My last post in this Faith Formation Series introduced to us some questions that serve as “a catechist’s examination of conscience.” We looked at the first three questions last time; and in this post, I am unpacking questions 4-6.
Question #4: Am I introducing children to the living ideas of church teaching and Scripture, allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through the inspired words; or am I giving them second-hand religious knowledge?
I’ve previously discussed the concept of “living ideas” as being entirely different than simple facts. Ideas are living because they contain something vital to our beings (spiritual, physical, emotional) that is capable of being discovered, cultivated, and grown within our minds and hearts. The analogy of a seed’s growth is helpful here. Through working more in my garden this year, I have realized that the maturing process of the plant cannot be rushed; plants become stronger and thrive when they have had time to establish in the soil. You can take a beautiful, blooming hydrangea from a greenhouse and plant it in your garden, but it’s going to struggle that first year. It will be a year or two before it flourishes where it has been planted.
Passing on the ideas of our faith are a lot like this process. It can be tempting to provide the ready-made greenhouse plant (so to speak) to the child. But that plant won’t thrive until it has been well-established in the soil—the mind and heart of the person. The primary and living ideas of our faith come from Scripture—the inspired Word of God—and from the Catechism. Each person needs direct contact with these living ideas first and foremost, and no second-hand summary is a substitute.
Catholic publishers advertise new textbooks and teaching resources in my inbox weekly. While we are blessed with many wonderful resources today, the excess of resources requires us make choices. We must remind ourselves which texts are primary in faith formation, which texts may support those primary ones with additional living ideas, and which resources should be discarded. Are we giving children the best? Are we giving them truth in a vital form that can grow inside them?
Question #5: Am I cultivating an atmosphere of discovery and wonder as we explore the mysteries of our faith and knowledge of God, or am I presenting the faith in a way that prevents children from engaging their minds and hearts?
As parents and teachers, we are responsible for the atmosphere of catechesis—both the physical space and the spiritual space. Are we purposing to create an atmosphere that spurs the child’s desire to discover truth (self-education), to “ask, seek, knock” (Matthew 7:7) continually? Often that means we need to restrain our automatic tendency to answer all questions for them, instead of setting them on the path of discovery and being their guide. The guide should prevent dangerous drifting from the path of truth, but not prevent the followers from discovering the path themselves.
Children are born with a sense of wonder, and we can either cultivate that sense or kill it. One of the surest indications of wonder is the desire to ask questions. How might we stifle healthy curiosity and questioning? First, we might discourage questions in general, simply because they annoy us or because we are unsure of how to respond. Second, we might answer all their questions for them, depriving them of the joy of discovering the answers themselves. Here’s one example:
Let’s say that we re-tell our own version of a Bible story to children and then proceed to identify all the interesting parts and tell them what they mean. But we’ve left the children with no interesting and vital work to do for themselves. We’ve taken out the joy of discovery and we’re conditioning them to sit and be spoon-fed information from someone else. Would it not be much more fulfilling for the children to hear the story read to them from Scripture and be given the opportunity to tell all the things they heard in that story that interested them? It would be the perfect place to let them ask questions about the ideas being presented to them and what they mean for their own lives. The teacher, in this alternate situation, let’s them do the work of discovery for themselves and only provides what they couldn’t get on their own.
Question #6: Do I think of religious education as the deposit of information into children’s minds or as the formation of truth and the embodiment of the Church’s teaching in the daily life of the person?
I hope that by this point we see how vital it is that living ideas take root in the daily life of the person. We don’t make disciples of children by giving them information and sending them on their way. The intersection of living ideas with the “discipline” of habit is what forms disciples. We must keep this proper relationship between habit and ideas (embodied faith) in mind if faith formation is to be successful. How do living ideas become habits in a life? We will discuss this formation process more in future posts.
Note: As referenced in earlier posts, my articulation of living ideas and cultivation of habits in faith formation draws heavily from the pedagogical principles of Charlotte Mason. To learn more about these principles, I refer you to her six-volume Home Education Series, and the first volume in particular, Home Education.