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Playing with the Divine
by Susan Dermond
Susan Dermond

One Christmas I bought a lovely little wooden creche scene. I spent an hour or more arranging it just so with boughs of fir and red nandina berries around it. I was delighted with the artistic effect!

Days later I walked by and noticed that a couple of the figures were knocked over and the animals in the scene rearranged. “Did you play with these?” I demanded of my six-year-old stepson.

“Yes,” he admitted.

Exasperated, I replied, “Well, don’t! It’s a decoration, and I spent lots of time arranging it just how I wanted it.”

How I have wished I could call back that moment! I would encourage him to play with the figures; in fact, I would sit down with him. As we played, perhaps I would explain the inner meaning of the star and why Christ was incarnated. Or perhaps we’d just have a good time making up dialogue for the characters and imagining what might have happened.

So far, in this series on spirituality and children I have written on several ways to nurture the inner lives of children: through healing prayers, concentration games, nature, and stories. But what better way to introduce spiritual topics than through the most natural of all activities for kids­--play? Even a very young child can learn to view spirituality as a normal part of everyday life through play.

No matter what religion you belong to, you can act out the great stories, such as the story of the Good Samaritan, Krishna and Kaliya, or the Maccabees, or one of Buddha’s Jataka tales. You and your child can act out different roles or create stick puppets for the different characters. Hamming it up and using different voices is fun, and when you gently make the point that the story illustrates in this context, it will be happily remembered.

The Divine in Form

A great way to bring the Divine closer is to give your child a doll of a god, goddess, or saint to play with. When I first heard that the Indian saint Ananda Mayee Ma recommended to a mother that she give her daughter a Krishna doll, I wondered if it weren’t a bit sacrilegious. I had heard that one way to regard God was as the Divine Playmate, but wasn’t this going a bit far?

When I visited Assisi, Italy, I had the opportunity to go into the private apartments of Saint Joseph of Cupertino in the Basilica of Saint Francis, a seventeenth-century saint. Imagine my surprise on seeing featured in one room a bassinet with a doll in it. The Franciscan brother explained that Saint Joseph especially worshipped Jesus in his infant form!

One of my friends made a Shiva doll for her daughter. It was a beautiful doll, but I wondered how she played with it. You couldn’t exactly give Shiva a bottle or dress him in pretty baby clothes. Then one day in the garden I noticed she was talking to Shiva, showing him the different flowers. When we went in for tea, she placed the doll in the shade of a rock where he had a view of the garden and told me she’d leave him there while we ate because it was his favorite place in the garden.

I realized the doll was a wonderful, tangible way to bring the friendship of the Divine into her consciousness, and what a wonderful understanding to have at a young age!

Imitating Adults

Much of children’s play is acting out adult scenarios: “You be the dad and I’ll be the daughter;” “You be the storekeeper and I’ll be the customer.” The way children prepare for their adult lives and activities is acting out what they see their adult role models doing.

Letting your children participate in worship occasions, and/or creating little worship services at home and letting them take adult roles will help them develop devotion and integrate your values. Let your child light a special candle or create an altar and decorate it with flowers or leaves, creating that magical atmosphere a spiritual ceremony can have.

If you don’t have a tradition such as Judaism, which has candlelighting and prayer ceremonies for the home, you can design your own simple worship services. For Thanksgiving, for example, you can sing a song of praise, have a prayer, and read a psalm.

Add touches such as a prayer shawl for everyone or purifying each person with burning sage, in the Native American tradition. I once designed a family worship service where we did this with incense in silence as each person entered the room for the service. It changed the restless, excited energy of the children to a mood of quiet expectation.

Of course, your child learns the most about reverence and appreciation for the Divine in life from watching you. If you pray, meditate, and take time to go within, your child will see those activities as a normal part of life and learn that Spirit, behind the material world we inhabit, is the true reality.

Susan Dermond is the Director of the Living Wisdom School (K-5), and a minister of Ananda Sangha. For more information about the Living Wisdom School, call (503) 626-3403.