What does the following quote mean stated by Rebecca Nurse in Arthur Miller's The Crucible?
"A child's spirit is like a child, you can never catch it by running after it; you must stand still, and for love, it will soon itself come back."
In Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, Betty has been stricken and cannot be roused. When Parris leaves to pray with others, suddenly Betty sits up and starts screaming. The explanation is that the sounds of the townfolk singing the psalms has caused this reaction. The premise is that those possessed by the Devil cannot abide the scriptures for the name of God spoken in them, so they suffer at the singing of the psalms. Mrs. Putnam has suggested that because some teenaged girls danced in the woods (they believed the Devil lived in the woods), that they have been taken over by the spirit of the Devil.
The psalm! The psalm! She cannot bear to hear the Lord's name.
No, God forbid. Mercy, run to the doctor! Tell him what's happened here!
Mark it for a sign, mark it!
At this point, Rebecca Nurse enters. She needs a cane to support her seventy-two year old body, and she has white hair. She and her husband, Francis, have been greatly respected in the community, though there are those (such as the Putnams) that resent the success they have enjoyed over the years.
Parris begs Rebecca for her help with Betty. The stage direction notes:
Everything is quiet. Rebecca wlaks across the room to the bed. Gentleness exudes from her. Betty is quietly whimpering, eyes shut. Rebecca simply stands over the child, who gradually quiets.
Mrs. Putnam's first thought is to ask Rebecca what she has "done." Though it is apparent that she has simply placed herself quietly near Betty. With the commotion and the upset regarding the behavior of the girls in the woods, Goody Nurse's calm demeanor would certainly calm the child. Mr. Putnam begs Rebecca to go to his house and try to rouse his daughter Ruth.
It is at this point that Rebecca makes the comment you speak of. She is simply saying that in time, Ruth will wake up. She speaks from experience:
I have eleven children, and I am twenty-six times a grandma...
She knows the things children do—how they act and how mischievous kids can be. The idea of not being able to catch a child's spirit, I think, speaks to the idea of not trying to force a child. Pushing and prodding will not help. Pestering the child will not achieve the desired result. However, she notes that if you stand still and wait, the child, out of love for his/her parent, will "return" on his/her own...out of love.
This is similar to the anonymous poem below:
You can chase a butterfly all over the field and never catch it. But if you sit quietly in the grass it will come and sit on your shoulder.
Rebecca is simply suggesting that gentle patience will draw a child back, in love, where trying to force a child will never work.