He knows what he’s doing

I admit, I can be impatient with the gradual, almost invisible course of spiritual development. Even though my research is into how liturgical practice forms us into Christian people, when I take my two- and four-year-olds to mass, I assure you, I can be every bit as frustrated and harried as any other parent in the building.

Every so often, though, something happens to remind me of what I really believe – that the spiritual development of my children is something that the Holy Spirit does for them, the work of grace, and not my work; they cooperate, but I do not coerce. In the scorebook of the spiritual life, I doubt I even deserve an assist.

Thomas finds mass particularly trying these days, and we rarely set off without him explaining to us (not terribly politely) that he does not want to go. This morning, we were taking my dad and stepbrother with us. My stepbrother had already figured out that Thomas has a tendency to get into trouble, and when we walked into the church and Thomas headed for the font, Uncle Q quite reasonably guessed that pools full of water were a terrible temptation for mischievious four-year-olds.

“No, Thomas, come back here,” he began.

“Leave him alone, he knows what he’s doing,” I broke in. “Remember, he does this every week.”

While Thomas was leaning over the low boundary to wet his hand and make the sign of the cross, my mind flashed to the work of sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss. Human ritual behavior, he hypothesized, was an education for the body, intended to give us the abilities we need to accomplish our goals. Included in these goals were those of spiritual communion with the divine, which Mauss believed required the cooperation of the body. Mauss introduced the Latin word “habilis” to describe the outcome of ritual practice: the ritual practitioners become “people with a sense of the adaptation of all their well-co-ordinated movements to a goal, who are practised [sic], who ‘know what they are up to’” (Mauss, “Body Techniques,” Sociologie et anthropologie, p. 108).

Thomas may not know or do all I would like him to do at church (God knows he does plenty of things I wish he would not do!), but he “knows what he’s up to.” I heard a radio program a couple years ago in which a guest expressed wonder that anyone would say of three 3-year-olds playing together that one was Catholic, one Muslim, and one Jewish. But in their familiarity, comfort, and interest — even in their frustration — with their respective ritual traditions, those identities are emerging.

As for me, I get frustrated with the gradual and invisible course of my own spiritual development, too. Experiences like this one, I trust, are the Lord’s way of offering me hope that someday, I, too, will know what I’m up to.

25 comments

  1. I’ve often wondered, seeing children at Mass, if they have any conception of the numinousness of what is being handed down to them.

    1. Of course not, they are not and should not be operating at the conceptual level.

      Kimberly, thank you for this posting.
      You have provided me with some words and insights to much of what I have been using for decades.

      I will also have to move the Mauss book higher on my Amazon wish list.

  2. A rather rude and in any case tendentious reply, Mr Poelker, to a perfectly reasonable comment by Ms Smucker.

    It’s not clear what you mean by “the conceptual level”? Surely you are not suggesting that children – the poster did not say what age children she meant – do not have or use any concepts?

    Avccording to Fowler, for example, children in the age range 3-7 (Intuitive – Projective faith) experience the “birth of imagination, the ability to unify and grasp the experience-world in powerful images and as presented in stories that register the child’s intuitive understandings and feelings toward the ultimate conditions of existence.”

    That sounds like a good intimation of numinousness to me.

    And older children (typically 7 -12) have strong concepts of such abstract qualities as justice, guilt and honour.

    On the other hand, if you meant to say that children do not have adult concepts, well, obviously not… but that’s just tautological.

    A few years ago, when I boarded a plane in the early evening, I heard two boys – about 10 years old, I would guess – in the seat behind me marvelling at the city lights as we took off. “It seems like a dream, “said one. “Maybe we are dreaming, ” said the other. “How can you tell?” asked the first. “Yeah,” wondered his friend, “how CAN you tell?” A moment’s silence was followed by giggling.

    Anyone familiar with Descartes’ philosophy will recognise the script. Don’t underestimate the kids!

      1. Yes, but dear Rene went on to wonder if he even existed, until he realized that he had to exist in the first place in order to dream, or be fooled. I wonder if the gigglers got that far? Well, maybe eventually they will.

    1. “A rather rude and in any case tendentious reply . . . ”

      Could anyone but a Dominican start a comment that way?!

    2. My reply was rude?
      Smuckers comment was rude and inapproriate and I offered a contextualized response.

      Don’t be too demanding of either kids or liturgy. Neither are about catechisms.

      Children have plenty of time to become aware of numinousness, but that is not the purpose of liturgy.

      1. How was Julia’s comment rude and inappropriate? It was essentially a question: do children “have any conception of the numinousness of what is being handed down to them”?

        Maybe it could be read with a particular tone of voice (like, “Do you have ANY idea HOW HARD I’ve worked to get food on the table for you?”) that makes it sound rude and unappreciative, but I didn’t read it that way. Or maybe the “seeing children at Mass” clause could be interpreted to mean “seeing the way children misbehave at Mass”, but I didn’t read it that way. I don’t see how her comment was inappropriate.

