.
by Genelda Woggon
Genelda Woggon has been ministered to by children for over 40 years in her professional work as a Christian Formation Leader in the Episcopal Church, especially through the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in recent years. She is trained in all three levels of the work and is a nationally certified formation leader for Level I. She lives in Asheville, NC with her husband Harry who is a retired Episcopal priest. Together they share a joint position at St. George’s Episcopal Church: he as Priest in Charge and Genelda as Lay Associate. The have four adult children and four grandchildren.
Some years ago I was preparing the sermon for a homecoming celebration at the little country church where I grew up. To get a better historical perspective I interviewed my 97-year-old aunt, the senior member of the parish.
“Aunt Annie Marie,” I asked, “What is your most cherished memory of being in church as a young child?” Without hesitation she gave an excited response, “Sittin’ in Miss Flossie’s lap.”
“Did you also have Sunday School in those days?” I inquired.
“Oh yeahhhh,” she replied, indicating its great importance.
“And who was your teacher?” I asked, knowing already her response: “Miss Flossie.”
Searching for an answer that might reveal a favorite Bible story or scripture, I asked “Well, what do you cherish most of that experience?” She gave me a quick cute smile as if to say “I know good and well what I’m saying”, and then repeated with emphasis, “Sittin’ in Miss Flossie’s lap!”
Thomas Keating said of Centering Prayer (a form of contemplative and mystical prayer) that it might best be likened to that of a young child sitting in its mother’s lap and playing with a toy. The image is one of contentment transcending time and space; a place of warmth, love and security; the sensation of being totally embraced and enveloped by one who calls you by name with an original voice; of knowing who you are and whose you are; complete belonging and total freedom to be focused on the task at hand in such a way that the child at play becomes totally absorbed in the work of the hands. The child becomes merged with her work in transfigured moments that model for us something of the mystical experience: complete presence, sitting in the lap of God.
The image of the child in her mother’s lap seems appropriate as an image of prayer and the mystical experience because we have seen in children an innate knowledge of God that calls us, as adults, into a life long search homeward. Following the child into relationship with God, we discover that it is a two-way quest: God has been seeking us. The dynamic is described by Saint Augustine, “Thou hast created our hearts for thee O, Lord and our hearts are restless ‘til they find rest in Thee” and by the Psalmist, who reminds us of the other side: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down (in God’s lap?) and when I rise up.”
Perhaps the voice of the Good Shepherd searching out and calling us by name evokes a familiar response, as if the Shepherd is calling us back to the lap of God, our true home and a place of belonging. It’s only when we are home at last that we dare to look back and see that we have been “found” and carried all the way. No one knows this place called Home (our Heavenly Home) more intimately and well than the young child who has so recently been there.
When we speak of the child as a natural mystic it might be well to focus on the meaning of mysticism itself. The term has been used differently in various times and places and even today is likely to take on shades of meaning according to a particular cultural and religious setting. But at its heart – according to Webster’s dictionary – it means simply, “the doctrine or belief that direct knowledge of God, of spiritual truth, etc. is attainable through immediate intuition or insight and in a way differing from ordinary sense perception or the use of logical reasoning.”
We can glimpse mystical moments by watching the young child and the ease with which she is able to be still and listen. This seems to arise from a deep inner connection with God to whom she has immediate, instantaneous, and familiar access. Perhaps the younger the child the more accessible is the connection. It is also true that the experience of time is different for young children, for whom past and future are almost unreal. Their ability to be present parallels a deep state of contemplation or mystical prayer when there is a sense of time standing still or transcending time with no awareness of its passage, but rather a true sense of the present moment.
I remember when I gave the presentation of the Last Supper during Holy Week to the kindergarten class at a local Christian day school and invited the children into silence. There was such a sudden and deep stillness that the teachers actually gasped in shock to realize that their children were capable of such quiet
We adults have so much busyness of mind and baggage to cut through before we actually get to that point of sheer silence that we need more help than the child to pray in quiet. And so we find that techniques such as conscious breathing, body movement, music, or repetition of a sacred word help us. At most, these and other prayer techniques help to strip away our outer layers of reserve and bring us back to our most essential selves and somewhat closer to the consciously true child of God we were created to be.
