We just ended another season of Atrium with an early and joyful celebration of Pentecost last Thursday afternoon. Liturgy, candles, prayers and songs filled the time and at the end, much to the delight and anticipation of the children, an array of red foods were laid out and enjoyed in recognition of the liturgical color of Pentecost.
Atrium or Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is an international Montessori-based approach to Christian formation that makes room for children to touch and experience instead of just being told. What does, "The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed," mean to a child who has never seen or held a mustard seed? And does holding a tiny seed in the palm clear up the mystery? No, but it gives a starting place to Wonder and opens the door to begin understanding Biblical truths such as parables and lessons Jesus taught in a way that is tangible and meaningful. It allows children to do what comes naturally to them and that is to get up close by touching materials each week--handmade child-sized representations of the Altar and vestments as well as hand painted figurines depicting everything from the Annunciation to The Last Supper and parables and to ask questions and ponder what it all means. It gives them a chance to reflect on their baptism by hearing scripture and having water poured over their hand at a small font or to see a ribbon stretched the length of a football field in the lesson called La Fettuccia (The Ribbon) to illustrate the the history of the Kingdom of God. Our catechist Nancy Robinson shared this lesson with the Level II children in September and the children and adults in attendance were amazed at seeing how long the ribbon stretched before humans were created.
Children also have an opportunity to understand and experience liturgical worship in Atrium as well. To see a five year-old child carefully and mindfully set the prayer table or pour wine and water into a small chalice or to learn about gestures such as epiclesis as a visual sign of asking for God's gift of the Holy Spirit during Eucharist is an altogether sacred thing. When I see Fr. David do this each week I know the children watching recognize and understand what is happening. I pray it helps them see the things we do in worship as significant and meaningful and relevant to them and that church worship isn't just an adult-only experience.
The rich philosophy of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd maintains that children, even very young children, have a religious life and that God is present to them in a deep way. Atrium is a place to nurture that space in their lives that often remains hidden. For our seven year-old son Oliver, I have found the lessons he experiences in Atrium naturally carry over into discussions during our worship and life at home. He told me his favorite thing about Atrium is the lesson of the Empty Tomb and prayer time and I know he deeply loves our catechists Miss April (Manring), Miss Nancy (Robinson) and our interim Level II catechist Miss Jenny (Shaw). I can see a continued budding of knowledge and a depth to his questions and thoughts regarding our faith in God. He gets excited when he makes a connection between something he experienced at Atrium to something done at home or in Sunday morning worship services and many times I have seen him replicating these things at home. There have been many a chicken or stuffed animal or Lego mini-fig around here baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Most profoundly though, I see in him and his prayers a tender love for Jesus, the Good Shepherd who cares for his sheep--young and old.
I have never stood in the center of a vast lavender farm, but I have held a small bouquet of the purpley-gray flowers in my hand and inhaled their incomparable scent. In that I have an inkling the size of a mustard seed of the dramatic experience it would be to take in such a place of profound beauty with all my heart, mind and senses. The same is true for what happens in the beautiful and lovingly created space that is our Atrium at Holy Trinity. I pray all children would have an opportunity to come close to and sit with the lessons and mysteries of our faith in such a way.
I’ll close with the words of Hebrew scholar Dr. Sophia Cavalletti who co-founded of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in Rome in the 1950’s and said, "If we want to help the child draw nearer to God, we should with patience and courage seek to go always closer to the vital nucleus of things. This requires study and prayer. The child will be our teacher if we know how to observe."