Thursday, November 29, 2007

Flurry of Activity?

The four pieces that I posted today were all written before I began this blog. They all concern the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and have each been published elsewhere. "The Eighth Day" appeared in Rite Magazine, "Sacred Space for Children" appeared in the Jubilate Journal, of short tenure, "Following a Precious Star" appeared in The Sower, and "Liturgical Catechesis..." appeared in Lay Witness. I hope they're informative.

The Eighth Day

I was invited, along with three of the children from my Sunday evening catechesis session (for children ages 9-12), to a Baptism at a church that was new to us. As we were waiting for the priest to arrive, one of the children noticed that the Baptismal font had eight sides. Together, we had meditated on numbers during our Sunday evening sessions. During Advent, we had thought often of the significance of the number four: not simply that the four Advent candles represent the four Sundays leading to Christmas, but also that the cross has four arms, which “connect” heaven and earth and embrace all that exists; one child had noticed that there are four compass points; another remembered that there are four evangelists; that remark had recalled the four rivers that watered Eden. And when we had read the account of the Creation in the Book of Genesis, we had reflected on the significance of the number seven; that discussion had led us to contemplate the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and how they might be connected to the seven days of Creation. And so it was natural for us to wonder together about this new number, the number eight.
The children couldn’t think of anything in the Church that made reference to the number eight. Yet, their experience of the Church told them that no one would build a baptismal font with eight sides unless that number signified something very important. As has happened countless times in my experience as a catechist, I had a vague idea about the significance of an eight-sided font, but I was afraid to mislead the children. So I had to admit to them that I did not know the answer for certain. I promised to search out the meaning of the number eight and to report back at our next Sunday evening session.
That week, flipping through my books, I stumbled upon a chapter from Jean Danielou’s The Bible and the Liturgy entitled “The Eighth Day.” In its opening paragraph, Danielou writes, “The seven days, figure of time, followed by the eighth day, figure of eternity, appeared to the Fathers of the fourth century as being the symbol of the Christian vision of history” (page 262). Danielou goes on to discuss the thought contained in the Homily of the Hexaemeron of St. Basil the Great, the master of the Cappadocian School:
But the visible symbol, the sacrament, meant to guide our spirits towards this unique aeon [the Parousia], is the first day of the week, that on which light was created, on which the Savior rose from the dead, of which the Sunday of each week is the liturgical commemoration; it is called one to signify that it is the figure of the oneness of the age to come. The whole theology of the Sunday is now seen clearly; it is the cosmic day of creation, the biblical day of circumcision, the evangelical day of the Resurrection, the Church’s day of the Eucharistic celebration, and, finally, the eschatological day of the age to come. (page 266).

