Children, Signs, and Spiritual Literacy: An Interfaith Experience

Issue XVII April 2012

by Catherine Maresca

Sacred Signs are part of every faith tradition, facilitating the human encounter with the Holy. These signs are of great help to children as they begin to seek the Holy within the tradition of their culture or family. Learning to enjoy and read these signs develops a kind of “spiritual literacy”, preparing them for further study. By age nine and up, this literacy can also help older children to grasp the signs of other traditions, building both love and respect for persons of other faiths.

Catherine Maresca, MA, is the founder and director of the Center for Children and Theology. She received an MA in Religious Studies from Howard University Divinity School. She studied the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd with Rebekah Rojcewicz and Sofia Cavalletti. She has been a catechist since 1983 and has led formation courses for adults around the U.S. and in Uganda. Author of DoubleClose, the Young Child’s Knowledge of God.


Books and programs prepared for Interfaith Education often introduce the founders, places of worship, sacred writings, history, and the organization of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other religions in a somewhat systematic manner. Others write of an interfaith encounter between leaders or friends from various traditions. The result, if successful, is what Stephen Prothero calls religious literacy, “the ability to understand and use religious terms, symbols, images, beliefs, practices, scriptures, heroes, themes, and stories that are used in American public life” (Prothero, 13).

For Prothero, literacy is something akin to being familiar with the whole body of English literature. If I say “Hamlet,” you know that I am talking about a play by Shakespeare whose protagonist is a prince named Hamlet. For Prothero religious literacy is knowledge of religious terms, stories, symbols, and leaders from around the world. But is religious literacy adequate to foster interfaith respect and mutual support?

The renowned educator Maria Montessori speaks of the first moment and second moment of learning. In the first moment the person falls in love with something with their whole person. A bond is created that is the motivation for the intellectual work that follows. Then the person pursues a quest for
more and more understanding because they have fallen in love. Sacred signs nurture the first moment. They have the potential to engage the whole person. The ability to be engaged by and begin to understand the signs of a religious tradition is “spiritual literacy”. Facility in spiritual literacy must precede the second moment of seeking the knowledge that results in religious literacy.

About twenty years ago I began to explore various religious traditions with groups of 9-12-year-old children. This journey is far different from the informational approach of my college and graduate school courses. Among the children, there is an openhearted embrace of other traditions. Developmentally, they are reaching out to the whole world with curiosity and affection, seeking to understand nature, people, culture, and religions. In the Christian Gospels Jesus suggests to the adults around him that children are the best guides into the kingdom of God. In this interfaith journey I have also found that children are
excellent guides. They taught me that interfaith understanding is best rooted, not in religious literacy, but in “spiritual literacy,” the ability to read the sacred signs of one’s own and other’s traditions. This paper is intended to share the fruit of this interfaith journey with children.


The children I work with come to me in the seventh year of a Montessori based Christian formation program called The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Rooted in Christian scriptures and liturgy, CGS nurtures and respects the child’s rich relationship with God. The adult’s role is not to teach, or explain, but to present the signs and stories of the tradition and invite the child into their own exploration, asking wondering questions to lead the child deeper into meditation. Some of these children are students in my atrium at Christian Family Montessori School in Washington DC, others come once a week for an after-school program. Many are Roman Catholic, but the student body also includes children from a number of other Christian denominations, and occasionally children from Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and agnostic families.

While CGS is a Christian formation program, questions and conversations with the children slowly helped me realize that, beginning at about age nine, their interest in other faith traditions is quite intense. In response to that interest, we began to collect resources, visit other houses of worship, and note our connections to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others by virtue of shared neighborhoods and schools, family members, concern for peace and the earth, or religious history. The methodology of CGS, guided by the children’s developmental needs, fostered a natural expansion of our program to include interfaith materials in response to the children’s interest in other religions.


Our interfaith experience grew slowly, but in hindsight I see its foundation as two-fold: the children’s strong developmental interest and their facility with and knowledge of sacred signs.

