A way to challenge the chaos

by
23 September 2016

Shirley Lancaster reports from an international conference on Christian meditation in schools

Moment of stillness: students meditate at St Mary’s School, Harborne

Moment of stillness: students meditate at St Mary’s School, Harborne

AN INCREASING number of schools — more than 150 in the UK — have welcomed meditation into their classrooms, as the evidence showing the positive effect on children’s well-being, concentration, and academic attainment grows.

A recent seminar, Hope for the Future: Meditation in schools, brought together religious leaders and teachers from 30 countries to discuss their experience of introducing Christian meditation to children. The seminar was organised by Meditatio, the outreach programme of the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM), which works to promote the benefits of this prayer practice.

In his keynote address, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams said that Jesus recognised that children were close to the Kingdom of heaven in their openness “to receive”. When offered a gift, adults engaged in a drama of “Now what do I have to do?” A learned caution was needed in engaging with the world, but people were trained out of receiving what was already present: God’s Kingdom, which was within and around them. They had to declutter the mind, he advised, to be open to this grace.

When children’s lives were overloaded, often with adult goals and anxieties, they needed to experience a slower pace, Lord Williams continued, and to find a place in themselves where they were not in competition with others. In the stillness and silence of meditation, something loosened and the heart could relax and open, and people could simply be themselves, at home in God’s love; when they experienced this non-hierarchical space where God was, they could not look at their neighbour with superiority, fear, or contempt.

 

THE education director Dr Cathy Day, who has introduced Christian meditation in 32 schools in her diocese in Townsville, Australia, said that this simple way of prayer “from head to heart” could bring a sense of community to people of different faiths and none. The stranger was welcomed, because children developed a greater capacity for “big-heartedness”. When young people’s lives were increasingly chaotic and challenging, silence was more powerful than words in building community.

In a video presentation, young people from the schools in Townsville said that meditation helped them to manage stress, feel more peaceful, and know themselves better; and some said that they liked spending time with God. “After meditation, we look out for each other more,” one child said. Teachers also reported more attention and co-operation in the classroom.

The director of the WCCM, Fr Laurence Freeman, a Benedictine monk, said that meditation was part of all the great spiritual traditions. Jesus had told his followers to “go into your ‘inner room’” rather than babble on in prayer, and he valued silence and interiority. A new contemplative understanding of spirituality was being recovered, Fr Freeman said, and it was increasingly needed, to resist the exploitative forces that eroded identity. If education was about more than creating efficient producers and consumers, he said, children needed a life-skill to realise their innate capacity for wonder, self-transcendence, love, and compassion.

 

REPRESENTATIVES from the Caribbean, Canada, Malaysia, and the UK described the challenges of implementing a meditation programme. Sister Ruth Montrichard had overseen the programme’s growth in the Caribbean, where ten primary and 13 secondary schools now practised meditation. New projects were also under way in ghetto areas in Trinidad.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the WCCM, the seminar also launched a new online course, Share the Gift. This six-week course is aimed at helping teachers to learn more about this Christian tradition of prayer, and offers practical ways to introduce it in the classroom.

 

Shirley Lancaster is a freelance writer with a special interest in the psychology of religion and the contemplative tradition.

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