I’m going through this much more slowly than I anticipated. i was planning to do two chapters at a time; but that would really be monstrously long. There is so much I want to dwell on as I read. I know these notes are already quite long and maybe won’t be of much use to anyone but me. Still, it helps me to transcribe the passage that speak to me as I read and to write some commentary.
Chapter Two: The Child and the Adult
One thing I’ve really appreciated is how Cavaletti starts from the ground up. She assumes nothing, beginning in the first chapter by questioning whether children are even able to have a religious experience, a relationship with God, or whether it is an unfair imposition by the adult.
Then, having ascertained that children are able to enter into that relationship and in fact seem to crave it, she asks: What is the adult’s role?
The adult’s task is certainly to initiate the child into certain realities. There are events at the basis of Christianity that the adult should make known; there is an inheritance of truth and values that the adult should transmit with the whole of his lived life, but also through the word. In other words, the adult should proclaim God, who reveals His love through His Christ…
The receivers of the kerygma [proclamation] are the child and the adult; they are simultaneously announcers and listeners.
This certainly matches my experience with Isabella. I find that as I pray with her, tell her about Christ, I am receiving as much as I am transmitting. I listen with her; moreover, she leads me in the act of listening. I learn from her how to truly listen and when I hear the words repeated on her lips I hear them as if for the first time.
Yesterday morning I was saying morning prayer while nursing Sophia and, as often happens, Bella approached me with a book, asking to be read to. I told her I would, as soon as I was finished praying. And then I started reading the prayers to her.
Now, I have discovered that there are two ways of doing this. I can rattle through the prayers as quickly as possible, eyes to the book, hoping to forestall a meltdown. Usually doesn’t work. In fact is more likely to cause said meltdown. Or I can slow down, make eye contact with her frequently, prompt her to repeat the antiphon with me.
Yesterday I slowed down. I started repeating the antiphon after every verse. And she would repeat it after me. I cannot express how it moved me to hear her little voice repeating: “The Cross of the Lord is the Tree of Life”: “Cross is tree of ‘ife”.
Recently I’ve been having a hard time concentrating on prayer, I lose my focus, my mind wanders, the words are meaningless sounds my lips make. But slowing down and directing them at Bella, trying to ensure that she was a participant in my prayer, strangely enough helped me to be more present not only to her but also present to the words themselves and thus more present to God. Instead of being a distraction, Bella helped me to achieve a focus that has been very rare of late.
Not exactly the same as the proclamation of the word that Calvaletti is describing, I know. But the principle is similar. She emphasizes that the adult is the servant of the word and the servant of the child. In allowing Bella to be a part of my prayer I serve her and in being her servant I open myself to her presence and to the moment, living in the now that is rather than living in frustration over things not being the way I want them. I’m still striving to find the proper balance. How much is enough, how much is too much. She tends to lose focus by the end and I’m never sure if I should make her wait until I reach the end of the office or curtail the office to tend to her needs. It’s a fine line. I want to serve her and not selfishly put her off to fulfill my needs first but I also want to teach her about sacred time, about putting aside her desires to become a part of the prayer. I don’t think there’s one answer. Some days the best option may be putting down the prayer book so that I can focus solely on Bella.
Next, Cavaletti considers what “elements of the proclamation” is the child able to receive. The child lives in a religious world all of his own, she asserts and is not necessarily capable of receiving everything.
The adult should place himself in an attitude of observation, waiting for the child to indicate which are the elements of the Christian message he most receives, which aspects of the face of God satisfies the needs of childhood.
Again, she recognizes that the child has needs that we must satisfy and does not assume we can know those needs without a process of discernment. It is a very humble approach. At the same time she does not assume that children need to be fed baby food. She notes that when offered a choice between two figures that express God’s love the child chooses the Good Shepherd rather than the guardian angel, the greater, not the lesser: “It is precisely the greatest realities that we neglect to give the child; we hardly touch on them, taking them for granted.”