Developmental Interest

In her educational pedagogy Maria Montessori notes that children have sensitive periods during which they are drawn to those aspects of the environment that best support their current developmental needs. For example, young children have a developmental need for language and are very attentive to the sounds, words and grammar of the language of their home. Language will always be part of their environment, but they are so responsive to it as young children that they can easily learn one or more languages by the age of three. At about age six, new capacities and needs emerge in the children. One of these is an interest in culture, the art and architecture, literature, history, social structure, and religion of their culture as well as other cultures. Again, the intensity of their interest is so great they easily acquire the related knowledge. Also from ages six to twelve children have a strong sense of communion. In our program images
from the Christian tradition that children “read” as clear signs of the interconnectedness of all people, creation and God are very attractive at this time. These include the True Vine, where Jesus compares himself to a vine with many branches (representing people) all connected to him and to one another, the Good
Shepherd, a parable that ends with “there will be one flock and one shepherd”, and the breaking of the bread, a gesture in the Eucharistic liturgy reminding us that we all share one bread. Older children are eager to save energy, eat less (or no) meat, and respond to natural disasters. War distresses them, not out of fear, but because it is such a terrible breach of their sense of our interconnectedness.

In the 9-12 atrium, the children’s strong sense of communion and interest in culture combine to alert them to the presence of other religions in the world, and create a strong desire to know these other traditions. This desire is for more than knowing about other religions, they want to experience them in a significant way. This experience is facilitated by their ability to “read” sacred signs.

Facility with and Knowledge of Sacred Signs

Christians use bread and wine, Jews use the Torah, Muslims use the postures of daily prayer, Buddhists use the lotus flower, Hindus use “Om”. Each of these signs, along with many others, helps the faithful to encounter transcendent mystery. That mystery is not one easily seen, heard, or felt. Signs, which can be seen, heard and felt, facilitate the experience and understanding of the transcendent. Sofia Cavalletti is the author of The Religious Potential of the Child, a book that documents her experience with children as she developed the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. She wrote, “The sign is made up of the visible and tangible element that points to and contains a reality beyond our senses. The sign always leaves the door open for further investigation” (Cavalletti, GS&C, 38). She later refers to these two dimensions of a sign as their “poles” (Cavalletti, RPOC, 44). Imagine a clothesline suspended between two poles. One pole is physical or sensible, the story we hear, the image we see, or the bread we taste. The other is metaphysical, beyond what we can use the senses to perceive: the power, presence, or love of God. Everyone has experiences of the first pole. We all hear stories, see light, and taste bread. But without the other pole in place the first doesn’t function as a sign. When we “raise” the second pole we activate the sign.

For example, the people of the time of Jesus had all seen mustard seeds and knew how amazingly tiny they are. But the image wasn’t activated as a sign until he said that these mustard seeds are like the kingdom of God (Mt. 13, 31). He then set off a whole new dynamic. The seed became a sign.

Cavalletti went on to indicate why signs are particularly apropos to religious formation, “It is crucial to find a method that is compatible with the religious message, one that conveys, rather than limits, the content, especially if the content we are referring to is the Mystery of the Infinite revealed as an inexhaustible source of richness for us” (Cavalletti, GS&C, 39). When we talk about God, or the metaphysical, we are talking about something unfathomable. What method serves the unfathomable nature of the “Mystery of the Infinite”? What method can allow us to delve into the mystery and not betray it? Signs help us do this in a way that dogmatic discussions, or questions and answers, do not. Furthermore, signs engage the person at multiple levels, fostering an experience of the body and heart as well as the mind.

The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd uses sacred signs for religious formation, building on the signs embedded in Christian tradition. For example, during the Roman Catholic liturgy, a drop of water is added to the chalice of wine before it is blessed. We demonstrate this for the children, and tell them that the wine represents Jesus and the water represents us. Then we pose some questions for the children to consider. What happens to the water? Can it be taken back out of the wine? What does this tell us about Jesus and ourselves? Why so much wine and so little water? The children receive this presentation as early as age three. They may not articulate answers to these questions for a year or more. But they do repeatedly prepare the chalice as a way to continue their meditation. At five or six years old, children have then said, “We are lost in Jesus.” “It means Jesus and us, we are very close.” Note the deeper meaning the sign allows the child to perceive.

Light, or word, or bread can create an opening into the mystery of God. Through sacred signs children can learn a “language” that facilitates their spiritual lives. But, Cavalletti reminds us, “Young children not only have religious capacities, but a particular hunger as well” (Cavalletti, GS&C, 12). We know how young children are hungry for language and delight in it. Signs deepen their contact with the Mystery and satisfy their hunger for spiritual food as we introduce them to the signs of their religious tradition.

We can compare our use of signs in our spiritual lives to our use of language for our human relationships. When a child is born the child knows his or her mother, and yet, the relationship with the mother is not limited to this first, unconscious knowing. Language is of great importance for the growth of relationships. Our remarkable capacity for learning language in our early years is a gift that facilitates deepening relationships. Language is key to nurturing a lifetime of relationships with people. Signs facilitate our spiritual life the way that words facilitate our communal life. Words are the building blocks of a language that serves human relationships. Signs are the building blocks of a spiritual language that serves relationship with the Infinite (and with others).

