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Nurture Your Child’s Unique Spirituality

Nurture Your Child’s Unique Spirituality

Sean Dreilinger

Cari Donaldson - published on 11/25/13

Parents must discern and nurture their children’s unique spirituality. We don’t all connect with God the same way, and that's a good thing.

My third child, Gabriel, received the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time on Sunday.  My husband and I went back and forth for weeks about whether or not the boy was ready to take this step – was he mature enough to grasp the enormity of what was going on?

This discernment process was all the more agonizing for us because we homeschool our children, and our parish priest and Director of Religious Education have graciously allowed us to prepare the kids for the sacraments at home, independent of the parish religious education program.  I know not all parishes are so accommodating to homeschoolers, so I feel this ridiculous added pressure of not giving homeschoolers everywhere a bad name.  My kids will be completely prepared for each sacrament they receive!  They will know the theology and the biblical basis of each rite.  They will be able to speak lucidly and articulately about the subject, and there will never be a moment of regret on the parish’s part for letting us prepare the kids at home.

What can I say?  Sometimes I go overboard on things.

My first two children did nothing to make me question these criteria.  They are both intellectual, extremely verbal people, and when their first confession and communion came about, they were able to articulate every aspect I felt they should to be deemed “ready”.

Then came Gabriel.  Where the first two learn by reading and by intellectualizing experiences, the third one is a more holistic, intuitive learner.  He learns by doing, and often whether or not the lesson stuck is kept to himself.

This drives me crazy, but the good sort of crazy where my own soul is being taught.  It’s the crazy of having to shed the pride of knowing the best form that spirituality should take.  It’s the crazy of being humbled and admitting that my way of interacting with and speaking about God is not the only way – in fact, it might not even the best way.  And it only took me three kids to figure that out.

Day after day, I’d talk about outward, visible signs of inward, invisible, internal grace with the boy.  I’d model for him how to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal our sins to us, and to help inspire true sorrow for those sins.  I’d read stories and build practice confessionals and make rhymes to help remember the prayers.  I waited and waited for the signs that this was being internalized on a properly intellectual level.  Instead, I got gentle smiles and the infuriating inability to remember that, “Dear Father, these are the bad things I did” is not the normal opening for the penitent.

I had the Holy Spirit on speed dial: “Please fill in all the obvious educational gaps I’ve created in this child.  Please help him approach this sacrament.”  What I didn’t say, though I wanted to, was, “Please help him love God in the way I think he should.”

And then, while my son and I were doing an examination of conscience in the quiet of my room, the Holy Spirit answered me loud and clear.  

Gabriel had been staring out into the middle space while I read over a children’s version of the Ten Commandments, asking him if he’d broken any of them.  He had been very quiet, shaking his head firmly as I listed each way a Commandment could be broken.  For my part, I was biting my tongue, trying hard not to dictate what I thought his list of sins should be.

Suddenly, he looked at me.  “Is there any sin so bad God won’t forgive you?”

And that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?  That’s the question we all have to wrestle with, because at the heart of that question is a snarl of pride and fear and disbelief in the promise of the Cross.  That’s the question which, once you’ve answered for yourself, either with a “yes” or a “no”, will shape your relationship with God more than anything else.  The question was a clear sign from the Holy Spirit that this boy – this sweet, gentle boy in front of me – was ready for his first Confession.

“Baby,” I said to him, “there is no sin so bad that God won’t forgive you.  The only sin that God won’t forgive is the one you’re not sorry for.   And he won’t forgive that because he won’t force you to do anything – not even accept forgiveness if you don’t want it.”

He nodded, smiled, and said, “I love you!  I love God!” and then we completed his examination, writing each thing down on a piece of lined paper that my son folded with grave precision and stuck in the pocket of his shirt on the way to church on Sunday.   He had dressed himself in a shirt and tie, and asked to wear his sport coat with the gold buttons.  He pressed against me during the service preceding the confessions, and I could hear him whispering to himself, “I love you, Mommy.  I love you, God,” over and over again.

We’re all given a distinct spirituality, as unique and non-repeatable as any other aspect of our soul.  And we’re all called to develop and use that spirituality while helping others do the same, just like any other gift God gives us.  What we’re not called to do is judge other people’s spirituality, or critique ours based on others’.  What a lesson in humility and restraint for me to admit that my son’s intuitive, experiential spirituality was not immature or unformed – it is childlike, and reminiscent of Our Lady, who kept things in her heart, and pondered them there.  What an assault on my pride to realize that my more intellectual spirituality was not only the “preferred” way of loving God, but that it could actually be seen as cold and distant to others.  We miss the point by thinking one form of spirituality is superior to the other, that one is more pleasing to God than the other.

The only spirituality that is not pleasing to God is one that doesn’t get developed, and by not developing, drifts off in the pursuit of ungodly things.

After confession, I watched my boy kneel, squeeze his eyes closed, and say his penance.  I watched him launch himself out of the pew, hastily genuflect, and then hightail it to the nearest trash can.  I watched him take that list of sins he’d kept so solemnly in his pocket, now crumpled and sweaty, and rip it into tiny pieces.  He had the biggest smile on his face as he threw the scraps in the garbage, and when he looked at me, his eyes were shining.

“There!” he said, jubilantly.  “Those sins are in the trash,
and God doesn’t think about them anymore and I have a squeaky clean soul!”  As we walked to the car, he made it into a little song, “I have a squeaky clean soul!  I have a squeaky clean soul!”

Gabriel had a squeaky clean soul because of God, and I had a more joyful one, because of my son’s unique relationship with God.

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