Placing Jesus in children’s hearts

Benedictine nun’s book helps prepare children for first Communion

Aaron Lambert

Charged with helping to prepare a 7-year-old girl for her first Communion, Benedictine Sister Immaculata Bertolli’s first lesson was less than successful.

“At one point she said, ‘I’m bored,’” Sister Immaculata, 33, recalled, laughing. The nun, who serves as head cook at the Abbey of St. Walburga in Virginia Dale, Colo., added: “I don’t like failure. I thought, ‘How am I going to get through to her?’ I really wanted to share the beauty of the sacrament.”

Realizing the child was a hands-on learner, the nun put together a book with 18 reflections, lessons and hands-on activities to keep her engaged in the learning process. The girl loved the book so much, she shared it with others. Rave reviews and requests from Sister Immaculata’s abbess, a priest chaplain, homeschoolers and a local Catholic school convinced her to publish the work, “Jesus in My Heart: Preparing for First Holy Communion.”

The 46-page hardback book ($20), which was written and illustrated by Sister Immaculata, aims to prepare a child for their first Communion by fostering a loving friendship with Jesus. It includes lessons gleaned from the nun’s monastic formation, from her experience praying the Divine Office, and from her work in the abbey kitchen.

“Jesus in my Heart” was written and illustrated by Sister Immaculata Bertolli as a way to teach children about first communion. (Photo provided)

“Mother Maria Michael (Newe) was a huge influence on what I put in the book,” Sister Immaculata said, referring to her abbess. “The first lesson is called, ‘Listening with Your Heart.’ It’s about going into your heart to pray. Mother Maria taught me how to do that in my 20s.

“The other great influence has to do with the liturgy, the Divine Office. As Benedictines, liturgy is our life. … There’s a short lesson called, ‘My Child, Give Me Your Heart.’ That title is from one of the antiphons we use on the feast of the Sacred Heart. … A child needs to understand Jesus loves us so much he wants our heart.”

Every lesson is paired with an activity a child can do with a parent using common household items. The activity for the lesson “My Child, Give Me Your Heart,” is making a pizza wherein the stretchiness of the dough serves as a model for making one’s heart bigger.

“The book involves a lot of participation from a parent; I did that intentionally,” Sister Immaculata said. “As our Holy Father says and as we hear throughout the Church, the first church is the home, that’s where children first learn the faith. I find that so essential—for a child to have the experience of the communion of the Eucharist in the home.

“I understand if families may not be able to do all of the activities,” the nun said, “but to do what you can shows your child you value the faith and they will learn from you as much as from the book itself.”

A labor of love, the book is beautifully illustrated with colorful pastel drawings ranging from pastoral scenes—including the dome-topped Abbey of St. Walburga surrounded by rolling hills—to stained-glass windows, Jesus and Eucharistic scenes.

A ballet dancer with a degree in kinesiology when she entered the abbey 11 years ago, Sister Immaculata is a self-taught artist.

“I have an artistic bent and really needed an outlet when I stopped ballet,” she said. “It was fun to do (the drawings).”

When finished by a child, the book will include their prayers, drawings, photographs and their answers to the lessons’ questions.

“I wanted it to be a keepsake for the child,” explained Sister Immaculata.

Her desire is that the book helps children to know the deep love Jesus has for them and impels a longing to return that love and start a relationship with him.

“There’s a lot about what Communion is, but also who it is,” the nun said. “If they understand that, they will treasure the sacrament a lot more and, hopefully, be faithful to it and receive it the rest of their life.

“They’re hearts are so soft when they’re young—so open and ready to receive the good news,” she added. “It’s the perfect time to plant that seed in them. If they really fall in love with Jesus they won’t fall out of love so easily. That’s the goal.”

Roxanne King: 720-771-3394; editor_king@icloud.com; www.twitter.com/RoxanneIKing

Title: “Jesus in My Heart”

Cost: $20

Purchase: online at www.walburga.org; call 970-472-0612; email abbey@walburga.org. Discounts available by emailing srimmaculataosb@gmail.com.

COMING UP: Why icons still matter to a modern world

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Icons have existed from the time of the early Church and grew in popularity over the years as an aid in prayer and worship — but today, icons are often seen as irrelevant to our modern world because of their perceived rigidity and austerity.

But it hasn’t died out, and there’s a reason.

In Denver, instructor Laurence Pierson, a former nun in the Community of Beatitudes, teaches a course at the Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways — Byzantine Iconography,” which is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro.

Pierson attributes the long-surviving tradition of icons to the same reason the Church still exists.

“Tradition has great value, and if it’s an art that’s survived so many centuries, that’s because there is a great value to it, and it’s not only the tradition, it’s that mainly, it’s rooted in the Gospel,” Pierson said.

