Note: This article is part of a special Patheos Symposium, Passing on the Faith: Teaching the Next Generation. Read more perspectives here.
Some of our favorite memories of childhood, and of times with our own children, have been during the Christmas season. If your families are anything like ours, you understand how all our senses light up: the smell of baking cookies and of pine from the Christmas tree; the sights of snowfall, Christmas lights, and wrapped gifts; the sounds of carols and the laughter of cousins playing together; the taste of Christmas dinner with family, of cookies and pies and a hundred other handmade treats; the warmth of a fire, the hugs of far-flung relatives, even the flannel of pajamas on Christmas morning. Our senses make our memories.
So too in prayer. Saint Ignatius intuited this important point in his counsel to apply all our senses in prayer: to see, hear, smell, feel, and touch what is going on around us when we enter into the rich stories about Jesus' life and teachings. In this third installment in our series on why children need Ignatian spirituality (see Part 1 and Part 2), we'll focus on helping children encounter Jesus by using their senses in hearing stories about him.
Christmas is the obvious example, because it is the most sensory season. It was Saint Francis of Assisi who originated the idea of the crèche, in order that people might more easily come to understand the story of God becoming one of us in the baby Jesus. (Francis was Ignatius' prime example of how to live a Christian life, much like the present pope.)
But what is true of Christmas is no less true of the rest of the Church year, or of Christian faith in general: children learn it by sensing it. From the early centuries when Christians could crawl out of the catacombs to celebrate the sacred liturgy, Christian worship has been sensual. Consider hymns, incense, chant, and the development of Western music. Think of European art, so wedded to biblical stories, the saints, and liturgy. Meditate on the way that college campuses even today draw from the Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages, drawing the heart heavenward by pointing the eye skyward, and by telling stories by painting them in sunlight-drenched stained glass. Think of bread and wine, water and oil in the sacramental celebrations.
Sharing faith with children means sharing with them this kind of sensual world: that is, telling stories not only with grown-up sounding words like "commandment" or "sacrament," but also with very kid-friendly practices that involve senses. Don't just read Matthew or Luke's infancy narratives to them! Put together a crèche at home; visit beautiful churches and tell stories from the stained glass; deliver beautifully wrapped gifts to shelters; bake cookies and share with family and friends. Tell the stories of faith behind the lines of familiar Christmas carols. The meaning of the Christmas season comes alive when stories about Jesus are wedded to actions imitating Jesus.
Similar ideas apply the rest of the year. Don't just teach forgiveness; tell the story of the Lost Son and then practice forgiveness—really practice it—at home. Take time when they are calm, teach the meaning of saying "I forgive you" (instead of the more bland "it's okay"), and then walk them through the action of forgiving someone. Find ways to celebrate forgiveness in your family. The father of the lost son threw a party. Your family might celebrate by making a special dessert when you have been able to show forgiveness after a difficult conflict.
Use the opportunity when a celebrity is on TV or in a crowd to tell the funny story of Zacchaeus, who wanted to see Jesus so badly that he climbed a tree. Or when your family is at a party, tell the story of Jesus' first miracle at a wedding in Cana, when he turned water into wine just so the guests could continue being happy together. Do some service work together, and use the opportunity to introduce your children to your nameless friend the good Samaritan. In every case, the objective is to show that your own way of living is an imitation of a story in Jesus' life, and to help them grasp the meaning of that story by connecting it to some kind of sensory experience that will stick with them.