Stillness: Train up a Child In the Way They Should Go
By Adam R. Nettesheim
Carravagio is one of my favorite painters, and yet I had forgotten that this beautiful version of the “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” was his. I’m so taken by the vulnerability of the ‘Holy Family’ as they seem so road-weary. Mary unable to hold her head up anymore, resting it on the Christchild’s head as He sleeps, her left hand cradling Him, her right limp. Some believe Joseph was an older man when he took Mary to be his wife. Whatever the accuracy of this tradition, this painting rings true in that I imagine he felt old and worn out. Looking at this painting, I can see that a lot was asked of Jesus’ parents, and though they were both willing, and though their child was Divine, they were both mere human beings.
There is something hauntingly beautiful about this scene as Joseph, barely able to hold his own eyes open, can do nothing else but hold the sheet music for a Heavenly soloist. An angel playing a lullaby on a violin, giving a moment of grace to the beleaguered family as they live and move through the trying events of their day.
When Jennifer asked me to write about “practicing stillness” with our children, I felt wholly inadequate to give much advice. Our family is in a place of transition right now, a place we know that many others occupy as well. The pandemic continues, our children are home from school for the summer, our toddler has learned how to unlock doors, our parents have health challenges, there are projects a plenty that require our attention, there is national division and heartache, I can’t seem to get organized at my day job and in all of that, our family has felt the need to leave the church community we called home for several decades. In some ways, I can see my own weariness in the face of Joseph as he tries to lead his family into the unknown.
In all of our efforts to protect the Christ Child…what time is there for stillness? Or silliness for that matter? How can we make time for myrth and music when we feel stretched beyond our capacity daily? When ‘free time’ is scarce and, sometimes the only thing that feels possible is attempting to recover for the next big push?
This morning I had lofty plans to read Lord of the Rings to the kids to give their mother a needed break. If you can picture the scene as things unraveled:
My older two are enjoying the story even if the toddler isn’t following the plot, but the morning after watching fireworks in our little town, they were not in a place where sitting and quietly listening sounded like a lot of fun– no matter what I was reading. Instead they threw couch cushions and hollered and danced and body-slammed each other. Legos were dumped across the living room floor (and painfully discovered by my feet). Toys were dipped in glasses of juice and after feeling bad for getting a little too cranky, I let my kids ‘style’ my hair however they wanted. My daughter got a bottle of hand lotion and my son grabbed a bunch of bows and when they were finished they belly laughed and called the rest of the family in to see their work.
I had a particular vision for how I could navigate the morning well with the kids, instead by paragraph two, my plan was out the window in a flurry of flying hair brushes and pillows.
So much of what stresses my mind is “how can I do this?” And again and again I come up against the irreconcilable differences of my intentions and my abilities. Parenting three beautiful children through the world of 2022 is difficult. I can only imagine the challenges of parenting the Christchild through the world of the first century.
I believe quiet and contemplation is a beautiful gift to give our children, and we try – oh we try – to achieve that several times a week. Sometimes we do family devotions by reading through a chapter and inviting the kids to engage, ask questions and imagine through the Scriptures.
“What must it have been like to be this character?
What did it feel like to live in this moment?
What stuck out to you about this story?
What questions would you ask God about it?”
Other times we have attempted to implement helpful practices like Gratitude Journals and Lectio Divina and art and memory work. But these practices are not consistent. We can’t make any of them stick perfectly. We have a core devotion time we’ve been blessed to maintain but the methods of engagement eb and flow and somehow that feels right.
Rather than offer specific practices, any advice that I could give is this – the kids pick up a lot of assumptives by their parent’s actions. If we don’t make time for stillness and contemplation, it will be difficult to impose that on them. This is a challenge because, like I imagine with Joseph and Mary – who has the time? But if we won’t make the time, they won’t learn how to either.
Whatever your practice is, let them catch you doing it. The challenge with Bible apps is that to my children, looking at scripture on my phone – from their vantage point – looks no different than me scrolling Facebook or watching YouTube or playing a game. The words are where the power is, but there is meaning in the visual story we tell, so find a way where your kids can know what you’re doing by seeing you do it.