“Lap sittin'” awakens beautiful memories of moments of peaceful belonging and make us wonder if it might represent a shadow of memory when we did sit in the lap of God, our Original Mother, Eternal Parent, Life Giver, and Supreme Lover of Souls. The Book of Genesis reminds us that we are “created in the image of God” (1:27), the same God that the Psalmist says has “knit us together in our mother’s womb” (Ps.139:13). The Lord God speaks personally to Jeremiah (and to each of us) saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jeremiah 1:5).
If God knew us did we also know God? Usually in Scripture the expression “to know” means a very deep intimate relationship, a two-way knowing. If we once knew, is there a faded memory of this relationship that is more accessible to very young children and perhaps others who maintain that child-like openness?
When we probe the characteristics of the spiritually alive person we end up with very similar qualities to those observed in the spiritual life of the child. The spiritually alive person has been described by Tilden Edwards, founder and former director of the Shalem Institute, as one who is characterized by spontaneous compassion, freedom, awareness of creation’s interconnectedness, holy wisdom, and a desire for the allness of God.
These characteristics will sound familiar to those who work with the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and read the works of Dr. Sofia Cavalletti. In The Religious Potential of the Child she lifts up certain universal qualities that she has observed in the last fifty years of work with children of various cultures, nationalities and religious expressions. Her keen observation of the spirit of the child recognizes qualities that include joy, spontaneity, compassion, metaphysical experience of reality, sense of oneness
with creation, and total ability to “fall in love with God”.
Together with her working companion Gianna Gobbi (an associate of Maria Montessori) and the children they served, Sofia Cavalletti built on the early work of Dr. Montessori and gave to the world a collaborative effort that honors to the fullest the rich religious potential of three to twelve-year-old children. Her work represents a paradigm shift in the whole area of spiritual formation of children. It’s rare to find a Christian formation curriculum today that has not been touched by it.
In addition to her pioneering work of observing and writing about the spiritual capacity of the child as young as three years of age, Cavalletti has begun now to explore the spiritual life of the child before age three. This paper is an effort to join her in that exploration.
If we believe with Teilhard de Chardin that, “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey, but spiritual beings on a human journey” then we can understand how it is that newborn infants bring with them something of the presence of God. Each child comes into the world as an incarnate expression of our Creator God, who becomes flesh for us most fully in the person of Jesus, the Incarnate Word. Children gradually become consciously aware of this Divine Presence within. As they mature they are able to “fall in love” with the Divine Lover who has already placed the seeds of love in their hungry hearts.
I am reminded of the story of a church schoolteacher in a parish where I served as a short-term consultant. She had come as a refugee from Bulgaria and always sat quietly during our meetings. I wasn’t even sure she knew much English. One evening when I gave her a ride home from church she began to open up and tell me her life story. Indeed, she spoke very well!
She began by saying, “I was born in an atheist country and I never heard the word ‘God’ spoken. It was forbidden in the home, the street or anywhere. But always as a child I went to bed praying, not only because I was scared, but also because I knew that there was something bigger in life than I was. I would lie in my bed at night and look out the window at the night sky – and I knew there was a mystery beyond myself.”
She went on to say that one day when she was a young adult her mother, without any preparation, put her and her sister and the sister’s baby in a vehicle and they all went together far off into the countryside for what the mother said was a family “social custom.” They had in fact arrived at an ancient monastery for what turned out to be a Baptism service. She had no understanding or language for what was happening, but she knew it was something very powerful and sacred and she and her sister spontaneously wanted also to be baptized after witnessing the baptism of the child.
Eventually she was married, and when she was pregnant with her first child she and her husband knew they wanted their child to be born in freedom. So they made a daring escape from a carefully guarded tour group and planted themselves on the grounds of the American Embassy. From there they were taken to a refugee camp and placed in the hands of Lutheran missionaries.
That evening in the home of the pastor and his wife she heard for the first time the story of salvation and of the great love that Jesus has for her. She said immediately, “Oh, I have known him all my life, I just didn’t know who you call him.”
