Echo: Faith Formation Leadership Program, University of Notre Dame (Echo 7)
Apprentice Catechetical Leader, Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Angleton, TX
Shining a Light on the Sacredness of Space
A couple of weeks into the Continuing Christian Education (CCE) year, I realized our CCE classroom needed a makeover.
All the other places where the love of God, the Holy Spirit, comes to fill and dwell with us have special names. The world is creation; part of the Middle East is the Holy Land. The home is the domestic church, the church has a sanctuary, and the table in the Church is the altar. We call certain ornate containers the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle, and the Last Supper and Pentecost occurred in the Cenacle. The girl Mary from Bethlehem became the Queen of Heaven and the Mother of God.
Our CCE room was distressed, having much experience as a place where children come to know, love, and serve God, but having never had such a special appellation. “SB-8” remained a very practical name, but the opportunity to announce its deeper character lurked as well.
Some of its catechetical relatives offered their two cents, as relatives do. “Atrium” might make a good name, said the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. The word comes from the Latin for an open room or court in the center of an ancient Roman house. In this form of catechesis, “[c]hildren gather in a room specially prepared for them, called an atrium, which contains simple yet beautiful materials that they use to draw near to God. In the early church, the atrium was the place where the catechumens were prepared. For the child [today], the atrium is a place of preparation for involvement in the larger worshipping community.” This wonderful concept has the liturgy at its core, as the catechumens and the children are not simply en route to a greater mental understanding of the teachings of the Church but, what is more, they seek the habits of prayer, thought, and morality which eventually enable their full participation with the community at Mass. They also seek to understand the meaning of their experience of Mass, which sends them back into the community and the world. Because the liturgy is at the core of this kind of catechesis, so is the community, the Body of Christ.
But the name “atrium” is taken, and we do not use the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at our parish. “Let’s get ready to go to our Room of St. Dominic Savio!” just doesn’t roll off the tongue when it needs to, that is, when the time comes to gather the attention of twelve third-grade children from their previous objects, convince them to walk in a line, and have them simultaneously carry a lighted candle, Bible, and cross the way these things should be carried. Despite this particular instance, I think naming rooms after saints is lovely, practical, and catechetically useful.
During this search for inspiration for the makeover, the commonalities between a CCE space and the womb of our Blessed Mother kept crossing my mind. “Blessed is the fruit of your womb,” we tell her; she is made holy not by her own identity but by the One whom she welcomed despite the darkness of the night, the hiddenness of her womb inside her, and the uncertainty in her mind of the future. Similarly, the catechist and children gather together to welcome God’s truth, beauty, goodness, and the light of God’s very Self. Not one of us has control over the outer circumstances from weather to baseball practice, the progress of the lesson plan, nor least of all the conversion of all of our hearts. Still, we trust as Mary did that God’s grace makes us holy and helps us learn about and live out that holiness. Despite this truth, the name “womb room” would never do. It rolls off the tongue a little too easily, so much so as to distract from what it means!
That settled it. The room became “our sacred space,” alliterative by accident, and very to-the-point. A sacred space is different from an everyday space (a concept, I later learned, that not all the children have had the chance to internalize), so in order to make it look the part for CCE, I lighted one pillar candle and turned off the lights while I went to fetch the children from the large hall – atrium, if you will – where they all gather before CCE. I told them we were about to go somewhere that is holy because God is there, and I asked them how we should act when we enter a holy space.
I was surprised at how well the kids “got it,” especially since this was (scientifically, perhaps) the same room we had used during the previous two weeks. The carpet, chalkboard, room divider, tables, and chairs were all the same. The only differences were the candlelight in the darkened room and the name we called it. The candle was wildly popular. As always, we started our session with prayer. Then we flipped the lights back on, I blew the candle out, and we continued with the lesson amid intermittent requests to light the candle again.
I immediately noticed my own experience of walking to our sacred space with the children. In the next days, as I reflected and certainly came across ideas from our textbook and other catechists, I realized that the need to transport the children from the large hall to each room was a real opportunity. It is much easier to help them see the difference between a sacred space and an everyday space when they arrive together and in an organized fashion from somewhere else, from an everyday space. Really, they were processing into the CCE room, but in a veiled sort of way. The next week, therefore, we lifted the veil, and we processed to our sacred space!
The novelty and surprise at the new look of the sacred space wore off a little. Once we entered the room, if a child or two went to someone else’s seat or ran or shouted, the others’ attention moved from the sacred sense of the room to the other child. One way I tried to respond was by gentle reminders of the sacredness of the space. This worked…at times. A better way to lessen this problem and to keep the children focused in general was to give them jobs. Some children were to pass out books, pencils, etc., and one was charged with posting and remembering our rules in order to remind the others as needed. At first, there weren’t enough responsibilities to go around, but since God’s creative power flourishes amid the debris of our unaccomplished plans, we ended up having a Candle Extinguisher each week. (This is a most coveted responsibility and a motivator for good behavior.) In addition, some children became responsible for carrying objects during the procession, and we have two rotating Hospitality Ministers whose task is to greet the other children and myself as we enter and exit the sacred space. This solution brought up questions of its own, of course, such as when to announce the responsibilities for the day (it has to be before the procession, which takes some time), what to do if both of the Hospitality Ministers are late or absent, and how to inoculate the children from the sharing of cooties which is inevitable in the ministry of hospitality.
The sacred space continues to become what it is. Now, from time to time, the children arrive to find the room arranged differently; that is, so that it does not look or feel like a classroom once the lights come back and the Candle Extinguisher does her thing. Several times the children have had the chance to move around to different “stations” in the room to encounter the content of the textbook lesson in the form of word games, pieces of art, or skits they can bring to life. Often we sit in a circle on the carpet to listen and respond to stories. Sitting in a circle on the floor is very helpful for some children, while others find it especially conducive to treating the nearby tables as forts or jungle gyms. The setup of the room, then, was not constant but variable, determined according to the lesson plan and my knowledge about what the children’s attention spans could handle.
The next step, I think, has less to do with arranging the space. It has to do with helping the children name their experiences. One day when we had a hard time getting into prayer mode, I decided to review the difference between sacred activities and everyday activities. The children understood this well. Then I asked about our own space. Is it sacred? Yes! Why is it sacred? More good answers. And finally, how do you know Jesus is in this room? Many children raised their hands: Because we talk about Jesus. Because of the cross. The Bible. The candle. These liturgical symbols had spoken for themselves, though I had only actually told the children about the sacredness of the space and the meaning of the candle. This reflection could continue: What is it like to come into our sacred space when it looks like this? How do you feel when you are welcomed by the Hospitality Ministers? What do you think of being a Hospitality Minister? Do you think we should get rid of the candle? (No.) Where else do you see candles and Hospitality Ministers?
And with the help of their parents and the Holy Spirit, the children just might recognize for themselves that the church they enter on Sundays is way better than this sacred space, even if at first it is only due to the sheer number of candles.