Children's Catechesis: Fostering Imagination in Children

Authored by Lani Bogart in Issue #6.3 of The Catechetical Review

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little boy and girl playing in pile of autumn leaves

A few months past, I had the rare privilege of observing our three youngest grandchildren at play in a Houston park burying treasure (rocks) and marking the spot with a flag made of a stick and a carefully curated large leaf. Their lively play, contagious joy, and the delightful way they encouraged one another in their imaginative play made for one of those transcendent experiences we wish would never end. These moments drew me to think more deeply about what I was witnessing. What was it that made their play so compelling? The components were simple and rooted in ordinary elements. The sand, rocks, leaves, digging, and planting served as fodder for their free imagination. The children were completely unrushed and at peace yet actively engaged. How can we offer our children unhurried time immersed in reality so their imaginations can flourish?

I began with looking at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about the imagination. In one of only two references, I discovered the Catechism links our cognitive and volitional faculties with imagination. “Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion and desire. The mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart and strengthen our will to follow Christ” (CCC 2708).

So, we need to help children mobilize thought, imagination, emotion, and desire if we want them to have deep faith convictions, converted hearts, and strong wills. Though it’s only one reference, it’s a lot to unpack. Here I focus solely on the role of imagination.

Liturgical Imagination

When we introduce children to the liturgy, we aim to help them “see” or “image in their minds” Christ present in the signs and symbols, in the gestures and prayers.

Young children naturally use their bodies along with their minds when they engage their imagination. It’s not at all uncommon to hear a priest remark that when he was a young boy he enjoyed “playing Mass” complete with make-believe chalice, paten, priestly vestments, and the gestures he had observed in his local priest.

Catechists can encourage a more reverent form of this imaginative remembering of the Mass by providing children with opportunities to learn the names of the priest’s vestments and the articles used at Mass. They can help children re-enact some of the gestures the priest makes during Mass combined with the prayers which give clues to the gestures’ meanings. They can also arrange for children to see and handle (with utmost respect) a real chalice and to fold and unfold a real purificator.

All our faculties find their perfection in Christ. Nowhere does Christ emerge more central in our imaginations than in the Eucharistic celebration. We know it is Christ who through the sacramental signs of water and word, cleanses us from sin in baptism. At our confirmation, with the signs of oil and the laying on of hands, he strengthens the gifts first received at baptism. He restores each soul to the state of grace in reconciliation using nothing but our contrite hearts, our confessed sins, and the prayers of the priest. And through the signs of oil and the cross in the anointing of the sick, Christ brings healing and peace to body, mind, and soul. Still it is in our active participation in the Sacrament of Holy Communion that we are most encouraged to use our minds to imagine what “is not present to the senses” as the bread and wine are transformed into Christ himself. Our participation in the sacraments brings with it the potential for our imagination to engage at the highest possible level because in the sacraments the imagination corresponds to the greatest reality. In the sacraments we are deeply transformed by the efficacious work Christ does in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Imagination in Prayer

An active imagination is irreplaceable for the way of prayer known as meditation. Children come to us with their own unique thoughts, emotions, and desires, which will inform how they use their imaginations to apply the Gospel message to their own situation and how they “hear” the voice of God.

After a short, guided meditation on the Incarnation and before we entered into silent prayer, I asked a group of children to listen to what our loving God was saying to them in the deepest places of their heart. Afterwards, when I asked if they had heard God speak, a boy spoke up, “I heard God saying, ‘you should listen and do what the teacher says the first time.’” I don’t remember exactly how I answered him. I hope I didn’t discourage his prayer, but inwardly, at least, I cringed. “Does he think that God scolds him?”

After more pondering, I realized that the boy had probably heard God speak, but in a way quite different from how I imagine God’s voice. God speaks to each of us in the way we are best able to receive what he has to say. It is quite reasonable that a third-grade boy would receive just such a message from God, one he could immediately put into action.

Imagination with Scripture

As we introduce children to praying with Scripture, our aim is that they read and understand the sacred text, actively think about it, imagining themselves as recipients of God’s Word in such a way that emotions are stirred and a desire to know, love, and serve God grows within them.

The children I have encountered find imaginative prayer combined with the reading of Sacred Scripture especially engaging. This kind of prayer helps them encounter the Jesus of the Gospels as an intimate friend. As they imagine themselves present in the Gospel scenes, they come to recognize Jesus’ way of speaking to their own hearts and learn to turn toward his “voice” speaking to them in the words of Sacred Scripture. The more details they imagine about Jesus in the Gospels, (his eyes, his smile, his gaze of love, his healing touch) the less likely they will consign the person of Jesus to the place of a mere historical figure or a character in a book They will learn to share the movements of their daily lives with him; their frustrations and joys, their anxieties and confidences. They will know Christ as a living person and can say with the villagers in the story of the Samaritan woman, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world” (Jn 4:42).

A Flourishing Imagination

If we wish our children’s imaginations to flourish, they must have more than an academic encounter with the good, the true, and the beautiful in poetry, literature, art, Scripture, liturgy, music, and nature. They must experience more than the memorization of data necessary to pass a test or earn a grade. Doctrine and measurable knowledge are important, but incomplete. It is possible to write a book definition without believing the information has any relevance to life. But when a child enters via his imagination into a Gospel narrative or a work of art, a song, a poem that illumines the passage, he discovers for himself the layers of meaning present, and will not be easily swayed from the belief he has made his own.
 However, too many illustrations, photographs, and videos can limit the development of the imagination because the readers or listeners no longer need to exert the effort to “picture” for themselves the narrative being described. Isolating one image, poem, or song along with unrushed time for contemplation is more fruitful than offering too many, especially with younger children.

When we read passages in Scripture which use language in a particularly beautiful way, there may be no need for an image at all. Time to contemplate and savor may be enough. For instance, when presenting this beautiful prose from the prologue of the Gospel of John; “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth,” it may be enough to think about the words alone and imagine what they mean, or to offer the children an opportunity to draw a picture of what they think it means.

 When we do provide an image, we ought to allow time for viewers to discover for themselves the obvious and hidden details that draw their attention. In our rush to explain the meaning of things, we often risk squelching the joy children experience by coming to a new understanding on their own. So, rather than imparting everything we know, we work to prepare carefully crafted questions that help children observe carefully and discover for themselves the truths portrayed. “Where is the light in this painting coming from? What could that mean? Why do you think the artist chose to use this color? Look at the emotion on their faces. What are they feeling?” It’s very important to remain open to what they see and not give the impression that you have a secret “right answer” you are hoping someone will guess.

The Catechist’s Imagination

Before we can cultivate a healthy imagination in our students, we must first nourish a healthy imagination in ourselves. Time and silence are essential. Just as our spiritual imagination is nourished by the prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture, and our sacramental imagination grows by frequent participation in Sacred Liturgy, so our human imagination is fed by good poetry, literature, fine art, music, and the enjoyment of the natural world, which cannot be rushed. When our imaginations are healthy, we begin to “see” God everywhere; we discover his truth in the simplest and most ordinary human encounters like watching our grandchildren play at the park.

Lani Bogart oversees all things catechetical at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a mostly Hispanic urban parish in Glendale, Arizona.

This article originally appeared on pages 38-39 of the printed edition. Public domain photo from Pixabay.com.


This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting editor@catechetics.com

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