One Thursday afternoon, when my four girls returned home from school, my youngest noted the coffee urn and teapot still sitting on the side table, the small green books left on the chairs and the sofa, and my copy of The Journey to Truth is an Experience on the piano bench. She turned to me and said, accusingly “Did you have atrium without me?” I told her no, that I’d had School of Community that morning. “Oh,” she said, “The grown-up atrium.”
In the method of religious formation called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, “atrium” is the name given to the room where catechetical sessions take place. For the early Christians, who met to worship in people’s homes, the atrium was the space where those preparing for Baptism met to receive preparation. Maria Montessori borrowed this word from the ancient Church when she began her experiment in applying her pedagogical principles to the religious education of children, and it was taken up again by Sofia Cavalletti (a Hebrew scripture scholar) and Gianna Gobbi (a Montessori educator), the two women from Rome who spent over fifty years developing this Montessori-based approach to catechesis (Sofia continues to develop it to this day, but Gianna passed away in 2002).
My 5 year-old daughter is not the only person who has seen a similarity or affinity between the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and Communion and Liberation. But it’s strange because many of the differences between the two are striking. While in CGS the preparation of the catechetical space, in its components and organization, is crucial, I have never heard of any guidelines concerning the room in which the local CL community meets to do School of Community. In the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, texts are taken from scripture or liturgy, with only a very small number of exceptional and supplemental texts, which in turn reflect directly on the liturgy or scripture. During School of Community, though, the text is almost always by Don Giussani, Father Carron, or occasionally by the Pope. Most remarkable, though, is that in CL, the companionship, or Christian unity, that develops among its members becomes the decisive and concrete sign of the presence of Christ with us, while in CGS, the companionship or Christian unity that develops within any given atrium community, made up of children and adults together, flows from what Sofia Cavalletti calls a “choral” listening to the Word of God, whose presence is located in holy scripture and in sacred liturgy.
So, then, can a case be made for any relationship between these two movements that sprang up at almost precisely the same historical moment, 358 miles from one another?
Well, first of all, both Cavalletti and Giussani have a particular interest in wonder. For Cavalletti, education to wonder is one of the essential components of catechesis. She dedicates a chapter on this subject in The Religious Potential of the Child, her book that describes the experience of catechesis with young children, in which she writes, “When wonder becomes a fundamental attitude of our spirit it will confer a religious character to our whole life, because it makes us live with the consciousness of being plunged into an unfathomable and incommensurable reality” (Religious Potential, page 139). This remark resonates with much of what Fr. Giussani says in Chapter 10 of The Religious Sense, and in “On the Way, in which he says, “And wonder is the beginning of a reverentia, of a respect, of humble attention. Like a child before a new situation: he feels instinctively a sense of wonder and humble, slightly timorous respect." With words that echo Giussani’s insight, Cavalletti says that in order to cultivate wonder, it is essential to learn how to observe reality with great attention. Cavalletti points out that wonder is a force that draws us forward, rather than pushing us from behind: “The nature of wonder is not a force that pushes us passively from behind; it is situated ahead of us and attracts us with irresistible force toward the object of our astonishment; it makes us advance toward it, filled with enchantment” (in Religious Potential, pg. 138). Her understanding of wonder is akin to Giussani’s insistence on attraction. For Cavalletti, the object of wonder must be adequate, a poverty that contains a great richness, like the simplicity of the parable of the mustard seed or the poverty of the Eucharistic sign of bread. Like Giussani, she insists on an education to the language of signs. Giussani observes, “The sign, then, is a reality which refers me to something else. The sign is a reality whose meaning is another reality, something I am able to experience, which acquires its meaning by leading to another reality” (The Religious Sense, page 111).
Both CGS and CL have been falsely and mistakenly termed “experiential” methods. The dreaded and justly-maligned “experiential” method of catechesis involves beginning with the person’s experience and then using that base to “reach up” to God. Before Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, humanity was “stuck” with the experiential method, a situation that is well illustrated in Giussani’s example of the various building crews all attempting to construct bridges to the farthest star (see "Recognizing Christ"). CGS and CL both rely on experience, but it is an experience of the divine: in the atrium, as well as in School of Community, every moment is prayer. In CGS, one experiences the divine through direct contact with the Word of God, present in particular scripture passages and liturgical signs, while in CL, one encounters Christ through the altogether new Christian community that develops and grows through the charism given to Father Giussani. Each movement demands that we begin with an “experience” of the divine, present in the Bible and Sacraments, or present in the community generated by the living events recorded in the Bible and lived deeply and intensely in the Sacraments. In CGS and in CL we often hear the reminder that the initiative is always God’s.