In an article called “Sacred Icons,” painter Aidan Hart quotes John of Damascus, who said of icons, “What the written Word proclaims through letters, iconography proclaims and presents through colors.”

Laurence Pierson, left, is a former nun of the Community of the Beatitudes who has been teaching an iconography class at Denver Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways.” It is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro area. (Photo provided)

It is the same story of the Gospel, presented in art rather than word, and as the Gospel is timeless, so is the art of icons. And while they may look austere, that’s not something to be afraid of, nor is it irrelevant in our modern time.

“Even though an icon might look austere, it actually drives us beyond superficial emotions — they want us to go deeper. It’s a deep joy,” Pierson said. “I think you have to be quiet and go deeper. In the spiritual life, our ascetic aspect doesn’t have to be forgotten, and sometimes there is an ascetic aspect, and our human condition needs to be redeemed.”

“It’s a medium that has to be rediscovered, and there is so much potential,” Pierson added.

Sacred doorways and symbols

The deep spirituality of icons is part of what has preserved them throughout the roughly 2000 years that they’ve been around. Hart explains that icons are “not just pictures to look at, but are a door to heaven, a way of meeting those who dwell there.”

Hence the name of Denver’s class, “Sacred Doorways.” The material use of the paintings are a way for us to pass through the material world and into a knowing of the holy people depicted. This is just the tip of the spiritual meaning of icons.

The specific look of the icons: the elongated nose, the wide eyes, the dimensions and perspectives, are all intensely symbolic.

“Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this,” Hart said.

“An artist isn’t just someone who puts colors [on a canvas],” Pierson said. “An artist reveals the reality of this world, which sometimes isn’t possible to see. And icon painting is revealing this invisible reality and making it visible with lines and colors.”

Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this.”

So what are icons revealing through their symbols?

Here are just a few insights from Hart:

– Inverse perspective: “There is a number of perspective systems used in icons. With inverse perspective, the lines converge on us, the viewers. This serves to include us in the action depicted,” Hart said. “A sacred event in the past is still acting on us today, ‘Today Christ is risen.’”

– Flatness: “It helps us pass through the icon to the person and events depicted. The aim…is not to replace the subject depicted, but to bring us into living relationship with them,” Hart said.

– Anatomy: “The eyes and ears of people are often enlarged, and the nose elongated. This is to show that the saint is someone who contemplates God, who listens to him, who smells the fragrance of Paradise,” Hart said.

The spiritual process

Pierson has been painting icons for 25 years and teaching for 18. Following the rich tradition of the painting style is the first step of entering into the “spiritual journey” of painting an icon, Pierson said.

“It’s very important for me to get rooted in Byzantine tradition, especially because it’s an art that comes from the Eastern world,” Pierson said. “You have to be very careful not to distort ancient tradition but also find a way to speak to our modern world, so it’s a very delicate balance. For me, that’s crucial, to find this balance.”

“[Painting] has to be a solitary experience because you have to pray, but for me, it’s important to be anchored in a community and liturgical life,” Pierson said.

Pierson, who is commissioned to paint icons for the community often, begins with research and prayer, both to whom the icon is depicting and for the person who will receive the painting. Then the painting begins, which is an intense, multi-layered process.

The art of painting icons is far more than just a creative process; it’s a deeper spiritual journey that requires a lot of prayer, Pierson says. (Photo provided)

First, a binder, which is what the pigment adheres to in order to stay on a board, is created. The binder consists of egg yolk mixed with an equal part of water. This is mixed with the paint pigment and a few drops of water, creating the egg tempera medium with which icons are traditionally painted.

Next, guiding lines are traced into a gesso-covered wooden board and then engraved with a tool. Then, paint is added, layer by layer, beginning with dark colors and finishing with lighter colors. “It is as though the iconographer begins with darkness and death, and ends with light and resurrection,” Hart said.

The final stage is writing the saint’s name; then the icon is blessed by a priest and venerated. The working time varies, but it is a very long process, taking up to a year.

Revealing a Presence

The act of painting is something Pierson discovered she needs for her life to flourish — “essential,” even.

With icon painting, it “combines art and the vertical connection to God,” Pierson said.

And the connection to God is experienced deeply throughout the painting journey.“There is a journey — there’s a time you feel discouraged or bored. Even though you don’t feel it, you live by faith, trusting what you do has meaning and will bear fruit,” Pierson said. “With iconography, there is a Presence.”

“This whole painting journey teaches you about yourself, it takes patience — it takes time. You cannot finish an icon painting in a few hours. You have to trust the process. You have to trust someone else is inspiring you, even though it might not perfect. It’s all very like our spiritual life. It teaches us all that in a very practical way,” she added.