Mystagogy of the Child

I was in a hurry, sweeping up items left unrestored by the children who had left the atrium.  I was in such a hurry I nearly missed, nearly swept away the simple statement left behind at the gestures of the Eucharist table.  There, in an act of mystagogy made visible, was the paper bread left over from a child’s enactment of the fraction.  Was it an accident that it was left as a heart on the paten?The bread of love

What goes on in the heart of a child as he or she works with the materials in the atrium?    Just as we can only approach the great Eucharistic mystery itself through the signs of the liturgy – the epiclesis and offering, the fraction, the peace,  the sharing of the one bread — so too we can only approach the great mystery of the child through the signs left behind for us to find: a drawing of a sheep, an echo of a child’s song at the altar work, a small paper heart left on the paten of the prepared gestures table.

Kneeling in front of this tiny, this momentous offering, I realized for the first time the overwhelming nature of the gift of the Eucharist: not a body, not a sacrifice, not just a gift, but an outpouring of love which flows to us like the river of life.   This love I saw was not static, not simply waiting upon a plate.  It was a movement of love from Christ towards the Father and towards me.

The discovery sent me, a library mouse, back to my books.  Was this understanding of the Eucharist as a movement of love already there, and I had simply never noticed it before?  And of course it was.

“Thus the presence that is appropriate and intelligible in the Eucharist is neither the presence of an idea in our minds . . . nor the presence of a uniquely sacred object on a table.  It is the presence of an active Christ, moving in  love not only toward the Father but towards us.  The more we try to ‘immobilse’ Christ, either in heaven (so that all that happens in the Eucharist is in our minds) or in substantial presence on the altar (so that his action is virtually completed in simply being there under the sacramental forms), the less we understand of the dynamism of the sacrament, and of the transfiguring liberty of the risen Christ. For if we look first to Christ in the Eucharist as active, we can see how sacrifice and presence together make sense.  The offering of the love of the Son in his incarnate life and bloody death is woven into the eternal life of the Trinity;  when the crucified Son is raised from the dead, we understand that the cross is an abiding reality, an indestructible life and an inexhaustible gift.  And the great mark of discipleship to the risen Christ is, as the New Testament has it, that we eat and drink with him after his resurrection: the love given to the Father is given to us who receive his hospitality.

(Rowan Williams, “Foreward”, The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Anglican Tradition)

But was I reading too much into this tiny paper heart left behind on the paten? I returned to my atrium notes, and of course, the pattern emerged.

“January 30, second grade, I found one of the coins from the Found Coin work left in the center of the sheepfold.  Accident? It stands at the foot of the shepherd and the sheep are facing it in a circle.”

“February 7, second grade,  A small paper heart left behind in the center of the sheepfold.  It reminds me of the coin from last week.  The shepherd is not present.  It seems the sheep are positioned around it, facing it.”

“February 23, second grade.  The table from the Eucharistic presence work was left on the gestures table.  No other part of the materials from that work.  It sat upon the lace cloth for the gestures work.”

Clearly, a single child had been cogitating each week upon the meaning of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, moving from the concrete representation of the Good Shepherd who calls his sheep to be fed to the mystagogy of the Eucharistic gestures.  No, the heart, I think, is not an accident, but another sign of the kingdom of God, a sign I nearly missed.  Like the leaven in the parable, it is hard to see, growing, transforming, rising within the heart of the child.

Food for thought, indeed, this heart shaped bread.


Can it be plastic?

The opening week of school several practical life materials in the room were broken: a soap dish at the handwashing work, a small porcelain bowl in the spooning work, and a glass carafe in the equal pouring work. Normally I replace these in my room at my own expense, but this year I decided to fill in a purchase order and ask the school to pay for the replacements. As I left for the afternoon, I turned in the completed purchase order.

The next morning I found the form returned to my box with a sticky note attached; it read “Can these be plastic?”

This is a question I answer all the time about materials in a catechesis atrium. Catechesis, which is founded on the principles of Maria Montessori’s work with children, relies on a prepared environment which orients children to the reality of the world around them and which provides children with an opportunity to engage freely in real work related to that reality.

Plastic utensils leave a child without that desired orientation to reality. A child who is given unbreakable objects is deprived of the opportunity to develop fine motor skills, care of their environment, and respect and responsibility towards the objects of their environment. Plastic bowls which can be handled roughly seem indestructible and therefore unworthy of care. However, surround the child with real, breakable, even fragile materials, and the child learns many valuable things.

