Monthly letters to help put the work of the catechist of the Good Shepherd into the context of the larger world · from the archives
by Rev. Catherine Powell
Sometimes those of us who know the value of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd don’t know how to tell other people about it. We are drawn to it because of its deep rootedness in the heart of our faith, but it may be particularly hard to speak about it with people on the outskirts of the faith community. In order to invite these people into the experience of CGS, we need to use everyday language. We need to speak in ways understandable to parents who may not use the same language we do, but are acutely aware of needs that CGS might meet.
Here are some themes that might intrigue parents and draw them to explore the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd:
Children are overscheduled and overstimulated. They may be agitated and find it hard to focus. They may have little time to recognize and manage the life of their own minds and emotions. This worries us as parents and grandparents. How will our children know and deal with their emotions? How will they learn to sit with problems that take time to solve? How will they learn to think deeply and to attend to their inner life, their spiritual life?The atrium experience educates invites children to enter their own inner lives. Exercises in focus and silence, activities which show children how to calm their bodies, and presentations which call them to linger over ideas and images, deepening their thoughts and understanding—all of these are part of life in the atrium.
Moreover, the Catechesis guides children (and adults) toward a particular life of the Spirit, one filled with light and love. The inner world where we meet God is a place of peace and joy. Children may be healed, calmed, and encouraged by their journeys there.
Children may be remarkably pessimistic or cynical. They may be aware of distressing news from the wider world. In school they are being educated about ecological crises such as increasing pollution and endangered species. Many of them know about violence in their own communities and they are certainly familiar with divorce and other troubling family issues. In the face of difficult truths, they may either act as if nothing matters, or they may take another course and be hampered by anxiety about the future. Caring adults around them know that they, like all human beings, need hope and purpose. They need to feel that the effort to be good, to build lives of integrity and meaning, and to make a positive difference in the world is worthwhile.
The Catechesis offers a unique vision of a world that is being drawn towards meaningful fulfillment. It helps children understand that struggle and even suffering are part of the fullness of life and may lead to remarkable depth and renewal. It explicitly invites them to be part of building a community that is value-based, wholesome, hopeful and committed to the good. Their lives matter. Their efforts matter. And God is with them as they move into the future.
Children seek consistent values and expectations. Many children are part of groups that teach the importance of specific skills and competitiveness. These are not bad things but, alone, they are not enough. Lessons, sports, and schools show one side of life but may have little time for development of moral values (such as compassion and service) or spiritual skills (such as love and wonder.)
A strength of CGS is that morality is part of a whole worldview. Some groups may encourage particular values such as hard work or caring, but these values are free-floating and therefore subject to challenge or change when the child is in other contexts. The morality learned in an atrium is different. It is based in a relationship that is foundational. The effort to behave in certain ways grows out of a rooted sense of identity in all situations.
The atrium not only makes room for these intangibles, it creates a whole community of children and adults who are learning spiritual skills and practicing moral consideration. The atrium is a safe place for children to explore sadness and joy, death and resurrection. It is a place where groups work to explore images and stories about value and faith, and to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and encouragement.
Our children live in a throwaway culture. Most of them have plenty of food, plenty of paper, plenty of water and heat. It makes little difference to them if food is thrown away, or if they scribble on ten sheets of paper in a sitting. This not only devalues the things of the world, it also means there is little need for organization or focus, important skills for adult living. Why think about how you are going to use your sheet of paper when there are so many more? Why carefully plan your time with particular material if there are five sets of the same material sitting unused? In groups, we like to provide plenty of tools or equipment so that there is no need to share. At soccer practice each child has a ball. In school there are scissors for everyone. Of course, this is a good thing in some ways, but it does little to teach children patience, self-control, and generosity.
By slowing things down and using resources carefully, CGS teaches children not to be anxious about what they may not have in their hands right this minute. They can wait and it won’t hurt them. Other good choices are available. They will get their turn and find that it is enough. When they are finished using an item, they may understand something new about living in community as they pass the item to a waiting child. If sheets of paper are limited, they may be surprised to discover the pleasure of planning their work and pride in completing it. Learning to use less and to take their time invite children to savor, to deepen, and to share.
In conclusion, introducing CGS as way of addressing concerns already present in many parents may give some a way to connect to CGS that our faith or method-based language does not. Each community of parents is different, but attentiveness to the apprehensions at the top of their lists will help CGS be perceived as a ministry responsive to needs of children and parents in the world today.