A Kindling of the Heart

How do we see into the heart of a child?

Do we watch children walk out of our atria and wonder, “Has any of my work touched their understanding, helped them understand our faith, or grown their knowledge of God?”

Of course, this very question reveals our perspective is wrong.  We know as catechists that it is not we who are the teachers in our atria. Christ is the only teacher there.  As set forth in the 32 Characteristics of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the fruits of the child’s experience in the atrium belong to Christ; they are not ours.  Our work is simply to live in faith, to be an unprofitable servant, to prepare the environment for the child, to introduce the child to a material made ready for his use, and then to observe and record her work.

Why do we observe and record the child’s work?  We do so first, because this is the way we determine what material a child has mastered and which materials to present next to her in order to invite her to contemplate more fully the mysteries of faith.

However, returning to my first question, observation and documentation are also the most effective tools given us for seeing into the depths of a child’s heart.

Observation and documentation of children’s artwork over the scope of a year allowed me for instance to see into the heart of a kindergarten child, Piper, in a Level 1 atrium.  Gregarious and fun-loving, Piper began her third year in a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium in August, and she gravitated naturally to the center of her class’ social sphere.  Upon entering the room each week, her crowd moved to the art shelf, chatting and choosing colored pencils carefully, examining them for length, sharpness, and color.  Once satisfied with their tools, they settled together, still gabbing, at the long table and drew together: rainbows, flowers, cards for their mothers, and, occasionally, crosses or nativities.   Using my iPhone and an app called ArtKive, I surreptitiously snapped and archived photos of their artwork. In the calm after the children left, I studied their drawings in order to answer my constant question: could I see what was going on in the hearts of the children?

Over time patterns began to emerge.  In Piper’s artwork in particular her response to her true Teacher was revealed as one of longing, of joy, and of great love. A study of her drawings made over the course of the year revealed a profound interest and joy in the sacrament of baptism.

November 2013

November 2013

Level 1 Baptism corner

Baptism Corner – Level 1 Atrium

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

According to my observation notes for the year, it was November 11 that Piper first pinned to the prayer wall in our room a drawing she had made.  To those familiar with our atrium, it was clear that her drawing represented the atrium’s baptism corner.  The paschal candle, marked with a red cross, stood tall in the center of her drawing, and just as it did in our baptism area, a cross hung above it.  In both her drawing and in our baptism corner, the paschal candle was flanked by two smaller candles representative of the baptismal candles given to a catechumen at his or her baptism.  I found it interesting that Piper had drawn all three of the candles in her drawing with crosses and with flames.  While a true baptismal candle often is marked with a cross, our small candles in the atrium are simply white vigil candles.   Were these crosses based upon her own observation of baptismal candles given out at a baptism in her church? Or was she expressing a personal understanding of flaming baptismal candles as a sign of the light of the Risen Christ shared with a newly baptized individual?  My observation notes for the day included these questions about her work: “Is this an exercise in artistic representation of our space, or is it theological drawing expressing her understanding and interest in baptism? Keep a watch and be prepared to speak to her parents.”

A few weeks later, on December 2, Piper left her group at the table and asked me to light the paschal candle at the baptism corner.  Afterwards, as I later lit the baptismal candle for her from the Christ candle, I reminded her that when Jesus rose, he brought a risen light so strong that death could not extinguish it.  I wondered with her what that light must be like and what it would be like  to become filled with this light.  Piper did not answer, and I did not press her.  A child’s silence is often the outward sign of deep contemplation in the inner being of the child’s heart, a contemplation for which the child does not have words.  So, I moved away and kept watch from a distance, leaving her to watch her small candle flame in silence. She sat there in the baptism corner watching the flame of her candle for the majority of the period before returning to the art shelf. I did not get the opportunity to see what her art expressed that day. How I wish that I had!

Piper Laur annunciation Dec 2013 KThe next week the children explored the scriptures of the Annunciation from Luke. Following the discussion, Piper created a picture of a female, dressed in blue, above which she had written the word “God.”  Because I was near, I heard her  explain to her neighbor at the table that the figure was Mary. This did not surprise me.  Mary had been a subject of interest in the presentation just before, and the Mary of our Annunciation work is a soft, blue felt.  It was easy to see the iconography.

