Bringing the Gift of Spiritual Imagination into Children’s Bedtimes
Editor’s note: Erin Pickersgill is one of SDI’s New Contemplatives of 2017. In this post, she shares two lovely ideas for bedtime spirituality that come from her Christian perspective. We believe the ideas of the “basket” and the “movie” can be adapted to be used by families from any spiritual tradition or those families whose spirituality is sourced in a number of traditions or no tradition at all. We encourage all parents to give them a try.
While sitting at swimming lessons the other day, watching my daughter dive for rings, I was listening to the parent-talk around me. They were sharing about children who wouldn’t sleep - and one particular child who suffered nightly from terrors and bad dreams. Obviously, the parents and the child were exhausted and at their wits’ end.
The parents said they had tried everything. They prayed with the child before bed. They talked to the child about what he was afraid of. They prayed over the room. They even put a copy of the Bible under the child’s bed “because the Word of God will protect you.”
As I collected my soggy daughter from the locker rooms and made dinner that evening, I thought about how we might experiment with prayer and spirituality until they fit well into our families. I thought about children’s spiritual practices that are woven naturally into our children’s lives so that they become a part of what we provide for them, like food and clothing and shelter.
Here are two resources my family uses at bedtimes - two ways my children have adopted deep, ancient spiritual practices in the moments before sleep.
My eldest daughter, who is five years-old, will wake up sometimes in the night and be awake for hours. She doesn’t seem worried or upset, it is simply something that happens to her. I have ached for a way to help her through this. One night, in an attempt to highlight where God might be in this for her, I asked her to imagine Jesus, greeting her with a big smiling happy face. In his arms was an enormous basket - it seemed as if it could carry the world in that basket. And Jesus asked her, in our imaginations, “Can I hold anything for you, while you sleep? I promise to take good care of it.” My daughter filled Jesus’ basket up - some things she shared with me, and others she didn’t. As a parent, I felt such relief in teaching my child a way to pray that brought Jesus immediately into her reality using her imagination.
My daughter still has weeks of not sleeping at night. Prayer doesn’t solve things like a magic trick, but prayer does invite a Friendship that intervenes.
Another bedtime prayer ritual we have, is the “Day Movie,” named by my children. It is, of course, a version of the St. Ignatius’ Examen. In their beds, tucked in with the lights off, they enter their imaginations. In that place, they pretend that they and Jesus are sitting on the sofa, with popcorn, watching a movie. But this isn’t any movie! This is a movie of the day they’ve just had. They silently watch their day with Jesus. Sometimes they’ll need a little prod about what happened next. At points, they comment about an activity, something they loved, something they felt uncomfortable about. It’s all in the movie, and it’s all welcome.
How I’ve helped them to frame this type of Examen is this - as they go into their sleep at the end of the movie, it’s as if they carry a small backpack. The best part of their day goes in, like a present from Jesus for them to keep and carry into dreamland.
As a spiritual director, my vocation is to listen and to help people to pray. How can I do this for an individual during a short session with me, but not for my own children? I hear parents anxiously talk about all the things they want to teach their children about God. But I don’t believe that is my job as a parent. God will reveal God. My calling as a parent is to tell the truth to my children about prayer, to pray myself, and to clear any debris in the way so that all I tell them of God is weighed against what they know already to be true.
The joy of a spiritual director is the same joy as that of a parent - witnessing another receive holy revelation just for them. My three-year-old daughter said last night - “I think I’m going to put my whole heart in the basket.” And she used her hands to imitate it going into the imagined container. “I wonder if Jesus will give me his?” A second passed. “Oh! He did!” She joyfully exclaimed, lifting a new heart from the basket and placing it sweetly on her pajamas.
Erin Pickersgill was born in the USA but has lived the last 16 years mostly in the UK, settling in small town England with her husband and two children. She trained to be a Spiritual Director at the London Centre for Spirituality, is an Ignatian Spiritual Director, and has recently been recommended for ordination training in the Church of England.