Living the Light: Dr. Montessori, Education to Life as Education to Peace

Issue XX February 2016

Living the Light: Gospel Nonviolence in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd

Part I: Living the Light: Dr. Montessori, Education to Life as Education to Peace

Part II: Theologians and Scripture Scholars on Gospel Nonviolence

Part III: Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Presentations

Part IV: Gospel Nonviolence and Neurobiology

 This is the first article in the Living the Light series. The call of Jesus to nonviolence is clear. As catechists we model and proclaim that love in age-appropriate ways. This paper is the first of four that explores gifts that help us in this task. Peg Burns introduces us to the legacy of Maria Montessori as a peacemaker, who understood that educating children in a manner that respected their dignity and developmental needs is a foundation of peace in the world.

by Peg Burns

Peg Burns and her husband Greg Kerbawy created Our Golden Thread curriculum. See to explore their work and download free resources.

Peg is a catechist whose work includes promoting a better understanding of Jesus’ Nonviolent Way.

Introduction to the Series

The call of Jesus to nonviolence is clear. He shares his light and love with us, with their power to overcome darkness and hatred, so that we will in turn offer it to others. We work with him to build the Parousia, following his way of nonviolent love for all. As catechists we model and proclaim that love in age-appropriate ways. We are helped in four ways: the methodology and vision of Maria Montessori, theologians’ work on Gospel nonviolence,the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and the natural and inborn capacity of the human brain for compassion. With this help we do have the capacityto be light in exactly the way Jesus asked us to be Light. This is the first of four articles exploring these four strands that are amazing gifts to our life as nonviolent Christiansin the world.

Part One: Dr. Montessori, Education to Life as Education to Peace

I am aware that with the wonderful growth of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd significant numbers of catechists are not deeply familiar with its Montessori foundation. On the other hand, many Montessorians have concentrated their attention on academics and practical methodology. My own lens is Gospel Nonviolence. I want to establish how significant Dr. Montessori’s focus on peace actually was and explore implications for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. I will not go into specifics regarding the Montessori Method since Montessori’s own observations and books, listed in the short biography at the end of this paper, are available for that.

Dr. Montessori was known as a peace educator among her peers in education. She had conversations and written correspondence with the man whom St. Pope John Paul II referred to as the “Hero of Humanity”, the great champion of nonviolence, Mahatma Gandhi. She visited Jane Addams, president of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, at Hull House in Chicago. Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949, 1950 and again in 1951. These laudatory events provide a window into the position Dr. Montessori held in the world on the topic of peace. Her work models the mindset and orientation needed for the education of children for peace.

Even in Maria Montessori’s early history her passion for health and wholeness is revealed. As a child she put her parents hands together when they were arguing, she confronted the dominating demands of her father without succumbing to disrespect and she championed women’s rights. Dr. Montessori experienced two world wars. First, the horrors of the Great War (now known as the First World War) when she was in her 40’s, amature and thoughtful woman. Then the Second World War, “the war to end all wars,” with massive soldier and civilian death and destruction. During this time she was in her 70’s and exiled from her homeland. We can just imagine what went through this prayerful Catholic’s heart and mind regarding the destruction of God’s people by God’s people, especially she who had seen the beauty of life unfold before her in the exactly same way in children of many nationalities.

Dr. Montessori lectured at the International Office of Education in Geneva in 1932 on the shortcomings of peace defined as a world without war.

What is generally meant by the world peace is the cessation of war. But this negative concept is not an adequate description of genuine peace…if we observe the apparent aim of a war, peace understood in this sense represents, the ultimate and permanent triumph of war. . . Human history teaches us that peace means the forcible submission of the conquered to domination . . . The vanquished are forced to make sacrifices. . . the victors flaunt the rights they feel they have won over the defeated populace, who remain the victims of the disaster. Such conditions may mark the end of actual combat, but they certainly cannot be called peace (Education and Peace, pp. 4-5).