With a natural love like this of the Good Shepherd buried so deeply in our hearts it’s no wonder that the child can be a silent witness for the parents. Such was the case for young Abbey. In a discussion of faith matters during Baptismal preparations, Abbey’s mother shared her profound feelings for her long- hoped-for child. The baby was now a healthy three months old but had experienced life-threatening complications during the first few weeks of life. In one of those beautiful mother and nursing baby moments, she found herself looking down at her infant daughter and saying in her lovely Irish lilt, “Oh, my darling Abbey—I love you so much, I’d give my life for you.”
“In that instant,” the mother relates, “I thought, ‘Oh! Now I know! Now I understand for the first time (after years of formation in Christian faith) what it means that God could give His life for us.’” It was not a matter of doctrine, but lived faith in what she called a “moment of conversion.”
Surely this child was some small expression of God’s Word made flesh silently but openly satisfying her mother’s own spiritual hunger. What better image, also, of the face of God than the warm embrace of a nursing mother as she looks down at each one of us and says, “Oh my darling, I love you so much, I’d give my life for you.”
It was that day that Abbey’s parents made a decision to find a church home for their family after ten years of separation from the church. Having served as something of an “incarnate” expression of God’s love for her parents it seemed fitting that Abbey would also be a gift of God to the whole congregation. In church, her parents are careful to sit up front, third row center, so that she might be fully engaged in our worship. Only occasionally does the child care giver take her out. Most of the time little Abbey is fully present, absorbing every word and note.
At ten months she began trying out her new sounds and would occasionally compete for sermon time, but mostly she joined the congregational responses with the exception of one wonderful solo response. Upon hearing the priest proclaim with authority “The gifts of God for the people of God.” Her newly learned “ga” sound was triggered and called forth an echo response in perfect meter and tone as she attempted to repeat every word with a simple chirping sound of, “Ga..ga ga..ga, ga..ga ga..ga.”
This was followed by a stunned silence in which every head in the congregation turned to look at her in awe and wonder. Without a doubt everyone knew that she, too, was a gift of God for our gathered people of God.
At eleven months she continued to watch from her third row perch as the torchbearers walked reverently towards the pulpit with flickering lights. They graced the Gospel book as the sacred words were read and then turned to walk back towards the altar. Little Abbey, an early walker, broke loose with her eyes fixed on the lights and toddled forth to follow as a faithful “child of the light.” She was scooped up in the arms of the grandfatherly priest and carried with the Gospel book up to the altar, and was quietly returned to her parents as he was en route to preach. His sermon stood pale beside the one just acted out.
On Good Shepherd Sunday Abbey was a full thirteen months old having celebrated her first birthday on Maundy Thursday. She listened intently as the children and babes in arms gathered around during the meditation to hear the parable of the Good Shepherd presented with movable figures. Later she joined her parents as usual at the altar rail. But this Sunday was different. Did she hear the Good Shepherd call her name or did she recognize the chalice minister as the one who shared the story of the Good Shepherd’s love for her? Or was she at just the right age, when for the first time she leaned forward from her father’s arms, reached out with both hands and decidedly took the cup for her own. Surely she knew, in some deep mysterious way, who she was and whose she was and at whose table she had come to join.
By Christmas Eve the next year, Abbey was 21 months old and had come with her parents and two visiting godfathers. She sat astride their knees in her regular third row. She had in her lap her favorite “soft sculpture” Creche set with movable three-dimensional fabric figures of Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus in His manger. She also had soft figures of two shepherds and their sheep. Everything had gone smoothly and quietly for Abbey until the 95-year-old deacon stood with great dignity to read the Gospel. Her soft-spoken British voice was decidedly quivery. Nonetheless, the elderly woman spoke with great expression and authority. The congregation was straining to hear and to give due respect to both the Gospel and this beloved holy woman who had served them faithfully over the years.
