Thursday, November 29, 2007

Sacred Space for Children

For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere…
- Psalm 84:10a

When we speak of the religious education of children, we so often mean their acquisition of facts concerning religion. Religious education thus devolves into a series of definitions, catch phrases, and even games, such as crossword puzzles and word searches. One is left with an empty feeling after these fill-in-the-blanks exercises and wonders whether the facts concerning our faith, given in this way, actually make the journey from the children’s minds into their hearts.
In this article, we will take a close look at an experiment conducted by Maria Montessori in the field of religious education almost a century ago. Then we will look at how this experiment has been amplified during the past fifty years by Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi, two women who founded the method now called “The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.” The focus of this article will be sacred space for children, a central element contained in the approach of Maria Montessori and also in the work of Cavalletti and Gobbi in their Center for Catechesis in Rome, Italy. This sacred space, prepared with the particular developmental and religious needs of children in mind, is called the atrium.

In 1915, responding to the call of Pope Pius X for the reform of religious education, Dr. Montessori, a devout Catholic, created the first Catholic atrium for children in Barcelona, Spain. Montessori said of her intention when developing the atrium:
This room then, which one might call the Atrium, would be set apart for the preparation of little children for their full participation in the life of the Church. It would not simply be a question of teaching them their catechism, but something much broader and deeper. This room would be a place where the religious sentiment would be born, and nurtured…I have no patience with the idea that because children are very young they can be put off with the second rate. I would have the room built in an ecclesiastical style, with pointed windows, possibly of stained glass. The windows, of course, would be low, down to the children’s level – like everything else in the room. There would be statues, here and there, of our Lord, our Lady and the saints; and the children would bring flowers to put in front of these images, and also light candles before them. On the walls would be sacred pictures illustrating Old and New Testament stories. The whole room would be fitted up as a sensorial environment calling out to the souls of the children…Music, of course would play an important part in the life of the Atrium. I would have the children taught how to sing the Gregorian chants…Thus it will be seen that the work of the Atrium would be a much broader thing than merely “teaching the child his catechism” … It will rather be a life complete in itself, something which will affect the children at all points. It will be like a surrounding and pervading atmosphere in which they will live and move and have their being.
- Maria Montessori in The Child in the Church, page 35-36

Montessori said that she was inspired to create the first atrium as a result of her love for and appreciation of the Catholic liturgy as the most “magnificent expression of the content of the faith.” She said that the sacred liturgy
… may well be called “the pedagogical method” of the Church which, not satisfied with teaching by means of the word preached to the faithful, makes the various aspects of religion real, makes them come to life, and allows the people to take part in them each day.
- Maria Montessori in The Child in the Church, page 22

The life that Montessori refers to here is the risen life of Christ. Only the presence of God’s saving action, manifested in history most completely in the Resurrection of Christ, can enliven the inert signs of liturgy: a morsel of bread, a basin of water, a small flame, a drop of oil. The vivifying power of the Resurrection takes hold of the liturgical signs, permeates them completely, and renders them capable of communicating Christ’s divinity to us when the Church, with humble and contrite heart, lifts her eyes to heaven and asks. This asking, and the subsequent receiving, is so fundamentally important as to be a moral imperative: “Ask and you shall receive.”
And yet: How will the children know to ask for anything, if they are given the impression that religion consists only in certain definitions, which may be “mastered” through completing a bingo card? The wisdom contained in the liturgy of the Church, a gift given by Christ himself, consists in presenting realities in such a way that their meanings are never exhausted. Through the sacred liturgy, we are brought into physical contact with the unfathomable in order to expand our vision out onto the vastness of God, a horizon that is always growing before our eyes.

Encountering the Sacred in Rich Ceremonial
How does the creation of a sacred space for children help to open their eyes to these realities, revealed in the liturgy? Why is it the most efficacious way to help children “listen to God”?
The impressive ceremonies of the Church, the sacred symbolism, the deep significance underlying everything, the exact use and end of all the objects, the systematic distribution of the various liturgical roles – all give a fundamental importance to the place where the faithful meet – and, at the same time, afford sensible means, such as lights, colors, sounds, which help the soul...
- Maria Montessori in The Child in the Church, pages 22-23

An atrium that contains the various “aids” to the soul described by Montessori, will provide the soil necessary for a young neophyte to thrive and grow in the faith. In the Barcelona atrium, Montessori observed a particular silence which she said, “… became the interior recollection observed in the House of God, amid the gentle flickering of the candlelight in an atmosphere dim, yet resplendent with gleaming white and gold” (The Child in the Church, page 24). Within this rich silence, children may contemplate the parables of Christ and the liturgical signs of the Church in an atmosphere that points beyond itself to the sacred Presence of Christ in the Church.

