Thursday, November 29, 2007

Following a Precious Star

Open your eyes; the mysteries hidden in the visible are revealed to you.
Gregory of Nyssa

Early Christian artists found inspiration in the Christological parable of the Good Shepherd given by Jesus himself in the Gospel of Saint John. In their sculptures and paintings of the Good Shepherd, Christ does not stand alone; rather he bears a sheep on his shoulders. Just as the parable illustrates the loving connection between the Shepherd, who knows his sheep “by name,” and his sheep, who “recognize his voice,” artwork from the early Church celebrates the close relationship between Christ and the human soul. This relationship may also be described as “covenant” or “communion,” and in it we discern and contemplate the essential core of our faith, the mystery of the plan of God, to “sum up” all things in Christ. God’s plan is for a covenant of unity among all peoples and things through the mediation of Christ, in whom all will be one. This movement toward cosmic unity or communion that the Church calls “the plan of God,” lies at the heart of every biblical and liturgical presentation in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
Turning to the General Directory for Catechesis (GDC), we see that the first Chapter begins with a quotation from Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “…for he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:8-10), and the first subtitle is “The revelation of God’s providential plan.” From this beginning, the GDC references the plan of God over twenty times.
Why should it be remarkable that Cavalletti, a scripture scholar steeped in Church teaching who has developed a unique approach to children’s religious formation called ‘The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd,’ has placed the plan of God in such a prominent position in her catechetical work? We could say there is nothing new in placing such emphasis on the plan of God.

A Path of Radical Humility
But there is something new about the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Cavalletti and her collaborators did not begin by creating a program to teach children about God’s plan. Rather, Cavalletti’s work began “by accident” and continued in a spirit of poverty. At first, out of a sense of inadequacy, she declined the request of a friend, who had asked her to speak with her son about God. She protested that she knew nothing about catechesis, still less about children. Her friend persisted, though, and with many misgivings, Cavalletti agreed to meet with the child and a couple of his friends.
When the children arrived that day, Cavalletti began with them “In the beginning;” together, they read the first verses of Genesis. Cavalletti had her original language Hebrew text open before her. She addressed the children with profound respect, pondering the Word of God alongside them and according them the same dignity she would give a fellow “listener.” Their two hours together passed quickly; when it was time to go, the children did not want to leave, and neither did Cavalletti. During those two hours, she had glimpsed something in those children that would lead her to a new path, a great adventure.
What did Cavalletti see in the children that so captivated her that day? During the course of over fifty continuous years of direct catechetical work with children, she and those who have joined her in this catechetical adventure have observed this same quality again and again, in many, many children and have described it variously as “profound satisfaction,” “essential penetration,” “serene and peaceful joy,” “enchantment,” and “passionate interest” (see the Introduction to The Religious Potential of the Child). This “sign” of the child’s absorption by and profound enjoyment of the Word of God has become a guiding star for Cavalletti and her collaborators. By its light, they have developed catechetical materials, selected Scripture passages and approaches to liturgy, and prepared a unique sacred space, called the atrium, where children meet to contemplate the Word of God in Scripture and in the liturgy. Only those presentations of Bible or liturgy that elicited this response of peaceful joy have been kept. And yet, when we compare the content presented to the children who remain in the atrium through age twelve to the teachings of the Church, we find that nothing has been left out and that the most essential themes (God’s enduring love, the covenant he makes with his chosen people, the Resurrection of Christ, the Incarnation, the generative and regenerative work of the Holy Spirit, the precious gift of Christ’s risen life given in Baptism, the tremendous generosity of Christ in his passion and in the Eucharist, etc.) receive the most and deepest attention. In following this star, catechists around the world have been filled with overwhelming joy before the atrium, which has become a place where Christ manifests himself to his “little ones.”

