Blessed John Henry Newman relates in his own autobiographical writings that when he was a young boy, his mother, his father, and his grandmother had a tremendous impact upon him.  He recounts stories and suggestions they gave to him more than fifty years later.  Many of us know that we remember a number of events in our childhood better than we can remember what we ate yesterday for lunch.  The reason for this is the first six years of life hold a unique place in the creation of our minds, memories, and the unfolding of our souls. Maria Montessori calls describes the child’s being as an absorbent mind.

Neurological the causes of this seem to be a hyper-expanded synaptically connected brain.  Before birth, our brain undergoes a massive growth in synaptic connections between the neurons throughout many regions of the brain. Then during that first six years of life, what gets used stays strong and become relatively enduring and the synaptic links not used are lost.  This is the neurological basis it seems for why the child can learn so fast in those first years.  If you think about the amount of “learning” that takes place, it is enormous.  Motor control of the body is learn from simply hand movements to walking, along with vast amounts of coordination between the senses, proprioceptors, and movement.  As well, language is learned with an ease that the little child will never again experience.  Every word the child hears is absorbed. The child can learn to write, draw, paint, dance, sing, dress, and build.  Again, what the child does results in habits that endure and set the stage for the next period of life that begins around six or seven and traditionally was called the age of reason.

Montessori for this first level built a kind of children’s garden. It is a rich maternal environment with little keys to unlocking the immediate world of the child.  Keys for motor movements, sensory perception, and coordination, along with keys to shapes and sounds, colors and textures, tastes and smells, which flow into various kinds of musical, artistic, and daily practices of family and life.  They are keys because there is one thing at a time that is unlocked for the child. It might be diameter, or it might be tying a knot, or pouring a pitcher of rice.  The child can easily discern if he or she has done it right or wrong. And there is a nature drive for doing it right and for order.  So the child repeats the action or the observation over and over and over. While doing so, those same patterns of synapses are then kept and reinforce into that enduring layout.  Thus these self-correcting keys focused on one facets of life or creation are central to the child’s creation and unfolding.  The “teacher” in this environment is not controlling the mysterious unfolding of the child, but simply, every so often, shows the child how to use these keys (and does so with a kind of reverence and care to show every step of the key).  The same is when those keys are showing children how to help each other, to be kind, generous, and to take care of their garden and keep it orderly.  The children end up showing each other the keys as well, usually with great joy in their successes.  

Newman complements all of this in the end not only because he was a genius at how to implement higher levels of education, but because he in a profound way understood how education flows out of the family and transmit the riches of tradition.  He knew the ultimate aims of education in terms of preparing souls for eternity and for temporal life.  He understood culture and history, and how these intertwined. He also understood the workings of evil, and how good rises out of evil, and how good builds on good.  Thus, reading him, learning to see the world as he came to see it, opens up a magnificent universe of God’s glory and the struggles against evil.  It opens up how suffering can build a life of faith and obedience, and ultimate one of joy.  

So why is Newman a complement.  Montessori’s rich maternal garden of living, her four-dimensional learning world, can be filled with any tradition, any sets of keys, good and evil.  But which one’s should be introduced?  This is where the discerning mind must come in, with clear long term aims, and a deep and wise heart and soul.  One should bring in anything that is good from the culture and times of the day.  One should bring in the materials and activities, those keys, that prepare the child for a life in the culture in which she or he lives, and one that will allow the child in the long run to sort out good and evil, and to live as the prophet Amos lived, as a dressor of sycamores, who can dress life allow the good to flourish and ridding it of its evils.  Simple gestures between human beings for instance have empassioned ramifications, some of which can stir up the seven deadly sins, others of which can thwart them, and raise up the opposites of these, help the child to more easily develop habits of virtue.  Much more can be said of course, but it is an important begin to realize how much we can learn from Newman about kinds of keys should be introduced into the various stages of these four-dimensional learning worlds.

 

 Many times in education, one will find children being introduced to small pieces of this grand universe and our history with too much missing.  Why?  We have a little bit of math, of science, less of history including one’s own biography.  The modern age was defined by its desire to rid us of our heritage and move us into the purported better and better future. The latest style is the object of our hearts desire. The past is merely a prison from which we must escape.  But instead, we have imprisoned our children in darkness and despair which now rises to new levels that many of us have not seen before.

