Monday, May 30, 2022

The Need for a Theology of Blessing in the Spiritual Formation of Young Children by Maryanne von Essen

Photo_ Humphrey Muleba

Mystics, prophets, and celebrators of sacramental life might have different meanings for different people so for the purposes of this essay, I will propose the following definitions.

A Mystic is a person who, in the course of their daily devotional life, in whatever form that takes, experiences a felt presence of God. Maybe not every day but they encounter God often enough in life to be in relationship with God. 

A Prophet in the Christian tradition is a follower of Jesus, who tries to live out the prophetic ministry of Jesus; a message of inclusive love and non-violence, speaking truth to power, being in solidarity with those on the margins and an all-encompassing trust in Abba God and the enduring life of the reign of God.

Celebrating Sacramental Life includes and goes beyond the seven sacraments of the church. The definition of a sacrament as an outward sign of an inward grace, means that these outward signs are present in everyday life and accessible to all in moments of grace or when in need of grace and healing.

To live more compassionately and justly as mystics, prophets, and celebrators of sacramental life is the very call of being church, the Body of Christ on earth, and many good and learned people grapple with this constantly. For this essay, I will narrow the focus to two points:

 1. The need for mystical, prophetic, sacramental, and relatable theology.

 2. Full and continuous formation in that theology and especially in the early years. Pedagogic research shows the value in Early Childhood Education, and this applies to learning theology too. I will focus primarily on the formation of young children and the struggles of their parents in this essay.

Young children need an age-appropriate theology and one that is appropriate for the context of their world which is very different from that of many of the adults in their lives. Since Vatican II the formula has been to bring up children using the traditional bible stories and then when they are older explaining metaphor, etc., but in certain instances this is not possible. For example, the story of Creation: as early as pre-school, children are learning about the cosmos, planets and dinosaurs. It is no longer appropriate to teach them about God as Creator using the Genesis story – they need to learn about the Big Bang and evolution with God language attached. If we wait until they can understand metaphor, they will have lost the awe and wonder of experiencing God as Creator in their early years. Rather, we need to give them evolutionary creation stories and then, when they are older, introduce them to the metaphorical stories of our tradition. While I respect the biblical canon of the Church, it was decided by men who lived in the 5th century, we need to offer our children a lectionary that makes sense for the context of their lives. 

Many children are not exposed to Christianity, not because their parents are anti-God but because they do not know how to equate the values they wish to give their children with the current mainstream Church teaching of Atonement theory. I am aware of Catholic churches which emphasise the love of God, the priest does not give ‘fire and brimstone’ type homilies, but this ignoring of Atonement theory does not diminish the damage it has done to people’s spirituality. The prayers of the Mass still use sacrificial language and if a person was raised on penal substitution or satisfaction theory then they cannot hear anything else. The church needs to put Atonement theory to bed and formally offer the people of God a new more appropriate theology – that of Accompaniment and Blessing. Our children need a clear theology that is congruent and that they should hear it in Catechism class, in Mass and at home. They need a firm container of congruent authentic faith that makes sense in their world, they need to be equipped with language that describes this theology and thus equipped, they can grow spirituality and mature as mystics in the faith.

A theology of Accompaniment and Blessing is well laid out in Elizabeth Johnson’s book Creation and the Cross. She uses the same motif of question and answer that Anselm of Canterbury used when he wrote Cur Deus Homo to explain Satisfaction Theory. If ever the church took the brave step to change, it should be required reading for all catechists! For the Church to continue to embrace Anselm’s 11th century teachings is denial of centuries of scholarship and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the growth of the Church. Using diverse academic disciplines modern biblical scholarship can take a bird’s eye view of the scriptures and we find a loving, forgiving and endlessly patient God who would never demand human sacrifice to be appeased. Reading the letters of Paul and other early church documents with a historical understanding of words like sacrifice, redemption, atonement, and saviour, we see that the early Christians did not believe that Jesus died to appease his wrathful father for our individual sins. Rather, several different metaphors are used to describe the enormity of God become human.  We have a God who has accompanied us from the earliest days of our evolution, who has entered into a covenant with us and continues to draw humanity forward into the New Creation. 

 The theology of Accompaniment does not reduce the Incarnation to Jesus’ need to suffer and die but rather considers the whole life of Jesus – his message and ministry. We are encouraged to live as Jesus did, to embrace his inclusive and welcoming way of being; we are called to be co-creators of the reign of God that he said was within us.

In this theology, we are invited to consider Jesus in the context of his time, 1st century Palestine, Roman occupation, burdensome religious laws and a Patriarchal society. In this context we can see that the way Jesus is depicted in the gospels shows radical inclusivity – the fact that women are mentioned and even named is remarkable for a time when women and children were considered the property of men. Knowing the iron fist rule of Rome, we have a new understanding of just how subversive Jesus was in teaching the new reign of God. Understanding the religious norms of his time, we realise that his welcome and open table fellowship was scandalous and outside of the bounds of a devout religious Jew. 