Consistency is important (and oh so hard) to maintain. We are not so disciplined that we have an exact time and place for our family devotions, but we do a fairly ok job of keeping it regular. However consistency does not need to mean monotonous regularity. We have found that a variety of venue can actually be an aid to breaking up the familiarity that can get in the way of engagement. My wife has planted an orchard and sometimes we go to commune with our creator amongst the trees just like the first family.
However, regardless of where we find ourselves, each prayer time begins and ends with the same ‘together prayer’ we got from the beautiful book Every Moment Holy by Douglas MacKelvey. “Father keep watch, Spirit calm fear, Jesus be near”. Between which, we pray individually and (hopefully) a little more focused. Having this regular ‘frame’ that allows for spontaneity and Spirit lead engagement has worked well for my family.
Another thing I often remind myself– if my heart isn’t in it, I can’t expect my kids’ hearts to be in it either. I encourage you to find what sparks your interest Scripture. What engages your imagination? What rabbit-trails get your eyes lighting up as you read through an old familiar story that somehow strikes you in a new way? How can you rejuvenate YOUR engagement with Scripture so that YOU are engaged in meaningful ways? Occasionally my wife and I will chase something for a while together, only to then remember that the discussion is WAY over the kids heads…however I HOPE this ultimately lets the kids see their parents engaged with the living and active Scriptures and walking (and sometimes wrestling) with a real and loving and amazing God.
In all of these good intentions, an important thing to keep in mind, and it’s probably the area I feel I most often fail is… make room for your own humanity and the humanity of your kids. Try to remember:
They are not going to get everything on first exposure, and neither did we.
Conditions will not always be optimal for perfect contemplation.
Dry spells happen. Life happens.
There must be room to acknowledge our vulnerabilities and limitations. We must be willing to accept that the best we can do right now is sit on the side of the road, rest and hold sheet music for the Spirit of God to work, because we can do nothing else. We can’t make it, force it, transmit it, teach it… we are meant to imitate our Heavenly Father, but try as we might we will never be able to manufacture conditions perfect enough for their own relationship with Him to click automatically into place.
We have a part to play, but it is He who must make Himself known to them. And He will. Maybe it’s in slow, quiet ways that take longer than we’re comfortable with. Maybe it’s in intermittent moments of clarity. Maybe it’s a lifetime of nourishing the soil with stories and songs and prayers that ultimately yield the harvest. We are partners with The Sower, but it is He who provides the increase.
We must continue the journey, and seek to do so with joy and hope and imagination, while also making space for grief and repentance and lament. We must embody the lives we wish for our children as best we can, and partner with God to establish a foundation. To my mind, this isn’t just sound theology, but we hope for a foundation of desire. We try to model this by the way our family lives. Sometimes we have to ask: do our children WANT it all to be true? There is absolutely grace for the stubborn or as C.S. Lewis said the ‘reluctant’. But as parents, we can fan the spark that may turn into a blaze in their hearts that keeps the fires warm and burning all their lives.
The comforting thought in all of this is that God loves our children far more than our poor human hearts. God wants to speak to them and wants them to speak with Him. One day their relationship with Him will be all their own and we will have less and less influence. But we can always be a faithful presence to what a fallen and imperfect, but committed and vibrant life of contemplation looks like.
‘The road goes ever on and on’ and we must follow and we must lead our children forward, but the comfort of the Scriptures, the comfort of this painting and the comfort in our own spirits is that we do not do it alone.
I hope you will make space for yourself today to engage with that Spirit that sings over your children and sings over you too.
The song is beautiful.
Stop and listen.
The notes on the page that Joseph holds up are reportedly from a song composed by Noel Baudeweyn, a Renaissance composer, who wrote a song about Mary using passages from the Song of Solomon. I love the idea that our participation with the Heavenly Hosts may mean they sing our songs and make themselves known through our art as we strive to connect with them through the work of our lives.