'Let the little children come' - Imaginative contemplation for younger folk
by Ged Johnson
Last Autumn I was asked by the coordinator of the ‘healthy schools week’, at my two younger children’s school, to lead a meditation session with the juniors. Interesting, I thought. I had experience of leading meditation with adults, undergraduates and secondary school pupils, but not with primary school children. I agreed immediately, and with some keenness, but as the date approached I began to wonder what I had let myself in for. Could seven-year olds even settle themselves enough to experience meditation? My mind went to the bundle of energy and opinionated stubbornness that was my own seven-year old. Mmmm, I thought. And, then, how would he and his older brother feel about my being in their classroom teaching meditation? The teacher probably only asked me to fill the week anyway, I muttered to myself, as the counter-movement began to tighten its grip.
Pondering, later, I thought of my boys and the force of their imaginations and began to think this experience of meditation might be quite powerful for both them and me. Children often have a keen sense that they are not just what they can see and, also, an awareness of real relationship with Jesus. Imaginative contemplation was the order of the day.
I was aware it might be tough in the sense that they would need help in becoming still but I could encourage them to see that they would be helping their friends if they did a really good job of this. It would also be important to keep the time short - a rule of thumb (so I discovered) is that for young children about a minute of meditation for each year of their life is about right. Finally, I had to make sure I had a good text. I fell on two. Jesus’ Smile (Matthew 19:1-2.13-14) for the younger ones aged five to eight, which gives the account of Jesus telling the disciples not to stop the children coming to him. The second, for the older ones aged nine to twelve, was the account of Jesus’ followers seeing his power (Mark 4:35-41) through the calming of the storm.
So, over the course of the afternoon of Wednesday 25th October, I took six groups of about ten children each over to the outdoor classroom in turn for a guided meditation. Each session lasted some fifteen to twenty minutes, which included settling down and questions at the end. I began in the same way, by saying that they would be great at this because they already had great imaginations and already loved stories. To the older ones I added an appreciation of their already developing, deepening faith. I explained I would play some music and give them some simple awareness exercises to help them become still and prepare for this special time of meditation. Then I read the scripture story aloud and asked them to close their eyes and imagine what it was like to be there. If they felt they were becoming distracted all they needed to do was to relax and think how they were being great friends supporting each other.
As I read, I asked them what they could see and hear, how it felt to be part of the story, and what Jesus looked like and how he sounded. For the younger ones, what was it like to hear the disciples say Jesus couldn’t see you; he was too busy? And then, what was it like to hear Jesus say ‘let them come to me’. How did they feel to know Jesus wanted to see them? What was that smile of Jesus like as he hugged and blessed them?
To the older ones, had they ever been in a storm, or on a rough sea? Perhaps one time they were really scared - to whom did they go? How did it feel going to Jesus and seeing him asleep? Did he even care? One of the disciples woke him - perhaps it was one of them - what was his reaction on being woken? What about his stern voice to the wind and waves? How did they feel when all become still and at peace?
Then I asked the children to come gently back to the classroom and become aware of their friends again. We had a stretch and I asked them how it was for them and what happened - did anybody want to share what that was like? Here’s just a sample of what they enthusiastically offered:
It was like it was really happening
I was one of the disciples
Jesus told me not to be afraid
Peaceful and relaxing
God was there for me
I could tell Jesus anything
Relaxing & happy
Jesus was loud and calm - he was not afraid
Jesus knew what to do
I felt confident and safe with him
Jesus was in front of me and I felt warm
Jesus smiled at me
Jesus touched my head
Jesus patted me on the back
Jesus blessed me
Smooth & Fun
Jesus was really close to me
Jesus had a deep calm voice
Jesus wore purple and yellow
Jesus felt really close to me, too, as I listened to those children and it was a delight to discover how ready and eager they were to pray in this way, and how ready and eager the Lord was to let them come to him. After all, at the heart of Christian meditation is the person of Jesus and the first-hand experience of God’s love…
‘Our set purpose must be to help children build a loving relationship with Jesus in the flesh and bring them to this same Jesus, present with us now – in the spirit’ (Sr. Madeline Simon)
"The sublime and glorious reality which we call God, is to be sought first and foremost in the human heart. If we do not find God there, we shall not find God anywhere else. If we do find God there, we can never lose God again; wherever we turn, we shall see God's face" (Meister Eckhart)