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Nourishing imagination through ritual.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- One year Gertrud Mueller Nelson's children decided to celebrate Easter by extinguishing the oven pilot light, then relighting it with a burning candle brought home from Mass in a jar. The children told their mother they wanted the food prepared on that stove to be blessed.

"These are experiences that transform; they can't just be intellectualized," said Nelson, author of To Dance With God (Paulist, 1986), about the use of ritual in family and community life.

Religious imagination can be nourished by celebrating every aspect of the liturgical year, said Nelson in a telephone interview from her home in Del Mar, Calif.

Nelson, 56, lectures widely on topics related to children's spirituality. An illustrator of 10 books, she is also the author of Here All Dwell Free: Stories to Heal the Wounded Feminine (Doubleday, 1991).

Nelson stressed that children are naturally attuned to the spiritual world. "Young children are already in the kingdom of heaven. ... We have to be careful not to chase them out too soon."

To nourish children's imagination is to nourish faith "from the inside out instead of the top down," said Nelson, whose three children are now in their 20s.

Such "inside out" faith is less likely to be shaken by disillusionment with church structures later in life, she said. And teens who reject church participation are more likely to return as adults.

To Dance With God is a discourse on history, mythology and Jungian psychology: All of which translates into rituals big and small for marking Advent, the Feast of the Assumption and everything in between.

Nelson packs in ideas for storytelling, recipes, games, prayers, explorations of nature and even simple gestures -- for example, acknowledging St. Nicholas whenever a child has a good idea for helping someone. Thus, Santa Claus can grow up with children, who come to understand that "We are the hands of God," Nelson said.

Through ritual, children experience the rhythms of death and rebirth that infuse liturgical life, she explained. A pre-Lenten carnival, for example, might include dressing up in wild clothes and feasting on doughnuts--followed by burning slips of paper, and reflections on how everything returns to ashes, to nature.

"If we can celebrate (the liturgical year) together as a community, it gives back meaning to us in our daily experience," said Nelson, who belongs to the University of California, San Diego Catholic parish. "For children, celebrating it in community prepares them to recognize those experiences in their cycle when they come along."

Nature is a key element in her rituals.

To celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Nelson suggests a poem that can be used to bless herbs, plants and flowers. Like children, "Mother church knows about nature," unlike the "masculine church" of hierarchies and dogmas that has lost touch with it, she said. "The God we experience is really underfoot."

Nelson added that for many young people, "a great deal of religious sensibility has gone into ecology."

Many in their 20s have become vegetarians; they are more concerned about Earth than space travel, which fascinated earlier generations, she said. "They care about matter as holy. They're much more incarnational than we were."
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Title Annotation:author Gertrud Mueller Nelson; includes book excerpts; Teaching The Faith
Author:Martinez, Demetria
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Jun 4, 1993
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