December 16, 2004

Krista's Journal: The Spiritual Insight of Children

December 16, 2004

This was a magical program to create. We first produced it in the pilot phases of Speaking of Faith, and have refined and rebroadcast it nearly every December since. The topic of children and God took us into the territory of "mystery" writ large, and of what Robert Coles evocatively calls "the spirit of religion." This hour is not so much about what it means to be a child, but what it means to be human.

The idea for this program had been following me around, inchoate, for years. I can pinpoint its origins, I believe, to a Hebrew proverb that captured my imagination. It says that just before a child is born, the angel Gabriel tells her everything — all the secrets of God and the universe. Then he kisses her on the forehead, and she begins to forget it all. I have since heard other Jewish versions of this story and found its corollary in Muslim tradition. Later, as I worked with children in Philadelphia's inner city and became a mother myself, I found it hauntingly resonant. I also found it echoed in other, more "scientific" ways. The great educator Maria Montessori identified a religious intuition and intelligence in children, especially very young children. She compared this to the inborn capacity children have for acquiring language — not a blueprint, but a potential for eloquence or illiteracy, a template that yields to infinite varieties of culture, time, and place.

During these same years, I heard of a Yale pediatric oncologist, Diane Komp, with remarkable stories of children facing illness and death — her patients — illuminating meaning and life to the adults around them, if only the adults were open and willing to hear.

I knew from the first that I would interview Diane Komp if I could, and put some of her stories on the radio. I hesitated to approach Robert Coles because I'm often reluctant to interview the biggest "name" in a field. But when I read his famous book, The Spiritual Life of Children, I knew that Coles deserves his veneration. In my mind, his contribution to our common understanding of the spiritual aspect of childhood, across boundaries and cultures, remains singular. The hour I spent in conversation at his home in Massachusetts is a treasured memory.

And I love the story of how Coles came to write this book for which he is now best known. He first became fascinated by the inner lives of children when he got to know Ruby Bridges, the Black first grader who single-handedly integrated the public school system of Louisiana in 1960. In the following decades, he studied children all over the world and amassed countless thousands of tapes and transcripts. He wrote books about the psychological, political, and moral lives of children, including a Pulitzer-winning series Children of Crisis.

Then one day late in his career, a friend — Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund — suggested that he look back at all his research and see if there was anything he'd missed. He found, to his surprise, that his notes were full of religious and spiritual observations from children, insights he'd largely ignored for the sake of academic respectability.

I ask Robert Coles how he has come to understand what parents and educators sometimes observe as the religious intuition of children, a closeness to God. His answer has stayed with me ever since: Children want to know, he says, they want to understand. They possess a delving spirit — of inquiry, yearning, and enormous curiosity about this world. They are asking the large existential questions: Where do we come from? Where are we going? What does it mean live a good life in this world? With such questions, Coles suggests, children connect with the very spirit of religion. In this light, the "spirit of religion" appears to have as much to do with asking important questions as with declaring right answers. I find this confirmed in my unfolding radio adventure with this program, if not in our polarized public discourse: human beings often turn to religious traditions not to define eternal certainties, but to find ways of living with ambiguity — the messy, animating realities of life and death, good and evil.

All of the perspectives in this program — including the children who shared their wisdom with us — suggest that children intuit the complexity, the light and the darkness of the world around them. Their observations and questions deserve serious attention and can become moments of instruction for the adults in their lives. This message is especially relevant, I feel, in a holiday season when, in adapting things to children, we tend to simplify the complex messages of religious holidays and summon a cultural atmosphere of superficial brightness.

At the same time, there is an infectious kindred warmth in the ideas and voices of this hour of radio. These adults who have created a respectful intimacy with children maintain or recover some of their own original "delving spirit." They seem to have recovered the qualities of childhood that could keep all of us alive and wondering — grappling creatively and openly with life's difficulties and joys — throughout the span of life.

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Voices on the Radio

Robert Coles

is a retired Harvard researcher and child psychologist. He's authored many books, including The Spiritual Life of Children.

Diane Komp

is a retired Yale pediatric oncologist and author of several books, including Window to Heaven: When Children See Life in Death.

Carol Dittberner

is an international trainer in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and director of religious education at St. Frances Cabrini.