Rather, than fill our children with guilt because Jesus died for their sins, we can encourage them to emulate Jesus in their lives. Yes, being kind and forgiving as Jesus was, is a good first step but perhaps we can invite them to a prophetic stance by helping them identify what is the ‘Rome’ of our day. 

How then do we speak to our children about the incarnation, cross and resurrection in a theology of Accompaniment? Jesus was not ‘sent’ to earth to fix us but rather God became human because God loves God’s creation and in becoming human is in solidarity with our human reality. Jesus was crucified because the authorities were threatened by his radical message and his popularity and because he refused to refute his message.  On a mystical level, our God suffering, is God with us in all our suffering through time. The resurrection was God’s vindication of Jesus, God calling us to follow the Jesus’ Way of non-violence and radical love. There is so much more and we need to encourage our children, as they grow, to deepen their understanding of Jesus the Christ.

 In truth it is all Mystery, and we cannot fully comprehend God, all we have is the intuition and experience of generations of mystics and believers that God is Love and is with us and wants every good for all creation. Uncertainty and mystery do not make for a weak faith - as Richard Rohr reminds us – [scientists have] ‘come up with things like ‘principles of uncertainty’ and dark holes. They’re willing to live inside imagined hypotheses and theories. But many religious folks insist on answers that are always true. We love closure, resolution, and clarity, while thinking we are people of ‘faith!’ How strange that the very word ‘faith’ has come to mean its exact opposite’. Giving our children the more open-ended and loving theology of Accompaniment and Blessing is more likely to encourage curiosity and spiritual growth. 

With this foundation of an open, loving theology, which embraces science, how do we equip our children to be mystics, prophets and celebrators of sacramental life? The early years of a child’s religious formation comprises allowing them to witness the sacramental life of the family and community, the prayers, candles, rituals and sacramentals. Ideally children should be allowed to witness the rhythm of the family and community worshipping and praying, but sadly most churches exclude young families by sending them to the cry chapel. It is not surprising then, that those young parents would rather spend Sunday morning at the park! It is time to change the model of large parishes and return to the ways of the early church where small communities gather in homes to celebrate the Eucharist and children are welcome at the table.

While lessons and catechism are important, the reality is that most formation for children and adults is through the liturgies. What they see, hear, pray and sing each week, year after year becomes imprinted and formative and will either carry them through life or they will discard it in adulthood. It is vital that the language of the liturgy is inclusive, reflects the reality of the world and life of the people. The sacrament of the Eucharist needs to be open to all, a sacrament of transformation not a reward for the ‘in group’. 

 Along with welcoming and inclusive liturgies the Church needs to encourage contemplation. Although the Catholic church has produced amazing mystics and mystical teachers, direct communication with God has not been encouraged by the Church as it threatens its authority as intermediary between God and people.  Catholics other than in academia have not been encouraged to read the modern mystics like Teilhard, Merton, Keating and Rahner and in some quarters they have been discouraged!  Our children need to be encouraged to trust their inner experience, encouraged to pray on their own and to find their own non-intermediated relationship with God.  Very young children are capable of quiet moments of awe and wonder looking at stars or butterflies and these quiet times can grow into prayer. Not talking at God but listening to that still small voice of the Divine.

Jesus the prophet became lost to the church when he became the saviour who died for our sins. Life on earth becomes less important than life in heaven when we die. Instead of following the example of Jesus and trying to bring the kingdom of heaven alive in our world, we hunkered down and concentrated on individual sin. The establishment of Christianity as the official state religion in 313 CE began the decline of the prophetic outlier church. Marcus Borg writes ‘Historically Christianity has conformed to and endorsed the dominating culture with which it co-existed starting with the Roman empire. When cultural convention accepted slavery, Christians accepted slavery. When cultural convention accepted segregation, Christians accepted segregation. The same has been true of patriarchal, heteronormative, and uncritically patriotic. One might call this the cultural captivity of the Church’. The movement that Jesus started which was to refuse to join the dominant unjust, exclusionary system is no longer the driving force in the Church but can be found in movements outside the Church. Only by setting the example and living more compassionately and justly ourselves, can our children become inspired to grow the kingdom of God in their worlds. 

 The youth have been leaving the Church for years and many of those ‘youth’ are now adults bringing up a new generation. Instead of trying to entice this new generation back to the 

same old way of being church that sent their parents away in the first place, it is now time for radical change – a new theology,  a new liturgy with language and ritual that carries the inclusive, radical love of Jesus, and a new way of being community that values compassion and justice. This is a start in helping people live more justly and compassionately as mystics, prophets and celebrators of sacramental life.


 Elizabeth Johnson, Abounding in Kindness, Orbis Books 2015

 Elizabeth Johnson, Creation and the Cross, Orbis Books 2018

*Maryanne von Essen wrote this essay for  

PCS Contemporary Theology 101 - 

May 2022.


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