Dr. Montessori clarified a positive meaning of peace in 1936 before the European Congress for Peace in Brussels,

 Peace is a goal that can be attained only through common accord, and the means are twofold: an immediate effort to resolve conflicts without recourse to violence—in other words—to prevent war and second, a long term effort to establish a lasting peace among men. Preventing conflicts is the work of politics; establishing peace is the work of education. . . . it is necessary that men be consciously educated to fulfill [new goals] for if men continue to regard themselves as national groups with divergent interests, they will run the risk of destroying one another. This is the crux of all the questions regarding peace. . . . Defeated peoples have become a danger, a burden, an obstacle. . . . The impoverishment of one nation does not make another nation richer; rather, all nations decline. Destroying one nation is tantamount to cutting off one hand in the mistaken hope that the other hand will thereby become twice as strong. We are all a single organism, one nation. . . . contemporary man has citizenship in the great nation of humanity. . . . It is absurd to believe that such a man, endowed with powers superior to those of nature, should be a Dutchman or a Frenchman or an Englishman or an Italian. He is the new citizen of the new world—a citizen of the universe [emphasis added] (Education and Peace, p. 32).

In Education and Peace we read her dismay at our praise for those who create weapons of destruction:

There is no term but moral chaos to describe our spiritual situation, wherein a man who discovers a virulent microbe and the preventive serum that can save many human lives receives great praise, but wherein a man who discovers destructive techniques and directs all his intellectual powers toward the annihilation of entire peoples is praised even more highly. The concepts of the value of life and the moral principles involved in these two cases are so diametrically opposed that we must seriously consider the possibility that the collective personality of mankind is suffering from some mysterious form of schizophrenia (pp. 7-8).

And in another lecture in Copenhagen on May 22, 1937, Dr. Montessori’s offers the great corrective to that “mysterious form of schizophrenia” with increased clarity:

Education is the best weapon for peace. . . . I am merely saying that the true defense of mankind cannot be based on arms. Wars will always follow one upon the other, and no people’s peace and prosperity can ever be assured until we trust in the great “armament for peace” that education represents. Man does not understand the events that overwhelm him and is totally unable to protect himself against them. . . . The world’s peoples are disorganized, and each individual thinks only of his own immediate well-being. If a storm comes up, these little human particles, possessed of no life-giving spirituality, are caught up in the gusts and form a deadly whirlwind. . . . An education capable of saving humanity involves the spiritual development of man, the enhancement of his value as an individual and the preparation of young people to understand the times in which they live. The secret is this: making it possible for man to become the master of the mechanical environment that oppresses him today. We must organize our efforts for peace and prepare the way for it scientifically, through education.

In our experience with children, we observed that the human child is a spiritual embryo. . . . destined to receive the holy waves transmitting divine love through the boundless spheres of eternity. . . . man is great because he can receive the emanations of the Godhead. . . . The child is both a hope and a promise for mankind. If we therefore mind this embryo as our most precious treasure, we will be working for the greatness of humanity (Education and Peace, p. 36).

Montessori’s “preparation for life,” her method of education, is that means of attaining peace. It includes opening the human being to God.  Dr. Montessori was the discoverer of a most significant treasure—the detailed process of the unfolding of the God-given building material within the human being. She had eyes to see—perhaps as God sees—the young child. With her insight she provided a platform for deeper recognition of the spiritual life that is begun with the building of the human being. The child progresses from innate unconscious absorption of the environment which remains part of the adult for eternity (0-3 years of age) to increasingly conscious building of the self (3-6 years of age) in Montessori’s precisely prepared environment, through freedom of choice, concentration, work, self-control, and self-discipline. Cohesion of the social unit, the basis of all human community wherein peace is achieved requires these characteristics. If the young child is nurtured in this manner, with freedom and dignity, the future adult, constructed by the child, will quite naturally be oriented towards respect of the dignity of others.