This forgetfulness of the procession of history generates a deep blindness in modern education.  It permeates even the heart of the first transmitters of tradition and faith, that of the family.  Divorces and families without genuine marriage carry no pictures of the past on their walls or in their hearts.

The deepest loss in this forgetfulness is the procession of God as He over and over again loved all of our ancestors back to the first man and woman. This is where an authentic Catholic Montessori can re-awaken the depths of God’s love for each child and family by awakening them to the world that led up to them and to the world not merely as an object of utility but as created by a loving God that flows from the love of the Father for the Son in their Holy Spirit.  Clothing, food, carpentry, building towns and cities, one’s own family tree should be seen in this great light of God’s goodness and truth, His correction and healing.  Our families are filled with prodigal sons, some of whom never returned, but some who did. It is our stories remembered in pictures and sculptures, paintings and dramas, music and dancing that brings this past incarnately into our own bodies.

 

In 1998, I met a woman at Boston College giving a presentation at the Lonergan Workshop on Maria Montessori. Her name was Phyllis Wallbank. She was an advanced trainer for Maria Montessori prior to Montessori’s death. She was head of the British Montessori Association. She was the first to start a Montessori school that went through high school. There are many amazing things that this woman accomplished over the years. She told me when I spoke to her in 1998 that she had seen many connections between Newman, Montessori, and Lonergan (Bernard Lonergan, S.J.). I spent the next 10 years visiting her in London and working with her on questions in education.

I need to communicate some recent developments in my own mind that link Newman and Montessori more intimately together. Blessed John Henry Newman, soon to be canonized, had for the last 30 years of his life been the founder and director of a boys school in Birmingham, England. It was part of the Oratory, a community of men who served to follow in the footsteps of St. Philip Neri, a great evangelizer of the city. The Oratory school was a magnificent success both on civic and ecclesial levels, and personally for the boys and families of these boys.

Montessori’s contribution provides a four dimensional (space-time) learning world with self-correcting materials and activities each of which opens the doors to some beautiful and mysterious facet of creation, or our Creator. I have realized recently the scope of her contribution as being one that flows from a loving mother who seeks the flourishing of her children. Just as our Lord, the teacher in the classroom needs to know each of her children by name and this means that she knows each of her children to the heart of their souls, minds, and bodies. This is why “follow the child” was so important to her. Through this loving mother and teacher, God’s loving care came to each child.

This complements in a profound manner Blessed John Henry Newman’s work. He too knew each boy by name. He looked to provide them an education that helped them to live and improve the world, and most important to live in this world illumined by and for the next. He and his confreres generated a lively and very masculine school. At the same time, he always saw the need to have a matron who would care for the boys in a manner that he, nor his confreres, could do.

This highlights a need for every school. Schools are meant to be the extension of family life. As Catholic teaching repeats in many contexts, parents are the primary educators. They employ schools to help them in that education. This reality led to a thought a month ago that has grown in my heart and mind rapidly. It was recently confirmed in a visit I made to family and school in South Phoenix (The Ruiz family). Schools should not be run like an industry with a president or principle, but rather, they should be run by a loving couple, a faithful husband and wife (or by a priest and a sister who operate in a similar vein). I have thought about the kind of training they should have as well (more on that later).

A loving husband and wife, running a school, will offer much needed remedies to a number of ills today. Perhaps most significant is the fact that many children do not even know what a normalized family would look like. And Maria Montessori was all about normalization of the soul.

In an industrial structure corporate school, schedules, timelines, quality control, and outcome become the central characteristics. This of course, is not healthy for raising children. Although I have met a few families that operate as such, good families operate with a far more profound mode of life that is geared toward human flourishing. Here is where we see the real complementarity of a husband and wife, mother and father.

If the school exists more as an outflow of a good husband and wife, then it will take on many of the characteristics of a good family. Celebrating birthdays, holy days of obligation, special events, and guests will be more natural as one finds in a home. These events will not be seen as “disrupting” the production schedule. The four dimensional learning world founded upon principles discovered by Maria Montessori will give it a natural environment for the unfolding formation of each child.

