4 Ways to Form a Sacramental Imagination in Children

Carlos Reis (1863-1940), “The Baptism”
Carlos Reis (1863-1940), “The Baptism” (photo: Public Domain)

One of the overriding themes of my education at the Franciscan University of Steubenville was that the Medieval Christian had a much richer understanding of our physicality in relation to the spiritual. Because their experience of life was so bodily, they easily saw God’s presence in every aspect of life and they related to Him in a bodily way through the cult of relics, harsh penances, extreme fasting, and extreme feasting. We, in modernity, are often out of touch with our physicality; we are in opposition to it and we don’t want it to define us. And while the sins of humanity have not really changed, as Scripture tells us that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), perhaps the Medieval Christian, with their sacramental worldview lived a more fully human existence.

The sacramental worldview is not the be-all end-all, but having it seems to be an essential aspect to really living a life of holiness.  I think that we in modernity can work to get it back, by making our faith a physical one and being mindful of the holy into our every action.

When my husband and I began discussing ideas for our family life together, we wanted to develop the sacramental worldview in ourselves and in any children we would have. Now that we have four children, I think that we can safely say that some of our ideas are working: our children seem to have sacramental imaginations.

The place where humans process their experience of the world is in their imaginations. In the imagination, our sensory experience and our rationality meet. And it seems that having a well-developed, active imagination is essential to experiencing the true sacramentality of the world and living in a truly human way. With a good imagination, it is easy to experience God in our daily, mundane lives. And with a good imagination, a person is unable to reduce the world to a pure science, which the mentality that mainstream society has embraced.

How have we done this?

1. Liturgical living

We started at the liturgical level by emphasizing the liturgical year at home: Advent, Christmas, Christmastide, Season after Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, the Ordinary time after Pentecost, and the important Church and family feast days. We use family prayer to mark the change of seasons, and do practical things to mark the seasons, such as an Advent wreath and special Lenten practices. Our Christmas tree stays up through the whole of the Christmas season(until the Presentation of Our Lord on February 2).

We want their sense of the sacramental to extend from the liturgical year into the normal rhythm of life. We want them to have the most truly human experience of life as they can in which they experience the world around them as something with which they are in a relationship. So, we have formed a routine that encourages this growth.

2. Giving the Imagination Structure and Space

A daily routine is good for developing a life of virtue, and while it may seem artificial, giving structure makes more room for one to grow. Just as when we want to develop a virtue we practice certain habits in order to attain that virtue, to develop the imagination, we have to do it on purpose.

It is easier for children to imagine and play when there is some sort of food for that play. Like a discussion at breakfast, a story or school lesson in the morning, a fairy tale at lunch. All of these things add to the imaginative independent play our children have time for every day. Our family routine allows for a long period of morning play and a long period of afternoon play, but we touch base at meal times, and my school aged children have to do their lessons first. Our day ends with getting ready for bed, family prayer, and a great bedtime story.

 3. Limiting Passive Play

I have read countless studies that have stated that screens are harmful to young children. They hinder brain development; they slow the imagination. They are also extremely addicting and and mind numbing. So, we said for our children, no screens at all before age two. Only in the last year have we started having family movie nights with our 7, 5, and 3 year old, and when we do, you can be sure that we are very particular about which movie we choose; we want good content and good art. We also use screens for things such as showing them famous paintings, historical artifacts, and for communicating with out of town family through video calls.

Following from the limiting of screens, came the extreme limiting of electronic toys. We simply told our families and friends, please no electronic toys, no lights, no noise, and they, for the most part, complied. The occasional exception we have allowed has lead to the reaffirmation of our conviction about this. When a child plays with an electronic toy there really is no room for the imagination. It is pure receptive play. It keeps them happy, quiet, and entertained, but at what cost?

My children’s favorite games happen with very simple toys. They make things out of paper and tape. They build things with Lego bricks and blocks. They create elaborate role playing games with play scarf costumes and blankets. They develop all sorts of games playing outside, with sticks and rocks as toys. All of these things require and active imagination.

4. Filling The Minds with Good Things
After helping our children to avoid the modern need to be passively entertained, we went to tradition to help form their little minds in the good and true. So, we take our children to Sunday and daily Mass as few days a week from their birth on. We have regular family prayer time, and read Scripture regularly at home.

On a more secular level, we read them classic children’s books. The most classic in the English language are the nursery rhymes. They give a great foundation in language and the beginnings of Western thought. Following from that we read them lots of classic fairy tales, from which they learn about virtue, good, and evil. They also are exposed to the world of magic and fairies, which expands their imaginations further.

The literature children read or anybody reads forms how they respond to daily situations, even without thinking about it. So, if you have a character that struggles with anger in a story and the story demonstrates well how to control ones temper, then that seeps into your life. And that is why I am so careful about the amount of good literature we read and try to keep mediocre at a minimum.

We also introduce our children to beautiful paintings and classical music. Not through baby oriented mediums, such as toys with music in them, but we play them whole works of music and show them paintings. We also take them to hear real music in person and to art museums to see art in person. These too contribute to their sacramental imagination.

Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia had a long section on parenting, and in it he explained:

 "Parents are also responsible for shaping the will of their children, fostering good habits and a natural inclination to goodness. This entails presenting certain ways of thinking and acting as desirable and worthwhile, as part of a gradual process of growth.” (AL 294)

By being mindful of the imagination we are helping our children develop, we can foster good habits and incline them to goodness. My hope for my children is that the life they experience growing up in our home will ground them in the life of virtue. I want them to have the foundation they need to become, good, and holy people, and to be able to discern clearly what God wants for them in their lives. And when they learn to encounter Him in the everyday in everything, I pray that they will always be aware of Him and His love.