Laura Menze, Lydia’s House Occupational Therapist
A year ago on a staff retreat, we spoke of our longing to introduce more robust spiritual practices into the life of Lydia’s House. We brainstormed and let the ideas simmer in our collective consciousness. In our time of waiting and curiosity, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) rose to the surface as a good fit for our community. Mary Ellen Mitchell’s children were part of this formation as young children and she was excited to introduce this to the children of Lydia’s House.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a Montessori based religious formation program. Level I is oriented to children aged 3 to 6 years old, which is the average age of children living at Lydia’s House. CGS is a religious experience that has the contemplation and the enjoyment of God at its center. As its name suggests, it is rooted in the parable of the good shepherd, a parable that reveals the personal love and protective presence of Christ. Though traditionally done in a church setting, this model has been used in orphanages and cross-culturally as well. In the words of the program’s founder Sofia Cavalleti, CGS answers the child’s plea of “Help me come closer to God by myself.” The teacher is Christ – both children and adults place themselves in a stance of listening.
A COVID prompted closing of the Lydia’s House living room and dining room meant that we had the space to craft a room for children to meet God. (We trust that when these rooms are reopened another plan will emerge, even if that means moving the atrium into place each week.) The living room/dining room has been transformed into a child centric work area, intended to be a retreat-like area for the children rich with stillness and holiness. We have stations and shelves of different works that children can select to do independently. There are creative works in which they can respond freely to what has been experienced in atrium. There are practical life works, such as practicing pouring, polishing metal, or washing a baby doll, that aim to increase concentration and self-mastery. There are also works that are explicitly related to the story of Jesus, such as a map of where Jesus lived and stories with peg dolls depicting the annunciation, birth of Jesus, and so forth. (We are focusing on the stories of Jesus and not including the liturgical elements, such as the altar at Mass, as many children participating do not practice Catholic faith.)
In September we began offering weekly atrium times for children of Lydia’s House. We have had approximately 10 children participate weekly, as well as two pre-teen assistants. Some children live in the Lydia’s House shelter, others live at Virginia Coffey Place or participate in the Lydia’s House aftercare program. Other children live in the Norwood and are connected with the Lydia’s House community. Together we share an outdoor meal with the participating families and then children leave to participate indoors. Parents report their children repeatedly asking when atrium is and singing the songs at home. We plan to continue this program through the school year.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Program, or an atrium, cannot be started swiftly, for it takes a high amount of training (90 hours of training) and preparation of space as nearly all materials are prayerfully handcrafted. We are deeply grateful to those that have supported us in the starting of this program.
- Dan Teller of Good Shepherd Montessori school – Offering a scholarship so Mary Ellen Mitchell, Jill Stoxen, and I could take the formation course, as well as answering our countless start-up questions
- St. Timothy Episcopal Church – Gifting us many beautifully crafted items from their atrium no longer in use
- Sandi Gaines – Making us quilted (and washable!) work mats for children to use while completing floor works
- Bethany Kurtz (associate) and her family- Painting peg dolls and building dioramas
- Jake Boehne – Painting an African American good shepherd folk art icon for use on our altar table as we are always aiming to ensure all children see themselves represented
- Josh Shanklin – Offering Montessori consultation as we were daunted by the practicalities of setting up the space
If you would like to learn more, check out these resources.
- The Religious Potential of the Child: Experiencing Scripture and Liturgy with Young Children (Sofia Cavalletti)
- The United States Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd
We are grateful for your prayers and support as we all journey together to know more of Christ as the good shepherd who calls us each by name.