by Laurence Freeman OSB
Reprinted with permission from Principal Connections Magazine, April 2017
I once asked an old rabbi friend of mine to a dialogue and suggested we speak to the question : ‘Does God have Favourites?’ In his talk he said that when he was young he believed that, of course, God’s favourites were His Chosen People, the Jews. In middle age, his thought had evolved to the liberal point of view that God has no favourites ( a position held by St Paul). But, in old age, he came to believe that God did have favourites; they were the anawim, the Hebrew word for the poor, all who depend primarily on God alone, the marginalised, the voiceless, the persecuted.
Perhaps, in a comparable way, Christian thinking about our relationship and responsibility towards the natural world needs to evolve in face of the twin cultural and environmental crisis overtaking the whole human race in our divided and tumultuous world. Time was when we blandly said we were ‘stewards’ of the natural world, a hereditary position handed down from Adam. It was incrementally interpreted as a stewardship of domination. This did little harm to the ecological balance of creation until the technology of domination and exploitation became so powerful that it created a new word for the present planetary era, the ‘Anthropocene’ age. This means the period in which of all influences on the natural world, the directly human influence is by far the most powerful.
This claim should be a wake-up call and make us assess our real responsibilities; but not only to the physical environment that we are blindly devastating and whose self-healing mechanisms we are compromising. Stewardship for our habitat extends to the next human generation to whom we are bequeathing the habits and consequences of our short-sighted and self-destructive patterns of behaviour. At a recent Meditatio Seminar on Ageing presented by our community in Sydney, we wanted to emphasise that ageing needs to be understood as a lifelong process, which presents specific challenges and crises at each phase. We invited some young children who have learned to meditate at school to lead the midday meditation. After the silence that they led us into, I asked them what meditation had taught them about how they wanted to live in the world. I was struck by how many of them used the word ‘responsibility’ in their answers. They felt they had a responsibility and, moreover, they wanted it. Above all, they felt responsible for the environment whose crisis troubled them deeply. The greyheads in the audience listened attentively, nodding with surprised and hope-filled approval.
If we seriously expect to save the environment, we must prepare the next generation now. Of course, they need cultural and scientific education and information and technical skills. But, above all, they need to see things differently from the way their parents and grandparents perceived things. Nothing changes our perception more radically than the contemplative experience. Silence and stillness open the eye of the heart, the eye that allows us to see things as a whole and to order priorities , to match out potential with prudent self-control.
Children are born contemplative, but with time the eye of the heart soon clouds over. Christian education needs to recall the injunction of St Augustine, that the ‘whole purpose of the Christian life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen.’ Maybe today we need and can do even more than this. Maybe, if we give contemplative practice an integrated place in the school curriculum, the eye of the heart will not continue to grow sick as it has done for the past few centuries. A child’s natural capacity for the ‘simple enjoyment of the truth’ (as Aquinas defined contemplation) will be preserved even while it matures.
The teaching of meditation to children is the most radical spiritual initiative of our time. Its benefits (that we can measure) and the fruits (that we can see but not measure) are undeniable: personal peace of mind and psychological health, wisdom and the ability to read the great symbols of our faith tradition. It is not, in fact, children that we need to teach meditation to, but teachers. Parents often tell teachers of children who meditate in the classroom of the immense changes they notice in their children’s behaviour and well-being. Many families go on to integrate meditation into their home life. Teachers who introduce meditation to their students soon report a beneficial change in mood, relationship and learning acumen. ‘The children are nicer to each other and they pay attention better’ is a common feedback.
Stewardship of our planet, no less than stewardship of our faith, depends upon our sense of responsibility, sharing of talents, leadership, ownership, accountability and responsibility for the young. Children, we should know, can learn to meditate and love to meditate from first grade. In learning this universal wisdom and way of prayer from the beginning of their life-journey, they are receiving a gift that will remain with them, as a direct link to the depth of their own spirit, for the rest of their lives. Older children are adept at teaching it to younger children. No teacher or parent could see this without learning for themselves something that most of us have half-forgotten.
We are walking resolutely towards the precipice in a comatose state. Lao Tsu said that ‘if you do not change direction you may end up where you are heading’. Jesus called this change metanoia. Change of mind. Conversion of consciousness. We are teaching children some bad habits that are sending them in the wrong direction. Is it not time to teach them a way, proven, simple and universal, of how to change direction. The question, today, after seeing how beautifully children respond to it, is not ‘why should we teach children to meditate, but why on earth don’t we?’
Laurence Freeman OSB