Note: This article is part of a special Patheos Symposium, Passing on the Faith: Teaching the Next Generation. Read more perspectives here.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" That's the question that many adults ask children to get a sense of how they see themselves. Will she be a doctor? Is he interested in sports? Does she like to build things? Does he like math? Perhaps lurking behind the question is a more practical interest: will this child be motivated to do schoolwork? In any case, what is happening is as natural as telling stories to children: we are asking them to take a look around their imagination.
This natural-as-can-be technique is at the heart of a spiritual practice that developed in different ways in the Christian tradition, but achieved clarity in the writings and legacy of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. His basic insight was to recognize that God worked on his own imagination before he even realized it, and that his own religious conversion was the recognition that he found greater peace, more profound love, and a sense of meaning and purpose when he embraced where God had been moving in his imagination. To put it most briefly, he discovered—only after an injury gave him a period of convalescence that forced him to be silent for a while—that God incited him to imagine service of others rather than ego-building, and that he would gain great joy from living out what he had imagined.
Children can learn much from being invited into the kind of spiritual practices that had such an influence on Ignatius. When parents or other adults invite children to use their imagination, they are not only stimulating their cognitive capacities; they are also giving their children a way of contrasting various possibilities for their lives. What desires, hopes, or fears emerge in their imagination? How do they relate to other children, adults, or fantasy figures, and how do those relationships impact the way they interact with real people?
When adults encourage children to use their imagination in prayer, they help their children understand the way God is already active in their lives. "How did Jesus treat his friends when he was a child?" "How do you think God feels when we do that?" "What would Jesus do?" Parents can do what Jesus himself did. It is telling that Jesus himself invited his listeners to imagine the kingdom of God using stories and images: a mustard seed; a pearl of great price; a runaway son; a woman looking for a coin; and many others. Imagination is a way that a person young or old can explore possibilities beyond the ordinary, and begin to see the world through God's eyes.
In our book Six Sacred Rules for Families, we explore the way that the insights of Ignatius might be applied to raising children. Most important is the practice of offering children the idea that "the kingdom of God is among you"—that is, unfolding every day at home. To the extent that we offer our children ways of imagining God always present among us in our families, we help them to understand that everyday life is shot through with grace, and that all the ups and downs of family life are part of a shared pilgrimage. Giving our children a sense of the direction in their lives will, we hope, give them a sense that every experience, good or bad, can be part of moving them toward joy.
Most important is to model unreserved love, for our example becomes the bedrock upon which they can imagine a loving God. Showing affection, spending time together in games or tasks, or staying with our children when they experience fear or heartache—these are some of the ways that we point them toward God's unconditional love for them. To use a gospel metaphor, providing such examples is like cultivating the soil of their lives so that the seed of God's word might more easily take root.
With Ignatius, we believe that God deals directly with each creature. We cannot make them followers of Christ; only the Holy Spirit can. But we can help remove the obstacles to their faith by helping them understand love, and by helping them to imagine the way God is laboring in the world—in our family, and in their own hearts—to build his kingdom of mercy, love, and justice. Our hope is that in cultivating an imagination of God as the direction of everything loving, everything good, and everything hopeful, we will encourage them, when they are ready, to listen to his voice, summoning them to the goodness for which he has created them.