Stephanie Stokman. Photo by Tim Lilley.

Educating: Introducing Children to the Father

We publish the text of Stephanie Stokman's remarks on March 17, during the Life of Luigi Giussani book tour.

We publish the text of Stephanie Stokman's remarks on March 17, during the Life of Luigi Giussani book tour. Stokman is a homemaker who resides in Wisconsin with her husband and children.

I’m grateful for the chance to be here today to share what I’m learning about education in following Fr. Giussani, both through my experience of belonging to the companionship of Communion and Liberation and through my reading of his writings and the biography.

It struck me as I read the biography that my story is characterized by the word metanoia, as Fr. Giussani defines it in chapter six of the book. Metanoia is, simply put, to “change the way you evaluate things, the way you reason, the way you act, and let it be a total, radical, wholehearted change.” (166)

Looking back at my brief career as a mother, and thus as an educator by default, I can see that I consciously embarked on the adventure of educating my children about six years ago, when my oldest son Isaac was almost two years old. Up until this point things with Isaac had felt pretty straightforward. But suddenly, I found myself in a small apartment with a little boy who was not content to play alone peacefully in his room and let me be while I did housework. And so I did what any Millennial Mom would do: I Googled something like, “What to do at home with a twenty-month-old.” I remember following a rabbit hole until I landed on a website called “How We Montessori” which wowed me with its idyllic photos of a tiny boy doing things like transferring water from one child-sized pitcher to another, matching plastic animals to a corresponding picture card, and spreading jam on a rice cake. I was eager to attempt some of these things with Isaac because it was beautiful to glimpse this kind of potential in such a small child.

In reality my experiments flopped way more often than they succeeded resulting in a frustrated toddler and an exasperated mother (this is not a criticism of the Montessori method, by the way. I’m sure I was the problem). As time went on, I studied different methods of education: I read up on Waldorf, the Charlotte Mason method, John Holt’s philosophy of unschooling, and classical education. I became trained in Level I of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. In short, I discovered that I had a passion for education.

At the same time that I was engaged in this study, I was, of course, living life with my children, and having a lot of conversations about education with other moms -- although these conversations mainly centered on the merits of homeschooling versus school-schooling. But, gradually, over the years, bigger questions than this one emerged. What is ultimately the goal of education? What is worth teaching? How do children learn? What does all of this have to do with the faith we profess? What is my role in it all?

About a year ago, while planning our annual summer vacation with a group of people from the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, I found myself seriously considering the claim that the way we do everything communicates something to our children about our relationship with God. Fr. Giussani says at certain point to a group of students, “Faith judges life; it judges everything: eating, drinking, waking, sleeping, living, and dying.” (173) And so we set out to test this claim. While there were some very beautiful moments, the free time brought a lot of challenges. Big, uncomfortable questions surfaced, and here is where a great work on education was born. Because in front of these questions and with a new humility, a group of us desired to open ourselves up to discovering what it really means to educate our children.

The vacation ended, some weeks passed, a lot of questions lingered for me, and at that point I distinctly remember saying to myself, “OK, I have a lot of ideas about what education is and should look like, but because Fr. Giussani has never led me astray on anything, I would rather run the risk of giving up my ideas (which I really love!) for the sake of following him and his experience.”

Giussani says, with regards to education that, “We must look beyond the level of the tools or structures that embody our response and refuse to base our certainty and trust on them. Security is, exclusively, the fact of following Him, because He is the substance of our life.” (The Risk of Education 9) The first thing was to understand that ultimately our goal as parents is nothing less than to introduce children to their true nature as children of the Father. I laugh when I recall a brief conversation I had with a friend during which we concluded that our job as parents is to give away our children as soon as we possibly can. From the minute we get them, we need to begin giving them away, that is, giving them back to their true Father because this is the truth of the person. So then the question is: How do we educate our children to a religious disposition, that is, to a true relationship with God?