And so, when we die to sin and death as we are submerged in the waters of Baptism, we die also to time, as symbolized by the seven days of the week. When we emerge from the water, we are reborn into the eternal life of Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord; we have conquered time! We now find ourselves on the eighth day of Creation, a day that will never end. On day One of Creation, God speaks light into being. The eighth day, superimposed over day One, enriches that primordial light into the Light of the Resurrection; and Sunday, which had formerly been the first day of the week, becomes the day of the “Morning Star which never sets.” Through Baptism, we live that eighth day, the eternal Day of the Risen Lord. Our Sunday Eucharistic celebration invites us to pay attention, with particular intensity, to this already existing reality.
Armed with this theology of St. Basil, I walked into my next Sunday evening catechetical session. As always, we began the session with singing. Then I invited the three who had been present at the Baptism to describe the font and to share their question with the others.
The children began to reel off symbolic numbers they’d already encountered: one for the unity of the universe, three for the Trinity, four for the Gospels, six for the points on the star of David, seven for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, twelve for the apostles, forty days of the Flood…I listened, waiting for a pause in the conversation so that I could spring my knowledge on them, still wondering whether I could find a language simple enough to help their understanding. Then one girl said, “Well, eight is a totally new number, so it must stand for Jesus.”
“Yeah,” said another. “No one else was ever the Son of God before. He has to have his own number.”
“Oh!” said a third. “Jesus rose from the dead on the day after the Sabbath! Remember how the women were bringing the spices and stuff—”
“So, that was the day after the last day of the week!” another girl cut in.
“The eighth day!” said two children at once. “Sunday.”
I was stunned. In the back of my mind, I thought that I still had an ace up my sleeve, one angle they hadn’t yet explored, when…
“It’s the Parousia!” shouted the first girl.
There was a profound silence in the room. No one questioned this conclusion.
How did the children come to these insights? Are the study and preparation of the catechist completely useless? If I couldn’t teach them these facts, what was my purpose for them?
These children and I had spent hours meditating on the Scriptures. We had taken a close look at the Rites of the Church, most particularly the prayers and gestures of Baptism and of the Mass. We visited and revisited the parables of Jesus, always exploring their deeper meanings (one child had remarked that the parables are like “boxes inside of boxes, every time you lift the lid, you find another present”), and we had reflected on the sacramental signs of bread, wine, water, oil, light, and gestures. We had lingered over the three great moments of salvation history: Creation, Redemption and Parousia. Whenever we read of the Parousia in the prophesies of Isaiah, the epistles of St. Paul and in the words of Jesus, the children would express a hunger for that Great Day. So, without realizing that the significance of an eight-sided baptismal font would ever become a question, I had been helping to prepare them to answer it.
Liturgical signs do speak to us. Their language is essential and immediate. Signs bypass the pitfalls of intellectualism and are thus able to communicate to any and all who know how to pay attention. In fact, liturgical signs teach us realities that we cannot grasp by any other means, and the longer we contemplate them, the more they tell us. In fact, the language of signs is the religious language par excellence. As the catechist and Bible scholar Sofia Cavalletti observes in The Religious Potential of the Child: “The religious character of the method of signs is evident: It is a method conscious of its limits and as such it is filled with veneration for the mystery, which it knows to be unfathomable; it is a method that does not claim to explain, circumscribe, or define, but rather one that speaks falteringly, through hints” (page 165). But the liturgical signs remain mute for those who have never been initiated into the discipline of seeking after their meaning. If we don’t expect them to speak, we will miss even their most rudimentary meaning. If Christianity is to thrive, we need to develop, in ourselves as well as in the next generation, the capacities to listen deeply and carefully, to look longer and wider, to pay closer attention; in short, we must keep alive our capacity for wonder. As Cavalletti observes, “When wonder becomes a fundamental attitude of our spirit, it will confer a religious character to our whole life, because it makes us live with the consciousness of being plunged into an unfathomable and incommensurable reality” (page 139).
The bare words of the children I have recorded above tell a story of understanding, but what I have failed to communicate is the sense of serenity that pervaded the room after they had shared their insights with one another and with me, the joy with which they entered into the day’s lesson, the appreciative way they looked into each other’s eyes during the remainder of our session.
During Mass earlier that day, we had lived, more or less consciously, the “unfathomable and incommensurable reality” of Sunday; then, well after the sun had set, that reality had dawned on us in an entirely new way.

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.

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.

