By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
The old house is quiet. Long gauzy panels cover each of the tall windows, admitting light but giving the rooms a soft ambiance. As an act of reverence, you must remove your shoes before going into the Atrium because this is considered holy ground.
Once inside, there is a respectful hush…only quiet voices here, studied movements, deliberate and careful handling of sacred objects and teaching materials. A place for everything — and everything in its place.
As the inhabitants of the room go about their chosen tasks, each is mindful of the others’ space, only moving close to watch. A soft touch on the shoulder indicates the need for a question to be answered. For the next hour and a half, this peace will be carefully observed.
Now, imagine this happening in a room filled with three-, four- and five-year-olds.
This is the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at Grace Episcopal Church. It started last fall and is now in full swing, with all of the children having learned that this place is something special — a place for calm, quiet, introspective learning — a place where they come to focus on spiritual formation, not just Christian education.
“There is so much more depth to this method of learning,” said Catechist Paula Poynor.
Although the names “catechist” and “atrium” are borrowed from the Roman Catholic Church, Episcopal churches now count for more than half of the atria in the United States. Grace Episcopal is one of 16 churches in the diocese of Alabama.
Kathryn Jones and Paula Poynor are the catechists here at Grace Episcopal Church in Cullman. They have been through training with Stephanie Diethelm, a catechesis formation leader at All Saints Episcopal Church in Birmingham. They also spent a week of intensive training in Virginia. The course requires 90 hours per level, with three levels, ending at the age of 12.
“We call ourselves Catechists because in the Atrium Christ is the only teacher,” Jones explained.
“We train without using a purchased curriculum,” she continued. “Instead we observe other catechists as they orally present each lesson and share supporting philosophy and research.”
“The children’s work is not judged as being either good or bad here,” said Jones. “We don’t correct or verbally praise them; instead they are encouraged with smiles or nods of ‘yes’.”
There are 50 lessons in Level 1, alone. The theory and philosophy backs up the approach. “Children not only learn about God, but why we do the things we do in church services,” Jones said.
Everything in the atrium is built or purchased in miniature scale, so that it fits little hands and is at eye level. Other members of the church are brought into the program by building or crafting the furniture, sewing the vestments, or by helping in some other way. The small altar and sacristy are filled with the sacred objects that they will see in actual services, only on a much smaller scale.
The basis of these practices began with Maria Montessori, a noted physician, educator and humanitarian, who developed an innovative approach to teaching young children the early 1900s. Her model has proven to be a very focused, intensive learning process at the child’s own pace. Her methods are still in use today.
In the 1950s, the Pope requested that she develop a program of religious education. Although she set out to teach a more meaningful understanding of religion, she wanted students to focus on the religious life and the development of a deeper respect and knowledge of the purpose of those teachings.
Part of the process of this method of teaching young children to be reverent and respectful involves moving slowly and with purpose. A minimum of words are used to present lessons. Whispering or speaking quietly is encouraged, making and maintaining direct eye contact, and learning to handle objects carefully and with reverence for their meaning is central to Montessori’s method.
In the atrium, children are instructed in folding altar cloths, placing sacred objects on the altar, working quietly at their tasks, and replacing each item neatly in preparation for the next person. “Everything we do in the atrium is prayer,” Jones explained.
The children are allowed to choose their own work, be that setting the altar, placing religious figurines, or working from books. They may observe others, but only in a respectful manner, and they are taught to touch someone’s shoulder if they need to interrupt to ask a question or make a comment.
This might sound hard to believe when you consider the tender age of these students, but some parents are already seeing influence of the atrium training at home. “One of the parents remarked recently that his child touches his shoulder when she wants to interrupt her parent’s conversation,” said Poynor.
They also do practical life exercises, such as folding, pouring, cutting and sorting as lessons in slowing down, concentrating, and taking the rush out of life.
This teaching carries over into everyday life, as well,” Jones pointed out. “They learn to move slowly and more carefully, they handle objects with respect, and they learn to return things to their proper place, without being told to do so. Children need this type of order and organization in their lives.”
“When I first observed this training in Birmingham, I was just blown away,” exclaimed David Poynor. “Those of us who went to find out more about this program came back on fire.”
“This program gives the children an opportunity to teach their parents, many of whom did not know the reason behind some of our religious ceremonies,” said Deacon Jerry Jacob, who says that he was drawn to the Episcopal Church because of the Liturgy. “We don’t talk in our worship area before services because we revere the space. This helps young children to understand why we do that.”
All in all, the children have come to look forward to this time each Sunday. They are growing in their knowledge of a Christian life, and of why liturgical things are done in a certain order or manner.
For the children of Grace Episcopal Atrium, Jesus is more accessible, more easily understood and defined. Their focus on his life and teachings has come to be an integral part of their lives. They have grasped the meaning of reverence and respect for others, and that is an amazing part of the plan.
For more information on Grace Episcopal Atrium, contact Kathryn Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Paula Poynor at email@example.com
For more information on becoming a Catchiest, visit www.cgsusa.org
Or call Stephanie Diethelm at All Saints Episcopal Church, 205-879-8651.