Children Praying A New Story: A Resource for Parents, Grandparents and Teachers by Michael Morwood Reviewed by John Quinn

John Quinn organized and facilitated childrens liturgy programmes in two parishes for close to twenty years

 

A great Christmas gift.

 

In the introduction the author sets out parameters within which his book exists. They include:

The twentieth century brought radical change to our understanding of the universe and our place in it.

This understanding of the universe and our place in it is taken for granted by children today.

Our Scriptures and Christian doctrine are not shaped in the “new universe story” world-view.

Children know the first human beings did not emerge into a state of paradise.

There is a dominant story about prayer reaching out to a listening God: there is a better story about prayer raising the mind and heart in awareness of a Divine Presence always with us.

In the opening chapter, God and the Wonderful World of Young Children Morwwod looks at children “who are not capable of abstract generalized thought. Their thinking…is grounded in “How does it affect me? Do I like it? Can I use it?” Despite protestations from adults about not believing in a God who lives in heaven “when it comes to prayer, both in their own personal prayer and in helping children to pray, the prayers are often addressed to God, as if God were an elsewhere listening deity.

For Michael, “our primary task is to expand children’s imagination about God beyond a Powerful Person in the sky and to establish in young minds that God is an everywhere, mysterious reality, close to us, and life-givong.”

In offering suggestions for responses to often asked children’s questions about God perhaps the biggest is “All talk about God should be totally free of fear.”

jpg Michael Morwood next looks at children after the age of seven .”It is at this crucial stage that institutional religion seeks to teach children its basic beliefs. However this is not the time for teaching complex theological concepts” .For Morwood this is the time for telling stories. Unfortunately the stories as told within Roman Catholicism and other mainstream Christian denominations contain complex theological statements – statements of faith – which often lock children into “literal thinking” Examples of such statements of faith presented at this time and which frequently lock children into literal thinking and are reinforced in their prayers include:

Jesus ascended into heaven
The family of God
The body and blood of Jesus
Mary the mother of God
The Sin of the First Parents
Jesus asked God his Father to send the Holy Spirit to be with us always
Jesus is our Saviour. He has won for us the life of grace
Jesus loved us so much that he died for our sins

An aside: I would be interested in your adult understanding of these statements today.

For Morwood, “the challenge we face in telling biblical stories is to help children avoid literalizing the worldview in which the stories were written.” This is going to involve “telling a contemporary story about who we are and where we came from. Speaking of Jesus as someone who opened peoples eyes and minds to the Divine Presence in which they lived rather than as someone who re-established connection to an elsewhere deity“(who had separated himself from humanity).

The third key element is “telling a story of interconnectedness with everything and everyone in God, rather than a story promoting the idea that some people have unique access to or relationship with God by virtue of belonging to a particular religion. The author elaborates on this and offers both activities and a prayer that “could be used as a guide for classroom prayer.

So where does Jesus fit into this and how do we share Jesus with children? For Morwood it is important that adults grapple with their own understanding of Jesus. “The challenge facing Christians today is to shift discussion from the story so familiar to us – an actual Fall, an elsewhere God who denied access because of Adam’s sin, Jesus dying to “save” us and to open the gates of heaven” – to another story. This alternative story focuses on God’s all-pervasive presence in this vast universe, how the human species gives expression to this Divine Presence and how Jesus allowed this Presence to be visible in all he did as he called people to recognize this Presence in them in their loving.”

Michael Morwood sums up this first part of the book succinctly, “When talking with young children up to about age seven, focus should be on Jesus as a man who lived a long time ago and who wanted people to believe God was close to them.”

Moving on to “middle to upper elementary school children” the author suggests Gospel stories that “require (the) thinking and reflection skills ” they are now acquiring. The stories suggested” reveal Jesus in his role of helping people discover the wonderful presence of the sacred in their midst: God-with-the-lowly, God with all of us in our living and loving. These particular stories focus attention on Jesus as the revealer of God in our midst rather than on Jesus as the “way” to God.”

