The Spiritual Life of Children

The Spiritual Life of Children

by Robert Coles
Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1990; hardcover.

Gentle Reader (to begin as books often began in Bronson Alcott 's day), you are holding in your hands a most precious and extraordinary book, truly an America n heirloom, which has almost vanished from our ken. Yet, if its time to resurface is right, it may well affect you as profoundly as it did me when it fell into my hand s. I cannot imagine anyone 's attitude toward children not being altered by the perusal of this work. And I can imagine the child in us wishing wistfully, “Oh, that I might have had a teacher like Mr. Alcott!” Alice O. Howell, in the introduction to How like An Angel Came I Down.

This remarkable book of Bronson Alcott's “conversations with children on the gospels” is edited and abridged from two volumes originally published in 1836 and 1837. Nevertheless, it reveals Alcott as nothing less than a depth psychologist 150 years ahead of his time, a perennial philosopher par excellence.

Alcott was a Transcendentalist who contended that “besides the combative Catholic and Protestant elements in the Churches, there has always been a third element, with very honourable traditions, which came to life again at the Renaissance, but really reaches back to the Greek fathers, to St. Paul and St. John, and further back still.”

This “third element” is the ageless wisdom that lies often obscured at the center of all the great religious and philosophical traditions both Eastern and Western. It is the Theosophy re-presented by H. P. Blavatsky later in the nineteenth century, and re-presented again by Aldous Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy. It comes to us in many garbs, in many times and places, but its core element remains always the same.

As Alcott wrote, this is 

... a spiritual religion based on a firm belief in absolute and eternal values as the most real things in the universe –a confidence that these values are knowable by man– a belief that they can nevertheless be known only by wholehearted consecration of the intellect, will, and affect ions to the great quest –an entirely open mind towards the discoveries of science– a reverent and receptive attitude to the beauty , sublimity and wisdom of the creation, as a revelation of the mind and character of the Creator –a complete indifference to the current valuations of the worldling.

Alice O. Howell, an analytical astrologer and counselor who has taught Jungian analysts, has provided a splendid introduction to this book.

The free-ranging conversations in Alcott's class were not scripted; he said on the first day of his class that he did not know what he would say, nor the children what they would say, but that something wonderful, wise, new, and fresh may come up. And many wonderful, wise, new, and fresh things did indeed come up. The depth of these children’s responses to their reading of the life of Christ is a marvel, evoked by Alcott's genuine interest in the children and his willingness not to impose an understanding on their reading of the life of Jesus and the values by which we seek to live our lives in response to that exemplary life.

The Alcott book is a wonderful companion to Robert Coles' The Spiritual Life of Children. Coles, too, recounts his own conversations with children on spiritual matters, revealing a depth of insight by young people of which adults today are largely unaware. More than a century and a half after Alcott, Coles has, like Alcott, made himself a real friend of children, someone to whom they can truly express themselves, revealing the feelings and thoughts at the very center of their experience of life.


Autumn 1992