The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world and sacred landscape we once knew. Adoration chapels are only accessed by a scheduled adorer, Church pews are empty on Sunday, and the faithful flock to their cars for drive-thru confession. Perhaps one of the more trying aspects of all of this is streaming Masses online. Accessible for the most part, but maybe not enough. The crux of all these changes is really found in who we are called to be and what we are to build more than ever before—the domestic Church, our family, the church at home.
There is something challenging, yet profound in beginning to see the distance we put between our home and Church. We relied on the beauty of the Mass with the entire sensory experience of our participation of the Mass. Now we are being encouraged to watch it on our television—a mode I don’t want to completely dismiss or disparage because it has been fruitful for many. But, I’m sympathetic to the struggle that the faithful are experiencing: How do we participate authentically? Are guides for watching Mass on the television helpful or limiting? How do our children (who long for and appreciate sensory experiences) adapt? Should they?
I recently finished reading The Child in the Church, which is a series of essays by Dr. Maria Montessori and other thinkers who have contributed to Catechesis of the Good Shepherd movement in religious education. I found so many ideas helpful in terms of what we are experiencing today. It was really through this book that I began to understand why my family struggled with participating actively and fully with a televised Mass. Some people have found this mode helpful and have adapted. But, my son loves everything sensory about Mass—the smell of incense, the sight of the rituals, the sound of the organ. The reason for this is grounded in a very Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy. Everything that he learns, he learns through his senses. So, I felt even more encouraged to make an atrium at home, imperfect as it is. Interestingly, after Saint John Paul II visited a Montessori school in Rome, he commented, “That is the most beautiful homily I have ever witnessed.”
So, what is an atrium? Dr. Montessori considers an atrium to be a separate space dedicated to the supernatural. This is a place to center a child’s activities on the life of Jesus. The elements in the space essentially help to foster the relationship between God and the child.
Young children have what Dr. Montessori calls an absorbent mind. What does this mean? They are focused on reality. So, inundating children with television and electronics do little to help them flourish. They absorb and learn from their environment through real things—playing with dirt, collecting leaves, beholding the sight of a bird landing on their porch.
They are also non-judgmental. They believe and trust that what you present in their environment is true and good. So, everything in the home should reflect truth, beauty, and goodness as much as possible.
While we can’t necessarily access all the beautiful materials for an atrium, we can start with a few things. We can simplify. How much of your art and decorations reflect Gods goodness and beauty? We can also create a small area that is separate and sacred. This could be where you pray a morning offering together as a family. Finally, set some time aside each day for liturgical living. Make a Mary garden. Learn about the saints. Remind yourself and your children to offer up sufferings. Pray reverently before meals. Go one step further than establishing a “routine,” and strive for a “Rule of Life” to help bring some of the prayerful rhythm of monastic orders to your domestic church. Practice Visio Divina, a way of praying with art much like Lectio Divina.
Many families are finding good and creative ways of observing Sunday without the television. They light candles in front of a crucifix, say the prayers and readings of the Mass, and make an Act of Spiritual Communion. The important thing is that whether you rely on the television or not, the Masses are happening, and we should spiritually unite ourselves to them. We should also use this time to discover what small things we can do to make our homes sacred too—a place where we and our children can find the supernatural.
The Church isn’t closed. It might be closer than ever before. We just might need to see beyond the screen and re-envision our home.