They learn the material properties of an object or material. They learn to hold the items with care. They learn the consequences of stewardship and lack of stewardship. Part of what a child learns in the CGS curriculum thanks to our Montessori foundation is how to hold a material with two hands, how to carry a tray level with two hands, how to pour with a glass pitcher, and so on. When we as adults model holding and using items with care, the child sees us and learns to do so as well. It is not necessary to say “This is breakable; carry it carefully”; a child seeing the adult being careful becomes careful herself.

“But what about breakage?”, I am often asked. Rejoice in breakage! A broken item is a learning experience, resulting in that set of materials being taken off the shelf. That is the consequence of the breakage – there is no reprimand, just the feeling that something must be taken away until it is repaired or a replacement can be found. Breakage, which we too often try to avoid, is a good thing which provides a lesson in careful handling that cannot be communicated simply through lecture or admonition. Breakage immediately teaches the material properties of glass or porcelain in a way that no amount of language can convey. Breakage also makes way for new learning experiences. It provides for instance the perfect opportunity to teach a child how to use a broom or carpet sweeper, skills which children love to practice.

Do many items get broken in an atrium? Surprisingly not. In thirteen years of being a catechist in a school setting I don’t remember anything being broken until five years ago and only four things since primarily all by the same group of children as they have moved through the school. This last week, the breakage caused by two second graders having difficulty sharing a work was a lesson for a whole room of children still learning to handle materials and each other with care. I couldn’t have said anything that would have provided such an explicit lesson of the need for discipline in our movements and our behavior toward one another. In fact, I didn’t need to say anything to drive home the point of self-control, because the students involved immediately saw the consequence of their mishandling of the materials and apologized to each other and to me. They then settled into some of the calmest work I have seen them undertake since my son came to school one day, his long hair brushed back behind his ears, and they thought Jesus had come to watch them. The second breakage of the week was simply a new PreK student who is still learning to follow instruction, to carry a tray level, and to bend his knees when placing a tray onto a shelf. Having been asked four times to clean up, he only rushed to do so when his teacher arrived at the door. His apology to me? “If I had cleaned up when you told me, I wouldn’t have dropped it.” So, that breakage taught its own lesson too without my needing to say a word.

I think the final and best lesson about breakage is always found in the adult’s response, “Don’t worry. Now we can learn how to use the dust pan and broom, and now you know how you have to carry the (broken object) next time. And remember, you are far more dear to me than any (broken object) could ever be.”

A last word about the use of porcelain and glass in the atrium. The materials in the atrium should be so beautiful that a child LONGS to work with them. Earthenware condiment bowls touched with a golden glaze that glimmers in the light and makes the objects inside seem to glow or a crystal clear goblet in which the water sparkles as the child pours, these attract the child to work in a way that no plastic bowl could. Just imagine the sound of ice tea being poured into a glass on a summer’s day, and you know how enticing the sensorial properties of glass can be.

It’s no wonder that Montessori supply companies refer to sets of glass carafes and porcelain bowls as “consumables”. When we think of them this way then the fear of using them and the shame of breaking them is replaced by care for the environment and a love of stewardship. A whole other blog post awaits on the lessons we can model for children on consumerism, the need for stewardship, and the multiplication of mindfulness through the subtraction of unnecessary, unbreakable possessions.

The Sweetness of the Shepherd

My atria are set up for combined levels at the school. This means that the “little school” room is set up as a Level 1 and Level 2 combined atrium and that the “big school” room is set up for Level 2 and Level 3 to share. Occasionally, I worry, because I see the older children return over and over to works created for the younger. I question whether the child is really exploring something new in the younger work or simply trying to escape from engaging in real work. Here, I am often saved in the midst of my anxiety, by the words of those giants who came before me: Maria Montessori, Sofia Cavalletti, and Gianna Gobbi.

When seeing an older child return over and over to the work with the sheepfold, the Good Shepherd, and the sheep, I have learned to follow Montessori’s admonition to “wait observe”. Watching closely the child’s work, it is often simple to see that the child truly IS involved in the scriptures of John 10 or Luke 15 in a deep and meaningful way, and when I need verification for myself that their work reveals that the Word abides in the child, I can always turn to the children’s work journals.

