Call me crazy, but I believe children to be the most spiritually connected beings you can find. Maybe it's their lack of impulse control or their proximity to the earth, but something about their innate wildness and instinct-based behavior just seems effortlessly rooted in the unseen world. I've often questioned the relevance of formal religion when it comes to these little spiritual beings. With that in mind, I'm doing my best to raise my daughter with a natural sense of spiritual connectedness, with respect for her given religion but without the rule book from its church. And above all, always in tune with what feels true to her. I'm trying to raise a spiritual child without religion.
A little (spiritual) background
Full disclosure: My daughter was baptized Greek Orthodox as an infant — an obvious influence of my husband's heritage and as a default based on my own family's complete lack of religious affiliation. My in-laws sleep well at night knowing that she is forever connected to their beliefs and customs in this very official way, and we happily attend church once a year. At the very least, we are cementing in her a sense memory of the pungent smell of incense and the haunting sound of Greek chanting, while establishing one piece of her ethnic puzzle.
As for the rest of it, I'm consistently sharing with Emerson my own eclectic collection of spiritual practices. The rituals and quiet prayers that have brought me comfort, connection, peace of mind and renewed hope throughout my life. I've been trying on various religious and spiritual practices for as long as I can remember. Whether welcoming Mormon missionaries into my living room or working side-by-side with Jesuit priests, I've always come home to my own guiding principals.
I've clung to them during dark and confusing periods and honored them during times of lightness and celebration. These home-grown, cherry-picked rituals are as important to me as Sunday service is to Emerson's godmother. I'm hoping they will provide her a moral compass and the skills to comfort herself and encourage a life full of hope, light and peace. So, my daughter is getting a daily dose of spirituality with an annual side of religion. And so far, it's working for us.
Grounded in gratitude
I try to begin and end every day with a bit of gratitude. This can happen in bed, in carpool or at the table. The repetitive act is more important than the location. By sharing at least one thing we are thankful or grateful for, we are able to ground the moment in something good. Whether is was a peaceful night of rest, an extra helping of ice cream or our safe and warm home, we are acknowledging something positive in our life. As she gets older, I will start the tradition of keeping a gratitude journal because I think there is power in writing down our blessings great and small. But for now, the conversation is a way for each of us to give power to the positive and let that overshadow any of the struggles from the day.
Retreating to nature
Nature has always been my chapel. I go to the ocean or the forest for spiritual grounding when my heart feels restless, and I've been doing the same for Emerson since she was in infant. I've frequently packed her up in the car — mid-tantrum and driven directly to the redwoods for an intervention. The drive inevitably lulls her into a much-needed nap, and when she awakens, the negative ions are already working their magic. Now that she's older, we walk and talk about rocks and bugs or the crushing sound of the ocean when one of us needs to reconnect.
As spiritual maintenance, I try to take at least one excursion into the natural world each week. Sometimes it's a chance to disconnect from the stress everyday life, reconnect with our inner wildness, our own divine. And sometimes it just provides a neutral ground where we can talk without the distractions of plastic toys and electronic games. I'm secretly hoping this little ritual will help keep us connected through her teenage years, when our common ground will be even harder to find.
Honoring the past
Through food and gardening, we honor loved ones who have passed. Emerson knows that the snowball bush that blossoms each spring was planted for my Granny, whose husband adored the plant. He died before I was born, but Granny admired each and every blossom she spotted every spring until her own passing. I point them out as a rule and treasure its bounty in my own yard every April. I bake a honey cake for my dear friend, Lynn, who died way too soon and taught me to enjoy dessert whenever possible and preferably before one's meal. I share her stories (and her honey cake recipe) with whoever will listen every time I bake the simple treat. Emerson is learning that there are simple ways to honor and remember the people who touched our lives. She may develop her own rituals with time, but for now she happily tends to our garden and cracks the eggs for every cake.
I'm working on expanding her understanding of community and connectedness while deepening my own experience. Rather than look away when we pull up to someone with a sign asking for help at the street corner, we discuss who this person is. Sometimes we give a fresh bottle of water or bag of nuts, sometimes just a smile and an honest acknowledgement of another human in need. Either way, we talk about how that person is just like us. No better, no worse. We talk about what it means to treat everyone we meet with kindness and respect. To hold the door open, smile and look another in the eye, to help an elderly stranger with their groceries, to always lend a hand, when we are able. More than just teaching manners and the Golden Rule, I'm hoping to help her feel a deep connection to everyone and everything around her. And to see the ripple effect that behaving from a place of love and generosity of heart can have in her everyday life.
Peace through prayer
Since the early stages of my pregnancy, I've repeated the prayer for loving-kindness I learned on a meditative retreat many years ago. I would hold my growing belly and eventually hold my growing baby and repeat the following:
"May you be filled with loving-kindness.
May you be well.
May you be peaceful and at ease.
May you be happy."
It's always filled me with a sense of peace and ease, and I hope to pass that tool along to my girl. By sharing it with her, I imagine that she feels truly loved and treasured and that one day she might repeat it to herself when she is in need of self-love and comfort.
I believe at the heart of any religious or spiritual practice is a need to feel connected, comforted, loved and honored. I want my daughter to grow up with a deep sense of that. She's free to call it spirituality or religion or just life. As long as it feels true to her. And if she finds it in a room full of incense and like-minded parishioners or an expanse of ocean and a thousand grains of sand, she'll have found her own faith.