Every time we are unable to transmit theology to children or the uneducated, we should question ourselves, and we will come to realize, as we go closer to the core of things, that our inability depends on our own ignorance. How many times were we aware that we were not succeeding in speaking to the children about the greatest realities (how much difficulty we experienced with the Mass!) because we were unable to proclaim them with the essentiality the children needed. Only little by little, as we managed to go to the heart of things, were we able to communicate them to young children.
the catechist’s task is to create specific conditions so that this relationship may be established, but to withdraw as soon as contact occurs.
That sounds like the hardest part, knowing when to step back and let the relationship develop. It seems to me the catechist in this model is like a matchmaker, thr real romance develops after she steps out of the way.
To achieve this aim the adult should give the child before all else a way to have direct access to the sources, namely, to the scriptural and liturgical texts… I mean passages that are complete in themselves…. if we limit ourselves to giving the child one or two verses of our choice, verses that best express the parable’s teaching in our opinion, we intervene unduly between the text and the child, imposing on the child our way of listening to it.
This is contra the sort of practice I think of reading about in older books like Tom Sawyer and Anne of Green Gables in which children were given single Bible verses to memorize, which always seemed to me to be given without any greater context supplied for the poor child laboring to learn them.
(If we give them only one or two verses) We supply the child with a product we have already worked out and, as such, one that is limited, rather than opening up the boundless realm of God’s Word before the child. The child cannot meditate on a single verse; at most he can learn it and repeat it through a process of superficial learning that is academic rather than vital in nature.
Again, the focus is on the child forming an independent relationship with the text, and thus with the Word, as much as possible.
According to Maria Montessori’s conception, the material is not understood as an aid to the teacher but as a help for the child….it is a means of rendering the child independent of the adult, in that it enables the child to reflect, on his own, on what has been presented…. The catechetical material is not designed to lead to abstraction but to the vital knowledge of a concrete Person; it does not lead to the consideration of ideas but to prayer; it is not only an aid to learning but a help for one;s religious life as well. material that does not meet these requirements would not be good material.
In this the materials are clearly not toys but more akin to icons. This seems to give due weight to what I have observed in Isabella in that she learns very much through acting out that which she observes.
The material for catechesis is nothing else than the transposition, into a more tangible and didactically graduated form, of what is found in the Bible and the Liturgy.
The catechist’s creativity (in making materials) does not consist in a kind of creation out of nothing, but in always probing more deeply into the treasures of God’s Word and in presenting them in such a way as to give space to the child’s creativity.
The atrium is a place of work, where the work, however becomes conversation with God. It is already in some manner a place of worship, where the child can live worship according to his own rhythm, which is not possible in a church.
It isn’t clear how necessary the atrium is to the catechesis. I understand—and approve of—the desire to move away from an academic classroom sort of setting. As a homeschooler, the idea of a space set aside just for that purpose seems out of reach. I’m curious about how other homeschooling families handle this aspect. I have seen many people talk about having a corner set aside for a prayer table laid with a cloth of the liturgical color and the materials for the current presentation.
On the other hand the home is the domestic church and so I don’t really see the need to carve out a separate space in quite the same way one might from an institutional or school setting.
The seed of God’s Word, which the child receives, has need of the “hortus conclusus” (secret garden) of the atrium, and also the supportive oxygen of the adult community. One cannot substitute for the other: One integrates the other in a complementary function that is inseparable and without substitute.
The atrium is not a substitute for including children in the regular worship of the adult community. Children should come to mass and participate. At the same time we realize that merely attending mass is not enough, “without a place where the child can come in touch with the religious reality in a way and at a rhythm suitable to children, there is the danger the child will pass by great things without ever being able to grasp, interiorize, and make these realities his own.”
I like this balance between being inclusive and recognizing that children need time and space to take things at their own pace. I like moving away from an academic setting and attitude and recognizing that faith is about experience and relationship. So much to ponder here.
Additional Reading Notes to The Religious Potential of the Child by Sophia Cavaletti: