My dear friend Tina Lillig died unexpectedly just after midnight Sunday morning. Tina had been a giant, shining presence in my life for the past 10 years and reminded me, every time I saw her, of who I want to be.
She was the National Director of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, which is a Montessori-based Christian education program that originated in Italy and is now, thanks to Tina’s work, taught in both Catholic and Protestant churches throughout the US. The national office happens to be located in our church and I have served from time to time over the past 10 years as a catechist for children ages 9-12.
Last year Tina was my partner. This is kind of like saying that when I swim laps at the gym I share a lane in the pool with Michael Phelps. Mostly I would just sit in the atrium in awe of her. I’d watch her involve the children in conversations about what they thought their roles in the world would be, what role God had in their lives and how they could reconcile what we see in our daily life with what we read in the Bible. Those kids are the age when they could get out of coming to catechesis on Sunday morning but they don’t because the presentations are captivating. If you’ve never been in one of these atria, they are filled with only handmade materials such as timelines that can reach 30 ft long detailing the history of the world, small figures that help tell parables, maps and booklets that explain the history of the Bible, watercolor sets, decorative papers and art supplies for children all beautifully organized so the children can find things that resonate with them.
So when she died so suddenly, a number of us gathered together to talk about how we would tell the children and how we would observe her death in the atrium. Although all of the parents were called ahead of time, the way we talked about it with the children would matter. We decided to answer questions that were asked and not go into more detail than they wanted to know about. We decided that we’d give them materials with which to make prayer cards for her family if they wanted. I said that I thought that words might not be the way that the children would want to process Tina’s death and that in the months to come that I would organize a community quilting bee with the children and Tina’s many friends to make a quilt for Tina’s family. I also decided that I would bring flowers to arrange on the altar that’s in the atrium.
So I cut some pine branches from our yard and picked up some white flowers and winter berries on the way to the church. I brought a vase from home and was headed up the stairs to arrange the flowers when I heard Tina’s voice in my head saying, “No. The children arrange the flowers.” And I burst into tears with gratitude that I had figured this out. The children arrange the flowers. Their teacher has died suddenly. This is one way for them to process this sad, sad chapter in their life. They need to make something beautiful with their sadness. The children arrange the flowers. This is what this program is all about–following the intuitive spiritual lead of the child. Of course. The children arrange the flowers.
Fortunately I had brought a lot of flowers. I left them on a table with some vases and let them decide what to do. Several of the children, both boys and girls, divided the flowers up among three vases. One they left in the atrium on the altar in memory of Tina. The children then decided that they would carry the other two vases of flowers that they had so carefully arranged down the stairs and into the church when the service began. When the bread and wine were brought up for communion, two poised girls each carried a vase up to the table in tribute to their teacher. It was an astonishingly touching moment of love and faith and how even the smallest hands can honor the dead.
The children are all looking forward to collecting small pieces of fabric from among Tina’s friends. “And we can make some God’s Eyes to send to her family too,” added one child. Square by square, popsicle stick by popsicle stick, we will all grieve together, showing our children how we share our burdens and sorrow. Then we will honor our friend with some of the beauty that she gave us.