The Limitation of Assumptions in Spiritual Direction with Children

Feb 10 / Lacy Finn Borgo
I have the incredible honor to accompany children at Haven House, which is a transitional facility for homeless families in Olathe, Colorado. The following excerpt comes from my book Spiritual Conversations with Children: Listening to God, Together.

At Haven House I meet with children in the playroom. Crawling up the sides of the walls are mounds of discarded plastic toys. This room is not unlike the lives of the children I sit with; they are bursting with discarded distractions and the shock of early wounding. It can be hard to hear the voice of God through pain, loss, and loneliness. In an attempt to heighten our awareness of the sacred in the midst of a sea of ordinariness, I mark our space with a white fleece blanket dotted with green leaves. I center the blanket in the middle of the room as an act of hope: hope that God will meet each child in their need, hope that goodness and beauty still exist in lives marked by tumult.

Because the room was once a dorm room for residents, there is a door with no window. In order to honor the safety of the child, we must have a window. This is a nonnegotiable aspect of meeting with children. When we began meeting with children at Haven House, this was our first obstacle. However, it was easily met by drawing from my familial proclivity to Southern engineer. I took several yards of canvas, a bit of clear plastic vinyl, and curtain rod, a few removable hooks, and created a hanging-curtain door of sorts. Now we have the privacy and safety we need.

When we, the child and myself, enter the room together, we take off our shoes, a signal to the body that we are entering a different time in the midst of ordinary space. As we sit on the blanket together, I invite the child to turn on our battery-powered candle. In this action we remember that God is with us. I had the privilege of meeting with a five-year-old child with Down syndrome for a season. Each time she came, we would take off our shoes, sit down, and engage for about five minutes (which often seemed like an eternity; certainly I have in some ways lost what G. K. Chesterton calls “the infancy of the Father”) in the prayer practice of turning on the candle. She would hold the candle with an awesome reverence and tap the flame gently while saying, “God loves me, and God loves you.”

This ritual was entirely of her own making on our first meeting. After her prayer proclamations, she would say, “Your turn.” And I would do the same, mirroring her movements and her words. “God loves me, and God loves you.” The practice was not complete until we had gone through four or five rhythms. I wonder how God was working in those words and movements. I could certainly sense God’s presence, but the details of what was actually happening still allude me.

Most children simply turn on the candle and place it next to a mini easel. After that, I ask the child if I can pray for our time together. The prayer is very simple, something like, “Thank you for Josie. Would you help me to listen well to Josie and help Josie to listen well to you? Amen.” When I ask children if I can pray to begin our session, they nod or offer some form of affirmation, even when they have had little exposure to God or religious expressions. However, about six months into my first year meeting with children, I had one child who, when asked, vehemently rejected any such notion of prayer. “Okay. Not a problem,” I said. “We don’t have to pray. Instead, could we close our eyes and imagine something good or beautiful?”

He agreed and we did just that for about a minute. As I opened my eyes and began to get out the holy listening stones, he said, “Don’t you want to know why I don’t pray?” The truth is I wanted to ask at that very moment, but as the tender soul of a child is like a wild animal, I assumed that this one was already spooked. I didn’t want to pry and scare him, but I did want to know. “If you would like to tell me, I’d like to listen,” I said, draining as much eagerness from my voice as I could. In the next ten or so minutes this precious child of God unloaded a torrent of furry.

He told the story of how he and his mother had arrived at Haven House having nowhere else to go as they fled from his abusive dad. The church had been a source of strength and comfort for them before they left, but after leaving no one helped. The church only told her to go back to her husband. All the murky details surrounding this horrible family situation were reduced to one angry conclusion, “We needed God, and God wasn’t there.” Inwardly, I agreed with him. A god who rejects an abused woman and her son isn’t a god I want to know or talk with either. This child taught me a valuable lesson.

Making assumptions about a child’s experience of God or religious traditions limits the sharing. I learned to create a wider space so that the child could do the leading. Instead, in our sessions we attended to what was good, beautiful, and true in his life. We noticed the kindness of others and named and released some of his pain. He was only at Haven House for three weeks, and then he was gone. Three meetings and never a mention of God, but God certainly was there. In the listening, tears, and tender moments God heard and acknowledge his pain and anger.

Taken from Spiritual Conversations with Children by Lacy Finn Borgo Copyright (c) 2020 by Lacy Finn Borgo. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

Lacy Finn Borgo

Lacy Finn Borgo, DMin, teaches and provides spiritual direction for various organizations in spiritual formation and spiritual direction including, Renovaré, The Companioning Center and Mercy Center, Burlingame. Lacy has a spiritual direction and supervision of spiritual directors ministry for adults, and provides spiritual direction for children at Haven House, a transitional facility for families without homes in Olathe, Colorado. Her book Spiritual Conversations with Children: Listening to God Together was released March 2020. Her children’s book All Will Be Well will be released October of 2022. Lacy lives on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains and worships with a local Quaker Meeting.