The Spiritual Preparation of the Teacher, an Interfaith Approach

Issue XXIV May 2017

by Catherine Maresca

Dr. Maria Montessori included chapters in many of her books on the need for the spiritual preparation of the teacher. Age doesn’t adequately qualify us to guide children, nor does a course. She writes that humility, patience, observation, and calm are needed, but she does not offer practices to achieve or maintain these qualities. This paper offers a practice from each of five different faiths that may be used or adapted to help us with our personal spiritual preparation to serve children.

Catherine Maresca is the founder and director of the Center for Children and Theology. She has written a number of Occasional Papers, presented at conferences throughout the United States, as well as DoubleClose, the Young Child’s Knowledge of God, Sing with Joy, and Songs of Love. This paper was presented in 2015 American Montessori Conference in Philadelphia, PA.

The Spiritual Preparation of the Teacher, an Interfaith Approach

I’m tempted to drop everything as I leave the atrium at the end of the catechetical year, and not think about it again until late summer. Happily, our DRE schedules a meeting for the catechists to celebrate the year’s treasures, make note of needed improvements and repairs to the environment, possible rearrangements of furniture, and some planning to make sure all will be ready to reopen in September. We discuss the children who will be in each atrium group, the staff needed to serve them, and communications with parents.  We go home with a list of children to prepare for, and materials and purchases to (re)make.

But what about our interior preparation. In The Discovery of the Child, Maria Montessori wrote:

“The teacher must fashion herself, she must learn how to observe, how to be calm, patient, and humble, how to restrain her own impulses, and how to carry out her eminently practical tasks with the required delicacy. She too has greater need of a gymnasium for her soul than of a book for her intellect (p. 151).

I have in the past suggested a book or two for summer reading that might help us as we greet the children again in September. These have often helped me. But in the quote above Montessori seems to push us past reading a book towards a practice, or exercises, for the spirit.

So what are the spiritual practices that might comprise a “gymnasium for the soul”? Some practices — “apparatus” — are just right for you now, some may be right for you at another time, and some many never be right for you. The suggestions below may help you to identify practices that do help you with your spiritual preparation. Think about building a personal gymnasium, with practices that prepare you to be with the children of your environment, as well as a supportive colleague.

The five practices here are each taken from a different world religion. In general, spiritual practices tend to depend on words, but since we are Montessorians, these practices also involve the body and the senses, offering an experience to give the words more meaning and depth.

Each of these signs has parallels in the other traditions, but I tried to match the virtue to the faith where it was most central in the practices of that tradition. Feel free to find or create an alternative practice with the same focus from your own tradition.

The degree of comfort with the language about God, or the names used for God here, varies greatly from person to person.There is no expectation that you will be “at home” with my particular choice of words. I encourage you to adapt them to serve your own particular spirituality.

Consider trying each practice slowly, with your focus on how that practice feels inside your body, your heart and your mind, so that you can note how it might be used or adapted to support your work as a Montessori guide or catechist.

Purification – Hindu Water Practice

The word “Hindu” is drawn from one of the longest rivers in Asia: the Indus River which flows from Tibet, through Pakistan, and into the Arabian Sea. The river, and its water, is believed to be a source of life, a source of purification, and a destroyer of evil. Water is part of all Hindu rituals as a sign of preparation and purification, of the divine essence and of the universe. Ritual actions with water include sprinkling, pouring water through the fingers, sipping water 3 times, and bathing in one of the seven rivers (including the Indus and the Ganges).

Hindus have a daily practice of self-purification and self-improvement, pouring water through the fingers to thank and please the gods, and touching or sprinkling water on the mouth, nose, eyes, ears, chest, shoulders, and head. The intention is to be purified, to be released from the past, to be pure in heart and mind and acts, and to “wake-up the body.

The one who loves all intensely
begins perceiving in all living beings
a part of himself.
He becomes a lover of all,
a part and parcel of the Universal Joy.
He flows with the stream of happiness,
and is enriched by each soul. (Yajur Veda)

Sing the song of celestial love, O singer!
May the divine fountain of eternal grace and joy
enter your soul.
May Brahma, (the Divine One),
Pluck the strings of your inner soul
with His celestial fingers,
And feel His own presence within.
Bless us with a divine voice
That we may tune the harp-strings of our life
To sing songs of Love to you. (Rig Veda)


Pour water through fingers held over the bowl, saying: “May the divine fountain of eternal grace and joy enter my soul.”