Liturgical Catechesis: The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd

Catechesis is intrinsically bound to every liturgical and sacramental action.
- Catechesi Tradendae 23
We know that what Catechesi Tradendae says about the Liturgy and catechesis is true, but how do we put this truth into practice? The Liturgy offers us certain forms and embodies a particular pedagogical approach. It can be a rich source for our catechetical practice, just as it is in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a liturgical and biblical catechesis first conceived by the educator Maria Montessori and refined and developed by Sofia Cavalletti, Gianna Gobbi, and their collaborators.
Maria Montessori began to develop a new educational method, now called the Montessori approach, in the beginning of the twentieth century. Her inspiration for this “new” method was not new at all. She was a devout Christian, with a profound love for the Liturgy. Her genius lay in her ability to “translate” the methodology of the Liturgy into a means of communicating other kinds of information. In a Montessori classroom, as during a rite of the Church, time slows down. Just as a rite unfolds in steps, one following the other in an order that never changes, in the Montessori method, emphasis is placed on the deliberate and careful steps needed to complete any task. Cultivating silence is as essential to the Montessori approach as it is to the Liturgy. But most important, children in a Montessori environment learn through the use of all their senses; just as the Liturgy engages one’s whole body in prayer gestures, scents from candles, incense, wine, and perfumed oils, the tactile experience of water, oil, the press of a priest’s thumb or hand, the taste of bread and wine, and the whole rich variety of sights and sounds to delight the eye and ear, Maria Montessori created a school environment in which children could have the same variety of physical and sensorial experiences in which to learn.
When Dr. Montessori was invited to conduct her experiment in religious education, in Barcelona, Spain, in 1919, she was delighted. She felt that her method would find its highest expression and fulfillment in religious education. She created an environment, which she called the “atrium,” after the name given to the room where catechumens were prepared in the ancient Church, in which the elements of the liturgy would become accessible to children. It was during this period that she developed a model altar with small furnishings, a material still used in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd was inspired by Dr. Montessori’s initial research and began to take shape in Rome, Italy, in 1954. Sofia Cavalleti, a scripture scholar and her collaborator, a Montessori educator named Gianna Gobbi, through studying Dr. Montessori’s methods, prepared an environment in which children could use their bodies, along with all their senses, to meditate on the sacraments and holy scripture.
The “atrium” of the catechesis of the Good Shepherd provides the children with models of all the elements they will find used in their local churches. They may ring and listen to bells, kneel on cushions or kneelers before a holy image, ask a catechist to light candles for them, use their voices to sing to God, handle small brass objects and even polish them, tend to plants, smell and touch unconsecrated chrism, and pour water over their fists in a model baptismal font. In addition to all of these liturgical elements, the children are also invited to imitate and practice prayer gestures, such as the Sign of the Cross, the gesture of invocation over the waters of Baptism, and the priest’s gesture of Epiclesis over the Bread and Wine, all of which are demonstrated and repeated in the most solemn and careful manner, so that “learning” becomes a form of praying with all of these sacred gestures and objects.
In addition to the liturgy and the sacraments, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd includes a scriptural component. The model for how we present scripture texts takes its inspiration from the Liturgy of the Word. From the age of three, children in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd develop a love for and delight in processions. Processions mark the high points of the liturgical year and prepare the ear, as well as the body, to listen with particular intensity. In the atrium, the Bible occupies a privileged place, often covered with a beautiful cover, resting on a book stand, and set upon a table decorated with the appropriate liturgical color for the season. A catechist will light a candle before reading from the Gospel, and when reading the passage, will use all the solemnity and care of a lector. Then, when the children are invited to reflect on the passage, the catechist introduces a physical material that helps the child to continue the whole-body experience of internalizing the Gospel message. For example, the catechist will show the children mustard seeds from the Holy Land when presenting the parable of the mustard seed, and the children will be invited to touch them and hold one on a fingertip; or when contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation, the catechist uses a diorama and figures, much like a Christmas nativity scene, to give this precious moment in sacred history three dimensions.
Perhaps most important of all, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd always follows the liturgical year. After presenting the children with four small chasubles in the liturgical colors, so that they will understand that the priest wears a very special vestment to celebrate the Eucharist and so that they know the meaning of each liturgical color, there is always a celebration with a solemn procession to change the color of the prayer table cloth from green to violet at the beginning of Advent. During Advent, the children will meditate on the Messianic prophesies foretelling the birth of Christ and on the Gospels of the Annunciation and the Visitation. In the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, we never celebrate Christmas during Advent! When Christmas Season arrives, we celebrate with another procession to change the prayer table cloth to white; moreover, during separate meeting times, we will meditate together on the accounts of the Nativity taken from Luke and Matthew, using separate dioramas for the shepherds and the Magi to reflect the integrity of Scripture, and also on the presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple of Jerusalem. During Lent, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd takes on a penitential and anticipatory character. Then during Easter we pray with the opening rite of the Easter Vigil, tracing our own thumbs on our model paschal candle as we repeat the solemn words, “Christ yesterday and today…” and then from it, lighting small candles for each of the children.
Prayer is the heart and soul and whole substance of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. From the moment the children walk through the door of the atrium, they know that they have come to “listen to God.” Every element in the atrium points to Christ. Through prayer gestures, sensorial experiences, and solemn processions, the children are educated to, for and even with the Liturgy of the Church.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I'm going!

Please click on this picture -- it will help the concert organizers to get on google:


Friday, November 23, 2007

"In the sixth month...to a town...called Nazareth..."

"In a very particular time..in a particular place, God intervened in our history. God created time but lives in the ageless eternity of wonder. Our God sanctified time and made of it a tabernacle where he might be forever revealed. God, whose omnipresence transcends all points of the compass, took sanctuary in a town, thereby making of town life something both awesome and holy. God will not even be confined by limitless possibility! God reached across the chasm that separates us from transcendence so that we who inhabit our own historical moment, our own towns, may live richly, full of grace now, here. Through God's gift of himself, our now becomes forever, and we can touch that moment when time will cease to exist..."

- from Living in Joyful Hope

_________________

from the back cover:

Living in Joyful Hope is a collection of meditations and prayers that guide our journey from Advent into Christmas with familiar biblical passages, reflection, and prayer.