Perhaps Abbey thought this fragile voice needed a little extra volume and that she could serve as a kind of microphone, but, out of her silence during the previous part of the service Abbey suddenly began an echo mumble in perfect rhythm and tone, putting in equal time as her two godfathers tried to quietly hush her. I turned around to see what was going on and was nearly overcome as I saw her very intently moving the figures and attempting to mumble the Gospel of the birth of Christ right along with the Deacon. What a beautiful Christmas gift of “the child among us” she gave to all!
We can never know exactly what a child this young is internalizing or what knowledge is already there. Certainly there is a profound capacity to enjoy God’s presence, and it does seem that there is a direct innate, intuitive knowledge, or inner knowing, like the mystics, that goes far deeper than anything we can teach them. Sometimes it even takes on expressions that really seem akin to the mystics themselves, but we don’t always know how to interpret it or even to separate it from “just kid’s stuff.” Mostly, it just keeps us wondering at the two great mysteries: God and the child. Such is the case of Abbey’s experience on Palm Sunday just before her second birthday.
As always her family arrived early for church since her mother comes straight from her night duty at the hospital. Therefore Abbey is the first to arrive and thinks of church as her second home. She probably wondered why all those other folks were coming when they begin to arrive. About fifteen minutes before the service began, as others were coming in and being seated, Abbey wandered up to the altar area and very decidedly laid herself out prone facing the altar. She stayed there with her head on her arm not sleeping but awake in a kind of transfixed state for about five minutes before coming back down to join her parents at their seat.
I couldn’t help but think of the ancient rite of prostration when making a life profession. I doubt that little Abbey had any conscious awareness of what she was doing, but it did seem to be a fitting act. For later on this Palm Sunday morning we would remember the children of Jerusalem laying their cloaks and palm branches out to welcome their King Jesus.
Young children live in the metaphysical world of the mystics and are in tune with spiritual harmonies that the rest of us can barely hear. Who knows, perhaps in some deep intuitive way she had strewn her very self in the pathway her Master would ride as He made His way to the altar for this seasonal Paschal Feast.
Observing Abbey in church during these early years of her life has been a real blessing to me and has helped me to reflect on experiences with my own grandchildren at that age and to cherish them all the more. Such is the one that follows.
When our first grandchild was about 18 months old, I came to take care of him while his parents had their first night away since he was born. The day before they left, my daughter and I had sat with Nicholas on the floor while I had my first opportunity to share with him a presentation of the Good Shepherd using the sheep fold and movable figures. After the scripture was read, the figures moved and a few meditative questions posed about who these sheep might be, the little guy got down on his belly in front of the model sheep fold and rocked himself back and forth in front of the gate.
Not quite knowing what to make of this, I looked at my daughter and said quietly, “I think the gate is a bit narrow.” Then to my surprise, as if he had fully understood what I was saying, he got up, grabbed my hand and assisted himself as he carefully and decidedly stepped first one and then two of his nimble bare feet into the center of the sheep fold. There he stood making his first bold witness of faith.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and wondered if he was just playing around or if he really was making a statement. Was it possible, I thought, that this young child really knew that he was one of the sheep called by name and that he actually belonged in the Good Shepherd’s fold? I knew Cavalletti had said that young children do intuitively know this beloved relationship with the Good Shepherd and will begin to show this in their drawings and the way they work with the materials even though it may not be consciously verbalized until about age four. I still had a hard time believing that a child this young, only eighteen months, was really putting things together. I surmised that he was intrigued by the challenge of stepping into the inviting circle of the enclosed sheepfold.
Whatever doubts I had at that time were answered the next day after his parents left. This was the first time that Nicholas had begun to bond with someone outside the circle of his immediate family. During his waking hours he never left my side for one minute while his parents were away. So he insisted on following me down the long basement stairs to fetch something from the freezer. Coming back up the steep climb he followed step by step closely behind me. Nicholas was a child with early verbal skills and prone to process his thoughts out loud. I could hear him saying to himself, “…but they will never follow a stranger.” I knew in that moment that this strange out-of-town grandmother had been fully accepted and that he was integrating the Good Shepherd parable into his daily life. And yes, he did know that he was one of the Good Shepherd’s precious sheep. I like to think that as he was being rocked to sleep that night he had remembered images of being in the lap of the Good Shepherd.