Another common theme, which runs through all the writings of Cavalletti and Giussani is gift. Cavalletti points out that salvation history may be summed up as a history of a continuous out-pouring of gifts:
How many things there are in the world, from the largest to the smallest, from the stars in the sky to the flowers in the field and the fragrances they emit! So many things have been placed at our disposal to be contemplated and enjoyed, as well as to serve our needs. The world is spread before us like an immense banquet table, a lavish feast prepared for the human creature. No one among us has made the world or would have a clue as to how to make all that we find on the table before us. It all comes to us as a gift, as yet another experience of the “ours and not ours.” We have not earned these gifts; indeed, who could merit the fragrance of a flower (The Religious Potential of the Child 6 to 12 Years Old, page 27).
And Fr. Giussani points out:
Therefore, the very first sense of the human being is that of facing a reality, which is not his, which exists independently of him, and upon which he depends. Empirically translated, it is the original perception of a given, a word which, if used in a completely human sense, involving the total person, all of the factors of an individual’s personality, comes alive: “given,” as a past participle, implies something which “gives.” The word which translates in the content of human terms the word “given,” and thus describes the content of our first impact with reality, is the word gift (The Religious Sense, page 101).
Thus, both Cavalletti and Giussani insist on a God who gives.
Freedom, and with it, the risks inherent for those who nurturing it, are both of central importance to Cavalletti and Giussani. In CGS, this freedom is expressed in the period of “work time” to which the majority of every catechetical session is given over. After the communal presentation, during which adults and children alike place themselves in a listening stance in front of a Bible text or a moment “lifted up” from the liturgy, the children are free to move through the atrium to select the catechetical materials they are most drawn to explore more deeply. The catechetical “materials” are aids that accompany each biblical or liturgical presentation; the catechist makes or assembles them by hand, and they simply concretize the biblical or liturgical themes. For example, the material for the parable of the mustard seed is a small box that contains mustard seeds from the Holy Land (they are much smaller than those one can find in the spice aisle of your local supermarket – truly no larger than specks of dust) and a photograph of a boy standing in front of a mature mustard tree (again, much larger than the scrubby flowering plants that grow from the big spice seeds). Drawing and writing materials are also available to the children, so that they may contemplate the seeds and the photograph, draw a picture that helps them meditate more deeply on the parable, copy out the parable, or write an original prayer or meditation concerning the parable. What always amazes and inspires doubt in those who have no prior experience with CGS is that when given this kind of freedom, the children settle down to work with a peaceful, contemplative joy. But what disturbs the doubtful is the possibility that the children won’t “get” what the educator intends. A little bit of common sense reveals that the kind of deep knowledge that the Mystery of God invites is not susceptible to techniques of memorization or filling in blanks. In the life of faith, it is essential that the person adhere to what he learns, so much so that it becomes part of his identity. For this to happen, the person must accept what is proposed in freedom, chew on it, test it, and have the necessary time, space, and human support to live the repercussions of this new knowledge. Father Giussani understood this well. When he writes, in The Risk of Education, “the first condition inherent in education, whether that condition be conscious or merely implicit, is a sense of detachment and respect. It is a sense of fear and trembling in front of the mystery that dwells in the student” (page 125), he is well aware that he is proposing a risky position for the educator. The student must take a risk when accepting the challenge to verify a proposal that is new and challenging, and the educator must risk both by offering what is most precious to him, but also by proposing the thing that animates his life in such a way that the student may ultimately reject it. Giussani suggests an approach to education in which educator and student “travel together, and it is on this path together, defined by the ultimate goal of destiny, that they learn what the path is. This is the explicit risk involved in accepting the call and the challenge of that definition of humanity, of that mystery Who urges us to recognize that he has created us” (The Risk of Education, page 37).
So I return to my youngest daughter’s original observation, that School of Community is a “grown-up atrium.” Does she recognize these factors that I have traced? She cannot possibly have formulated them in the same way they are laid out here. And yet, the lived experience of Christ has such a particular “fragrance,” that even, or especially, “mere infants” are able to distinguish it and relish its perfume.