Introduce an ancient prayer form to young students
By Deacon Steve & Kathy MacDonald
One morning while I was on “walking the kids into school duty” I noticed in the distance little Mildred on the way to school with her family. Her father was loudly berating her for having taken too long to get ready for school. Her big brother was poking at her until she retaliated and a pushing match occurred, much to the increasing anger of the father. The trio approached me and Dad exclaimed in a loud voice, “You take them. I don’t want them!” And he stormed off.
As class began, Mildred, full of tension and frowns, stood at the classroom door. I stood at the head of the line and raised both my arms, waited a few moments for quiet, and then said a blessing over the class. Slowly one by one, each student came up to me; we both bowed. The students quietly entered the classroom and took all their items to their seating spot, placed their coat on their chair and their book bag on the floor next to them.
While they were entering the room, classical music was playing softly and there was a serene forest scene projected on the smartboard. We began. I read an event from the Gospel that corresponded to the lesson of the day, and we sat and thought for two long minutes. Mildred let out a long, low sigh, and relaxed. I could see the tension being lifted off her shoulders. As we paused I carefully handed out a coloring page that also matched the lesson. Slowly, one by one, the students started to color. Mildred smiled as she began to color. I started to touch each student on the shoulder. Individually they hung up their coats and put away their items. Then we were ready to start with the business of the day.
This process, along with hundreds of variations, is an example of praying the ancient form of Lectio Divina with young children. It doesn’t happen on the first try. It takes patience, practice, and time to become second nature, but the initial investment of time reaps benefits throughout the school year and throughout life.
Lectio Divina, the use of scripture and meditation as prayer, is used by many religious communities throughout the world. However, St. Benedict taught that this method of prayer was for all, not just for priests and religious. This process helps all who practice it to put daily worry and troubles out of mind and brings all into recognizing the presence of God. Lectio Divina brings us to a greater understanding of God, of the Scriptures, of ourselves, and of others. It brings us to a deeper love of ourselves and of others.
Lorraine E. Murray in her excellent book, Calm Kids, describes the many benefits of using meditation with children. The list is a long one. Murray has discovered that meditation with children helps them to manage their thoughts and feelings, teaches relaxation techniques, builds self-esteem, balances energy, and improves focus and concentration. Murray also notes that when a habit of meditation is developed, sleep patterns improve. And when we relax and let worry and anxiety dissipate our body and mind “work better.”
Ms. Murray discusses how unhealthy chronic stress can become. Meditation can be an excellent tool to see the world differently and more positively. Children are under a lot of perceived stress: school, peers, family, society, and the like. Meditation and mindfulness help children become aware of their feelings and deal with them safely.
Depending on the age and situation of the students, many variations of Lectio Divina are possible. Change the settings, approaches, and lengths of time for prayer. Involve the senses of sight, sound, and smell. Use low lighting, draw the curtains, use a lamp or candle, and turn off harsh fluorescent lights. Use light music and a touch of soft pleasant scent; often lavender is best. Blue is a calming color that helps set the best atmosphere. Murray also recommends putting a “Do not disturb” sign on the door.
Christine Valters Paintner, in her book Lectio Divina, and Michael Casey, in Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, share other possibilities, such as journaling, artistic expression, poetry or spontaneous prayer as responses to the chosen scripture. Most experts on meditation and Lectio Divina recommend a variety of breathing exercises and body posturing. Of course, the best approach to use greatly depends on the age of the students, their abilities and personal gifts, and the circumstances surrounding their lives. Both authors recommend a easy, slow pace. Prayer should never be rushed.
Another approach to Lectio Divina that may help is the use of imagination. It may be possible to have your students take off their shoes, close their eyes, lie on the floor or carpet, or relax on pillows or blankets, and with a soft voice lead their minds to another place and time. It may take some weeks to have your students become comfortable with such an experience, but it is well worth the time and effort in leading them to this comfort level.
Lectio Divina can begin anytime during the school year. In fact, many teachers do not start until the school year is well settled. Others start after a break or vacation time. It is best to start with short, easily mastered experiences and grow from there. Have everything well explained to the students before beginning.
Once the students are prepared, begin to meet them in the hall, show them how to bow, and remind them how they are to enter the room. Suitable lighting and music should be used. Once in the room, compliment successes and, never by name, point out where improvement needs to be made. Then have the students take care of coats and book bags one at a time. That’s it. Soon, and after it is well explained, add coloring, journaling, or some sort of artistic expression while coats and personal items are being placed in their proper space. After a few days, encourage the students to bow back to you. Add mood scenes on the smartboard and scents, if you wish. Introduce the Bible and what a reverent response to the Scripture should be. Slowly behavior, atmosphere, and habit are developed. Expect setbacks. Know tweaking will be necessary. What works well with one group of students may not work for another. Expect the best, but be persistent.
In our experience, some years it all falls into shape quickly, and other years it takes a number of weeks. Sometimes one of these approaches or suggestions never works with a particular class. If that is the case, drop it and try another route.
The start of the day is the best time to use this technique, for it sets the tone for the entire day, but we realize this is not always possible. Other teachers have found the Lectio Divina approach works best after recess or lunch or before religion class, if religion class is not at the beginning of the day. Some find it valuable to end the school day or the religious-education session with this approach. Do what works best in your schedule, school, or program. Teachers should adapt Lectio Divina to their own personality, their students’ needs, and the setting in which they teach.
We have found Lectio Divina as a means for ourselves to recognize the presence of God in our classrooms and our students, and to allow our students to do the same. All students can benefit from these experiences, but especially the Mildreds we teach. Often we have more students who live in a home atmosphere such as Mildred’s than not, and they can find it difficult to learn and to have positive behaviors. Lectio Divina can give them the opportunity to be open to the peace of God that they so need.
Deacon Steve and Kathy MacDonald are authors and award-winning teachers. Their books include A Month of Sundays; Prayers, Pictures & Stories; and Pretzel. They have also published over 50 articles.
Image credit: George Martell/Bayard Inc, 2017. All rights reserved.
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