By Heather Gray
The New Year is a contemplative time for many people. It is a reminder that, wherever we find ourselves, we may begin anew again and again.
Over the holiday break, I found myself reading poetry by John O’Donohue. O’Donohue was an Irish poet and author; he was also a priest who is well-known for enlightening our modern world with stories from ancient Celtic tradition. You might enjoy reading more about him here: https://onbeing.org/programs/john-odonohue-the-inner-landscape-of-beauty-aug2017/.
O’Donahue espoused that each moment is an opportunity to genuinely look at ourselves, others and our surroundings with an affection and curiosity that can allow for compassionate, life-giving action. John O’Donahue described the spiritual journey as “the shortest journey we would ever take, one that requires not a change of location, but instead a shift of view.”
I think that John O’Donahue and Maria Montessori would have gotten along very well. Montessori believed that the formation of the soul begins in infancy and continue to develop through the first six years of life. From birth, children must be regarded as spiritual beings capable of great mental life, and she gave great weight to the significance of children’s inner spirits. This concept was so important that Montessori charged those involved in early childhood education with the job of “building mankind.” (Montessori, The Montessori Method 1964)
Dr. Montessori tells us that great care must be taken with the youngest of children. It is during this first plane of development that this formation begins. “There is in the child a special kind of sensitivity which leads him to absorb everything about him, and it is this work of observing and absorbing that alone enables him to adapt himself to life.” (Montessori, The Montessori Method 1964)
The prepared environment is the place where the child’s spirit can naturally unfold. Montessori reminded us to be most careful in the creation of this physical and metaphorical space, warning us “do not erase the designs the child makes in the soft wax of his soul.”
All of us can probably share about some of the things that allow us to invite the presence of our own souls. Educational philosopher Parker Palmer said that “the soul is like a wild animal- tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do it to go crashing through the woods, shouting from the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.”
For some people, finding the soul this might literally mean taking a walk in nature. This is a tactic that we also use at Walnut Farm with children when their souls are feeling a little bit lost or hungry; it is difficult to stay angry when one is sitting on a bench in a bird blind watching a chickadee dart from tree to tree. For someone else, soul protection might take the form of cozying up with a good book; I have a 13 year-old daughter who nurtures hers by spending a few hours each weekend in the public library. There isn’t really a one-size-fits-all soul beckoning environment; just as each child is different so it is for all human beings. One person’s soul might enjoy some yoga now and again or singing one’s heart out in the church choir while another person’s soul might find these things to be pure torture. Some might juice up their souls by running with friends at dawn’s early light while another might prefer to stay bundled up in bed hitting the snooze button.
The thing that remains crucial is getting to know one’s soul, and honoring it with the kind of prepared environment Montessori wrote about so that our souls may be nourished and continue to naturally unfold. Creating these conditions for ourselves is vital to our happiness, and taking care of ourselves is an incredible gift that we can give to our children. My mentor, Dr. Sister Anthonita Porta, used to say to us, “If you don’t each lunch, you’ll eat the children.” Perhaps this is as true for our souls as it is for our physical beings.
The New Year welcomes us to invite our souls to come out to play with us again, even if we haven’t caught a glimpse for quite some time. Children should have the right to know that, even when they make mistakes, tomorrow is a new day and we can begin anew. We say this with children a lot, “Tomorrow is a new day.” It is also true that every moment is a new moment, and we can help children to see that it is possible to shift our attention, sometimes in the most minuscule of ways, to make a better choice. One of the first steps in this process is helping children to forgive one another and themselves so that they can see a more compassionate course of action. We owe this to ourselves, as well, and when we give this gift to ourselves we give it to our children in turn.
Wherever this New Year finds you, please know that we are your partners during this Montessori journey as each new moment unfolds.
Happy New Year!