Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Book Review: Way of Holy Joy

selected, translated, and introduced by Patricia Coulter

I had every intention of reading The Religious Potential of the Child: Experiencing Scripture and Liturgy with Young Children this school year, but I lent my copy to a friend who is going through the Level 1 Catechesis training right now.  I received this slim book for Christmas and decided to read it first. It's a book of essays by Sofia Cavalletti, one of the co-creators of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. In it, she discusses many of the themes important to Catechesis, its philosophy and its history. Also included is a letter to her niece of the readings that most shaped her philosophy and a CV Sofia wrote for another publication.

In "The Child as Parable," she contemplates the Biblical passage where Jesus says we must become like children to enter the kingdom of God.
Between Christ and children there exists a profound affinity, which does not depend upon the possession or practice of this or that moral virtue, but rather on the existential situation of the child: the child is the privileged bearer of that reality which Christ has come to reveal and to realize in its complete fullness in his person.
One of the things I love about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is the idea that children and God already have a special relationship, this affinity for each other. All we do is provide a quiet atmosphere for that relationship to develop, one that will, by the grace of God, nurture the child of God his or her entire life.

In, "The Child and Peace," she considers why children are so drawn to the Atrium.
The joy that children experience in the relationship with God puts them at peace, a deep peace, which lingers within and which they do not wish to leave. It is a peace that makes one think that a deep chord has been touched within them and that they want to continue to listen to its lingering vibrations. It is a recollected joy and it spreads. It leads one to think that the child has found in the relationship with God the satisfaction of a vital, existential need.
Sofia's thoughts on these ideas are developed based on her studies and her reading, but more than anything on her experience in the Atrium with hundreds or thousands of children over fifty years. Most fascinating of all are the stories of the children of atheists who spend time in the Atrium and seem to find words and understanding of a relationship that already existed. (Also fascinating are the atheist parents who allow their children to visit an Atrium regularly.) Later in the same essay, she says:
Adults need to fulfill their adult tasks without presenting themselves as the measure of everything and bring this to realization in the conviction that they are not the model of what the child must become.
The child is not a being that must be forged in the image of the adult; an image is imprinted in the child, but it is the image of God.
I'm still contemplating how the Montessori method in general compliments or contrasts with Charlotte Mason's methods. We don't use many Montessori methods in our homeschool, but the Atrium seems to be a wonderful place for young children, and these thoughts on the teacher's place in the Atrium seem right and natural to me. The adult is not there to teach the child, to shape the child to become something we have in mind. We are there as guides, to share the delight of the Lord, to show them the love of Christ, to wonder together about the mysteries of the faith. More than anything, I hope to provide an atmosphere in which the children can hear the voice of God, something that often seems impossible in the tumult and hurry of the outside world.

My favorite essay is "An Adventure: The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd," in which I think is the most concise description of the philosophy and life in the Atrium. Sofia emphasizes that the children led every decision about materials and presentations.
The golden thread that interconnects the entire of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, that propelling force, as we said, which has carried forward almost a half-century of catechesis, is the joy of the child.
If she and Gianna Gobbi presented Scripture passages or materials the children ignored, they eliminated them. The program itself began with one small boy enthralled with the love of God as shared by Sofia as he was preparing for his First Communion.
The joy of which we are speaking is a particular joy, a joy very different than the kind the child manifests in other positive experiences. We are speaking of an intense and recollected joy, which seems to touch the deepest chord in the child's spirit; the child appears to want to continue listening to its lingering vibrations. We are speaking of a joy in which the child manifests a total involvement, with the whole of his or her person, in an experience much like the joy of a one who has found one's own life-giving element. The child manifests a complete sense of satisfaction; the child is held in an enchanted silence, as though safeguarding an inner fermentation that is occurring within.
The reference to an "inner fermentation" is a reminder that the results of time spent in the Atrium are not always visible to the catechist. Often, children will contemplate a Scripture verse or parable for weeks or months. Their thoughts will resurface later in connection with another presentation or perhaps at a time or place removed from the Atrium. One of the other catechists in my Atrium speaks ofter of "planting the seeds" though we may never see the plants when they've grown.

This essay contained a section on the Atrium itself, the orientation of the Atirum and its purpose.
The atrium is a place where a community of children lives a religious experience together with some adults (the catechists) that prepares them to participate in the larger family community, ecclesial and social. In the atrium, the children are initiated into the realities of the Christian life, but also, and above all, they begin to live this life in meditation and prayer.
The atrium is different from a classroom in a school. In the atrium, there is no teacher's desk or chair, because there is only one Teacher, to whose voice the adult and children together are listening.
The catechist is not a professor of religion. The atrium is not a place of religious instruction, but of religious life. It resembles a classroom in that it is a place of work and study; in the atrium, however, work and study become colloquy with God, and therefore it is already a place of worship in some sense. In the atrium, children can live according to their own rhythm, something not possible in church, when the whole community is gathered.
There are so many important thoughts in these three paragraphs. First, we do not provide the Atrium as an alternative to worship in the liturgy with the entire Church. Instead, it provides the children with the opportunity to immerse themselves in the liturgy, to learn the most essential meanings within it, so that they can participate more fully in the Mass.

Building on that knowledge, we pray and wonder with them so they can learn how to pray. In some ways, the children pray with startling ease, but they are not always given the opportunity to do so with an adult who recognizes their ability and the value of what they wish to say to Jesus. (Often, it's as simple and profound as, "Jesus, I love you.") In addition, the Atrium provides an environment of peace and quiet in which prayer is not only possible, but encouraged.

Most important, the catechists are not Teachers. Our goal is not to instruct the children, but to guide them so they can hear the voice of God in Scripture, in the Mass, and in times of prayer and meditation. As I mentioned before, one of the most profound ways to do this is to wonder with the children as we read Scripture together. Sofia reminds us repeatedly that Scripture is so deep and full that we can never understand it. Therefore, when we wonder with the children we are honestly opening ourselves to learning more about God and our relationship with him.

According to this website, the translator, Patricia Coulter, studied with Sofia Cavaletti and was instrumental in bringing Catechesis of the Good Shepherd to North America.  It's clear from the brief notes introducing each chapter that the translator knew the author well.

This is an excellent little book for anyone interested in what Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is and the philosophy that shapes an Atrium.

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