Reading Notes on The Religious Potential of the Child

The Religious Potential of the Child by Sofia Cavaletti just arrived this week and I’m only about fifty pages in; but it’s really getting my wheels turning. I think I’ll blog my thoughts as I read rather than waiting to write a formal review when I’m done.

I love the gentle way this method works with the nature of the child, seeking first to observe what the child responds to:

With rare exceptions, we have avoided systematic questions. Instead, we tried to understand the child’s way of thinking in the course of personal conversations and group discussions…. Time and again we observed that the children were enchanted by the presentation of certain themes and that they made prolonged use of determinate elements of the materials. When this recurred over a long period of time, then we believed that this was an indication that the subject matter and the manner of its presentation corresponded to the interests and needs of the child…. we concentrated on those parables that proved to be a constant object of the child’s passionate interest.(21-22)

This method of inquiry respects the autonomy of children and seeks to learn from them what will nourish their interior life, their relationship with God, rather than imposing adult’s preconceptions of what children need to learn.

We had limited ourselves to offering the single themes with the aim of identifying the aspect of God that corresponded to the needs of the younger children and how to present it. This phenomenon of the spontaneous convergence of the individual components of the Christian message toward the figure of the Good Shepherd—a constant phenomenon in groups of children from extremely diversified environments—was always associated with the manifestations of serene peace and the sense of profound satisfaction… so we asked ourselves if the person of the Good Shepherd could not be the figure that fulfilled in a particular way that religious exigence verified in the child.

So the children themselves and not the adults selected the Good Shepherd as the aspect of God which most spoke to them, which filled their hunger and brought them peace. Interesting that Psalm 23 is the one most often taught to children—we even have a picture book of that psalm that Bella adores with pictures of a little boy gazing at a stained glass window of the Good Shepherd and bringing home from school a drawing of the Good Shepherd, and his sister clutching to her a stuffed lamb.

It is important to base catechesis on a few, essential elements that are able to reveal themselves to the child gradually as he grows through adolescence to adulthood, and that are also capable of leading the person toward an even deeper penetration of reality.

This is where I’m really interested in seeing what the author has observed because she’s had a wider sample than is available to me and a longer time to observe. I could feel through this by trial and error, but learning from the experiences of one who has traveled the road I know I will walk will help me to plan our journey.

We believe that our experience is but a drop in the ocean—even though it extends to include the experience of numerous past students and collaborators. Nevertheless, it may have some value in the exploration of the mysterious world of the child and his relationship with God. We ask those persons who may share some of the views set forth here to take them not as a point of arrival, but as a departure point for a deeper and more developed research.

I find this statement most comforting. I feel like I’m on the right track since this is exactly the attitude with which I approached this book. I would be bothered if the author saw this as a point of arrival, I would feel shut out and would in turn be tempted to dismiss her ideas. But since she acknowledges that we are both explorers of the same mysterious territory, I feel she’s extended an invitation to me to come with her on a great quest.

It is also interesting to note the limits of their observation: it “does not take into consideration the child under three.”

What this potential consists of and how it can be helped is, to the author at least, completely unknown.(23)

I have a few ideas in that regard, having been an avid observer of my own two-year-old’s experiences in the past year or so. I’ve watched her respond as I introduced her to basic prayers, to visiting the church, to crucifixes, images of Christ, Mary and the saints.

Often there appears to be a disproportion between what the children receive in the area of religion and what they express.(39)

I frequently have felt that with Bella giving her a little bit opened a floodgate. She’s responded to the little bits I’ve given her as if they satisfy some internal need. It only takes one or two introductions for her to adopt a practice.

So we ask ourselves whether the child does not find the satisfaction of an existential need when he comes into contact with the religious reality, which will influence the harmonious formation of his personality and the lack of which will negatively affect the child’s life.(22)

The religious reality, Calvaletti argues, already exists outside of the child and we merely make an introduction. I suspect even more the religious reality somehow already exists within the child and we merely give them the tools with which they may express that which they already know at some deeper level. When I was expecting Bella I had an intuition that the child hidden in my womb somehow knew more than I did about the hidden life of God, that somehow she in her darkness was able to see the stars and dance with the angels, to respond to the music of creation. I see the same intuition in Regina Doman’s book, Angel in the Waters, which portrays the relationship between the infant in the womb and his guardian angel. The angel tells the infant that after he is born he may not see the angel or hear the angel but that the angel will nonetheless always be there.

