There is much in our world that fractures and falls apart, so longing for a lasting center is perennial. William Butler Yeats probed this longing in his poem “The Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity
He concluded the poem by saying that even “stony sleep” can be disturbed by “a rocking cradle,” which causes us to wonder what “rough beast” might be moving now, “its hour come round at last,” toward Bethlehem. Our work in and through the church has to do with such a cradle and the introduction of children to the power of the “ceremony of innocence,” so they will not be overwhelmed by the “blood-dimmed tide” as the decades of their lives unfold.
This concern of poets and prophets is also the concern of Christian educators, especially those who work with children, because we seek to know best how to equip them with the resources they need for knowing what God’s cradle can reveal about how children are involved in adult spiritual maturity.
A poet’s response to Yeats might be T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” from his Four Quartets:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance. I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where. And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
Eliot’s “still point” is somehow connected with “the hidden laughter of children in the foliage” at the end of the poem. He went on to write in “Little Gidding,” also from Four Quartets: “And the end of all our exploring /Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” This seems to echo Jesus’ saying about the necessary paradox of Christian living. To be spiritually mature we need to be like a child.
The center that holds, then, begins with children and their unconscious, naïve, and undifferentiated knowledge of God’s presence. It develops toward becoming conscious and non-naïve as one gradually lives into the necessary paradox, which links the child’s original grace with the graceful adult.
The middle realm has much to do with this link, because when Christian language is absorbed in the middle realm it becomes activated in a way that supports the child’s quest. If we can invite children into the middle realm to learn the art of speaking the Christian language fluently, then they have a better chance, as they mature, to be Christian in a fluent way.
Despite what poets have said about the center, Thea and I were puzzled when we began our first formal Godly Play classes about 1974 after years of experimentation. We knew what a good class felt like. It felt like play with the community of children and God, but there was something more that we could only communicate by a nod, a touch, or a smile although we could show the children what we knew but could not say.
There was play involved to be sure. It is voluntary, involves deep concentration, is done for itself, alters time, and is related to learning social roles, learning languages, and creativity. Still, there always seemed to be always more, something beyond words.
One of the many beauties of an open classroom, as Montessori said at the beginning of the last century, is that it is also a laboratory where children show their spirituality by their movements as well as by what they say, write, the lessons they choose, or what they express in their art.
Montessori encouraged teachers “to follow the child,” so I began to watch children and adults more carefully, as they went in and out of the middle realm, to see if I could describe what was happening.
In a Godly Play room you often hear the mentor at the doorway saying to the children coming into the room, “Oh my, it is time to slow down. You need to be ready before you cross this threshold. Careful now.” When a lesson is about to be given the storyteller might say, “It’s time to get ready.”
“Get ready?” Get ready for what? The children always knew. It was evident in the room, even if unspoken, and when Christian language was absorbed into this kind of consciousness it became a part of the whole person. This is important, because the existential limits to our being and knowing involve the totality of who we are.
This personal, existential frame of reference is what makes teaching Christian language so different from teaching the language of science or the language of everyday. It gives children the means to bring the limits to their being and knowing into consciousness so they can live in God’s likeness as creators, working out their daily decisions with this larger picture in mind, the experience of God in their bodies, and God’s image deep in their identity.
There is, of course, much that goes on in a thriving parish ministry with children and families, but our concern here is limited to the intentional absorption and activation of classical Christian language. Knowing this language—the sacred stories, parables, liturgical action, and contemplative silence—gives the rest of one’s program depth and provides the basic equipment for the journey toward becoming graceful people.
We can’t make the journey for children, so we need to equip them to “speak Christian” fluently so they can live fluently as Christians.
So what is the middle realm?
The middle realm is like a room with seven windows. If we enter the room with children we can know it from the inside, but this knowledge is impossible to articulate. When it is objectified for analysis it disappears. This is why it can only be shown.
What shall we do, then? Perhaps, the only thing to do is to see if we can catch a glimpse of it through these windows, which act as imperfect analogies, and which add up to something only generally like the middle realm.