This past fall, when a group of us gathered via video call to explore what it means to educate, we were introduced to the proposal that to educate our children to religiosity means to educate them to a meaningful relationship with the real. As Fr. Giussani said once while talking about education, “A person cannot be educated in a Christian way just by studying books or hearing sermons; it is a whole life.” He also said that in order to meet Christ, "We must be acutely aware of our experiences and look on the humanity within us with sympathy; we must take into consideration who we really are. To take into consideration means to take seriously what we experience, everything we experience, to discover every aspect, to seek the complete meaning." (The Risk of Education 256)

To bring this down to the practical level, I’ll use an example from my experience. The notion that the religious attitude has as its source a meaningful engagement with the real breathes new life into a question we all likely ask our spouses and children every single day: “How was your day?” In fact, I’ve come to see this question as something so important that I actually try and wait to pose it until the moment when we are all gathered together at the dinner table. We’ve waited for dad to come home, art projects are set aside, the table is set, a candle is lit, and we have a chance to slow down and look at each other’s faces. During dinner we talk about what happened that day. What was challenging? What brought joy or surprise? What are you grateful for? What do you need help with? We talk about how our friends are doing or about something we learned that day. This is the stuff of life, the real that Giussani insists we take seriously.

There is nothing that happens in our day that is too small to look at or that doesn’t participate in our life with God. This is something our children need to know because their hearts cry out as much as ours do to know that reality is filled with meaning, that it is through their everyday circumstances that God comes to meet them. This way of engaging with what happened during the day sows the habit of living life in dialogue with others and with Another.

And if I’m making things sound idyllic, let me assure you that dinner does not have to be perfect to be profoundly meaningful. For example, most evenings when my three-year-old Hannah shares her “favorite part of the day” or “what she’s grateful for,” she will say, “I’m thankful for…. Daddy!” Or, “I’m thankful for… you!” This to me is so striking because while the rest of us are grateful that certain good things happened, she is simply and wholeheartedly grateful that things are. In the moment it’s easy for the rest of us to smile at her naivety, but really one cannot get much closer to the experience that Giussani longs for us to have in front of reality: that of being “overpowered by wonder and awe in front of the fact that things are present.” (The Religious Sense)

To help our children pay attention to what is happening in their day-to-day lives, and to place all of these events in the context of their belonging to a Good Father in Heaven is, as Giussani says, a step on “the journey that educator and pupil are called to take together… guiding him or her toward a personal and increasingly independent encounter with the entire surrounding reality.” (The Risk of Education 10)

Now, instead of talking to my kids about the Christian life, I invite them to enter into the life I live with Christ. I invite them into this communion. For example, as hectic as weekday mornings can be, with getting two school-aged kids and two toddlers ready and in the van by 7:45 a.m., I try as much as possible to have a moment -- even if it is a moment in transit to school -- of prayer, of offering our day, and of beauty. In the twelve minutes that we have we name any intentions we may have, pray the Angelus, and listen to a beautiful piece of music. This is an important moment for me first and foremost because I need to begin each day with the awareness that I belong to Another who gives me everything. The words of the prayer, calling to mind faces of the people I’m praying for, and the beauty of the music all serve to re-awaken me.

What I’m realizing is that I’m beginning to taste the profound unity with which Fr. Giussani lived. More and more parts of my day are becoming an event. Preparing food and setting the table, for example -- things I do everyday, multiple times a day -- are occasions to live with Christ, to affirm our belonging to Him, and take seriously what He is giving us. I think this is something that my children intuit and begin to share in as well. Fr. Giussani speaks beautifully of this unity when he says in chapter four:

There was the need for something that could give an incomparable satisfaction to every need. And so, suddenly, to the heart and mind of the young man who was searching there appeared the divine figure of Jesus. In Jesus Christ, the Word of God made man, and in His infinite fullness, every human science -- a scrap of truth -- found its infinite fulfillment, found its place, and became a harmonious note within a greater unity. Every single thing, born of the Word, is like a finite reproduction of Him. And if everything is centered upon Christ, why should not everything serve to form in us a perfect love for Christ? (92)

Since owning a copy of the biography, I have tried to read a bit each morning (if the circumstances allow for it -- there are four small children in our house, after all!). The two to twenty minutes that I spend reading an episode of Fr. Giussani’s life open me up to the desire to “press on to make things my own because Christ Jesus has made me His own.” I look more attentively at the faces of my children and I take on my work with a greater intensity because I cannot help but be moved by the humanity of Fr. Giussani who practically jumps out of the pages, takes me by the hand, and invites me to share his experience. And so I pray that my life, like Fr. Giussani’s, may be a sign of Christ’s, so that through me, my children may experience the truth of the message He came to bring: that we are not orphans, that we are loved and desired as sons and daughters of the Father, and that this life, which we experience as promise, is full of meaning and fulfilled in Him.