Placing Jesus in children’s hearts

Benedictine nun’s book helps prepare children for first Communion

Roxanne King

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: Searching for wisdom in a confused world

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Jordan Peterson became an overnight celebrity with the success of his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Random House, 2018). A viral interview from January of this year with Kathy Newman of England’s Channel 4 News brought immediate attention to Peterson’s newly released book, which has sold over two million copies since its release. The interview proved emblematic of Peterson’s popularity for attempting to retrieve common sense and to push back against the ideology overtaking our society.

Why has Peterson proved to be so popular?  A clinical psychologist, who teaches psychology at the University of Toronto, Peterson addresses issues that people care about: finding meaning, relationships, parenting, and gender, to name a few. People are looking for a guide, they desire wisdom — knowing how to order and make sense of reality — and Peterson has offered some needed insights. He tells his readers, “Don’t underestimate the power of vision and direction. These are irresistible forces, able to transform what might appear to be unconquerable obstacles into traversable pathways and expanding opportunities. Strengthen the individual. Start with yourself. Take care with yourself. Define who you are. Refine your personality. Choose your destination and articulate your Being” (63).

This quote illuminates both the allure of Peterson’s writing, helping people to seek definition for their lives, but also its limits, as the definition of self he recommends lacks mooring. Writing from the viewpoint of secular psychology, Peterson can help us to reflect, but his 12 Rules for Life can come across as sophisticated self-help devoid of deeper wisdom. He engages the Western tradition, including the Bible, and offers a fresh, but ultimately unsatisfying, reflection of the stories that define our tradition. He does bring needed common sense, such as “stop doing what you know to be wrong,” (which should not even need to be said) but fails to provide answers to the ultimate questions that define meaning and identity (157).

Greater depth and wisdom can be found in Leon Kass’ Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times (Encounter, 2017). Kass, a Jewish medical doctor and bioethicist, draws from his lengthy experience in science and teaching the Great Books at the University of Chicago to take us deeper into the human condition and point us toward a richer understanding of the human person — body, mind and soul. Kass, like Peterson, does not write from a religious perspective, but engages the same general themes and classic works, such as the Bible, though with a more convincing explanation of their meaning.

Kass’ book has four major sections, treating themes of love, human dignity, education and our higher aspirations. Kass guides us to reconsider the importance of the foundational goods of life — finding meaning in work and married life — as well as calling us to “the cultivation in each of us of the disposition actively to seek the truth and to make the truth our own” (256). We pursue this liberation by entering into the great tradition of Western thought, which provides an “education in and for thoughtfulness. It awakens, encourages, and renders habitual thoughtful reflection about weighty human concerns, in quest of what is simply true and good” (ibid.).

The thoughtfulness encouraged by Kass is needed more than ever to address the key concerns he raises: a collapse of courtship and marriage, biomedical challenges to the integrity of human nature, and a decline of citizenship. The first two themes share a common source in the “the rejection of a teleological view of nature,” which finds no intrinsic purpose in the human body or even life itself (54). Speaking of the threat of biotechnology and transhumanism, but in a way applicable to gender as well, he relates that “only if there is a human givenness that is also good and worth respecting — either as we find it or as it could be perfected without ceasing to be itself — does the given serve as a positive guide for choosing what to alter and what to leave alone” (149). We must learn to appreciate and cultivate the good of our nature, rather than manipulating and controlling it to our own demise. The same is true of our nation, as Kass, drawing on Abraham Lincoln, points to the need for “enhancing reverence for the Constitution and its laws” (377), as we appreciate, preserve and advance the heritage of our country.

Kass, drawing on his unique background, guides us through an integrated discovery of the good and points us toward the wisdom we need to live a worthy life.