My first window into Catechesis of the Good Shepherd was actually as a senior in college, through an Atrium at a Montessori school. I was surrounded by six, seven, and eight year olds busily coloring, arranging flowers, inviting friends into processions and little prayer services, and unrolling the longest ribbon I think I have ever seen to illustrate the History of the Kingdom of God at work (humans don’t come into the scene until about the last foot of the ribbon). I was delighted by what I saw, and it also seemed a bit foreign—a particular language and culture with which I was not familiar.
One of my favorite moments as a rookie to the Atrium that first year was when a small first grader (the son of a theologian, to be fair), came up to me and showed me his Alleluia banner—a montage the children draw during the Easter season. He had created scenes from the Old Testament and the New Testament: the Burning Bush, the parting of the Red Sea, the Last Supper, the three crosses on Calvary. In the top corner of the picture was a cloud with the words “I AM” written in it. He showed me his banner and explained “all this is part of I AM.” I was sold.
As my love of Montessori grew and as I became a trained teacher, I started to see the rhythms and meaning behind the hum of children moving about the rooms fairly freely in both the classrooms and the Atrium. I still marvel at the beauty of translating this respectful, brilliant method into the catechetical formation of young children in the Church. The Atrium is a place of exploration and prayerful quiet that children look forward to. In the the Atrium, they must practice being members of a Christian community and they are given the richness of Scripture and Tradition. It gives them the real words for different elements of the Liturgy and the actual stuff of the Mass: ciborium, paten, chalice. It allows them a space for developing their own relationship with God through song, quiet work, and real acts of prayer.
Ironically, I believe my background as an educator set me up for a bit of a challenge as a now parent of a child in our parish Atrium. I was expecting an almost miraculous transformation of our wiggly, energetic son who loves rockets, carnivores, and climbing trees. I would say the religious sense in this child has not always been...obvious. While “May! May!” was one of his first words looking up to the statue of Mary on Notre Dame’s golden dome, he has never been one of those children captivated by the priest’s every move on the altar, and he can often be heard before the closing hymn whispering loudly “Are we done yet?”
So I had an unvoiced dream that the Atrium would break open his little heart and fill it with a zealous religiosity. I pictured his piety skyrocketing and our need to manage and direct during the Mass plummeting.
I was expecting an almost miraculous transformation of our wiggly, energetic son who loves rockets, carnivores, and climbing trees.
Needless to say, the Atrium did not work this way for my son. He remains an energetic tree climber interested in skyrocketing, but not in open piety, who still struggles to sit quietly during Mass. He often comes home from Atrium with pictures of rockets and carnivores of various stripes. He hasn’t proclaimed an ardent desire to enter the priesthood...yet.
But there are beautiful little moments that remind me that God is working with him and on him and through him that I hold onto and treasure in my son’s little journey of faith. Like when he suddenly bursts into singing “Holy God, we praise thy name!” with a zest I don’t often hear in church; when he tells me that his rocket drawings are actually rockets going to heaven; when he points out the liturgical season we are in because he recognizes the colors of the priest’s vestments; and when he asks his little brother “Do you want to be a saint or a zoo keeper when you grow up?” (I believe the answer was zoo keeper, but there were first some serious deliberations.)
Parenting is an act of faith. Raising a child up from infancy through childhood and beyond requires so much confidence that there is One greater than I in control. It is essential to remember that each person entrusted to us as parents actually belongs first to the God of the universe who has loved her into being and called her by name.
Let us resist the urge to make our children in our own image. That is God’s work.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd too is an act of faith. It is a method that lovingly trusts the child to God, knowing that some of the time, maybe much of the time, it may not appear as if anything is “happening.” Impatience would push a child to recite verses or rote prayers, proof that the method is “working.” But patient trust allows the child to explore and discover in his own way the reality of God in the material elements displayed so beautifully and invitingly around the Atrium.
We as adults, and particularly as parents, can be hovering, anxious presiders over the souls of children, particularly our own. We want assurance that we’re doing a good job, that we’re passing along that which is precious to us, and that it is not only passed on, but becomes fully internalized. This is a good instinct, but it must be tempered with deep trust or it becomes suffocating. Let us resist the urge to make our children in our own image. That is God’s work.
My son is excited to have his little brother join him in the Atrium this coming fall. He has been telling him about the work he can do there and the songs he will sing. His little brother longs to be in the Atrium with him. This is one of the most brilliant and crucial elements of the Montessori method that Sofia Cavalletti brought into the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd: the multi-age classroom. Children become teachers of one another, eager to receive in order to pass on skills, thoughts, stories, and even prayer to their community members. The little ones watch the older ones, captivated. They see the tradition unfolding before them and they in turn pass it along to the next crop of hungry minds and hearts.
The Church takes shape before my eyes as I sit and observe my son and his friends in the Atrium. It’s all there. The sin, the repentance, the forgiveness, the friendship, the conversion moments, the beauty, the stillness, the Word, the Liturgy, the colors, the forms, the reality of God in the world, offered to and present in these little ones. I smile and shake my head as I hear him count down as he draws another heaven-bound rocket, and the words of Christ echo in my mind: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)
Featured photo: Dome Poon; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0