The English child psychiatrist Donald W. Winnicott coined the term “transitional space” to name a kind of consciousness he noticed in infants when they are just beginning to distinguish between “me” and “not me.” It is where spontaneity rules and children are not yet required to be compliant or assertive.
He also noticed that objects can take on the characteristics of this “intermediate area of experience,” so he called them “transitional objects.” Children are not asked to choose whether their special objects are subjective or objective. Baby blankets, a thumb, and even unexpected realities, like a bit of wool, are charged with a sense of being part of the child and yet remaining other than the child.
Transitional objects live unchallenged in an intermediate world of inner and outer, self and other, as well as being alive yet not quite alive. The teaching objects for the lessons in Godly Play are thought about in a similar way.
Winnicott argued that the intense experience of the transitional state was also the origin of art, religion, imaginative living, and creative scientific work. He went further to say that he viewed therapy as serious play in the transitional space between the patient and the therapist.
Understanding Winnicott’s transitional space and view of therapy can help us grasp the importance of the middle realm in religious education, because they are similar, but the middle realm cannot be reduced to transitional space.
When we look through a second window we see that the middle realm is somewhat like the hypnagogic state, which is suspended between waking and sleeping. About 70 percent of adults have experienced this fluid state of mind where connections blend in unusual ways.
During this state, one might experience images of thought, as the 19th century German chemist, Kekule, did when he dozed by the fire and dreamed of snakes putting their tales in their mouths. When he awoke he realized that the structure of benzene, which he had been thinking about, was a ring of carbon atoms.
In Godly Play, the calm, deliberate movements of the presentations and the peacefulness of the storyteller help children relax in a kind of hypnagogic state. This enables them to absorb the images of Christian language and activate it to create existential meaning.
The middle realm engages the whole person, which we might think about as three concentric circles, each with its own kind of knowing.
We are born into the largest circle, which connects infants and young children to the expansiveness of God, yet draws them intensely to parts of the whole, such as a tiny pebble or flower, with a mystical force. This is the knowing of the spirit through contemplation.
The second circle fits within the larger one, but it is more defined. It involves the knowing of the body by the senses.
A third and more distinct yet smaller circle fits within the first two. It involves the knowing of the mind by reason and develops last. In our culture this kind of knowing tends to overwhelm the thinking of the two larger circles by its authority and analytical power.
In the middle realm the potential of all three modes of knowing are equally present, even if yet undeveloped, and equally important, as the artful practice of Godly Play attempts to acknowledge and support.
The middle realm is also analogous to the view of “being,” as discussed by philosophical theologians such as John Macquarrie.
In 1977 he wrote in Principles of Christian Theology that “talk of being … is neither subjective nor objective talking, but holds these two together.” He also argued that the “the play of being” must be considered “letting-be,” because it is an action rather than a status, substance, or constraint of logic.
Letting-be is the gift of the God’s creative self and permeates the middle realm for children to experience as they learn the art of making existential meaning with religious language. Letting-be is what Godly Play invites children to participate in, when God is invited to come play the game of discovering how to make existential meaning.
Art invites us into a boundary state between ordinary and imagined reality to better understand both. Art is like the middle realm because it must be embodied to be expressed verbally or nonverbally. Children are more natural at this kind of participation than adults, but Godly Play always leaves open the invitation for people of all ages to join in the game.
An example of art conveying something like the middle realm is Margery Williams’ “The Velveteen Rabbit.”
The old Skin Horse and the Velveteen Rabbit were discussing the nature of becoming real. The Skin Horse said, “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
The story carries the reader deeper and deeper into the pretend world of toys, but this participation also draws the reader indirectly into the possibility of personal transcendence.
In the Godly Play room, which is an analogue of the middle realm, the teaching objects are designed to be beautiful and strong but still open enough to invite care and to stimulate the child’s creativity. The materials, which are part of the presentations, were worked out with children over many decades, but they still need to be made real by mentors and children who really love them, like any kind of art.
