June 1991By Cornelia D'Mils
Cornelia D'Mils is a language arts specialist in Los Angeles working with children in a variety of settings: as a private clinician, an instructor in developmental reading and writing at Santa Monica College, and a teacher/counselor of "at risk" adolescents at Mira Costa High School.
The Spiritual Life of Children. By Robert Coles. Houghton Mifflin. 335. $22.95.
Composting is a New England tradition. Yankees have long husbanded October's leaves to insure April's corms. Robert Coles applies this practice in his most recent book about the variety of religious experiences of children, a subject he first wrote about in the pages of the New Oxford Review. This book offers a fresh perspective from a lifetime of conversations with children. Coles has re-listened to his dialogues with the world's children and gleaned new insights about what children think and feel about God.
George McLeod has stated that, "There are few words more dangerous than "'spiritual.'" By averring that children do have a spiritual life, Coles may be aerating the soils of behavioral and developmental psychology regarding children's capability for spirituality.
When William James discusses spirituality in The Varieties of Religious Experience, he mentions that Aldous Huxley opined that spirituality is a matter of climate. Huxley claimed that north Chinese Confucians and south Chinese Taoists developed their opposite spiritualties in reaction to their climates. James, for his part, states that, "Western spirituality has something to do with words. The spirit is evoked and nurtured by the spoken word and the written word." What Coles has given us is the words of children regarding their perceptions and understandings of God.
A retrospective of Coles's body of works demonstrates a pervasive theme -- the voices of children. In the current period of intellectual criticism where deconstruction and the discourses of previously "unheard" members of society are issues of concern and debate, Coles acts as both the vanguard and perpetuator of the voices of children. This latest volume's emphasis on the "dangerous" area of spirituality is really a culmination of his previous work.
Coles sets the stage for the children's storytelling by exhibiting a number of their drawings. In his narrative Coles describes how the children came to create these drawings and what they said the drawings represented. He is careful to refrain from imposing his own inferences, but is conscientious in sharing his personal participant observations with the reader.
Then, the voices of the children become the primary narrators. Coles presents these in a framework of how youngsters "bear witness" to their religious experiences. This choir of religious experiences has a variety of voices within it: three of the major world religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam -- with a contrapuntal theme provided by Hopi Indian religion and so-called secular spirituality.
The concluding chapter defines the child as "pilgrim." In this chapter, Coles cites Dorothy Day's definition of pilgrims: "It's people here, or anywhere, thinking about what life means, searching for God, searching for the answers to the riddles that come to mind as we ask our why's and how's. To me a pilgrim is someone who thinks ahead, who wonders what's coming -- and I mean, spiritually. We are on a journey through the years -- a pilgrim is -- and we are trying to find out what our destination is, what awaits us when the bus or train pulls in." This perspective applied to the children heard in Coles's book validates them as authentic pilgrims whose narratives give adult fellow-pilgrims both answers and questions.
The questions raised for the reader who reflects on these stories could be as important as the contribution of giving voice to children. This is not a book only for persons giving care and/or working with children; this is a book that calls to all of us to acknowledge the child within us and to listen to that maybe long-silenced voice.
In his book The Call of Stories, Coles remembers being told by a professor that, "There are many interpretations to a good story, and it isn't a question of which one is right or wrong but of what you do with what you've read." Coles later states: "In the end, we have only what is inside ourselves to contemplate; each of us has a story that contains our answers to the old existentialist questions."
What the reader does with The Spirituality of Children will be individual and subjective. The book is both an opportunity to expand the audiences of the voices of children and an occasion to hear old questions with new acoustics. Finally, it allows the reader to recognize Robert Coles as a facilitator in the human quest to know oneself more deeply.