"These meditations speak the language of love and lovers, beautifully and eloquently so. With these meditations the author asks of herself and of us the most essential questions the lover needs to know." -- Rebekah Rojcewicz

"Some of us long to spend a little time each day with the words of scripture or the liturgy. We want to read slowly and wonder about the rich language we hear in church. This book, focused on the beginning of the liturgical year, is a perfect way to begin. Its simplicity and clarity are especially nourishing..." -- Tina Lillig

"In [this book], we are reminded once again how God always comes to us in the simple, in the ordinary aspects of life." -- Linda Sgammato

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Living in Joyful Hope


I wrote this book. It contains readings for each day of Advent and the Christmas season. In my next post, I'll give you an excerpt and the quotes from the back jacket. For now, I just wanted to say that it exists.

You can find out more about it through the publisher at:

www.ltp.org

They're promoting it on their home page during this time leading up to Advent.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Law of Life

Here is some unsolicited advice I gave to a friend suffering from depression (on October 11):

The value of life is to be given. Only what we give, we can keep. Even if we receive a gift, the only thing we get to keep from this experience is the gratitude we offer -- nothing else of the gift will build us or help us to grow. Nothing else in friendship matters even one minuscule bit.

Even after some demand that we make of another has been met, we will always find our way back to that empty place where we need more -- more reassurances, more gifts, more time, more signs that this friendship is real -- within a few days, it will all just be ashes -- all of it could go up in smoke and turn to dust -- except for the part in which we gave. Isn't this what the Spiritual Exercises were about? I have to go back and check, but I know I'm getting it from somewhere.

Will this attitude cure depression? I don't know. Is this attitude of generosity even possible when one is under attack from the beast within? I also don't know. All I do know is that it is the truth, and it is the only sure way to find stability and peace in life.

Depression is like a filter that removes most of the colors from life -- or a prison cell with walls that are painted to look like the world around -- but when you reach for reality, you hit up against a solid wall and have the feeling you've been tricked into believing that anything is real, that there really are colors. So, Someone has to remind you that there ARE colors, that reality is so much bigger, and it really is there. When someone is depressed, he begins to think that everything is about him -- all his failings become overwhelming then -- how could anyone love him with all these irreparable flaws? He thinks that anyone who claims to love him is either deluded, deliberately blind, or lying. Meanwhile, he feels no one can give him what he needs, no one can give him enough. The flaws and short-comings of others seem to be about him, too -- they wouldn't do these things if they loved him. So that proves that he's worthless and no one loves him!! It would be a perfect, logical system if it were true. But all of it is a lie because the starting point is a lie -- it's not about him at all. It's about being a part of the flow of Life, the law of which is giving.

Our concept of fair is a human concept and misses the greater reality, and the greater reality is so much richer than anything we could have earned or could deserve or live up to. We aren't loved because we are worthy -- love is infinite, and we are finite, so it's not a "fair" contest -- but because love is simply like that. Love gives, not because it owes but because giving is its internal logic, and without giving, it can't breathe. That's why I love the Anglican translation of the Our Father -- "forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors" (Simone Weil says this translation is truer to the original Greek) -- when we speak of debts, then we aren't just focussed on the debt of mercy we owe and can never repay to God, but also the debt of life, of breath, of all those colors, of reality, of Love -- and when we think about our "debtors" and forgiving them, then we realize that we must give without expecting anything in return -- not even thanks -- that whatever we expect or think we deserve from others (their debts to us), we must forgive -- not just their sins, as cataloged in the catechism.