Earlier this week, two third grade girls spent the entire atrium time working over and over with the Shepherd and the sheep. Their movements were careful and meaningful, their voices soft. Watching them, I saw frequent long pauses where the two of them simply sat in contentment by the work, gazing into the heart of the sheepfold or caressing the shepherd figure with their eyes. Occasionally, one would reach out to stroke or pat one of the sheep.

Later, after they left the room, I sat to read through the group’s work journals in order to make notes for myself for their next visit to the atrium. Here I found in the journals of these two girls their growing relationship with Christ.

One girl concentrated on the idea of the Good Shepherd himself, his sacrifice, his Eucharistic presence, and his abiding love:

“I think that the sheep are the people and the good shepherd loves them so much he will sacrifice himself for us. I think that is very sweet. Jesus will lead us to food and he will love us forever. I think that he was very nice for giving the bread and the wine to us. I will always remember him.”

So much to see in this one short paragraph! Here is sacrifice presented not as suffering but as a gift of love, as an act which brings forth sweetness. Here is a response of anamnesis to Christ’s request to “remember” him in the bread and wine of Eucharist. Here is the knowledge that Christ calls us to himself and gives us all himself in the consecrated bread. Here the child responds to the call of Christ.

The other child’s writings revealed the growth of moral ethos as response to the parable of the Found Sheep.

“The lost sheep makes me think about God, because he is so gentle, like a sheep, and he is so soft hearted. This makes me understand God more, because it helps me be gentle, to not get mad and just leave, but to stay and be careing (sic). I think this is the sweetest work I know.”

Lived out before me were Sofia and Gianna’s observations that the parables of the Good Shepherd and the Found Sheep grew within the children throughout their time in the atrium.

When reading the children’s journals and observing their work, I couldn’t help but remember that wonderful passage from Sofia’s Religious Potential of the Child:

“Once begun, the relationship with the Good Shepherd never ceases; the parable will grow slowly with the child, revealing its other aspects and satisfying the needs of the older child, adolescent, and adult. We allude only to the fact that the child after six years of age begins to realize that the parable of the “found sheep” reveals that the Shepherd’s protective love is a love that is forgiving as well; His love is really unfailing, it is inexhaustible even when confronted with wrong behavior. The older child, who in pre-adolescence is oriented toward heroic ideals, will see in the Shepherd who “walks ahead of his sheep” the person who shows us the path, one that is not without difficulties but that has as its aim the “superabundant” life of the risen Lord. The development is from the love that protects, to the love that forgives, to the imitatio Christi. The parable fulfills in a specific way the exigencies peculiar to the three levels of development Maria Montessori spoke of: early childhood, sensitive period for protection; later childhood, moral sensitive period; adolescence, sensitive period for heroism (Sofia Cavalletti,  The Religious Potential of the Child, 75).

Thank you Maria, Sofia, Gianna, Kieran, and Gracie: your sweetness gentles my heart and leads me in his path.

Love in search of love

Fourth graders sat in a circle surrounding a blue rag rug, the light from a few fragile votive candles flickering upward on their downturned faces as they studied the Bibles before them. For the fourth week they were reading the texts of creation from Genesis, savoring each verse, exploring the mysteries they had not realized before were embedded within the Word of these ancient texts.

They chuckled at the LORD’s creation of all creatures in a clumsy attempt to find a partner for Adam and agreed with fourth grade forthrightness with the boy who laughingly announced he would rather have a good puppy for his buddy than any girl! They sat in silence before the great first love song of man to woman, “Is this not flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone”, and sighed in unison when one girl – the child of divorced parents – whispered under her breath, “I wish it was still like that.” Then, on cue, they tittered as one being upon encountering the final verses of Chapter 2, “. . . And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” (KJV)

Dissolving into the shared mirth of the almost-adolescent faced with issues of nudity, they almost missed the quiet comment of one child in their midst.

“I wish my heart could still be naked.”

Those children closest to her paused, checked in their mirth.

“I do too,” said one.

Without a word from me, the children began to discuss those things which they wished they didn’t fear they had to keep hidden in their hearts: moments of darkness, of unkind words, of jealous thoughts.

Into this Spirit-filled conversation, rose the head of the serpent, wily and crafty.

“But were Adam and Eve cavemen?” asked a boy.

A fig leaf settled over the discussion, sealing away the open conversation –conversion — of their hearts before God.

In a moment the room was divided, anger and bewilderment simmering under the surface of the community and occasionally breaking forth in a statement of judgment, one child against another. Evolution or creationism? Was the truth these scriptures intended to convey that of how humans were created, or was it “What is the intended relationship between humans and between humans and their creator?” Was the text historical in nature or metaphorical?