This respect extends even to that most difficult of maxims, “Love your enemies.” The child “often makes friends with his enemy, but no one can oblige him to do so. One can feel love and sympathy even for the wrongdoer, but no one can impose this sympathy on another… Not sermons but creative instincts are important, because they are realities. Children act in accordance with their natures. . .Growth comes from activity. . . divine directives are the germinal origins of human behavior and they can only be evolved in the right surroundings of freedom and order” (Absorbent Mind, p. 238 ff).

Montessori’s “help to life” is a program for the preservation and carrying forward of the God-given treasure of childhood which creates the new adult and advances the process of peace. Besides the obvious easy acquisition of intellectual/academic content, reading with ease at a young age, and the development of the mathematical mind, botany, geometry, etc., which this world rewards, Montessori’s own spiritual life shines forth through her method as a light in the darkness of the schizophrenia mentioned above. The works of war, which she so abhorred, are incompatible and incongruous with the works of love and mercy.  This is the focus of Montessori’s works for catechists who listen with children to the voice of the Good Shepherd.

What Can We do?

As catechists we can ask ourselves if we are incorporating appropriately and adequately from our Montessori foundations. Are we using opportunities to connect with parents of young children, newly baptized, and newly married in our parishes and communities? In 2008 Dr. Silvana Montanaro gave a workshop on Assisting the Infant in St. Paul, Minnesota. She encouraged the attendees to “go out to the parishes and share this good news,” of the content of her workshop on the richness of young children. She asked that more discussion be fostered between those trained (in birth to three and three to six) and families who suffer the strong pulls of society in directions opposite the needs of children. Perhaps your community can bring in a trainer for this discussion. Observations of Montessori environments for catechists can be faithfully recorded and discussed. Pick a book from the bibliography at the end of this articleand enjoy reading about the creation of beautiful new life and hope for the future in our children.

Perhaps someone within the community would take it upon herself to study the Montessori 0-3 work, known as Assistance to Infancy. This can be done, if not through official training, through internet videos of the “Nido”, and the required reading of the Infancy program, including:

Elliot, Lise, What’s Going On In There?

 Ericson, Eric, Childhood and Society

 Kaplan, Louise, Oneness and Separateness

 Montague, Ashley, Touching

 Standing, E.M., Maria Montessori, Her Life and Work

 Stern, Daniel, The Interpersonal World of the Infant.

And, of course, we can continue to pray, asking Maria Montessori to intercede for us, that we may be humble loving servants of the Light.

We want to help the auto-construction of each person at the right time,

so that humankind can go forward to something great. . . .

The new education is a revolution, but without violence.

It is the nonviolent revolution.

After that, if it triumphs,

violent revolution will have become forever impossible.

Maria Montessori, Absorbent Mind


Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, trans. by Claude A. Claremont (New York: Dell, 1967). This very readable book is worth rereading every few years. It contains details behind Montessori’s ‘help to life.’ The multitude examples of interactions with children enhance the take-away. Chapters “Cohesion in the Social Unit,” “The Teacher’s Preparation,” and “Love and its Source—the Child” are ‘must reads.’

Dr. Maria Montessori, Education and Peace, trans. Helen R. Lane (Thiruvanmiyur, Madras-41, India: Kalakshetra Press, 1949). These lectures are of great value in coming to terms with Montessori’s focus on Peace.

Dr. Maria Montessori, The Formation of Man, trans. A. M. Joosten (Thiruvanmiyur, Madras-41, India: Kalakshetra Press, 1955). Foundation to Montessori’s thought. In this book she uses the term “blank page.”

Further Suggested Reading—All easy, fast and inspiring reads:

Dr. Maria Montessori, The Discovery of Childhood, trans. M. Joseph Costelloe, S.J. (New York: Fides, 1967; first published 1912).

Dr. Maria Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential (Thiruvanmiyur, Madras-41, India: Kalakshetra Presss, 1973; first printing in 1948). Cosmic Plan and Right Use of Imagination are topics in this book as is Montessori’s reminder to be humble observant guides.  

Dr. Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood, trans. M. Joseph Costelloe, S.J. (New York: Fides, 1966; first published 1912).

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