Love is never anxious. It knows that love doesn't end with death or separation or even with betrayal. You know Jesus still loves Judas. What is the real difference between Judas and Peter? It would seem that Judas' betrayal was worse because it led to Jesus' death (an outcome he didn't seem to have foreseen) -- but his motives were not necessarily the frightened, ugly ones of Peter -- he had an ideal, even if he was a thief, as John maintains, a thief usually steals in order to right a sense of injustice regarding his own person -- he had a sense of justice! -- that he felt Jesus was not living up to, and he felt like he had to right the injustice. He was certainly sorry for what he had done -- he must have been just as sorry as Peter, to have killed himself over it. But the difference is that Peter returned -- he believed, against all odds, in love. He staked everything on love. But where was I? Oh, yes -- anxiety. Think of Mary and Martha -- when Martha complains that Mary isn't helping her and making her do all the work alone (essentially a question of justice, again!), he tells her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious about many things..." Of all the varieties of mental distress, the liturgy only has us pray, "protect us from all anxiety." And every time an angel appears in the Bible, it says, "Do not be afraid, but Rejoice! because God is in your midst." That is always the formula. God has been trying to tell us this for how long now, but we still need to be reminded! If God has not abandoned us, if he is indeed in our midst, and if his nature is self-giving, gratuitous Love, and if he invites us to participate in his very nature, then the only path to peace, freedom and creativity is gratuitous, constant, self-giving love. So, here's my take on Martha and Mary -- it's not that Mary has chosen the better part because she's at Jesus' feet and Martha's working to feed him, it's that Mary has given herself over to the joy of his presence, and Martha wants justice. One could do all Martha does, and more, and never be "anxious over many things." Having the honor of preparing a meal for Jesus, of all people, could be cause enough for trembling joy and gratitude along the lines of "Who am I that my Lord should come to eat the food I've prepared?" The story could have been that Mary says to Jesus, "tell my sister to stop being so busy with the cooking and come over here to be with us," and then Jesus would have had to tell Mary that she was anxious and that Martha had chosen the better part, "which will not be taken from her." This last phrase is so important, because what we give, what we truly give, is the only "part" that we get to keep -- that can never be taken from us. That's how I began this long and rambling homily, so maybe that's the note I should end on.

[Coda] Okay, so you don't have to give something Big like work or a gift -- I mean, like Mary, sister of Martha -- all she gave was her attention. If you give your attention to someone or something, it can have a really healing effect. I would say, when depressed, it would be a bad idea to try to give something huge, like hours of manual labor, or listening on a rape crisis hotline -- but the point is that everything, every moment can either be lived as a gift to the cosmos (in the shape or form that happens to be in front of you) and thus to God. Does this make sense? So, I'm not advocating that a person struggling with depression should go to Africa and be a missionary to AIDS patients (at this point) -- just that he give himself, out of love for what is in front of him, placed there by Christ so as to deepen his relationship with Him. It's more an attitude than an action. That is why, though it seemed like Martha was the only one giving anything, in her attitude of wanting justice for herself, attention to herself, she was missing out -- being less generous than Mary, who was doing "nothing."

I suppose that one could even "give" one's depression, though I think it would be terribly difficult and only possible for an adept. I think this is what is meant by the deceptive phrase, "to offer it up."

_________________

I found the following passage in "Friends, that is Witnesses:"

"Seneca says, 'I have what I have given.' This is the law of life: to give oneself. It is not that the law of life is this because Christ says so. Christ reveals a stable mechanism: that life is to give oneself, that I possess life by giving it, and the more I give it, the more I become myself...
"This summer, in the Mass one day, the first reading was that passage from Genesis in which the Mystery appears to Abraham and Abraham at once goes about welcoming that Presence...; he is all intent on honoring that Presence. The Gospel was that of Martha and Mary. it seemed that Martha was doing just like Abraham -- she too was all action, but Jesus rebukes her. This means that one can do all these things, perhaps, but in the wrong way. I often asked myself why He rebuked her. We have often been told about the opposition between contemplation and action. This idea came to me, 'Martha, Martha, you fuss about many things...' Why does Jesus rebuke her? Because in her service, Martha has not the Presence before her at heart, her service does not fulfill her affection. What shows this? The fact that she blames her sister: 'She doesn't help me!' Now, if someone is so enthusiastic to serve someone why does she care if the other is not there? I am so happy to serve that it is not a problem if my sister doesn't help me. If, instead, I am serving in an inadequate way, it can be seen, because I am not satisfied, that is, my affection is not fulfilled. The problem is not between action or contemplation, but it is the kind of relationship, whether or not the relationship is enough to satisfy..." (Julian Carron)

So, please forgive me if I seem to boast (all two of you who will read what I write here), but I have to share my joy and delight in the fact that I wrote my interpretation of the Martha and Mary episode before I read these words of Father Carron! It is so thrilling to think that he and I were both struck by this particular passage, and we both fixed on the same elements in order to understand it. And he is the leader of Communion and Liberation AND a Scripture scholar!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

His Joy in Me

This morning at Mass I had one of those moments when I suddenly saw something that is most likely perfectly apparent to everyone else. It always seems to be the perfectly ordinary things that totally amaze me! As I was walking back to the pew after receiving Communion, this verse, from John's Gospel, came to mind with particular force: I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete (John 15:11). And I thought, His joy, something not abstract but particular and concrete, was literally in my mouth.

