Listening to God With Children

Help us, O God, to enter into the secret of childhood, so that we may know, love, and serve the child in accordance with the laws of thy justice and following thy holy will. —Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

Maria Montessori, twentieth-century Italian physician and education reformer, offered this prayer as “an invitation, a kind of syllabus.” What could she mean when speaking of the “secret” of childhood she had discovered through her work and observation of children; why is she asking God’s help to enter into it? Perhaps Jesus knew of this secret when he responded to the disciples:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. — Matthew 18: 1–4

When Jesus implores us to become like children, what does he mean? What characteristics and attributes of childhood are we to rediscover, change, and become? To “enter into the secret of childhood” requires a willing spirit and a particular discipline, that comes as a result of patient observation of children and careful preparation of ourselves.

When Maria Montessori articulated a vision for how best to be a companion to children in their formation, she insisted that the power of silence was far greater than a facility of speech, that observation was profoundly different from supervision, and that the work of being with children was work requiring “the spirit of the scientist”— that is, patience, persistence and humility — rather than the mechanisms or machinery of the scientist.

In her book, Listening to God with Children, Gianna Gobbi, Montessori educator and trainer, offers a prayerful reflection upon a lifetime of experiences with children. She shares her observations of prayer in children, of how children hear God speak to them personally and with profound simplicity. As adults, we are invited to gently and respectfully enter into the child’s joyful encounter with the mystery of God’s silent self- revelation made tangible through ancient biblical images, liturgical signs, and celebrations.

In collaboration with Dr. Sofia Cavalletti, biblical and Hebrew scholar, Gobbi was instrumental in applying Montessori’s principles to the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a method of religious formation wherein the mystery of the child meets the mystery of God in joyful, often silent encounters. It is within this mystery that we might begin to respond to Cavelletti’s question: “Might not the pathway of the child open unknown perspectives of the religious world, capable of enriching us as adults? Can only the adult be a theologian?”

At St. Peter’s, we have offered Catechesis of the Good Shepherd as our primary means of children’s formation for over twenty-five years. As Catechesis spreads throughout the world, there is a danger of reducing the work to scholastic formulas and didactic skills. In reminding us of what is truly essential in offering this work to children, Gobbi points the way for every one of us to enter the secret of childhood, the way of becoming like children ourselves and thus entering the kingdom of heaven. This is work undertaken with deep seriousness and sincerity of heart in which adults and children alike are discerning the inner voice of the True Teacher, sensing that we are all, as Cavelletti says, “a carrier of God’s secret.” As adults, our own spiritual formation is informed by the desire to enter more fully into the Kingdom of God, into union with Jesus. It’s a bit of a radical notion, but it is precisely what Jesus taught, that

You are invited to read and further explore Listening to God with Children. In a collaborative offering between St. Peter’s, Charlotte, and St. Stephen’s, Richmond, we will delve into the secret of childhood, of how the child models the listening stance of prayer as a response to God’s initiation of prayer. We will seek to be better attuned not only to the spiritual lives and potential of children but to the Inner Voice in each of us. Additionally, with an emphasis on creating sacred space and time in the home, this experience hopes to indirectly prepare parents and the broader parish for virtual offerings in the extraordinary and challenging year to come.

Co-facilitated by Allison Seay, Associate for Religion and the Arts at St. Stephen’s, and Anna Hurdle, Director of Children’s Formation at St. Peter’s, the group will meet via Zoom on Thursdays, 8:00 p.m.–8:45 p.m. beginning September 10 and ending on October 22. For more details and or to register, please contact Anna Hurdle (ahurdle@st-peters.org).

Anna Hurdle, Director of Children’s Formation