In the intense struggle to let the children be taught by the Spirit and not to interpose my own thoughts, I was saved, again, by one of the children.

“Perhaps it’s the story of that seed. [1] You know, Miss Kay, the story of the seed you told us when we were in the Little School atrium. Perhaps God made us, but God made us with the seed of heaven inside of us which is growing and changing us. Perhaps this story says God made us, but that it isn’t important just HOW we were made. Perhaps it’s more important what the story says we are being made INTO.”

Her classmates questioned this. How could we be transformed, and by what means could such an alteration be accomplished? Although we could see she had some kind of vision of humankind’s metamorphosis, we could all also see that she didn’t, at age ten, have the words to express it. Finally, in frustration, she blurted out only one word: “Love.”

I reminded them then of what they had identified the week before as God’s motivation in the creation. The prior week they had said that God had had so much love, God had wanted to share it, that creation was the first act of love. They remembered then that when we had wondered “Why does God say ‘Let the earth . . .’, why doesn’t God just say “Plants!’ like God earlier said ‘Light!”?, that this same young girl had jumped up and said, “It’s covenant! God invites the earth. The earth builds signs — trees and things that point to the sky — to mark the covenant like the stacks of stone that Jacob used. The earth wants to love God back. Oh, I know! The light (Genesis 1: 3) was the light of God’s love, and the earth loves back!”

Remembering this discussion together, they, in immediate unison, agreed that our transformation was into beings that so loved each other and God that no heart had a need to be hidden, that all hearts could be naked before God and one another. The creation was being made new, changing into a cosmos in which all creatures became aligned in perfect, deep harmony with one another and with God. The children had cast the texts of creation into a story of “Love in search of love”, a story know to us in the Bible as covenant.[2]

As the atrium time ended, I walked the fourth grade class to lunch, and I wondered. Perhaps covenant is not established by a smoking firepot who moves through the midst of Abraham’s sacrificial offerings (Genesis 15:17) or by an agreement made amongst thundering clouds atop a desert mountain (Exodus 20). Perhaps covenant is a nuptial hymn, a celebration of an act of becoming one flesh, an incarnation transforming each of us who, being implanted with the Word and Spirit of God, is undergoing a metamorphosis, preparing to bring forth a hitherto unknown divinity.

In that revelation the movement within the gospel of John — from the parable of the Good Shepherd (John 10) to the parable of the True Vine (John 15) — unfolded as the movement from our opening experience of love — the initial thrill of joy felt when our beloved speaks our name aloud for the first time in the tender moments of our new relationship — to the more intense, deeper joy of the nuptial hymn sung by the beloved the first night of shared life:

This at last is flesh of my flesh

and bone of my bone,

this one shall be called part of me

for from me/for me she was made.

Is this not the oldest, the first love song of creation? Sung at the beginning of time by the Creator as an invitation to the creation, it calls out the joy our Creator knew and which fills our own being when finally we fall like found sheep into the Shepherd’s arms to abide as one with God. No longer just sheep called by and held in the love of the Shepherd, we are transformed by God’s nuptial hymn into becoming one with God’s own self, branches of the one vine: “and they shall become as one flesh” and “I am the vine, you are my branches” melding into one concept.

The Shepherd who calls our name magnifies God’s love song begun for us at the beginning of creation. We are called into a relationship of complete communion, into a complete interchange of devotion, by a cosmic hymn of Love, in which we are melded into one flesh with the one who calls us to abide in him, for he, already having sown within us the Word of his kingdom, abides in us already.

And how does this calling first begin for us? How do we first hear this nuptial hymn of God? It begins as it began eight years or more ago for then five year old Molly, who bent her ear to the sheepfold in the Little School atrium, then looked up at me, shocked and joyful to announce, “Miss Kay, Miss Kay! I hear it! The shepherd is singing a song. It goes, ‘Molly, Molly . . .’ But I don’t know how it ends yet.”

Bend back, Molly.


[1] “Another parable he set before them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like unto a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in this field: which indeed is less than all seeds; but when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the heaven come and lodge in the branches thereof .” Matthew 33: 31-32.

[2] Cavalletti, Sofia and Coulter, Patricia. Ways to Nurture the Relationship with God.Chicago,IL: Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Publications, 2010. iv. Coulter sets forth the idea of covenant as the deep desire of God to love creation and of our deep longing to respond in love in return.