Morwood offers advice about how to address the miracles. “If children ask whether Jesus really did this or that, explain that aspects of some of the stories may have been included later…We should use the miracle stories tio illustrate the presence and the power of God at work in Jesus and in our world, rather than to focus on Jesus as someone with unique powers who, therefore, must be essentially different from us. We should present Jesus as someone who believed in this presence and power and acted on that belief.”

The stories in the chapter can be used to lead children into prayer. The author suggests two “prayer patterns” which have become very familiar in recent years particularly through the many books on guided meditation for children and teenagers. Following the introduction to these prayer patterns are fifty pages of scripture passages and suggestions for “Praying the story” with children in the middle to upper elementary school age range.

In his final chapters Michael Morwood offers insights and suggestions for children praying a new story on major feast days (Celebrating the Divine Presence) and around the sacraments of initiation and reconciliation (Ritualizing the Divine Presence ).

Before that, in his short chapter, Prayer: Deepening Awareness of the Divine Presence, Morwood states, “God, the Divine Presence, the Spirit of Life and Love – whatever names we use for this Mystery permeating and holding all things in existence – comes to visibility in the human reality we are.” This statement re-echoes a statement that has been a central plank in my teaching and parenting since I first read it almost thirty years ago:

jpg No theological principle or focus is more characteristic of Catholicism or more central to its identity than the principle of sacramentality. The Catholic vision sees God in and through all things: other people, communities, movements, events, places, objects, the world at large, the whole cosmos. The visible, the tangible, the finite, the historical – all these are actual or potential carriers of the divine presence. Indeed, it is only in and through these material realities that we can even encounter the invisible God.”

Catholicism: R. McBrien

What this book is all about is best summed up using words of the author that finish chapter five. “Prayers like these arise from the “new story” about our universe, about God, about God’s presence throughout the universe and about Jesus revealing God’s presence to us. This “new story” radically impinges on how we pray, how we worship and how we engage sacramental rituals. It leads us to question traditional approaches to prayer and theological thinking. Yet, if we face the challenges and perservere in our efforts to help children pray a “new story” we wiill bring them closer to the essence of Jesus’ teaching and his hopes for humanity than many of us acquired in childhood. Most importantly, they will gain a sense of loving intimacy with the Divine Presence which will challenge them to be the best possible personal expressions of that Presence.”

This is not simply a collection of prayers to replace whatever prayers your children, grandchildren or students have been taught. Michael Morwood succinctly reprises his work from earlier books and offers guidelines and some examples of how this new story might be prayed. Our prayer life is a far better gauge of our faith life than any doctrinal discussion. Lex orandi, lex credendi. If children are only invited to pray out of a Fall/Redemption scenario based on a flat earth-heaven up-hell down cosmology when the new cosmology of the Big Bang-Supernova is an integral part of their reality they will be confused and in danger of throwing out faith along with the language used to pray it.

This book may not be the best introduction to the writings of Michael Morwood because readers may be expecting a recipe book of prayers.I have read all of Michael’s work and enjoyed the book and found his suggestions for introducing children to the new story and to praying the new story to be logical and easily doable. If this is your first time delving into Michael’s work and are finding his suggestions for praying disconcerting might I suggest you read Tomorrow’s Catholic and then return to this volume. If you are excited by
Tomorrow’s Catholic you might try Praying A New Story which offers adults suggestions for praying the new story.

If you are a parent, grandparent or teacher our role is not to introduce our children, grandchildren or students into our faith or our parents faith. As a sixty seven year old Liverpool-Irish-Canadian-Catholic the Catholic Church today is radically different from the church into which I was baptized over a font in St. James, Bootle in 1942.It is a different church and a different faith for my children and hopefully for my grandchildren. Michael Morwood, in responding to the questions and faith struggles of adults, many of them parents, grandparents and teachers, has given us a way to introduce God and Jesus to future generations for whom the new story is as familiar as multiplication tables were to us. Thanks Michael.
To purchase the book go to www.morwood.org

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