What was most interesting was Piper’s casual comment about the drawing to her neighbor: “God came into Mary from above, like when we are baptized.”  The connection she made between incarnation and baptism, and her linking of the role of God the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary at the incarnation and ourselves at baptism in a similar manner fascinated me. Truly, children have a way to see to the heart of Christian mystery in a manner which strips away the accumulations of politics and theology which divides us as adults.  It took a very long time for the representatives of the various Christian denominations to the World Council of Churches conference in Lima to come to such a clarity of understanding about the shared doctrine of baptism. The Lima Document , finally adopted in 1982, states that “In God’s work of salvation, the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection is inseparably linked with the pentecostal gift of the Holy Spirit,” and it goes further to define the role of the Holy Spirit in baptism as marking a seal within the baptized which anoints the baptized as the son or daughter of God.

 God bestows upon all baptized persons the anointing and the promise of the Holy Spirit, marks them with a seal and implants in their hearts the first instalment of their inheritance as sons and daughters of God. The Holy Spirit nurtures the life of faith in their hearts until the final deliverance when they will enter into its full possession, to the praise of the glory of God (II Cor. 1:21—22; Eph. 1:13-14). (Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982. 10. Web.)

 

 

This action of the Holy Spirit who, in descending, marks one as the inheritor, the child of God, is made manifest both in our ecumenical understanding of baptism and in the texts of incarnation which Piper was illustrating:

The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin? The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born  will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (Luke 1:30-35)

Clearly, Piper’s drawing of the incarnation is not simply a response to the infancy narrative, but an understanding that in baptism we become as Christ, marked as an inheritor of God’s kingdom and named by God as his own child. This was a further exploration of the sacrament of baptism, a continuation of her work from the week before.  Perhaps her initial drawing had not been simply a still-life of a part of our room; perhaps it had been truly a theological exploration of the articles of baptism.  With this second drawing and with her statement to her classmate, Piper revealed distinctly that she was engaging in mystagogy, a meditation upon the mystery of our sacrament.  I made a note in my observation folder to keep a close eye on her artwork in the weeks ahead.

On February 24 I glimpsed Piper again at work with the art materials following a presentation on the  parable of the hidden treasure from Matthew 13.

Piper Laur crucifixion February 24 2015 KPiper first drew three yellow rectangles in ascending size on her paper; each rectangle she marked with a green/blue cross. At this point she seemed to be drawing again the baptismal candles from her very first picture. However, her next additions to the picture expanded the mystagogy of the baptismal candles.  She drew a figure of a smiling man in blue, his head resting on the rectangles, and then she surrounded these elements with a red outline of a cross. Called to assist another child at the prayer table, I did not see the order in which the remaining elements were added. I heard her explain the swirls of white which surrounded the cross though.  “God’s breath” she told her friend as I was passing the art table on the way to light the candles at the altar work for another child. When I walked back past, I saw that she had labeled the figure “Jesuse” and had added a gray circle at the base of the figure’s feet. I wondered about the significance of the gray circle, about God’s breath surrounding the cross, about the yellow bars above the figure’s head.  I have seen similar circles in children’s drawings before.  They appear frequently as the stone in images of the resurrection.  Was this a moment in which Christ was caught between the cross and the tomb? Or between his death and resurrection?  Why the smile? Why the bars of yellow? The ‘breath of God’ was a clue: Piper seemed to have drawn an image of the mystery of faith, (“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”), a unification of the crucifixion, the tomb, the resurrection into new life.  Here is a joyful Christ into whom God has breathed his ruach –again the Holy Spirit appears! — and from whom bursts forth a new and vibrant light of risen life. I couldn’t help but feel that the expression of this joyful Christ was one that invited the viewer to engage with him in this transformative, Spirit enlivened experience.

From this point on, Piper drew an avalanche of baptismal imageries.  On March 3 following a presentation on the first few verses of Psalm 23 and a discussion of the verse “even though I walk through the darkest valley I am not afraid for you are with me,” Piper worked with the Eucharistic presence materials.  Then sitting down to the art Piper Laur candle 1 january 2014table she requested an orange pencil and went to work with great fervor and energy to depict a flame.  The few lines which suggest a candle (a rudimentary rectangle and circle) appear simply place holders on the page and were added in the hurried few seconds as she cleaned up to leave the room.  Unlike her earlier depictions of candles, there is not a cross or other external identifiers of the candle as a sign of Christ.  Instead, her focus is purely on the flame, a symbol throughout scripture and Christian art as a sign of the Holy Spirit.

