Twice a week a chaplain from the Pastoral Care Department at Children’s Medical Center leads a “Meaning and Purpose Group” for patients being treated on the Psychiatric Unit. The goal of the group is to provide inpatients with a developmentally appropriate way of reflecting on and expressing their own sense of identity, purpose and meaning within the personal, social and spiritual milieu in which they identify themselves as members. Patients carry a variety of diagnoses including depression, suicide ideation, self-harm, and other medical psychiatric diagnoses. The chaplain uses the Godly Play® approach, bringing a story to the circle each week, sharing the story, and allowing some time for the patients to respond to the story in the group and individually.
I have been privileged to observe this group a few times, and last week they let me “drive” – that is I was the storyteller. I chose to tell the story of the Exodus which, for those of you unfamiliar with Godly Play, is told in the desert box (a large box of sand) with small wooden people figures and blue felt to represent the “Red Sea.”
I cannot begin to express how incredible Godly Play is in this particular setting. The children sitting in this circle range in age from 10 to 17, and the existential issues that all of us grapple with in some way or another are fierce and threatening for them. I am speaking of questions of meaning and purpose, freedom (both the need for freedom and the fear of it), aloneness (the need to be alone, and the need for others to come close), and death. We “bump up against” these things throughout our lives, but for these children they have become all too real and powerful, and they are hungry for a way to talk about them. The children, no matter how religious, immediately recognize the power of this language and begin to use it to make meaning.
Jerome Berryman refers to Godly Play as “the chaplain’s strange language” in his book, The Spiritual Guidance of Children: Montessori, Godly Play, and the future. He writes:
The play therapists at Texas Children’s Hospital, especially Jackie Vogel, in the mid-1970’s were the first to understand Godly Play and what “the chaplain’s strange language” had to do with children’s ultimate concerns, which are obvious in a hospital setting. The play therapists knew quite well how to help children cope with the fear of the unknown. They could help children play this out, for example, with a model of the hospital’s surgical suite to make going there more familiar and to help the children talk about their fears. However, when children asked, “Am I going to die?” something changed in the communication. This was not a questions about the unknown. This was about the unknowable, so a whole different kind of language was necessary. The parable of the Good Shepherd needed to replace the model of the surgical suite to make the existential meaning required to adequately respond to such a question. (p. 111)
Berryman goes on to talk about how helpful it is to be present to a child with those types of concerns as a storyteller rather than an expert about religion. And really any Godly Play story works, not just the Good Shepherd. What makes this work, suggests Berryman, is that the story is not “explained.” Instead it is placed between the storyteller and the children, and then together we enter the story to be with God and each other as meaning is created.
The Exodus held many connections for the children in the psych group. They connected powerfully with the feeling of being trapped, or pushed up against the Red Sea as the Pharaoh’s army pursued them. During the art response time one child drew herself as the Pharaoh saying, “I’m the Pharaoh in my life. I’m keeping myself trapped – not letting myself go free.” The story also gave them hope, e.g. saying that they knew that even though it felt awful right now, God would show them a way through just as he showed Moses how to get through the Red Sea.
Over the years I’ve heard Jerome Berryman say, “Godly Play has the power to change the world.” I’m not sure about that, but I know it has the power to help children, and the adults who love them, draw close to God, to each other, and to grapple with the difficulties of life whether large or small. And I guess when you think about it, that could most definitely change the the world!