Resounding the Word
Sofia Cavalletti, a Scripture scholar from Rome who along with her collaborator, Gianna Gobbi, has developed the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, points out that all catechesis is an extended Liturgy of the Word, in which the catechists’ role is to proclaim the kerygma. The role of the atrium is to allow the children a space, a “retreat house,” in which they can meditate on this proclamation, absorb it and most of all, enjoy it. When the atrium is carefully prepared and maintained, it becomes the place where that enjoyment may be extended over long periods of prayerful contemplation. The word “catechesis” derives from the Greek word meaning, “to resound.” The atrium, then, becomes a kind of echo chamber for the Word of God wherein the catechetical materials help the children to interiorize this echo.
Gobbi, a Montessori educator, observed that the catechetical materials that furnish the atrium environment seek “…to foster a relationship, a living encounter with a real Person…The catechetical materials are a concrete means of transmitting the Word of God and coming to know that person who has spoken in the Bible and is present to us in the liturgy.” (in “The Meaning, Importance and Limitations of Our Catechetical Materials”, 2001 Journal of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, page 7) Gobbi’s remark takes us to the heart of the problem of catechesis. The content of the Christian faith is not a list of definitions. The content of our faith is a living Person. This content is transmitted through the Bible, which is the living Word of God, and through liturgical signs, where we encounter that Word and live all its dimensions. Just as our reading of the Bible reaches its most intense and fruitful expression during the Liturgy of the Word, and our encounter with the Living God is most complete in the Sacraments of the Church, the religious needs and capacities of children require a fitting “home” where they can breathe and expand in the dimensions of space and time. Thus, the furnishings in the atrium must be sober, not “cute.” Every object in an atrium must point to God. All music chosen for children should aid the children’s prayer life and lead to contemplation. Atrium artwork should be simple, but of the highest quality – icons are ideal – and it is always hung at a height where children can see it.
Every element in the atrium points to realities the children experience in the Church. The room will contain a prayer table, a model altar with miniature articles, a place for a model Baptismal font and examples of each of the signs of Baptism, an area set aside for the study of biblical geography, another space dedicated to the Infancy Narratives and yet another for contemplating the parables. As the children handle the catechetical materials, they contemplate their symbolism and function and master their names. Thus, when they enter the “big church,” they recognize the full-sized furnishings and become guides for their parents, who often find themselves in awe concerning all that their children appreciate.
In an article entitled, “The Religious Experience with the Child Ages Three to Six,” Betty Hissong, a catechist from Ohio writes, “Gianna told the story of an atrium child who said to a priest, ‘Jesus does miracles.’ The priest asked the child, ‘What miracles?’ to which the child responded, ‘Jesus taught me to pray.’” Hissong goes on to explain that though it is Jesus, and not the adult who teaches a child to pray, the catechist does have an important role: To prepare “…the environment to be an atmosphere for prayer, a place for silence and recollection…” (in Journals of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, 1984-1997 page 260). In this sacred prepared environment, God communicates his life and his presence to his children. Under these circumstances, prayer arises spontaneously, seemingly without labor:
• “Thank you God for peace and songs.
Thank you for Jesus who is coming to life.” (Advent prayer of a four year-old)

• “God bless God. God bless the sun. God bless everything. Bless even the dragons. God bless space. Bless us.” (Age 4)

• “I will never look for things more beautiful, more good, more full of love than life in the sheepfold. Alleluia. It is tiring, I know, to open the door open to the sap [of the True Vine], but it is worthwhile, because there is no greater and more important thing in our life. Alleluia. Without the sap, we cannot live, because it is the life of Jesus in me. Alleluia.” (Age 6)

• “Thank you for the bread that makes us the same as you; and the same as others.” (Age 6)

• “Lord, I do not know how many thanks are necessary to fill you to the brim. And I have nothing to ask, because you give me everything and my praises are infinite.” (Age 7)

• “I thank You that You have allowed us to see this light in our heart.” (Age 6)

• “I want to be born in heaven and grow up with God then I will cry because God is so beautiful.” (Age 4)

• “The Parousia will be like the mixing of the water and the wine: God all in all, as the water and the wine become one. (Age 11)

• “God gives us all. Thank you, God. God made me. This is true.” (Age 7)

• “Jesus, thank you for having received your bread and wine and also your light. Today I have been very happy. (Age 7)

• “O, thank you Jesus. Thank you for everything you have given me: life, love, bread and wine. Also because you have allowed me to live this moment of retreat.” (Age 7)

• “Jesus is my heart. Lord, I love you.” (Age 7)

• “Hello Mary, Mother of God. You are the only mother.” (Age 7)

• “The light of Jesus is precious.” (Age 7)

• “Lord, you are the Shepherd and I am your sheep. You the vine and I am the branch. You the Father and I am the son. I have sinned and I am not worthy. Say your word.” (Age 7)

• “Hello, dear Mary, I am very happy to be with you. Mary, I am happy because very soon God is going to hold me on his shoulders.” (Age 7)

In these prayers, submitted by catechists working in atria throughout the United States and in Mexico, we can sense the fruit of a living encounter with God. Through the words of the children, may we come to recognize the tireless voice of the Good Shepherd, calling us to feed his lambs.

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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."