Such a format would also be a natural integrator of the child’s own family with the school. The husband and wife will form friendships with the parents of the child. The parents and grandparents will become a more natural part of the education of their child, and of other children. It will make sense to bring in the dads or granddads who build, or the engineers, the doctors and nurses, the farmers and ranchers, the graphic designers and artists. It will make sense that all become part of this extended family and its school of tradition, love, and virtue. The Ruiz family did precisely this for their neighborhood in South Phoenix. Their home became a school, and that school is now a haven of peace and learning. It has grown into Mary’s Ministries. I hope these kinds of developments initiate the beginning of a revolution in education.

If you glance through the liturgy of the hours and the divine office, you will notice the high frequency that the word light is used.  Of course, it is in the context of prayer, and it is a key characteristic of Jesus Christ and of all the persons of the Holy Trinity.   St. Augustine also makes use of light and expands it from the light of being to the light of conscience, the light of faith, and the light of glory.  Light is at the very essence of the human soul.  St. Theresa Benedicta (Edith Stein) develops this in her book The Science of the Cross, where she recognizes that this inner light is the essence of the human soul. This light is the inner region of the soul where God dwells and unfortunately the place from which we as human beings tend to be exiled.  Which means we are exiled from our selves.  But Christ wants us home, to return to abide with Him forever.  God is light. And so are His children. 

Light in the physical world is the closest analogy to the human mind that is found.  Aristotle recognized that sight is the most liberated of the senses and the sense that is closest to the nature of the human mind, especially what he called the Agent Intellect or as Plato (Aristotle’s teacher) called it “the light of Being”.  This light illumines our minds and allows us to search for and then gaze out upon the world of being that is behind and beyond the world of appearances. This interior light illumines insights. Even in modern life, we still talk about the light bulb going on when we understand something. This philosophical discovery was rooted in a more primordial historical moment in which the analogy of physical light prepared the human mind for a discovery of itself. Physical light which helps us to see provides an analogical opening to discover the light that is within.  The same that happened in history happens to children.

So, the point today is to encourage the development of activities and materials that facilitate an attunement to physical light and the darkness caused by its absence.  There are materials of course that help children to develop nuances in colors.  I have not seen anything that deals with light as such.  I do remember how one’s shadow is an interest to children.  Think of how one can cast a shadow with shapes from one’s hand upon a wall. Or think of how one can perform a shadow play in front of a sheet.  Silhouettes are also an interest. Some paintings manifest an interesting set of insights into light and darkness (eg. Caravaggio). One could also look at how animals and plants use or are found in light and darkness.  Games of hiding also make use of being hidden and found (similar to what happens with light and darkness). Perhaps have them shine a flashlight out into the sky at night.  Notice it looks dark until something appears in front of it.  As one moves to more explanatory sensitive periods, then light can be explored in terms of wavelengths and sources of energy, along with what happens in different ranges of light or its absence. One could have some singing around a bonfire with songs that make use of light, or even some story telling in which the kind of darkness surrounding the fire allows for a vivid use of the imagination.  If you try something, or already use something, please send it my way (dpf@naturaled.org).

 

by David Fleischacker

The Liturgy as the Divine Atrium

Maria Montessori learned much about the nature of education from the liturgy of the Church. Saint John Paul II called the liturgy a school of life and salvation. For Catholics, we can have a deep and abiding trust in this reality because the liturgy itself is founded upon divine Revelation and the Incarnation of God’s Son. The liturgy at its height is found in the sacraments, and the sacraments are emanations of God’s love which was most fully realized on the Cross. This divine action springing from a love that dies even for enemies reveals to us the most profound way that human beings come to flourish. When we turn to the inner nature of the child, we begin to glimpse the magnitude of this truth.

The liturgy reaches into heaven itself through the sacraments and the relationship of the sacraments to each other. These relationships are called the sacramental economy. And this sacramental economy is the apex of the economy of salvation that began on the very day that Adam and Eve fell, when God went after them, and called for them, and received their confession and gave their penance. The old testament tells us about the unfolding of God’s love and wisdom as He moves to save each one of us, and the whole of the human race. When it begins to culminate in the immaculate conception of Mary and the conception of John the Baptist, the perfect and everlasting kingdom of God’s mercy is about to be born. This economy of salvation is all about God’s entrance into the growth and development and redemption of each man, woman, and child throughout history. God created us and he knit us in our mother’s wombs. He knows us more intimately than we know ourselves. He knows what we need, how we grow, and how to transform us through contrition, conversion, and confession so that we will become His beloved sons and daughters. He set up the perfect school of life. All of this is simply to point out to authentic educators that the perfect well-spring from which to drink in order to be an educator is to become an instrument of the divine magister in the school of His economy of salvation.  The gift of this economy is God’s Divine Atrium for us.

