Friday, December 24, 2010
Maria Montessori, 1935
The Child as Spiritual Embryo
Montessori often compared the process of psychological and spiritual development to the physical unfolding of the human organism. Just as the material body first takes shape as a self-forming embryo, requiring during its formation the protection and nurturance of the womb that envelopes it, the human soul first appears in the newborn child in an embryonic form that requires nourishment from a psychic womb—the protective environment of loving, caring parents and a spiritually responsive education. Montessori’s distinctive notion of the child as a “spiritual embryo” emphasized her key principle that the growing human being is not simply a biological or psychological entity, but a spiritual energy seeking expression in the form of a human body within the physical and cultural world. She compared the mysterious emergence of spiritual life in the child to the Incarnation of God in Christ described in the New Testament, “when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (Montessori, 1972b, p. 29). For Montessori, the Word is made flesh in every child born in the world; each human being has his or her path of incarnation to follow, his or her destiny. Montessori, like Emerson, referred to the “secret” within the soul of every child—the personal spiritual imperative that transcends whatever social prejudices, ideologies, and mundane educational curricula that adults seek to overlay onto the child’s personality.
Reflecting on the unusually lengthy period of physical dependence that human infants (compared to other species) experience, Montessori was convinced that early childhood is designed to be a time of intense psychic receptivity. The young child takes in the world through an ”absorbent mind,” literally incarnating (taking into its bodymind) the sensations, impressions, and feelings it receives from the surrounding environment. One of the guiding principles of Montessori pedagogy, the concept of “sensitive periods,” expresses her observation that young children move through periods of development during which they are especially attuned to particular characteristics in the environment. When they are ready to acquire language they hungrily, effortlessly absorb it by hearing it spoken around them; when they are ready to develop fine motor skills they begin to act on their surroundings accordingly. It is the task of parents and educators to provide the stimulation and resources the developing child needs at these critical times. Keep in mind that for Montessori this is not simply a biological or pedagogical responsibility, but a profound spiritual task, because the child is being directed by its embryonic spiritual energies to reach out to the world to fashion a personality. Careless parenting or education, by stifling optimum development, frustrates the child’s spiritual formation.
Montessori frequently commented that the child creates the adult—not, as our modern common sense has it, the other way around. The spiritual energy seeking expression through the child’s encounters with the world is engaged in building a person in a way that no adult education or conscious effort can achieve. By adulthood an individual’s psychological identity is deeply engrained, and learning no longer takes place through “incarnation” or absorption. Therefore it is crucial for parents and educators to allow the child’s own inherent nature to emerge and act within the world. As Montessori put it in 1915, Montessori called the spiritual embryo humanity’s “most precious treasure” because it was only this divine formative power that could transform the world: “The child promises the redemption of humanity, and we might say that this truth is represented by the mystical symbol of the Nativity” (1972a, pp. 36, 104). By failing to appreciate the value of this treasure, and educating young people only to participate dutifully in a materialistic, mechanistic system of economic production, modern societies are diminishing the visionary creativity, the moral insight, and above all the loving compassion that divine energies promise to bring to bear on the problems of human life. Montessori was convinced that through the child, these energies could be released into the world as a powerful source of good. It is evident throughout her work that the heart of Montessori’s educational mission was not to introduce special techniques or materials into pedagogical practice but to make a fervent plea to the modern world to become “sensitive to the wonder of life revealing itself” through the life of each child. That was the appeal she made for fifty years to audiences and readers throughout the world.
From: Nourishing the Spiritual Embryo:The Educational Vision of Maria Montessori
Published in Nurturing Our Wholeness: Perspectives on Spirituality in Education, Edited by John P. Miller and Yoshiharu Nakagawa (Brandon, VT: Foundation for Educational Renewal, 2002)