I felt confident that Piper’s intentional drawing of the flame was an expression of her experience with the Holy Spirit, and yet I was left with a question.  Had she experienced the Holy Spirit in her contemplation of baptism?  Piper’s flame of the Holy Spirit was clearly set in the context of a candle, and this series of drawings began with one which had as its subject the candles of the baptismal corner.  Here, it was as if those small flames and as if the rectangular golden bars of her drawing of Christ’s death and resurrection had flamed into life. But is this the Paschal candle or the baptismal candle? Is this an image of Christ aglow with the Risen Light ignited by the Holy Spirit, or is it Piper filled with the light of the Risen Christ in baptism?  Or is it simply God, a mystic flame, as Moses encountered him in the burning bush?

Note that the grey circle of her prior drawing of the crucifixion is still present at the foot of the candle.  This gray circle seems to me to be evocative of the gray circle at the foot of Christ in her crucifixion drawing.  In this case it seem to indicate that the candle IS the Risen Christ aflame with the Holy Spirit and that the rectangles of light above Christ’s head in that drawing have become in this one rays of light protruding from the head, the flame of the Light of God.  But could I be sure? Could this representation of a candle truly be an image of the risen Christ illuminated by the Holy Spirit, of the light of the risen Christ given to us as a gift in baptism?

In discussion with her father about this drawing of the candle, he suggested to me at the time that this circle could simply  be the cup in which the vigil candle was held. Without the context of her prior drawings and my observation of her work I would not have had support for my sense that this flame is more than a pictorial representation of an object; my sense is that this is an icon of her mystic experience with God.

On March 24, following a presentation with the class of the gesture of the washing of the hands from the Eucharist in which the words of Psalm 51 were added (“Create in me a clean heart, O God”), Piper set to work with the art materials.  Once again she dew a candle with a large flame. This time though she provided additional clues for our interpretation. Above the candle she wrote “I love God!” Beside it she drew a red cross with a figure in black upon it. The candle is approximately twice the size of the cross. The connection of the cross to the candle reveals that she does synthesize the death of Christ with the light of the Risen Christ in baptism, and the size ratio of the candle to the cross reveals her understanding of the enormity of the Risen Light. Her words above the candle reveal a response of great love to this gift of Risen Light.  Whereas in her drawing of the Annunciation the word “God” simply represented a descent of the Divine being, now the candle itself is all humanity – Mary, Jesus, Piper — within whom the Holy Spirit is made manifest and who anoints and nurtures a life of faith, finally setting free praise of God.  Like Simeon before her, Piper is singing about the light to enlighten the nations.

Now, Piper has not read the Lima Document, created after much discussion and struggle by representatives of different Christian denominations to clarify points of doctrine in baptism are shared by all Christians.  No, her clear and pure faith simply puts forth in her child’s drawing what years of adult debate concluded in that hard won consensus of faith.

Piper wasn’t finished.  On April 14, following contemplation of the Holy Week narratives through use of the concrete model of the City of Jerusalem, Piper again chose the art materials.  She began by drawing a great blue swath in the center of her paper, and then she sat back and looked at it.  To me it looked at first as though she were beginning again to draw a Mary like that of her earlier annunciation drawing. This similarity was underscored when she wrote the name “God” above the blue swath as she had in that earlier drawing. Then she wrote “Piper” beneath it.  Was this a return to the idea of the earlier picture, that just as God’s Spirit entered into Mary, God’s Spirit entered into us in baptism, I wondered?

Piper Laur 2014 water of baptismShe then drew in black a cross to the left and a cross to the right.  She went back to the art shelf and looked for a white pencil.  Not finding one, she drew with her black pencil the looping shapes she had made on the crucifixion earlier, but this time only at the top and bottom of the blue swath.  Were these also God’s breath, God’s spirit? Apparently finished with her drawing, she pinned it to the board.