There is a story my sister once told me of a little girl raised by atheist parents who had never talked to her about God who asked them to leave the room so that she could talk with her newborn baby brother. The parents, worried about leaving such a young child with an infant, listened in on the monitor and heard her ask him, “What is heaven like? Remind me. I’m beginning to forget.”

It often feels to me that my role in these earliest years as Bella is acquiring language and learning to describe the physical world around her, as she asks me a dozen times a day to repeat the names of familiar objects and of people (the constant litanies of: shoes, spoon, bread, blue skirt, light, pillow, Sophia, cousins, grandma) it seems to me that my job with the spiritual life is likewise teaching her words for realities that she already knows. She already knows who God is, I merely give her the words so that she can speak to Him. She already knows Mary and is drawn to her. Mary is already her mother, the perfect mother who can give her all the love she needs, to make up for my deficiencies in this fallen world. All I do is teach her the words to the Hail Mary and she makes them her own, reciting them throughout the day as she plays, when she hears a siren, when she flips through the old calendar with images of Mary.

No child, I believe, has ever been loved to the degree that he wanted and needed. For the child, love is more necessary than food… In helping the child’s religious life, far from imposing something that is foreign to him, we are responding to the child’s silent request: ‘Help me to come closer to God by myself.’(45)

When I hear Bella praying, when I see her kissing the cross and playing with holy cards, when I see her putting holy water on her hand and touching her forehead, saying, “bless Bella,” or to her chest saying, “sign,” (or is it “Son”?), then I sense that I am witnessing a mystery. That somehow in those moments she is much closer to God than I am, that she sees more clearly.

It is a fact that the child seems capable of seeing the Invisible, almost as if it were more tangible and real than the immediate reality.(43)

I have heard stories of children pointing to the altar at Mass, pointing to “the baby”. At first the parents were confused, not understanding, then it dawned on them that somehow the child was seeing more clearly a reality that it would never have occurred to the parents to describe, Jesus on the altar, whom the child encounters in the form of the Christ Child.

Children penetrate effortlessly beyond the veil of signs and “see” with utmost facility their transcendent meaning, as if there were no barrier between the visible and the Invisible.(43)

My sister told me about visiting a friend of hers who was agnostic and had never spoken with her children (who I think were about 2) about God. The little twin girls saw my sister’s simple cross and said, “God.” Their mother was astonished because she could have sworn they didn’t know that word, had never heard it. And yet seeing the cross they saw the reality beyond the sign.

In the religious sphere, it is a fact that children know things no one has told them.(42)

And so we take our cues from the child, learning from him how to listen with him to the Word of God, allowing it to speak to us as well as to him, to unfold within us.

we believe that early childhood is the time of the serene enjoyment of God, when the response the creature gives to God consists in the very acceptance of the gift in fullness of joy. The time for a different response will come, a response that will even involve the person in effort and struggle. But we must respect the stages of human development. (24)

I think there is my clue as to how to proceed in these earlier years before we embark on the path laid out here in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd: respect the stage of human development. What do I witness in Bella? A desire to know the names of things, to sort and properly categorize, a desire for songs and music and dancing, a need to touch, to explore with her whole body, and a need to do it herself, to express her independence—even though she still often lacks the physical dexterity to accomplish a desired task, she wants me to wait until she expresses her need for help. She has a hunger for images, a fascination with statues and pictures. She loves to dip her hand in holy water, to bless herself and others, even calling out the names of her sister Sophia when she’s in the other room, of her Aunt Theresa and her Grandfather who aren’t here—because once they were here and once she touched their foreheads with holy water. The ritual once performed must be performed again even if the players aren’t here now.

She herself tells me what she needs, she tells me that she wants to go to mass as she recalls it in the middle of the week. She remembers to pray for Cardinal Sean and Father Murphy with only a gentle prompting from us. She is fascinated by baptism—putting water on the baby’s head. She wants me to say the prayers that she can’t yet say for herself, to complete the Hail Mary and to say the blessing over her food, to move her hand through the sign of the cross that she hasn’t yet mastered.  She wants me to read the novena to Mother Teresa and the book of meditations on the rosary and the book of meditations by Pope John Paul, she asks for them by name and gets frustrated if I can’t find them or if I suggest a different selection.

I am feeding that hunger. i should trust what she tells me about her needs and listen to her requests. Perhaps there are other things I could be doing, things I haven’t thought of yet; but I do know that she is responding to what I am doing. I’m on the right track.

Wow, I can’t believe I wrote so much! Now I’ve gone through some of my thoughts on the introduction and chapter one. I’ll tackle the next chunk of the book in a future post.

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

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