We are hard-wired to learn language, and do this easily as young children. In a similar way, young children have a facility to connect with that which can’t be seen. Cavalletti notes:

All that we have been able to observe over these years leads us to consider the child as a metaphysical being who moves with ease in the world of the transcendent, and who delights in it, satisfied and serene (Cavalletti, RPOC, 44).

She is referring to the young child’s facility to move from the concrete to the metaphysical and back: to read signs.

And so we put materials in the hands of young children and “put up the poles” to activate sacred signs. The children start to become spiritually literate. Gestures, objects, places, words and stories together constitute the sacred language of a particular religion. Some of our religious language names things. Some of it operates as signs. Knowing the names of the holy things of their tradition delights young children and gives them confidence in their religious world. But knowing the signs of the tradition is even more empowering, giving them their own access to the sacred, to relationship with the Holy.

Cavalletti writes, “It has been observed that when theology ceases to speak through images it loses its hold on people, and becomes a language of specialists” (ibid, 158). The water and wine in the chalice and the holy bread are examples of signs that allow children to grasp and articulate their theology.

Finally, Cavalletti emphasizes the importance of being specific. You can’t teach children language without teaching children a language. She writes, “Wishing to stay on a vague level without any specific content is the same as wanting a child to talk without using any particular language” (ibid, 15). Some parents say they don’t want their children to learn a particular religion because they want them to be free to choose their own. But these children are missing the opportunity to become spiritually literate. To be initiated into the signs of their religious tradition creates the possibility of grasping the signs of many traditions, and of respecting the integrity of each of those traditions. So we need to be religious in a particular way, true to the faith we affirm for ourselves, in order to foster the spiritual and religious literacy of our children. In an interfaith world this is a service to our children. We have to be specific. While we don’t reject other traditions, a particular religion has to be our starting point. To say, “I’m spiritual but not religious” is like saying, “I’m linguistic but don’t speak any particular language.” Everyone has innate linguistic capacity that gets activated as one learns a particular language or languages. Likewise, everyone has spiritual capacity that can be activated and mobilized through a particular religious life. Becoming religious in a particular way is foundational for relating to the religious other (Don C. Richter, comment on this paper, 2011).

Spiritual Literacy

With their ability to grasp the meaning of signs and their strong developmental interest in other religions, children at about age nine are ready to develop spiritual literacy. We have introduced the children to a particular faith, and simultaneously prepared them to follow that tradition in an interfaith context. We model for them vigorous faith in one tradition, and respect for and cooperation with people of other traditions. The importance of this has been well articulated by Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core:

I believe that the twenty-first century will be shaped by the question of the faith line. On one side of the faith line are the religious totalitarians. Their conviction is that only one interpretation of one religion is a legitimate way of being, believing, and belonging on earth. Everyone else needs to be cowed, or converted, or condemned, or killed. On the other side of the faith line are the religious pluralists, who hold that people believing in different creeds and belonging to different communities need to learn to live together. Religious pluralism is neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus. It is a form of
proactive cooperation that affirms the identity of the constituent communities while emphasizing that the wellbeing of each and all depends on the health of the whole. It is the belief that the common good is best served when each community has a chance to make its unique contribution (Patel).

Although Patel’s focus has been young adults, his understanding of our situation in a world of many religions helps with younger children as well. Those who work with pre-adolescent children also have a significant part to play in the effort of supporting children on the faith line. How will their questions about other traditions be received? What resources are available to them to respond to their interest in other traditions? How do the adults in their environment model openness to and interest in people of other faiths?

For example, one girl attended a CGS program from age three through age twelve. Every year she worked with the city of Jerusalem, in which the life of the Jews is mentioned several times. At age nine, she heard the word “Jews” once again, looked up and asked, “Who were the Jews anyway?” This word had been floating over her head for years and hadn’t registered with her. Suddenly she heard it again and snatched it out of the air. She was ready. But are we ready to answer this and similar questions as they are posed?

From age 3-9, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd has given children materials to explore all the essential signs of their faith in a way appropriate to their development. This kind of introduction to sacred signs will now help them appreciate the sacred signs of other religions. Work with signs has built a foundation for both spiritual literacy and religious literacy. Signs create an experience, and have the possibility of helping us to penetrate a deep mystery.