Sacred Time and the Liturgical Calendar

I hope to begin developing over the next year some reflections on how each of the elements of the Liturgy constitute the Divine Atrium of humanity. Today, I want to point out something that has become very clear to me over the last 15 years. The Liturgical Calendar, as incarnated in the liturgy of the hours and the divine office, as well as the celebrations of the saints and the liturgical seasons, all centered on the Eucharist, is a home of divine formation of every soul that participates in it.

The Liturgical Calendar as the sacramentalizing of time is embodied in all of the rituals and sacraments celebrated spatially in that temporal stream. That embodiment is the liturgy of the hours, the divine office, and the daily mass.  If you attend carefully to the psalms of each day, to the saints who are remembered, to the new testament readings, especially the gospels, to the selections found in the divine office from the old testament, the new, and from sermons or writings of great figures and ecumenical councils, you will find a link between all of these that mediates the life of grace in the seasons of one’s own soul and the communal life in which you reside. Think of what happens to you when you live advent and lent seriously, and how it opens you up to the mysteries of the incarnation and the mysteries of the passion and resurrection. Think of how the mystery of the family emerges from the incarnation, as does the mystery of the fall in the slaughtering of the innocents and the martyrdom of Saint Stephen.

As a teacher, I would recommend that you download the app for ibreviary.org or buy the four volume series of the Divine Office and Liturgy of the Hours, then each day, take some time to pray and mediate upon the readings. Remember how you will be praying those prayers not only in the quiet of your own heart, but in communion with all of those currently alive who are praying these prayers everyday, and even moreso with all of the dead who prayed these prayers during their lives and who now pray these with you from the beauty and glory of their home in heaven. You join them. If you do this, you have entered into the divine atrium. It will change you for ever.

Building an Atrium that Dwells in the Divine Atrium

When your heart begins to live and thrive from within the spatial-temporal city of the Divine Liturgy, then you will begin to see how to manifest it within the atriums and schools in which you teach. You will then be able to become an authentic instrument of the magisterial reality of the missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit in the economy of salvation. You will begin to see how to order each day so that it manifests the day of the Lord as you find it in the liturgical calendar, the divine office, and the daily mass. You will see how to expand the stories of the old testament so that children are preparing more and more for the coming of the Lord in their hearts and minds and souls. You will see how to bring alive not only the good shepherd, but the death and resurrection of this good shepherd. You will see how and when to introduce not only the building of the temple in Jerusalem, but the the sacrifice of Isaac, the flight from Egypt of the people God has chosen, their distrust and their reconciliation throughout the generations, their formation into a kingdom of priests, their turning against the covenant and their resultant exiles, and the growing hope for a messiah. You will be able to introduced more effectively the sacred reality of man and woman as one of the key locations for divine Revelation both in the old and new testaments, you will find a place to mourn the killing of the innocents and the betrayal of Jesus and the death of Judas. Children will show you how to build such an atrium in its fullness so that it comes to live and breath and have its being in the divine liturgy both temporally and spatially. Follow the child as you begin to build this kind of an atrium, and the Holy Spirit will speak to you through them so that you can find the incarnate Word who will bring you to your loving Father who loves each of them far more than you could ever do so.

The world is in need of an educational breakthrough that brings into a unity the nature, state, and development of the child as discovered by philosophy, theology, modern science, and common sense.  This is not easy as many have tried to accomplish this over the centuries.  A key is to provide a way forward in these matters that is fruitful and enduring.  I propose to do this by bringing together some great minds both past and present who can provide the keys in this task.  Those names include Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Blessed John Henry Newman, Maria Montessori, and Bernard Lonergan. There will be others of course, but in my own studies of these great minds, I have found the secret to their unity as it bears upon creating a four dimensional learning world for the flourishing of the human child. Others will join me in this project and have already done so.  I hope you can find some fruits that will help you to fulfill the responsibilities that have been placed in front of you, especially if those responsibilities are children.