The Most Valuable Thing in the World
At the beginning of the 20th century, a group of about forty little children changed their character, revealing profound characteristics in the child’s soul that had previously remained unknown. Adults who witnessed this phenomenon began talking about the discovery of the human soul, miracles, conversions—even visions of the kingdom of heaven. These children, Dr. Maria Montessori’s first students, lived in a lower-class housing project unsupervised all day while their parents went to work. Left to their own devices, they were seen as intellectually inferior, even defective. Their energies, unaided and unguided, were scattered.
Montessori discovered that when adults give children the help that enables them to act by themselves, the adult witnesses with amazement results disproportionate to and independent of the adult’s actions. She described this phenomenon in her book The Child in the Church. Montessori’s assistance enabled the children to focus and learn, to be gathered together as a learning community, and gathered psychologically within themselves. They developed skills and moral behavior to an extent entirely unexpected.
Half a century earlier, author Leo Tolstoy, in his school for severely impoverished peasant children, saw them all lit up by the flame of interest at the reading of history and biblical stories, with a constancy and enthusiasm which astonished him. It was after this experience that Tolstoy declared that the most valuable thing in the world is linked with the child’s soul.
Montessori saw that childhood and adulthood are two different forms of human life, going on at the same time and exerting upon one another a reciprocal influence: adults aiding children, and also children aiding adults. She insisted that the child can and should exercise a formative influence on the adult world.
A Cry for Help
In our time, it’s a challenge to speak to each other face to face, or hold someone’s attention for more than a few seconds, yet we crave love and connection. In our frenetic world children as well as adults are oppressed by too many messages, too many devices, and too many tasks. We are scattered. How can we live a mutually beneficial, reciprocal relationship with children in the midst of pressures and distractions that isolate us from each other? We can begin with a cry. Montessori encouraged adults to understand a child’s difficult behavior– withdrawal, inertia, discouragement, opposition, or capriciousness–as a cry for help.
For adults, it seems every moment is filled with busyness: commuting, work, tasks at home, and multiple activities. Looking for diversion, we go to the movies, play or watch sports. Looking for connection, we check Facebook or surf the internet. Looking for respite, we zone out in front of the TV, fall asleep, and start all over again the next day. We may find temporary relief but nothing satisfies. We wander in a wilderness of constant distraction, exiled from each other, from ourselves, and from God.
During Lent we can try something new. Inspired by Montessori, we can understand our disconnected and scattered behavior as a cry. Scripture tells us that the cry that arises out of the torment of wandering in the wilderness can be the beginning of new life.
In the Wilderness
The Hebrew name for the book of Deuteronomy is “In the wilderness.” In the wilderness, the Israelites’ voice cries out, complex and often bewildered, expressing the heights and depth of their experience. In her book, Bewilderments, biblical scholar Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg describes wilderness as an inner condition that challenges the individual to contend with, and not avoid, troubling experience in which tests our faith in God. In the wilderness, Jesus contended with Satan, refusing the temptation to be miraculously rescued by God.
In the wilderness the word of God came to a particular Jew, John the Baptist. In a time of fierce oppression, when the Jews were exiled from Israel and scattered all over the Roman Empire, the word of God came to John, and he cried out:
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God (Luke 3:4-6).
All flesh: adults, children, and animals gathered together, will see God’s salvation. Author Garry Wills points out that the role of John the Baptist was to proclaim a reversal of roles. The angel tells Zechariah, his father,
And many of Israel’s sons he will guide
toward the Lord their God.
and he will . . . turn the fathers’ hearts to their children . . .
to make ready for the Lord a receptive people (Luke 1:13-17)
John will look forward, so he does not do what traditional Jews did–tell sons to learn from their fathers. In the new order, the angel says, parents will learn from their children.
Return from Exile
The Book of Baruch brings a message of reconciliation and hope to the worldwide Jewish community in which exile had become, in a sense, permanent:
Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height;
look toward the east,
and see your children gathered from west and east
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them (Baruch 5:5).
“Upon the height”: the mountain is the place where Jews encounter God. From that high place they will see children gathered from exile by the word of God.
The Word, and only the Word, has the power to gather us, both communally–in relationship with each other–and personally, psychologically gathering us together within ourselves. Yet today many people, and especially children, are in exile from the Word of God. Too many children have never heard God’s Word of unconditional love for them. Some fortunate children go to church, but are fed a pre-digested message instead of the rich food of God’s word.
Invitation to Joy
With the Parable of the Good Shepherd, John 10, Jesus proclaimed a reversal of exile: the sheep that were scattered are now gathered into one flock with one Shepherd. Like Montessori and Tolstoy, those of us who work with children in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd have seen that children can understand and respond with joy to God’s word, and enter into joyful relationship with the One who calls us by name.
On the night of the Last Supper, Jesus announces his suffering and death to the gathered disciples. We can only imagine how the disciples felt. Imagine the impact when Jesus gives them a radical vision: the parable of the True Vine: “I am the vine, you are the branches.”–not many individuals gathered together, but one being, total unity. Then, as he prepares to die, Jesus adds: “I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” From prison, Paul writes to the Philippians that he is constantly praying for them with joy. What is the source of this joy?
Paul is confident that, because they have shared in the gospel with him, “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion.” New Testament scholar NT Wright explains that Paul knows that when the gospel message of Jesus changes people’s hearts, the effect on us isn’t temporary relief or diversion. What God begins he always finishes. Paul prays with joy because God responded once and for all to the voices crying in the wilderness–not only John’s voice, but also the voice of the Hebrew people crying out as they wandered in the wilderness after God’s revelation at Sinai. The voice, no longer a cry, is the call of the Good Shepherd, speaking a message of ardent, unconditional love. This Lent, may we all, children and adults together, listen to the Word of God and let our hearts be changed. Let us answer the call of the Good Shepherd and be gathered together in unity and joy.