At Christian Family Montessori School, we approach spiritual literacy as we introduce another religious tradition to our 9-12-year-old children every year through its signs, accompanied by a visit to a Jewish synagogue, an Islamic mosque or Buddhist community center. This has been a rich experience, and deeply compelling for the children. Nine-to-twelve-year-olds come in every year and ask, “What religion are we going to learn this year?” The children have a sense of connection to all the peoples of the earth that they seek to strengthen through deeper knowledge and understanding.

Spiritual literacy enables the children to go into another person’s place of worship and understand that there are signs in operation that they may not grasp, but know are at work. Without spiritual literacy, other’s religious practices may seem incomprehensible and odd. The ability to read signs deeply, and understand that signs are operating in worship, transfers from one’s own religion to another’s. The language of signs is a good place to begin faith and interfaith formation with children. Signs engage the heart, and kindle the curiosity needed to grasp the knowledge of one’s own or another’s tradition.

For example, at the Islamic Center of Washington, our Christian children heard the librarian there speaking with passion about the Hajj, which he had just made for the first time. He said, “It was like your Baptism.” And with those few words he signaled the personal importance of the Hajj for the children, even before learning the details of his experience. They grasped that the Hajj takes Muslims into the infinite mystery just as their Christian Baptism does for them.

After meeting with the librarian, the children observe the gathering for the afternoon salat. The salat is prayed with both words and gestures by all Muslims. The main gesture is to kneel down and touch the floor with the feet, the knees, the hands and the forehead. It’s done three times during the salat. The salat is
repeated three times at each prayer time. There are five prayer times each day. So this sign of submission to God is repeated 45 times. “Islam” means “submission to the will of God.” With this prayer, the body itself becomes a sign of Islam.

There’s a story in Islamic literature of the Visitation of Mary, pregnant with Jesus, to Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist (Ballou, 474). In the Christian account of this visit John leaps for joy within Elizabeth’s womb. In the Muslim story, John kneels – the Muslim sign of submission. This is how a language is built – signs and stories working together.

Right after that story is this quote from the poet. “The story is like a measure. The spirit in it is like the grain. The man of intellect takes the grain, he does not pay attention to the measure, though it be taken away.” In other words the measure without the grain has little meaning, we must seek the meaning and
hold it dearly.

Because the children have been introduced to gesture as a religious language, and reflected on both historical narratives and parables throughout their years in Catechesis, they are capable of perceiving the meaning of sacred signs, and recognizing that that meaning is the “grain” that becomes spiritual food.


Children who have learned their native language well are poised to learn new languages with greater ease. Children who learned the language of their religious tradition are likewise poised to grasp the sacred signs of another tradition. As we nurture the spiritual life of young children with sacred signs, we simultaneously build the foundation of respect and understanding for others’ beliefs. With spiritual literacy, faith and interfaith formation work hand in hand, promoting in turn a more peaceful world.


Ballou, Roberto, ed. The Portable World Bible. New York: Penguin, 1944.
Cavalletti, Sofia. The Good Shepherd and the Child, a Joyful Journey. Chicago, IL: Liturgy Training
Publications, 1994.
Cavalletti, Sofia. The Religious Potential of the Child. Chicago, IL: Liturgy Training Publications, 1992.
Mehdi, Anisa. “Humility’s Wisdom, Loving Allah”. Workshop at Sacred Circles, Feb. 2007 at
The National Cathedral, Washington, DC.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.

Issue XVII Spring 2012 is a publication of the Center for Children and Theology, copyright © 2012.
This paper is copyrighted and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the publisher’s written permission.

Other Occasional Papers by this author:
Children and Theology: Maresca uses principles of Aquinas to support the idea that children contribute to theology. While children do not develop a formal and systematic theology they are full of faith, and seeking to understand their physical and metaphysical world. The paper goes on to explore three characteristics of children that create their unique perspective of God: essentiality, wonder and joy.
Poems and Parables: The parable method of reading the Bible is a cornerstone of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd developed by Sofia Cavalletti. The paper encourages catechists to deepen their respect for both the text and its readers, and recommit themselves to the parable method.
Moral Formation of Children, Ages 0-12: This paper extracts principles of moral formation from the catechetical work of Sofia Cavalletti and the pedagogical work of Maria Montessori.

Leave a Reply

The Child as Mystic

Issue XII Sofia Cavalletti, biblical schlolar and founder of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, noticed that the child possesses a mysterious knowledge of God. This is the hallmark of the

Children and Theology

Issue I January 2000 Theology is “faith seeking understanding” (St. Anselm). But in the 20th Century theologians have learned to pay attention to whose faith is seeking understanding of what