So I recalled that Jesus said these words during the Last Supper discourse, immediately after giving the apostles the parable of the True Vine. His joy, then, is a force that generates unity: I am the vine and you are the branches. My joy is not a reaction to some action of God. It is a gift placed in me. It only becomes "mine" after He places it in me -- and then it may be complete.

I seem to be picking at words, rather than saying anything. But this recognition (no matter how banal it might seem to everyone else who got it ages ago) has only come to me as a result of something that has happened to me that I have not completely understood.

I used to love going to daily Mass. The fact that there is no obligation to go, and the immensity and beauty of what it IS, made it so sweet. I really felt drawn, "attracted" by the Infinite. And then, after moving to a new city, I went through a period of dryness; I continued to go to daily Mass, but I no longer experienced that attraction. It was an effort to go, and afterwards I felt the kind of longing you have after a missed opportunity. Eventually, it was too painful to keep going, and I found many different commitments that complicated my schedule to the point where I had no room for daily Mass. This went on for months. Then in September, when my youngest daughter began kindergarten, I decided to go again, but this time without any expectations. I decided to go, saying to the Mystery, "Here I am." This was after months of praying, "Come Holy Spirit, Come through Mary" many, many times a day, and learning this "Here I am" in so many different, difficult situations.

What is the result of this change? I have not recaptured that original experience of wonder, of being drawn as if by an irresistible force. It isn't my own joy, bubbling up and overwhelming me, in response to something exterior. Instead, there is something new, completely and unexpectedly new, that enters in. I feel very little, poor, sober, but free, more intensely alive. I think it's unity: His joy, which is the blood that flows through the whole Body of Christ. That's what I think.

Au sujet de Poop

If you are squeamish, don't prod the beach rubble. - Sappho

Last night, during an insomniac couple of hours, I occupied myself with the question of human conversations and how it is that we can sometimes say so much of nothing to one another. This was not an idle or academic musing, but of intense interest to me because I have Princess-and-the-pea syndrome, a consequence of which is that the nothingness gets multiplied (how do you multiply nothing? This was the question that stumped me at 2 AM until I decided to substitute the word "poop" for the word "nothing." You know, because what is poop exactly? Okay, it smells and therefore demands attention, at least from one's nose; it's disgusting and arouses loathing; but it doesn't have any meaning or use. It is pure waste. It doesn't help us grow or learn to experience beauty or the Infinite. Despite the attention that it demands, it is really nothing -- less than nothing).

So, my thought, the first thought, was that the only way to live or breathe in a world full of people (including oneself) who are incontinent, is to ignore the poop (or the "pea") -- just politely ignore it. Then I was stuck again, so I turned to the latest Traces, and began reading Page One -- and I saw this:

"We see darkness and talk about darkness so many times. We mustn't pretend that the darkness doesn't exist; we shouldn't just think some spiritual thoughts about darkness; we can't do something 'alongside' the darkness -- we have to look it in the face! 'I look into my depths and see endless darkness.' What is it that the darkness can't quash? It can't stop my acknowledging this darkness, and it can't stop the moment 'when I realize that You are there,' when I realize that this circumstance, no matter how ugly it may be, is not made by itself; when I live through a dark period, even in that moment I am living, and even in the darkness, I do not make myself; in the darkness I have a radiant clarity: I do not make myself. We've sung, 'Only when I realize that You are there, like an echo, I hear my voice again.' That is, when I discover that I have arrived, not at darkness, but at what is deeper still than the darkness; when I realize that You are there, I realize a fact: that I 'am reborn like time from memory,' and all our chatter about the darkness doesn't eliminate it. It's eliminated by this recognition, this going deep to the bottom of this You. If any of us wants to be spared this, they'll remain in the darkness. We can't avoid this road, nobody can spare us this road, and this is why Christ went deep to the bottom of the darkness: so that we can look at everything. This is anything but an intellectual exercise! It's simply the recognition of reality according to all its factors." (Traces, volume 9, # 9, 2007, page 6, Julian Carron speaking).


Now here's a statement that can really help me to breathe!!

I want to do School of Community on the above quote -- that is, I want to verify what Father Carron is saying by testing it in my experience. But first I want to acknowledge just how radical and astounding this suggestion is -- because we could rephrase it (perhaps, if I'm understanding it properly) like so: Take the poop up in your hands, and really examine it. Recognize that though it seems to proceed from you, from another person, it only exists because you and the other person are each generated by Another. It is this Other who loves us into existence, who gave us the ability to poop, and who doesn't wipe us off the face of the planet because we are often incontinent, that is, vile and messy and reeking! And so the poop itself should arouse wonder and awe -- perhaps even more wonder and awe than any sunset, or potential power encased in an ordinary seed, or small movement of a joint in one of our fingers...