She wandered a bit (oh, why did I not write down to which works she wandered!) then went back, took down her drawing, and added the word “To” before “God” and “From” before Piper. With a sense of finality, she pinned the drawing to the board once more, and then went straight back to the art shelf.

Love note coverThere Piper took a paper, folded it in half to make a note card, and drew a large heart on the front of it.  She again wrote “To God” and “From Piper” but this time she reversed the positions of the words on the top and bottom of the page.

Opening the fold, she drew a large heart shaped face on the right side.  Curls on the top appear to be eyes while curls on the bottom appear to be feet.  She added a curve (smile?) and two lines (nostrils).  A symbol of God who is love?  A symbol of Piper who loves God?  love note interiorThis card she brought as a gift to me (her first time ever to do this); when I asked if she wanted me to put it on the bulletin board, she just shook her head “no”, smiled, and went to put her pencils away.

I’ve wondered about these last artworks.  The blue swath is so similar to her first drawing of the annunciation.  Is this an abstraction of humanity clothed as Mary? Or is it, with its black loops at top and bottom, an abundance of water, a waterfall?  Was this water spilling from God to Piper? Was it both? And why the crosses?

The more I contemplated her work, the more I began to believe it included all of these elements. This was another expression of her growing awareness of the signs of baptism and the pouring of the consecrated water over the baptized. The outpouring of blue marked by the swirls of God’s ruach pours in abundance from the word “God” to “Piper,” and the blue is both the water and Piper/Mary experiencing the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit.  The placement of the water between the crosses captures the traditional imagery of the three crosses on Calvary, although here the waterfall takes the place of the cross of Christ.  Filled with the Holy Spirit in the outpouring of the baptismal waters, Piper/Mary/Humanity is clothed as Christ.  My notes for the day show that other children around her at the time she drew this image were themselves drawing images of a hill surmounted by three crosses. Piper was, unlike them, synthesizing the death of Christ, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the Annunciation with the gestures and signs of baptism. Again, all of these meanings are present in the Lima Document’s discussion of the role of water in Baptism in which Christ’s death and resurrection, the enlightenment of the baptized by Christ, the renewal by the Holy Spirit, and the flood of cleansing water are lifted up:

The New Testament scriptures and the liturgy of the Church unfold the meaning of baptism in various images which express the riches of Christ and the gifts of his salvation. These images are some- times linked with the symbolic uses of water in the Old Testament. Baptism is participation in Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3–5; Col. 2:12); a washing away of sin (I Cor. 6:11); a new birth (John3:5); an enlightenment by Christ (Eph. 5:14); a re- clothing in Christ (Gal. 3:27); a renewal by the Spirit(Titus 3:5); the experience of salvation from the flood(I Peter 3:20–21); an exodus from bondage (I Cor. 10:1–2) and a liberation into a new humanity in which barriers of division whether of sex or race or social status are transcended (Gal. 3:27-28; I Cor. 12:13). The images are many but the reality is one. (Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982. 9. Web)

 

So, Piper — a five year old in a preschool atrium — is meditating upon and illustrating a point of confluence of Christian doctrine from diverse denominations which was set forth by the authors of the Lima Document in this way:

In the celebration of baptism the symbolic dimension of water should be taken seriously and not minimalized. The act of immersion can vividly express the reality that in baptism the Christian participates in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. (Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982. 14. Web)

And what of her final gift to me? The “love note” is, I believe, an expression again of great joy and love in response to what she realizes is the great gift of baptism, a gift from God to Piper which she has discovered in the environment she knows I have prepared for her in our school atrium. Piper, the social butterfly who chats about pink bows and kittens and birthday parties at the art table with her friends, has been contemplating and celebrating the great gifts of baptism.

Could I have missed what her heart was contemplating while she was gathered at the art shelf, the social center of the atrium? Oh, yes!   If I had not kept snap shots of Piper’s artwork or notations in a journal about her work and her comments, the trail of her mystagogy would have been indecipherable.  Any single drawing, seen on its own in isolation, would have hidden the greater meaning it revealed only when placed in the context of her work over many months. How many such kindlings of the Spirit in the heart of a child have I missed in the past simply because I was not observing, not documenting, the work of the child in the atrium.