        Maybe Julia could clarify for you/us.

        And she did not say that the liturgy is a privileged place for “becom[ing] aware of numinousness” or that it is the liturgy’s purpose to make one aware, but whether children have that awareness during the liturgy.

      2. JP,
        No matter how you rephrase or sympathize, liturgy is not the place to work on developing concepts.

        Yes, I did read the tone differently from you.

        Maybe Julia could clarify, if it was not just missing the point of the posting, about what she meant to say.

  3. It has been said that children are natural mystics. Therefore, children experience God. Developmentally, young children learn through ritual and story, not though thinking, that comes later. I would agree that Thomas knows what he is doing. But, far too many well intentioned adults underestimate the depth of a child’s religious experience. Pay attention and learn!

  4. When I was a pastor, a young boy of about 4 came up to me after Mass, while I was still all vested, and looked at me for a few seconds, then asked me, “Are you God?”.

    Quickly calculating the unlikelihood of ever being asked this question again, and taking the theology of theosis over the line, I less-than-sanctifiedly answered him, “Why, yes I am.” He stood up to his full height, with a very self-satisfied smile, said, “I knew it!”, turned on his heel and walked away.

    QED.

  5. Recently at a funeral my niece started crying when the casket was incensed, and, showing the rising smoke: “I see her! I can see her soul going up!”

  6. As an early childhood educator and a liturgist in the making, it’s great that Thomas is experiencing the water. Children learn through “play”, hands on experience. It’s of his first of many steps towards his spiritual and theological development. At my parish, we have a large, cross-size, jacuzzi size, baptismal font. Children love to stand there and place their hands in the water. It’s a great opportunity for catechesis.

  7. Lynn, I suppose you know the story about Descartes ordering a medium-rare steak at a restaurant, only to be server a very well done portion? “I think monsieur will find that this is what he ordered, ” responded the waiter to his protests. “I THINK NOT!” exclaimed the irate Descartes – and immediately disappeared!

  8. Well, yes, Tom, if I wrote that I “wondered” something, I would feel that “Of course not” is a rude and peremptory put-down. And I cannot for the life of me see how you found Ms Smucker’s original wondering “rude and inappropriate”.

    I visit this blog from time to time because I am interested in the subject, but I am dissuaded from posting precisely because to venture to express an opinion seems often to be met by an unflattering personal comment, or an off-hand dismissal or generally unfriendly reply from someone.

    Thinking about the exchange further, however, I am wondering myself (oops, there’s that “w” word again!) whether sometimes part of the problem may be that certain expressions are considered acceptable in polite discourse in (say) the US but not so in the UK or Australia – or vice-versa. It may all be in the interpretation. I read the first comment as sympathetic to Kimberly’s original post – but it seems you read it in the opposite way.

    I have no idea, by the way, in what part of the world any of you are writing – but you’re probably not in Papua New Guinea where I am!

  9. 🙂 This post is extremely cute, and I enjoy the refresher in slow, steady development. I also like the soccer reference amid the Women’s World Cup. The importance of bodily involvement in ritual activity cannot be understated. Its through our interacting bodies that we experience the world, and our interactions enable us to learn about seen and unseen realities.
    Thomas’ is really into something important and I’m happy to hear he’s found some joy in water and has learned more. There’s a lot we can learn from simple joy and faith, even in a blog where we spend a lot of time in intellectual discussion.
    There’s a lot to learn from Mauss’ philosophy. It’s useful to think about how we teach, enact, and “perform” (yeah I know that’s a bad word, I don’t have a better one) ritual, especially in light of enabling others to know what they are doing. When people really know what they are doing, it’s one of the best things for the life of any religion, when people don’t know what they are doing it can be the destroyer of many worlds.

    1. “Perform” is not a bad word for liturgy..
      “Entertainment” is not useful in liturgy, and we know about disasters which have occurred when planners or presiders take too much from our entertainment culture and use it in liturgy without reflection.

      However, do not confuse performance standards with entertainment or artistic [in the era of self-expression] standards.

      We need good performance in liturgy.

      Enunciation and projection of the speaking voice.
      Trained vocal musicianship.
      Staging and blocking.
      Avoiding distractions from the flow of the action, visual, verbal, or tangential.
      Awareness of how the unattended details can draw attention away from the main action of the ritual, what theater people call “up-staging.”

      Ritual consciousness, not just how “we have always done it’ but how things enrich or detract from ritual leads us to better performance and focus on the essentials of ritual acts.

  10. Hello, and thanks for your insights and Descartes jokes! For the record, no one has offended me at all, and I trust no unfriendliness was meant by anyone involved. We lack words for much of what we try to say when we talk about the “knowledge” we possess that’s not “information.” Our words – “concepts,” “knows,” “teach,” “perform” – start to break in our hands and on our lips. It makes communication even more difficult than the global spread of our community does on more mundane subjects (if there is any topic more mundane than our embodied knowledge of the world).