So, where is the evidence? Because before I go opening myself up to the Infinite to be found in attention paid to poop, I need to have a heck of a lot of faith. Well, there's that episode documented in the Gospels -- something about a Cross. All right, but what about right here, right now?

What is brilliant about this particular assertion is that there are too many examples I can find in support of it. Almost all of life seems to require passing through some form of death, some form of (at least) unpleasantness, beginning with our conception, which doesn't happen without the "death" of two separate cells that join to form the one, new cell, which can then begin a new life. And the birth process itself is no walk in the park for any of the concerned parties. The poop smells for a reason, and the pea bruises -- reality educates us!
So, in human conversations, the "so much of nothing" that has been bothering me...how does that lead to You? None of these conversations would be possible without You, the Infinite, loving me into being at every moment of my day (I'm still following Carron). How does this awareness eliminate the nothing? How does this awareness allow me to hear You (standing outside, in daylight, where all is certainty and hope) say, "Suzanne (Lazarus), come out!"?

I don't want to grasp at an easy answer to this question. I want to wait to see how it develops in me.

These rambling thoughts on such an unsavory subject reminded me of something else, an exchange that took place during last year's east coast G.S. winter vacation, at the final assembly. Here's what I have from my notes:

Girl: No one else takes me this seriously. Nobody loves me the way I am loved here. And still I hesitate, I'm afraid to commit.

Chris: I have cancer, you have the cure, but I'm having trouble coming to you. I am hungry, you have food, but I'm having trouble committing to you...

Girl: There's nothing else that matters to me, even though I have these misgivings. I'm scared to say this and it sounds cheesy -- it must be Christ!

Chris: You have been taught that the stuff that comes out of your butt and goes plop into the toilet is called "honey" -- then when someone says, 'Do you want honey on your toast?' you're disgusted...[everyone squirms and laughs nervously]. But the reality of what is happening here IS Christ. When you think of what you experience here, it is the presence of Christ. That name has to refer to something you see -- something that HAPPENS -- you have to see something happening now -- anything that is not happening now is crap. Otherwise we're afraid of the real name for the real Christ.

[then in the synthesis, which occurred almost immediately after the assembly, he said:]

Chris: What does what has happened here suggest to me? It suggests love, affection...What is the enemy? There are 2 enemies: the first is a deep preconception against Christ -- against the word, the possibility, the promise -- that there really be something beyond what you see and touch here...There is a Reason, something beyond me -- and his name is Christ! And when I say his name, you think oh my gosh, that's the stuff that comes out of my butt. The origin of everything is Christ. The second enemy is your jaded attitude -- since you've been burned by other things. There is one word to describe what happens among us -- Adoration -- we have found something worth worshiping. I can get down on my knees in front of you because of what you carry. And I am powerless in front of it. I have to beg, "Come here and do what you did for me before." To beg for it to happen again. I love this, I want this, and I am at this thing's mercy. I am a fool...This man, Jesus of Nazareth, keeps his promise. You have to STAY -- looking for how it is fulfilled -- today, tomorrow, the next day -- asking, "How will you find me, fulfill your promise?" You have to take seriously the promise that has been made to you. Try to be faithful to the promise that was made to you. The true person in you stays true to that begging -- to the promise that has been made to you. Life can become something so true, intense and full of truth because of his preference for us. you must strive, seek, discover for yourself...All my talking is an invitation -- but then it's YOU -- your affection for the origin of what is going on here. Will you say yes -- will you be simple enough to go after it? Will you remain faithful to this affection? Hungry for this presence? I don't know but I HOPE so.

Monday, November 19, 2007

What this blog is about...

Well, when I started with this, I don't think I really knew why I was doing it, except that it was nifty to choose a template, to fill in the profile questions, and fiddle with the settings...

I also knew that I wanted to say something about forgiveness/mercy because it is something that has been astonishing me and educating me day by day. So, I thought that the purpose of the blog would be to explore the question of forgiveness, to try to understand it better. My first post on the subject sounded more like a bad homily than like an exploration, though! So, that discouraged me, and then I thought I could post some of my recent poems so that someone famous could steal them (or even pieces of them!) and get them into print. I've removed them now, though, because my motive for posting them doesn't really seem to jibe with the "mission" of this blog. I left the preachy first post up, just to keep me humble.

But what I'd really like to do is see whether this might be a way to communicate with other ciellini out there.