Touch the water to the mouth and pray silently for release from the past, purity of mind and heart, and the life energy needed for the day. Then the nose, eyes, ears, chest, shoulders, head, and any other part of the body in need of prayer.

Consider how this exercise might serve your teaching, annually, weekly, daily? What are variations you might easily and comfortably incorporate into your “gymnasium”?


Muslim Postures of Humility

We are all familiar with images from a mosque or from Mecca of Muslims at prayer. Observant Muslims stop to pray the Salah five times daily, repeating it three times for each call to prayer, and prostrating themselves three times during each repetition. This is 45 times daily of touching the floor with the head, the hands, the knees and the feet as a sign of submission to the will of God. The name “Islam” means voluntary submission to God. Every posture of the prayer is a posture of humility.

Humility is the quality Montessori emphasized most in her chapters on the spiritual preparation of the teacher. It is perhaps, a quality unfamiliar to or uncomfortable for many Americans. We are taught to stand tall and fight for what we believe in. So a brief consideration of humility is in order here.

Aidos, in Greek mythology, was the daimona (goddess) of shyness, shame and humility. She was the quality that restrained human beings from wrong. This is a quality greatly desired by Montessori – restraint of the adult from harming, in any way, the child, or the child’s development. Humility is a relational quality. One cannot be humble in isolation. It is a stance before God, before the universe, and before one another. It is a recognition of our place in creation, of the holiness of one another, and of the greatness of the One Who is Holy. We have in every religion gestures of humility. Standing, kneeling, bent head, bow, genuflection and prostration all acknowledge a Being greater than us. 

In Islam every posture of the Salah is considered to be a posture of humility.

  • Standing as one might in the presence of the President, or a judge in court.
  • Standing in rows, bare feet touching, none greater than another, part of a whole community.
  • “Throwing the world behind us” with the hands to remain focused on God.
  • Bowing to show servitude and humility to God, saying, “Allah is the great, Allah is the majestic.”
  • Finally, prostration: lowering the most noble and precious parts of the body to where we put our feet to show servitude to God, and to praise God. This is the posture that brings Muslims closest to God. The ultimate sign of humility. Every prostration brings forgiveness and a taste of the sweetness of Allah.

To whom are we willing to bow? The true servants of the Most Merciful
are those who walk with humility on earth,
and when addressed by the ignorant, say “Peace.’ Al-Furqan 25: 63

 Say: He is the Almighty God,
the One and Unique  Almighty God,
the Eternal source and support of everything;
God has begotten no one, and is begotten of none.
There is no one comparable to God. Al-Ikhlas 112: 1-4

  • Stand.
  • Prepare yourself by choosing a posture of humility comfortable for you. Consider whether your posture is directed towards God, or children, or the earth.
  • Take two or more minutes (use a timer to start and stop) to assume the posture of humility you would like to try: stand, bow, kneel…As you do this consider how each helps you (or not) to take on an attitude of humility before the great force of life we serve within the children of our atria.

Consider how this exercise might serve your teaching, annually, weekly, daily? What are variations you might easily and comfortably incorporate into your “gymnasium”? How would you like to use this practice going forward?


Mindfulness – Buddhist  Meditation (Observation)

Mindfulness is a whole-body-and-mind awareness of the present moment. To be mindful is to be fully present, not lost in daydreams, anticipation, indulgences, or worry. Have you ever suddenly just noticed that you had a headache, or that your hands were cold, and realized you’d been feeling these things for a while but weren’t paying attention? Mindfulness of body is just the opposite of that; being fully aware of your body, your extremities, your bones, your muscles. And the same thing goes for the other frames of reference — being fully aware of sensations, aware of your mental processes, aware of the phenomena all around you.

Mindfulness also includes dropping the mental habit of judging everything according to whether we like it or not. Being fully mindful means being fully attentive to everything as it is, not filtering everything through our subjective opinions.

Here we have some possible descriptors of Montessori’s discipline of observation: be attentive, be open-minded, be non-judgmental. Mindfulness reminds us of what we are supposed to be doing. If we are sitting in meditation, it brings us back to the focus of meditation. If we are washing dishes, it reminds us to pay full attention to washing the dishes. If we are guiding a group of children it reminds us to be fully attentive to those children.

