Peace at an early age

Our journey into silence has begun. Last week as a school, we began to cultivate silence in our Morning Prayer service.

When I read this message from the principal of a local church school, I was admittedly intrigued. That someone would be seeking to foster silence in fidgety young charges seemed a noble undertaking, if not a challenge.

After all, don’t we as a culture deal with the high energy levels of the young by trying to channel them into activity, preferably the sound-inducing kind? Isn’t that why we have roving mascots, big screens, and music and cheers blasting from speakers at family-friendly sporting events? In homes, schools, restaurants, and even libraries, aren’t we supposed to keep kids busy and engaged with sound, animated images, or anything that will occupy them?

P1060534In the classrooms of St. Boniface School in the small rural community of Oak Harbor, Ohio, there is plenty going on to absorb young minds, but principal Millie Greggila also knows that her students require periods of peace. So, while they are learning to tally sums, read and spell words, and master the fundamentals of music or science, they are acquiring the ability to calm themselves and remain quiet.

As part of their religious education, the students at St. Boniface meet in the parish church adjoining their school for prayer each morning. But during the liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent, both of which are times of reflection, Greggila incorporates brief periods of silence. Advent, she says, is an especially good time for this because, with Christmas in the air, the children’s thoughts are everywhere. “It’s Christmas and they’re excited.” Yet, Advent is seen as a time of waiting and during it, Greggila tries to create an atmosphere in which the students can learn to be quiet and find some peace.

A need for peace might strike us as unnecessary in little ones whose angelic faces seem to betray no anxiety, but Greggila knows they have concerns that are as important to them as those shouldered by their parents and teachers. When she asks them to pray out loud for specific needs, for example, she hears their worries about what matters most to them – often their angst about a dog or cat, friends who are absent from school, tests, or parents and grandparents. “I can always tell which ones listen to the news, because they pray for whatever calamity has befallen the world, especially those things that frighten them the most.”

Greggila’s hope is that she can show her students how to still themselves and place their worries in the hands of God.

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“We talk about how we have the power to slow ourselves down,” she said, adding that it’s easy to forget children don’t necessarily come by this naturally and need to be taught. She tells the students, for instance, that sometimes it is not necessary to talk so that they know to enter and leave the church in silence, and once inside, to remain quiet.

When it is time to pray, Greggila begins by leading the students in several spoken prayers, followed by a reading from the Bible. She then asks them to close their eyes, slow down, and breathe, reflecting in silence on what they’ve heard and thinking about those who might be helped by their prayers. Or, she might suggest that they think about ways they should love or a way in which they have not shown love. She also urges them to mentally place anything that is bothering them on the altar to be given to God. And then she allows the silence to seep in, the quiet to take over.

Because St. Boniface is a grammar school and the children are young, Greggila keeps the periods of silence short, but she sees them as a beginning. “Especially now, kids just don’t get ‘quiet time’ – unless they’re in trouble. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could find some peace on their own? It’s really a matter of showing them how.”

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‘Tis the season to be . . . quiet

While everyone seems to be pulling Christmas ornaments out of storage, hanging wreaths, and stringing lights outside, I am following my own holiday tradition by resisting the impulse to join them.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, my seasonal decoration of choice is a simple arrangement of evergreens and candles that will remain on the dining room table until just bP1010437efore Dec. 25.

I understand completely the desire to drive out the dark by infusing our surroundings with Christmas cheer as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are done. This year especially, when our region has had an early blast of winter weather well before the solstice, it has been tempting to try to shake off the specter of increasingly shorter days with a liberal application of light and color.

But I am choosing again to experience the stillness and darkness of the season leading up to the holiday by holding off on the big decorating and engaging in a time of quiet waiting.

In delaying some of the gratification of Christmas, I am following the practice observed by my mother and father, who likely learned it from their immigrant Eastern European parents. As a child anxious for Christmas and living in a world that jump-started the holiday earlier each year, I didn’t necessarily like that we put up our Christmas tree later than everyone else. As an adult, however, I have come to see the wisdom in waiting, difficult as that can be while the Christmas whirlwind swirls around me and threatens to sweep me into its vortex.

It helps in all this to have the support of a spiritual tradition that observes the season of Advent, which means an arrival or coming. During it, we light one candle, then two, then three, and finally four, on the Sundays leading up to Christmas as we mark the time and think about what – and whom – we await. Our scripture readings for this period talk about being on watch, something we know we cannot do if we are distracted and busy. They also urge us to do some interior house-cleaning, sweeping out the dust of old thought patterns and clearing the clutter of corrosive habits. Stopping to light a candle, pray, and reflect week by week, it seems, slows down the pre-Christmas rush, refreshes our spirits, and helps us turn our eyes away from the material aspects of the holiday, making room for its deeper meaning.

So, even as I buy gifts, write cards, bake, plan food for Christmas gatherings, and try to meet that last writing deadline before Dec. 25, I have a template to follow, a kind of rule that keeps calling me back to where I want to be, in and out of this festive season. It’s not that I don’t get rattled or overwhelmed by all the things that must be done in this busiest of times, but I have a visual reminder – my simple Advent wreath – that summons me to a place of peace and invites me to linger there to consider what is really important and what matters most.