I have been working through "Friends, that is Witnesses," the booklet from La Thuile. It is sooo amazing! I feel immensely grateful to the people who went there -- for asking questions I have had or should have had. I keep posting large blocks of text on my School of Community google group site, but I'm afraid I'm going to exhaust everyone with my exuberance.

The question that I've been pondering most in the past twenty-four hours is the one by the Italian guy living in Boston and working at Harvard Medical School. Carron rephrased his question as: "What do you do when the situation of the Church is different from what you would like?" And the answer is simple: "Reality educates us" and "What is your responsibility? To answer the Mystery who is calling you through the circumstances." It seems as if Father Carron just keeps giving us these same answers -- to many, many questions he receives. It is so liberating to hear again and again, "You have all you need!" And the circumstances really do reveal to us the face of Christ, in such dramatic ways!

Even in very negative circumstances. Today, for instance, after a very negative and discouraging experience, I felt like Christ was laughing at me, saying something like, "So, you want to live the Gospel, eh?" I also felt as though the circumstance he's given me, in which to try to follow Him seems rather challenging -- as if perhaps he has too much respect for me. I know I probably shouldn't admit to having such theologically incorrect thoughts, but there I am in all my wrong-headedness. I then decided to call a friend of mine who is in Memoris Domini, and has been following this charism for years. When I told her my woes, she just laughed and laughed, and this laughter was absolutely miraculous for me, because in her laughter I heard Christ laughing -- not at me, but with me! It was so beautiful. And, as Carron points out to the Italian man, living in Boston, it is the companionship that generates us. Wow, did I feel generated by my laughing friend.

Which brings me to the next point -- when I read what Carron said to the same man about the companionship generating us, I really began to think about how I've been generated by a companionship. This thought process brought to mind one very brief encounter I had with Father Vincent Nagle, who visited our city to give us the Lent retreat a little over a year ago -- and then I had just a few more brief meetings with him again before he left for Bethlehem in the West Bank. But the way that he lives communion with the people who are in front of him truly generated me. I don't think that I am trying to "live off the interest" of this encounter -- I think that truly what I saw and experienced of this priest continues to generate me in dozens of different situations and circumstances I face and live each day. Is that possible? As a direct result of his visit, I joined the fraternity and then just jumped into this adventure, started by Father Giussani decades ago.

I have been thinking about something new to do with forgiveness. It seems to me that forgiveness begins as desire? The question mark is there because I'm really feeling in the dark after this one. But it seems that in order to forgive, I have to want Christ more than anything else. Without that supreme wanting, then I don't desire to see His face in the other. Then, of course I don't see it. Ideas of human justice seem to be the biggest stumbling blocks to forgiveness, too. Even a desire for truth (or honesty or sincerity) can get in the way of forgiveness, if the truth I desire is predicated on my own idea of truth (rather than on Truth, ie Christ, who turns many human conceptions of justice and truth on their heads).

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Mercy

"...mercy is the secret aspect, the most secret word of God’s. In terms of its origin it is the most secret one, and is the most vast in terms of application." -- Father Giussani

"We must have forgiveness for those who are different. I say it all the time: forgiveness is embracing what is different. However, for this to happen, much more than making the resolution to forgive, understand, and let things go, much more than directly resolving, it is better to resolve to be conscious of why we are together, of the reason “why.” If this consciousness of the reason why I must understand, not remain indifferent, and forgive, grows, then it becomes easier also to forgive, to understand, etc." -- Father Giussani

"Embracing what is different" -- such a freeing definition of forgiveness! None of us has the ability to forgive the faults of others. Only God can forgive sins. We, on the other hand, have our own faults to contend with, our own shortcomings, annoying habits, thoughtlessness, forgetfulness. Why should we be scandalized by others when we ourselves are so limited? Sometimes, perhaps, we need to be preoccupied with others' flaws so as not to see our own. Or perhaps, sometimes, we only begin to be faintly aware of our own shortcomings -- ones to which we are blind -- when someone else exhibits them, holding a mirror to something in us we have been unable to look at? Perhaps the wrongs of others arouse emotion in us because they challenge our petty attachments?

To truly forgive another is not in our power. If we make a great muscular effort to forgive, the results are disastrous! Forgiveness is only possible when we open ourselves to the mystery of God's mercy. Recognizing our littleness and nothingness even while acknowledging that God, in his mercy, continues to sustain us in existence, from one moment to the next, allows us to share, perhaps even to radiate, that mystery of mercy.

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."