A sixth standpoint from which to view the middle realm shows how it is like the unconscious. Its processes are not open to introspection, yet they can have a major impact on behavior. One way to gain access to the unconscious is by hypnosis and trance. These terms conjure up images of “mind control,” but that is a mistake.
They actually refer to rather ordinary acts such as hearing (chanting, storytelling, murmuring a mantra, drumming, etc.), kinesthetic experience (dance, storytelling with movement, rituals, etc.), sight (visual storytelling, a mandala image, art, beauty, etc.), scent (perfume, pheromones, incense, flowers, etc.), taste (fasting, herbs, tea, etc.), and spiritual practices (centering prayer, yoga, Sufism, walking a labyrinth, pilgrimages, etc.).
The middle realm cannot be reduced to such actions as hypnotism or trances, but there are intriguing similarities. Something similar is needed to help move Christian language through the gates of consciousness into the ocean of the unconscious, where the Creator is always at play and religious language has a special relevance.
A final window into the middle realm shows how meaning is a function of associations in our species.
Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind combined archeology, prehistory, and modern cognitive studies to understand the origins of art, religion, and science (tool-making) among prehistoric humans. Mithen believes that the cause of the creative explosion among the Cro-Magnons in southern Europe some thirty thousand years ago can be understood by investigating the Walpiri of the Central Australian Desert.
Aboriginal children are supported by their culture to develop the ability for multileveled interpretation. They begin by making naturalistic, univocal images, such as a fish. The literal fish becomes the outside meaning, and the inside meaning develops when children are initiated into the ancestral world.
They then realize that the image of a fish is connected to the Ancestral Beings and the fish becomes a potent symbol of spiritual transformation as well as birth and death. The additional layers of meaning do not replace the literal fish, because Dreamtime and everyday events are considered one.
The middle realm is like both Dreamtime and the explosion of creativity among the Cro-Magnons, but it can’t be reduced to either. There is always more than can be expressed, because the Creator is involved, which is central to the way Godly Play works. What works in Godly Play, however, may also be useful for the practice of Christian education in general, as we all help guide children toward spiritual maturity.
The middle realm, then, is a state of consciousness that is open and indeterminate yet fundamental to our nature and relationship with God and each other. The movement of the creative process is how it gains its stability, like a spinning top. The middle realm includes play and yet there is something else at work, having to do with being created in God’s image.
Knowing classical Christian language well allows children to better live through the shattering of their original grace and the division of their fundamental creativity into four primary dimensions. These dimensions are the flowing of the creative process, being at play socially, loving, and contemplating.
What is remarkable is that by God’s grace these four dimensions are sometimes reunified in a conscious and non-naïve way in adults, who have lived their way into the paradox of becoming like a child to be mature. They then become not people who do graceful things from time to time, but they become graceful people when the link between children and childlike adults is established.
The indeterminacy of the middle realm allows children and adults to be fully present to each other and with the Creator, all at the same time. It is a space that belongs to none but is open to all. This center is grounded in the nonverbal, unconscious, and naïve original grace that we are born with and from which the creative process develops.
When Christian language is absorbed and activated in the middle realm, then children have the means to move through their original sin, which causes original grace to fracture and fall apart. Original sin cannot be escaped, but the Creator can carry us through the decades to become graceful people. As we discover more fully the image of God within, our creativity, play, love, and contemplation are integrated to allow the likeness of God to reemerge to guide our daily living.
It is this dynamic center that holds. It is where we can stand to put things back together again and it is this point, the still point, without which there is no dance. And Christian education is all about the dance.Sudden in a shaft of sunlight Even while the dust moves There rises the hidden laughter Of children in the foliage Quick now, here, now, always. – from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets
Jerome Berryman has spent close to forty years creating a methodology, constructed of pedagogy and supported by a theology, known the world over as Godly Play. He has written numerous articles and books. His latest book, The Spiritual Guidance of Children: Montessori, Godly Play, and the Future, will be published this fall by Morehouse Publishing.