The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves but "to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you." Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
During a weekend of speaking to catechists in Nashville TN this spring I heard myself using the words, “Make space…” while opening my arms to create a protected circle. I began on Friday talking about toddlers, but even when moved to 3-12-year-olds on Saturday I was still encouraging the group to make space.
Children of all ages live amidst a barrage of words, tasks, sounds, visual stimulation and activities. In contrast, the atrium can provide a place and time for few words, minimal sounds, and self-chosen contemplative activity. This is, perhaps, a true embodiment of Tutu’s and the Dalai Lama’s “Oasis of Peace”.
And yet, we feel some obligation to complete the presentations on our list, offer a new lesson weekly, manage the children’s choices one way or another, and comment on their words or work. These materials and presentations and guidance are offered in service to the greater goal: nurture the child’s relationship with God. Perhaps our question as we prepare for the children should be, what will make space for this child’s spiritual life to flourish this week?
A presentation? Or no presentation?
Group gathering or prayer? Or no group gathering?
A methodical lesson covering many points? Or a brief introduction to a material?
A new addition to the environment? Or removing something from the environment?
A new song? Or a beloved song?
In every case, both possibilities are the right choice at times. But perhaps we do not consider the second choice of each pair often enough.
Here are some things that have forced me to offer less over the years, making more room for the child’s own oasis of peace:
- Writing my 3-6 presentations in Spanish (not my native language). I learned to “count my words” as Montessori encouraged us to do.
- Perceiving that children wanted very few new lessons in the spring. They continued to work happily, but already had a “full plate” of work to choose from.
- Hearing 6-9-year-olds say “When will this lesson be over?” This question has guided me to getting 1-2 children started on a new material, leave them for a time of independent work, and end with a short check-in and conversation. Biblical meditations are timed, and end after 20 minutes (6-9) or 30 minutes (9-12) with a sense of “We can’t finish, there’s more to be discovered here.”
- Struggling to find satisfactory work for 9-12-year-olds. They grasp abstract concepts so quickly most of the card materials are rarely repeated. They like the work that is “real” to them: purposeful and productive. Planning liturgies, service projects, preparing for a sacrament, applying the Bible to daily life, planning a special prayer service for a child or adult in need, or reading Scripture Booklets to the 3-6-year-olds. While work with materials and prayer overlap for the 3-9-year-olds, this is less true for the oldest kids. But they are satisfied with art and prayer that offers them some mental space. One child draws using a continuous line, others like to color mandalas, copy quotes from the saints and the Bible, knit for a while on the communal prayer shawl, or take slow solitary walks in the courtyard.In the 90-120 minutes of time with us, 30 minutes will be for a group lesson or 10-20 minutes for a quick presentation of a material. Twenty minutes will be for communal prayer most weeks.Forty to sixty minutes are available for work and prayer of their choice.
- A smaller ratio of adults to children may well force us to offer each child fewer lessons and attention, and this can be a good thing. Don’t overstaff the atrium.
- Choosing and attending to a work or prayer of my own during the session models focused activity and invites the children to join me. I alternate this with making notes about what each child is doing. The older children know this is one of my habits, and that bit of awareness seems to help them move into work or prayer without words.
Finally, my hope is to be peaceful myself. Not only for the children in the atrium, but for all I meet each day. Many who know me well may chuckle at this. But as I age I find this goal to be more and more appealing to me. Not quiet, not without opinions and goals and rough edges, but peaceful enough to invite others to join me in being an oasis of peace.