Comment Opinion & Features

The benefits of teaching children meditative prayer

St Mary's School, Shaftesbury

The opportunity to contemplate quiet and stillness should be part of every Catholic child’s education

We would probably all agree that silence is a rare commodity in most lives today. For a young person, it might only be encountered during an exam or in the reverential quiet of a visit to a museum. All the more reason, then, to aim to create opportunities for intentional silence at school, so that our young people can experience the transformative power of stillness against the increasing levels of noise in their daily lives.

As parents and teachers, we agonise about children’s mental and physical health, seeking to make all the correct interventions to promote general wellbeing. Cultivating silence is about nurturing spiritual health, something which is too often overlooked.

Long before the admirable trend for promoting mindfulness and wellbeing in an educational setting, Catholic – and, indeed, Buddhist and Quaker – schools emphasised the need to value silence as part of developing a full prayer life.

Providing pupils with regular periods of silent reflection leads naturally into the transformational practice of meditative prayer, and the beginning of a lifetime’s spiritual journey. Catholic schools reach out to those of all faiths and none, but I have yet to meet an ex-pupil who did not grow to value that experience of intentional silence within school life, wherever they might have sat on the faith spectrum at the time.

The possibility of experiencing stillness has its own intrinsic value, but without it, how can we hope to teach our young people the habits of a good inner life? The experience of a time of silence will vary with individuals, and everyone will be at a different point on their spiritual path, but one important advantage of promoting this practice within school is that pupils can discuss their experiences and learn from others, from older students as much as from chaplains, in a supportive atmosphere that can ease the passage through inevitable periods of spiritual doubt, challenge or frustration.

When starting out in meditation, the very act of trying to empty one’s mind tends to achieve the reverse, as a host of unbidden thoughts and issues rush chattering in. The meditative journey teaches a person to acknowledge these thoughts and then let them go. A common outcome is the emergence of a deep and powerful sense of being able to acknowledge one’s anxieties and put them into perspective. It is the very opposite of overthinking: learning to accept and let go is a vast blessing.

For a Catholic, of course, the sustained practice of meditation leads one into an ever-deepening experience of God’s love, as “the ear of the heart” gradually learns to attend to those interior promptings.

Sitting in the transformative stillness of a school chapel, either engaged in personal prayer or joining silently with others, should be a part of every Catholic child’s experience. As a setting for deep interior work, it is hard to beat. The beautifully safe space and the power of regularly undertaking silence as part of community life means that the experience is often both profound and profoundly valued.

If a school chapel is not on offer, then we need to think about how to make such times of silence available for our children, and encourage them to attend Adoration and retreats. I have watched some reasonably unengaged youngsters have an inspirational contemplative experience – at St Cassian’s Centre in Kintbury, Berkshire, for example, where the beauty and silence of the attic prayer room, warmed by a kaleidoscope of colourful votive candles, calls all to a tangible and powerful experience of beauty and holiness.

Repeated opportunities to experience silence, reflection and meditation allow our young people to have a genuinely personal encounter with Jesus, and to begin to develop a living relationship with Him.

In times gone by, any Catholic family might be expected to cultivate this spiritual growth at home, but modern lifestyles and a general lack of family time mean that this is not always the case today. Learning to encounter within oneself a deep place of peace and love, whether or not one wishes to identify that as an experience of the transcendent, gives an extra dimension to our young people’s ability to be resilient and self-confident at an elemental level.

More importantly, this is just the start of a lifetime’s journey into a virtuous life of love, goodness, hope and beauty, led by the Holy Spirit. If you wish this for your own child, then a Catholic education in meditative prayer has much to commend it.

Maria Young is headmistress of St Mary’s School, Shaftesbury