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.