    My children are two and four, Martin. Even at that age, we challenge one another to grow in the capacities of the spiritual life: patience, generosity, charity, forgiveness!

  11. the spiritual development of my children is something that the Holy Spirit does for them, the work of grace, and not my work; they cooperate, but I do not coerce. In the scorebook of the spiritual life, I doubt I even deserve an assist

    Wish catechists understood that spiritual development was the work of the Holy Spirit; unfortunately the National Directory does not mention that until almost the last page.

    About age 40, I discovered my parents were the foundations of my own religious experience; rather than priests, religious, catechists, or even books.

    I have been rereading Greeley’s Religion as Poetry. He maintains the foundations of religion are in personal experience (as poetry and ritual), to which prose “high traditions” provide an assisting structure. Greeley focuses upon experiences of hope; his analysis can be expanded to experiences of faith, and charity.

    My mother was the caretaker of our families; many needed assistance. My father was a skilled mechanic in a steel mill. His care for others was expressed in his work especially in the way he affirmed the dignity of men who were far less talented mechanically. My parent’s ways of expressing love shaped my life for two decades in the public mental health system.

    Greeley says that the high tradition is boring without the poetry of personal experience. “Boring” was my experience as a child with Low Masses and Catechism. I didn’t want to go to either.

    The poetry of Gregorian Chant, the Divine Office, Eastern Rite Liturgies, Thomas Merton , Dorothy Day, and the desert solitary traditions caught my attention. These discoveries built upon the solid foundation of the ordinary lives of my parents. Both were contemplatives in different ways. They found joy in the creation of beauty, working for others, and giving them care, respect and affirmation.

    The Spirit forms us in ordinary life; we greatly underestimate the role of families and parents in that formation.

  12. wonder that anyone would say of three 3-year-olds playing together that one was Catholic, one Muslim, and one Jewish

    Greeley maintains that religious traditions strongly influence personal experience, explicitly that a Catholic’s imagination is different from a Protestant’s imagination. These imaginations are not just transmitted in church but through family life, i.e. Catholic parents with Catholic imaginations may shape experience in the ordinary lives of their children, perhaps even by age three.

    However, this influence of the high traditions is moderated by the ordinariness (secularity in Greeley’s terms) of experiences of faith, hope and love grounded in daily life. We have a lot in common in our experience of daily life with people of other faiths from our own culture. The recent book American Grace makes the point that faith traditions do not divide America because we all have an “Aunt Susan” whom we know and like even though she belongs to a very different faith tradition.

    Greeley’s book is a polemic against the “secularization” hypothesis started by sociologists, now abandoned by many if not most of them, but often espoused by religious authorities and traditionalists. Greeley spends a whole chapter maintaining that the “high tradition” of Catholicism was confined mostly to the elite during the Middle Ages.

    In Greeley’s model the popular religion of ordinary spiritual experience and the high traditions of denominational structures influence one another, but personal religious experience is primary. American religion has been dominated by personal renewal experiences and voluntarism. Various denominations have competed with one another trying to harness personal renewal experiences and voluntarism.

    Many of discussions of liturgy on this blog are discussions of the relative roles of various types of popular traditions and high traditions within Catholicism (e.g. music). Ordinary music is often labeled secular music.

  13. ritual practitioners become people with a sense of the adaptation of all their well-co-ordinated movements to a goal

    What caught my attention on my re-read of Greeley was his affirmation of the importance of small, almost private ritual experience.

    The virtues of my family life were maintained and transmitted through the many little common rituals of ordinary life that created and maintained beauty, hope, and love.

    My parent’s did not give me talk lessons about caring for others, or affirming others. They did all those things constantly in my presence. They did them in a habitual ritualistic fashion that structured ordinary family existence. They did them to express who they were not to fashion me in their image and likeness, or to meet their aspirations of what I should become.

    Parents speak loudly by the things that they do not enact ritually in their lives, e.g. like not being concerned about money, or status. My dad had an eighth grade education; my mother was a high school graduate. They led happy lives without much money, and never placed any burdens for accomplishment upon my shoulders.

    We need a social scientific and theological understanding of how religion takes place at the personal, family and organization levels that affirms the interplay of personal religious experience, family and interpersonal experience as well as the experience of institutional and cultural traditions.

    Rituals, great and small, personal and family as well as institutional and cultural, are an important part of the poetry of religious experience.

  14. Martin Wallace OP :

    Thinking about the exchange further, however, I am wondering myself (oops, there’s that “w” word again!) whether sometimes part of the problem may be that certain expressions are considered acceptable in polite discourse in (say) the US but not so in the UK or Australia – or vice-versa. It may all be in the interpretation. I read the first comment as sympathetic to Kimberly’s original post – but it seems you read it in the opposite way.

    This is entirely possible, and after replying to you, it occurred to me also.

    If you ever get to the middle of the USA, you can find St. Louis right where the two biggest rivers meet. You can find me in the phone book. I would love to know more about New Guinea, and I can tell you more about St. Louis than you will want to know, but including where to find the best small breweries here.

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