Evidently, the young child has a deeper awareness of the Presence of Christ than most adults. They have eyes to see – the eyes of a mystic. As Christiana Rosetti, the great 19th-century mystic poet wrote, “Every bush is aflame with the glory of God, those who have eyes to see will fall down and worship; all the rest just stand around and pick blackberries.”
We glimpse evidence of children’s experience of the immanent Presence of God in the spontaneous overflow of children’s words and actions, especially when they are gathered around the Table of the Lord. A friend told me of such an incident in her church when the priest lifted up the Elements and proclaimed “The Gifts of God for the People of God.” He had barely finished the words when a four-year-old child bolted down the aisle from the back of the church and knelt alone at the center of the altar rail with hands uplifted to receive these precious gifts for his hungry and waiting heart. Never mind the protocol of the usher’s invitation. The priest, nearly overcome with the eagerness of this little guest at the Banquet Table, remarked to the congregation, “Would that you all might be so eager to come.”
One mother told me of an incident with her two-year-old daughter in a church that was not particularly “child friendly.” When the child became too wiggly and vocally active, the mother with great embarrassment decided it was time to leave. She said she found herself dragging this distraught child down the aisle, kicking in protest at having to leave and crying at the top of her lungs, “But I want to see Jesus! I want to see Jesus!”
We’ll never really know what is going on the hearts and minds of very young children when they come to the altar. But from time to time children under age six do voice thoughts such as, “When I come to the altar and take the Bread and Wine my heart just goes thump.”
So hungry are these children that it sometimes moves them to extreme measures if their cry isn’t heard. Quite some years ago, a Christian educator friend told me of her four-year-old son who often accompanied her to diocesan events and was warmly welcomed at the altar when he joined her at the Eucharist. Her home church was less inclined to welcome children as full participants at the Table. Naturally her son questioned, why could he receive Communion at one place and not at the other? At first his mother considered telling the priest how much he wanted to be a full part of this Celebration and asking whether he could be included.
Finally she explained to her son that it just wouldn’t be fair to the other children for him to be given a special privilege. He seemed to understand and went on his way. Little did she know that he secretly went around to all his friends on the playground the following Sunday organizing a “kneel in.” When all of these cherubs arrived at the altar rail with hands outstretched and eyes lifted up, the priest not only heard their cry, he was moved to tears of his own as one by one he fed their hungry hearts.
Jesus was telling us more than we have wanted to hear when he pointed to children as models of the kingdom way. If we but listen, perhaps we will find that the mere presence of children and their witness among us just might open up for us secrets of the Kingdom, God’s power and reign that remains hidden from the rest of us. “Unless you become as one of these….for of such is the Kingdom of God.”
To become like the child we must first know the child. We must be in tune with the spirit of children and hear the whisper of God’s song singing in their hearts (Stepanek p.3). This mystic melody needs to be acknowledged and honored so that we as adults can be in harmony with the “hymn of the universe” of which Teilhard de Chardin speaks. If we are to learn to sing a new song in this old and weary land of ours we must listen well. Our memories have faded and we seem to have forgotten the tune, struggling to whistle our own dissonant notes of consumerism, materialism, injustices, greed, conflict, war and strife.
We begin and end life with the Good Shepherd and his sheep as the primary symbol of the intimate relationship of the soul and its creator God. In the funeral service of the Episcopal Church there is a beautiful prayer of departure that sends the faithful on into the next life.
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant (Name).
Acknowledge, we beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock,
a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive himinto the arms of your mercy, into the
blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.
A few weeks after the homecoming event at my family church, my husband and I were invited back for the funeral service for my 97-year-old aunt. She had delayed until after the long-awaited homecoming occasion to release her last breath from her frail and fading body but fully alert mind. In preparing the service in which my husband was to celebrate the Holy Eucharist he deferred to me for the sermon, saying that in a way I had already written it.
It was my privilege to tell her story to those who had not heard it and to retell it to those who had; and to bear witness to her last visit to her beloved church, where she is now truly “sittin’’ in the lap of God.”