The Song of the Shepherd

As a child growing up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, just a little west and down from Donner Pass, I loved to escape into the forest with an apple, a book, and a sketch pad in my knapsack. I would head to my secret place, a circle of pines so undisturbed that the cushion of pine needles was several feet thick and silence was the music of the day. Scooping up the needles to form a mattress and pillow, I would lie back and become still, and in that stillness and quiet I encountered God.

The nimbus of light on the tips of the pines, the warm colors of the fallen needles which framed the wild tiger lily that grew at the edge of the clearing, the clarity of the luminous sky above: the visual sumptuousness of the space melded with the glory of its silence. I think I can trace my love of art, of poetry, of music back to the richness of that quiet clearing. In the silence of the forest and in the books I read there — the Chronicles of Narnia, The Secret Garden, A Wrinkle in Time, and others — I grew to a deeper relationship with God. Yet when we moved away in sixth grade, my memories of that place and my conscious knowledge of God faded into the background.

I had always planned to be a doctor like my grandfather, but God’s plans for me were quite different. Originally a molecular biochemistry and biophysics major in college, I found my decision to become a physician suddenly turned upside down when I attended a history of art lecture with a friend. Something in the art pierced my heart, and although I struggled to maintain my interest in my science career, I found myself inexplicably drawn to attend more and more lectures in art history. What I then thought was the call of artistic beauty, later in life I came to realize was a response to the call implicit in the Biblical subject matter of the art. Yahweh calls each of us in different ways and reached my heart through slides of nativities and resurrections in university lecture halls.

Changing majors I traveled to Cambridge, England to pursue my graduate degree. It can be no accident that the midway point between my college rooms and the university library was King’s College Chapel. One evening I stumbled through its doors to escape rain pouring down from darkening skies and encountered again the silent music pouring down like grace from heaven. Like my circle of pines before, the Gothic stone forest at King’s College became the place of stillness in which I heard again the voice of God.

Determined to be the first woman director of the National Gallery of Art, I pursued a career in the museum field. God, however, pursued me and pulled me kicking and screaming to a small museum in the fields of the Texas panhandle. There I not only met the love of my life, my husband P.J., but I began a life of desert asceticism in which all but the most important things in life faded away. As a rancher’s wife living forty miles over unpaved roads from the nearest grocery store or Laundromat, I was given an abundance of time to read, be in silence, and think. It was during this desert sojourn that I expressed concern to our small town vicar that our church lacked a Sunday school program for my toddler son.

Before a week had passed, my vicar had sent me to Amarillo to attend a new Christian formation program for adults wishing to work with young children. Although I was a cradle Episcopalian who had attended church with my parents throughout childhood, I had always approached church as mainly a social obligation. Seen through this social lens the formation was stripped of meaning and was only mildly interesting until one day, the day upon which we were presented with the passion narratives. One of the formation leaders, who was both a priest and a catechist, gave a lecture on the origins of the last supper in the Passover traditions of the Jewish people, and somewhere in the midst of that lecture, I was shocked with the revelation, “Well, if this is true . . .” From that moment on, nothing has ever been the same.

I found within the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd both a way of life and a meaning for so many of the facets of my individual being. My love of art was expressed through the making of the materials for the children or the creation of cloths of honor to hang behind our atrium prayer table. My love of stories and storytelling found a purpose in the communication of the scriptures. The majesty of the silence found validation in the catechesis’ premise that the adult sits with the children before the mystery of God rather than serving as a lecturer. My love of music swells the songs with which we greet each mystery and celebration within the atrium. All my gifts could be gathered in one place through one program to be laid before the one God with children who constantly teach me ever more about the divine spirit.

Within three years — that number of divine perfection, I had left my professional job as a strategic development consultant for non-profits, and I found myself pulled into the unending canon of catechesis, first as a volunteer in my churches and then as a teacher in our local Episcopal school. Although I chose to step away from medicine and then later from executive positions which would have seemed to many to offer more in pay and privilege than I make as a catechist, I am richer that I ever dreamed I could be.

Yet still I hunger. I still feel a call to know more and serve more fully the God who whispers my name.  So I sit with the children, observing them, and capturing through my writing more verses of the song sung to them by the shepherd, in order to know better the composer and chief artist of the silent music, and in order to be able to bring back to the children who grace my life a deeper relationship with God than I know how to offer at present.