The student in each of us must always be ready to learn – in our homes, with our friends, and most certainly on our spiritual journey with God. As a mother and a teacher, I am made humble each time I step into a classroom or talk with my teenage daughters, realizing how much we can learn when listening more intently to the children in our lives. My most insightful realization came, however, from a quite unexpected source: an autistic 11-year-old boy.
My religious education students are an endearing but rambunctious group. To keep these sixth graders engaged on a recent Tuesday evening, I decided we would venture across the parking lot to our church’s Adoration Chapel for quiet prayer. Now, one may think that “sixth graders” and “quiet prayer” could not be uttered in the same sentence, but I thought optimistically: maybe they’ll enjoy it, maybe they’ll learn something. Never did I imagine it would be me doing the learning.
One of my students, Nathan, has autism. After knowing him for three years and coming to appreciate what makes him so special, I was not surprised by his round of questions from the typical “Why do we have to go?” to the difficult “How do I know God is there?” Feeling a bit anxious about his ability to sit quietly and pray for ten minutes, I entered the chapel with my class. After some adolescent poking and forgetting to bless themselves, the other students paired up in the small pews, while Nathan settled himself next to me in a chair toward the back. Hmm, this may work, I thought as he and the others knelt with praying hands. Moments later, however, Nathan whispered loudly, “Can I walk up there?” gesturing toward the altar, seemingly enthralled by the majestic gold monstrance.
“Yes, but don’t go past the railing,” I cautioned. “Kneel down for a moment and then come back.”
Nathan nodded and sauntered up the side aisle, glancing around. He didn’t go past the railing, but he didn’t kneel either, just paced for a few moments in front of the altar and gazed at the crucifix. Watching him, I contemplated what he might be thinking, what he might be wondering. When he returned to his seat beside me, he leaned over and whispered, more quietly this time, “Guess what?”
“What?” I replied.
Nodding his head toward the altar with a knowing smile, Nathan said, “I just met God.”
That genuine, honest truth struck me so unexpectedly like no other comment from a child or adult ever had. Nathan was right; he did meet God in the purest and most open form. How many of us, I thought, is able to state such a realization as confidently as this 11-year-old boy with challenges and insights the rest of us will never fully grasp? I was reminded that evening that the virtue and acceptance of a child can never be underestimated, for when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these,” he was calling all of His children, including all of the “Nathans” to meet Him, recognize Him, understand Him. At that moment, Nathan truly did know that God was there – and like any other 11-year-old, he also knew when ten minutes had passed.
“Can we go now?” he asked, nudging me. Yes, I thought, that was enough for today.
The students filed out of the chapel, with Nathan walking beside me, not full of questions this time but seemingly lost in his own thoughts. Continuing this journey together guided by the love of God, I recognize again and again the student – and teacher – in each of us, as we open ourselves to learn from all of His children.
By: Emily Clark