Like Abraham and the Magi, the catechist of the Good Shepherd leaves the comfort of established habits and preconceptions, and sets out on a new journey without any clear notion of the destination. These catechists place themselves in the service of God and of the child, both of whom are great mysteries. Relinquishing the roles of “teacher” and “expert,” they adopt the position of servants, of quiet servants, whose teaching is not their own. In the most objective manner possible, their cherished work is to announce the Word of God, reading a text from Scripture or presenting a prayer from the liturgy, without embellishment, without personal opinion, without even giving an interpretation. With very few words, the catechist may define a word or explain a geographical point. Once the text or liturgical moment has been prayerfully offered, the catechist’s role is that of fellow listener. He or she may ask questions concerning the announcement, but these questions are never meant to test the children’s knowledge. Rather, the questions help both catechist and child to penetrate the Mystery, the particular “face of Christ” that he wishes to show to his creatures in this announcement they have listened to together. Because God is infinite and eternal, and because his Word is likewise, this listening is a potentially infinite activity. When plumbing the depths of God’s love for his creatures, we discover that there is no “bottom” to it. We may gaze and gaze into it, and any time we seem to perceive a limit, we soon understand that the limit was nothing but an illusion. But in order to be capable of seeing and recognizing this bottomless depth of God’s love, one must first of all be very still and recognize one’s own littleness. No one is capable of grasping this type of humility. Rather, this quality, also called “fear of the Lord” or “wonder and awe,” is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and it can only be cultivated in quiet, in being still and knowing that God is God.
When an adult embarks on the adventure of becoming a catechist of the Good Shepherd, he or she begins by entering a ninety-hour formation course. The course provides catechists with all the biblical and liturgical presentations they will in turn share with children, ages 3-6 years old. This core set of about fifty lessons constitutes the content of the catechetical work with the little ones. Though most adults enter the training for practical reasons, they soon report that they experience the training as a prolonged retreat and learn for the first time many things they had already “known.” How can it be that material offered to 3 and 4 and 5 year-olds could have such a profound effect on adults? The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd draws from the sacred sources of our faith and thus places the adult and the child in direct contact with God, who is Incarnate in his Word and in his sacred mysteries; moreover, the adult begins to seek the same “star” that Cavalletti saw during her first catechetical encounter: the child’s serene enjoyment of God’s love as expressed through his Word and deeds is the trainer’s invisible partner when giving an adult training course (through the “selection” of the content and its mode of presentation). These two elements, the sacred sources and the unique religious capacity of the child, leave a deep and profound impression on most adults, so much so that they will willingly undertake tasks that might have before seemed impossibly difficult or too menial to be of any importance (dusting the atrium, making catechetical materials by hand, hand-copying Scripture texts). Furthermore, long after the training course is over, the children in the atrium and the atmosphere of quiet that both child and adult find there will continue to form the catechists who will listen attentively to them and with them to God. The children’s insights, briefly worded spontaneous prayers, and theological drawings provide traces of the particular esteem and devotion God cherishes for his little ones.

From the Star of Serene Enjoyment to the Plan of God
How then did following the children’s response of wonder and quiet joy lead Cavalletti and her collaborators to the catechetical importance of the plan of God?
Early on in this catechetical work, Cavalletti and her collaborators began to see that certain themes had a particularly profound effect on the children and that all these themes were converging on one essential, biblical theme, that of the covenant. Cavalletti observes, in her article, “The Catechesis as Adventure,” published in the 2005 Journal of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, “Was this what we were searching for? Was this what we were aiming at? No, we would never have imagined it; it did not enter into any of our programs, because we did not have a program. We were ‘navigating by sight,’ guided by the children’s responses. By the time we recognized that everything was converging toward the covenant, the thing had already taken place…” In the same article, Cavalletti goes on to describe the presentations that she and her collaborators developed in order to illustrate the vastness of sacred history, history as a series of gratuitous gifts from the Father to humanity, and the plan that God has had from the beginning, to bring all persons and all things into covenant relationship through Jesus Christ. About this last theme, Cavalletti writes, “We have been given to see how deeply satisfied the children are in discovering themselves to be essential ‘collaborators’ – even if very small – in a history that is moving toward a goal, which will come through God’s gift and also through the commitment of each one of us engaged in it.”
We understand that God has created us in his image and likeness and placed within us an immortal soul that, as Saint Augustine has pointed out, is restless until is rests in Christ. We have discovered that children also seek the face of the Lord, and when they find it, their response is striking and refreshing. By the light of their discovery, if we will be still and pay attention, we, too, may gaze upon the face of the living God.

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."