To return to our initial question then, how can we see into the heart of the child, see if the environment we prepare or the presentations we offer open up the child’s heart to God’s loving presence?  We cannot discern the workings of a child’s heart through our questions or our examinations.  We can only perceive it if we live in the spirit of faithful observation.  The unfolding plan of God is discernible only to those who wait and watch with hope.

“BAPTISM, EUCHARIST AND MINISTRY: Faith and Order Paper No. 111.” . World Council of Churches, 1 Jan. 1982. Web. 22 June 2014. <http://www.anglicancommunion.org/ministry/ecumenical/dialogues/lutheran/docs/pdf/lima_document.pdf&gt;.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

Listen!


[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 Holy of Holies

This week, ten years ago, the second graders were in the atrium, and a young Hindu boy sat working alone with the Maxims (New Testament moral statements). Across the room, a group of boys sat with their backs to him while they worked with the blocks with which they could build the model city of Jerusalem. Despite my efforts and the attempts of teachers in other classrooms, this group of boys had persisted in isolating and mocking the young Hindu for his different skin color and belief system.

He brought to me the tablet with Paul’s words, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you”, and asked, “What does this mean?”

“What vision does it give you?” I asked, turning the question around for him.

He gazed in silence for a moment at the boys across the room then pinched the skin of his wrist, drawing it upward. “I think it means this is made from God, and so are they.” Here he pointed at his tormentors. “I think it means we must love each other; I should go to them.”

And he did.

Before this conversation I would have told you that God’s temple was the Holy of Holies represented in our atrium by just one of the blocks those boys worked with at the Jerusalem table. Forevermore, I see it now revealed in the faces of all those around me. To be a catechist with the children is to have such revelations of God incarnate unveiled daily before us; it is to live in a new spiritual world, a world of hope for the future and faith in the children of God.

What is death?

What is death?  How can it be that at one moment life isn’t visible and that at the next we stand holding a living, breathing, wriggling infant in our arms?  And where does life go, when the child we hugged goodbye as he left for school suddenly lies before us without movement or awareness or a spark of that life which made him so real to us?  This spirit which animates each of us uniquely and individually, which provides a personality to each of us which is so unlike any other living being’s, can it suddenly cease to exist or disappear into nothingness?

No.

That life, that anima is eternal, and for just a moment we may glimpse its presence in our lives, for just an instant we may be graced by it as it passes through one stage of its life.

Like the wheat seed we keep treasured in the grain elevators in our communities, the life of our loved ones is present in the stage in which we best understand it, can best hold it in our hands, only for an instant.  Trying to explain his coming death to his disciples Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat.”

What does this mean?

Before the great mystery of life and death we are told not to hold on to the present way of seeing, not to try to hold back the growth and transformation of life as it breaks forth into something new, unimagined, and for us, for now, unseen.

Try to hold the wheat seed for ever in the grain elevator, and, at best, it only remains a seed; at worst, never being freed to its purpose, it becomes corrupted.  But once hidden in the ground, the mystery of life itself is revealed, and the life within is set free: free to sink new, deep roots; free to sprout in hope; free to leap joyously sunward.  The seed in the ground appears flat, emptied, where once it was full and rounded to our touch, only because the life within it has sprung exponentially forward into such a miracle of life unleashed that we would marvel over it in every chance meeting, every cup of coffee at the Dairy Queen, if only it weren’t so seemingly commonplace in the yearly cycle of our agricultural lives.

“But if it falls to the ground and dies, it grows and becomes much wheat,” Jesus continued to try to explain to his disciples.

Much wheat.  We can only imagine now how our physical beings are like the seed, holding within an eternal life that is waiting to explode into abundance of life when our physical being falls to the ground and appears empty and flat to those who see us “die”.   We can only imagine, believe, trust, and know in our hearts and faith that which has been promised to us, that which Christ tried through parable to explain to ears that couldn’t quite believe.  The passing of the body here is not the end; it is only the beginning of a new and greater life beyond, a life our loved ones who have passed from us enjoy in abundance and a life which we too will share in our own time.

So I believe with every fiber of my being.

Why?

