3 Kinds of Spiritual Engagement

A couple of weeks ago, I observed a group of children in a local day camp program. The leader asked them to identify their five senses. Children called out the usual suspects: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch. Then one child jumped in with another idea. “We have a sixth sense, too,” he said, “and it’s called our imagination.”

That child’s response got me thinking about senses more broadly. Yes, we encounter the spiritual through our primary senses, but what other senses might be in play?

Researchers studying young children in the UK have found that ‘sensing’ certain things is a key aspect of spiritual engagement. They point specifically to mystery sensing, awareness sensing, and value sensing as core experiences for spiritual flourishing.

Mystery sensing refers to the sense of awe and wonder we sometimes experience when we gaze at the stars, watch a spectacular sunset, or delight in the darting fish of a tidepool. It’s being pleasantly overwhelmed by surprise or beauty, an encounter with something too amazing to easily describe. Mystery sensing often gives children a feeling of transcendence, of stretching toward a discovery they never before imagined.

Parents and caregivers can encourage mystery sensing through sharing our own delight and amazement. We can wonder aloud about why a city skyline evokes feelings of pride or belonging. We can plan regular opportunities to explore our neighborhood, looking for stained glass windows or a flower growing in a sidewalk crack. We can marvel at hummingbirds that visit a feeder we’ve hung outside a window.

Awareness sensing involves a strong feeling of being in the here and now. It’s the total absorption of a preschooler carefully measuring out a cup of sugar for brownies. It’s tongue-between-the-teeth concentration as a child laboriously writes their name for the first time. Any time a child is caught up in an activity, even if it isn’t something explicitly spiritual, awareness sensing is at work.

We can encourage awareness sensing by making time for children to get lost in activities. Notice when children are immersed in what they are doing and ask yourself if you can spare an extra 10-15 minutes to let them continue. Carve out unscheduled time when all family members can forget about rushing and just be.

The third aspect, value sensing, is perhaps the most conventional. It refers to the way in which children make connections between moral values and their own or others’ ideas and behavior. When children use their value-sense, they are moving beyond the parroting of adult moral instructions to a personal embrace of a value. Psychologists say this is why young children tattle on one another: they want to demonstrate that they recognize right from wrong and agree that wrongdoing should be punished.

Encouraging value sensing involves acknowledging children’s connections, as well as verbalizing some of our own. Share with children the values that inform behaviors like holding a door open, saying please and thank you, or posting social justice signs in the yard. Welcoming their ‘why’ questions and providing explanations also affirms value sensing as a useful tool for making sense of social morality.

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