Author: Sophia Cavalletti
The Life Syllabus, as you will remember, is a list of books requested by a reader that a young mother might delve into while her children are young enough — before her duties become overwhelming.
It’s a list I’ve started of books that helped me when I was young. But it also includes some books I wish I had known about at the time. I feel like I flailed in the wasteland, my inchoate ideas neither confirmed nor denied by wiser heads. Especially when it comes to teaching about faith, I wish I had known about this book.
A reader emailed to ask me about the Atrium, which is short for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a Montessori-style religious education program I adverted to earlier. She had visited the CGS website and wondered how to implement the ideas at home, and that’s a good question. Like Montessori schools in general, the Atrium is too involved and too space consuming for the home.
Yet, the idea behind the Atrium is exactly what the parents need to understand their irreplaceable role in transmitting the faith to the child.
I strongly suggest reading this book, The Religious Potential of the Child, before plunging into — or panicking over your inability to plunge into — this structured program. Or just while you are sorting out different ideas about how to teach religion to your child. If you are blessed to live near an Atrium, reading this book might help you to realize that you don’t need the whole set-up to live the principles.
Each home is unique. Some people’s style is suited to Montessori (and I might argue that they could consider loosening up a bit), and some people’s style is not (and I might suggest figuring out some way to incorporate the main principles without worrying about the particulars). But the insights Cavalletti offers will help no matter what. This book is really just the thought behind the program. Cavalletti muses on how a child learns about God and about his faith.
The most important point she makes is to distinguish the way we learn about most things from the way we learn about God. The former way is to start with what we know and move outward and inward to what we don’t know. That’s why it’s faulty pedagogy, for instance, to plunge into the study of the cell before you have observed animals and plants and man — and stones and water and the sun.
But if we look at how Jesus taught about the faith, we see a difference. He started with the things we know, true — a mustard seed, a woman who loses a coin, and, pre-eminently, a lost sheep — but we do not have to know more about those things than we already know in order to listen to Him. And he immediately moves to repentance, forgiveness, trust, sin, salvation…
Cavalletti urges us to stop explaining things to children, interposing ourselves between the Word and the child. She advocates a particular sort of presentation of the Word (especially the parables, Jesus’ own curriculum) which allows the child to absorb what’s read to him, speak about it if he wishes, and “work” (what we would think of as play, Montessori calls the child’s “work”) with simple materials to make it his own.
I think that if you read this book, you will begin to understand what will work best at home. Your home doesn’t have to resemble a classroom. I lean against, honestly. But the elements of the Atrium — the prayer table, the candle, living the Liturgical Year, reading Scripture, not rushing anything — these are part of life in a family as it should be lived, without anxiety.
You might also find this book of Montessori’s helpful:
Most Catholics don’t attend the form of the liturgy that was celebrated when Montessori wrote this book. But any parent can learn from her method of explaining important and holy things to children. Just “hearing” her take her time and delve into the details will be an education in itself for us.