I remember a time when I glimpsed for a moment that which was beyond this husk, this stage of physical life.  I remember the moment when driving from the ranch to Stratford the hole in the road suddenly appeared before me, and, before I could react, my car flipped.  I remember the impact of the roof in the soft soil of the bar ditch, the spray of glass and soil which struck my face as the windows exploded, the oddly calm thought which crossed my mind, “Well, darn. This is it.”

Yet more real than any of this is what I remember next:  the light, warm and bright, which rushed toward me from a point over my gear shift and which expanded to envelope me like a shield; a presence there of great comfort and peace and joy; a Love that invited and yet simply waited for me in loving patience.

How much time passed in that realm of light?  I would have said to you, years. It felt like, I believe it to be, years.

At some point however, the light changed, became like the ending of a hug withdrawn, and moved away until it disappeared entirely, and I was left to find myself unharmed, hanging upside down from the seat belt, the next verse of the song tinkling from the still playing radio.  The life before the roll, the return to life after, these were that which was unreal; it was the life within that light that was all that was reality.

Love is waiting for us to welcome us into the greatest reality of life, a life so vibrant it is beyond our imagining.  This I know; this I have seen; this I believe.

And I know that sometimes we are given the grace to glimpse this joyous life, that sometimes we are given clear signs which point us with great joy toward the certainty of that life.

I remember the small girl, four or maybe five, who sat bewildered in my school atrium, bewildered because everyone around her was saddened by the presence of her grandmother in hospice.  She had been with me as we had explored the gesture of the preparation of the chalice for the Eucharist, the mixing of the water and the wine.  She had listened to a classmate whisper in wonder, “If the wine is Jesus, then are we the water, hugged in the chalice by him?”  That day they came to pull her out of class, because the family thought the worst had come.

The next time I saw her was the week following the funeral.  As she and her mother entered the preschool doors she saw me, and, running to leap upon me in a flying bear hug, she said, “Miss Kay, my grandma died.”

I hugged her close and said, “I know.  I’m so sorry.”

“No,” she admonished me before bursting out in joy, “Miss Kay, we went to church for my grandma, and my grandma was dancing in the chalice with Jesus!”

Let us become as a child.  Let us see with a child’s eyes the miracle of life which surrounds us.  Let us grieve for the passing of what we could hold in our hands, and let us rejoice with all our being in the Life that goes forth into glorious abundance.  Let us honor the spirit which animated our loved one.  We know the source from which it came; let us not doubt where it has gone.  It is, it lives, and we shall meet again amidst an exaltation of joy.

By my hand . . .

As we prepare to enter Lent, I am reminded of a discussion held earlier in the year in my Level 2 (six to nine year old) room. The second graders were exploring together Isaiah 11, “A shoot shall come forth from Jesse”, and they were discussing what it meant “he will not judge by what his eyes see or by what his ears hear”. One seven year old girl suggested: “He doesn’t need to see or hear. We are part of him; we are his branches.” Another child said: “By his hand, he judges by his hand.”

The first child had linked Isaiah’s prophecy to Jesus’ great I AM statement in John 15: “I am the true vine, and you are my branches.” She had connected Isaiah’s promise of the Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures to the New Testament’s Jesus of Nazareth who promised at the last supper to love us as God loved him and to abide with us. Certain of her faith that we are indeed a part of Christ’s body, part of the true vine which she saw as the shoot from the root of Jesse, she lived without fear of punishment or rejection. The eyes of her faith saw judgment as healing or, as Christ says in the parable, a cleansing “by his Word”.

The other child, prompted by the Holy Spirit, brought forth that familiar phrase from the Hebrew Scriptures, “by his hand”. This phrase, repeated throughout the Tanakh, speaks of God’s mighty acts of salvation; in Exodus the LORD says, “by my hand I brought you out of Egypt”. Again, the child’s vision of judgment was a comfort, a vision of redemption.

For both children, God’s judge is not a figure of terror that raises emotions of guilt and shame, but instead is Christ revealed as Love, as the Word which cleanses us, as the LORD who acts in history to save us with the work of His own hand, as a savior to whom we are intimately bound and who invites us to abide as part of His very being.

If our children see God’s judgment revealed so clearly as an act of love incarnate, why then should we adults fear, rather than long for, the judgment to come?

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.