In Buddhism mindfulness is a habit developed through the practice of meditation. Stillness of the body, and then of the mind is sought. This can be helped by focus on a candle, attention to the breath, or a mantra repeated silently or chanted aloud. A time is determined for the meditation, and a bell or chime can be used to mark the beginning and end of the period of meditation. Twenty minutes is common; I have a Buddhist friend who meditates for 1-2 hours daily.

The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers. – Thich Nhat Hanh

  • Light a candle.
  • Prepare yourself for a time of meditation. Choose a comfortable posture that you can hold for several minutes. Begin to be attentive to your breath in… and out. Choose one or more words to repeat silently with each inhale and exhale.
  • Using a timer meditate for 5 minutes or more, when you hear the bell, calmly return your attention to your environment.

How might this exercise serve your teaching, annually, weekly, daily? What are variations you might easily and comfortably incorporate into your “gymnasium”? How would you like to use this practice going forward?

Jewish Blessings

Prominent in Jewish prayer is blessings. Most Jewish prayers begin with the words, “Blessed are you, LORD God, Ruler of the Universe…” and then go on to bless a multitude of situations, tasks, or gifts. There is sense of blessing God, receiving blessings from God, and passing these blessings on to others, or to the world.

As teachers, or catechists, we are also part of a flow of blessings between God and ourselves, and between ourselves and others, especially our students and colleagues. And so we can incorporate into our spiritual gymnasium the practice of blessing.

A blessing for teachers: The Talmud relates a beautiful blessing between Rabbi Ammi and his disciples upon departing his academy and setting forth into the world. From the ancient texts come the moving words they spoke which can teach us to appreciate and express our gratitude:May your heart be filled with understanding;May your mouth speak wisdom;

And may your tongue be moved to song;
May your gaze scan what lies ahead.
May your eyes shine with the light of Torah;
and may your face be as radiant as the bright firmament.
May your lips speak knowledge and righteousness;
And may your feet swiftly take you
To places where the words of God are heard.

A blessing for Children: Traditionally done on the Sabbath, at home, with a parent placing a hand on the child’s head:

May God Bless you and guard you.
May the light of God shine upon you, and may God be gracious to you.
May God show you kindness and grant you peace.

  • Repeat each line of the blessing for teachers, blessing yourself and your colleagues.
  • For children: Write down the names of the children you would like to bless. Placing your hand on these names, repeat the blessing for children.

How might this exercise serve your teaching, annually, weekly, daily? Consider blessing your colleagues, your materials, your environment, your special events…

What are variations you might easily and comfortably incorporate into your “gymnasium”? How would you like to use this practice going forward?


Building the Beloved Community – Christianity – Communion

As a Christian there are many signs of love and strength I am tempted to offer. But at the heart of our practice is the “breaking of the bread.” Jesus did this often, inviting sinners, tax collectors, women, and non-Jews to eat with him, much to the dismay of some of his followers.  Before he died he broke bread and invited his family and friends to eat this as a sign of himself, remaining with them in bread and wine. After he rose from the dead, these same followers began to recognize him in the breaking of bread, and so Christians have been breaking bread since as a sign of the presence of God among them, and a gift to build the beloved community.

At our school, we use shared meals to build our community. Through staff meetings with a freshly baked loaf of bread, Friday lunch together, the occasional student cooked meal, fundraisers, and picnics we build relationships and affirm our love for one another.

As catechists, part of our spiritual gymnasium is learning how to build community in our classes, with our colleagues, and with the parents of the children in our school. Sharing a meal moves us beyond the instructions, reports, and practical details of our work into the celebration and affirmation of the life of each one at the table with us.

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2, 46).

Bless this food to our use, and us to your service. Amen (Grace before meals.)

  • Consider providing a treat or a meal for any gathering of catechists. After each session with children Sofia Cavalletti had a hot drink and tasty treat for the catechists to enjoy while they considered the day’s work together.
  • Be intentional about blessing the food and enjoying it together before beginning the business of the gathering.

How might this exercise serve your work annually, weekly, daily? What are variations you might easily and comfortably incorporate into your “gymnasium”? How would you like to use this practice going forward?

We often use a break in our usual schedule to “get in shape” again. Let’s use this summer break for spiritual preparation, as Maria Montessori encouraged us to do so often.

 What are the practices in your spiritual gymnasium that prepare you to be with children?

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