MUCH of Robert Coles's life has been spent talking with children in an effort to understand their thinking and feelings. ``The Spiritual Life of Children,'' like his many earlier volumes, demonstrates his skill at this work. The conversations that fill these pages are almost invariably intriguing, often startling. They exhibit a clarity of faith, and sometimes an honesty of inquiry and doubt, that challenges the adult world's pieties and recalls the words of Isaiah, ``and a little child shall lead them.''
Eleven-year-old Haroon, a Pakistani boy growing up in London, ends a talk with Coles by assuring him, ``I will pray to Allah that you and I find the right answers.'' The questions Coles asks his young friends are zingers - probing the nature of the God they worship, how He can be watching over everyone at once, how they pray, and what it means to them.
Anne, another 11-year-old, reared in a conservative Roman Catholic family in a inner suburb of Boston, describes how her favorite Biblical text, ``I am the light of the world,'' helped her during a bout with poison ivy. ``I felt warm inside. I felt at peace with myself. I was waiting for the poison ivy to start up again, but I just didn't care. I smiled at the thought of it; I almost dared it to get the better of me. I guess God's words had taught me - for a while! - what's important and what isn't.''
Most of the children in Coles's book seem to have an extraordinary sense of the importance of their faith in a power, a Being, that transcends the everyday and tangible. They have an equally strong sense of the need to connect that power to everyday life.
Are these kids - whether in London, New Mexico, Israel, or Boston - really typical? Probably not. The author, after all, sought out children who clearly had a ``spiritual life.'' The ones whose faith was deepest are the ones he spent the most time with. But one gets the impression, indelibly, that what Coles is exploring is not an isolated phenomenon but a universal inclination.
Take, for example, the classroom full of poor children in Lawrence, Mass., that explodes in conversation when one boy ventures his searching question about how God decides who stays on earth and who leaves. These youngsters, whose family circumstances are difficult, debate God's ``record keeping'' of their lives, the merits of priests and ministers, genuine prayer versus ``forced'' prayer - subjects that would tax any adult.
Such outpourings are epiphanies of sorts for Coles, whether they occur in groups or one to one. He waits for them, practicing the patient listening he's been perfecting for three decades or more. His task, Coles affirms early on, is to let the children teach him. He's a psychiatrist, a medical practitioner, but one who is acutely aware of the limitations of his craft. He comments, time and again, on his self-consciousness, even shame, in falling too easily into the analyst's habits and queries.
Coles knows the inadequacy of those tools to the task at hand in this book: understanding how the least-burdened minds grasp, embrace, or wrestle with a realm - the spiritual or divine - where doctrinaire assumptions rarely apply. Some readers may tire of Coles's recounting of methodology and of his antecedents as a researcher. But even these passages help give the book context.
Those engaged in their own daily effort to understand God's purpose for man will find Robert Coles's young friends good, edifying company.