Faith Formation Series: Living Ideas & Habits

With the last post in this series we have rounded out some important preliminary contemplations regarding our roles as parents and catechists in the faith formation process. We have considered various preconceptions that we may bring to this work, as well as the atmosphere that we construct in our homes and our classrooms. Once we have properly understood our role as instruments of the Holy Spirit in the spiritual life of the child, then we are able to get down to the nuts and bolts of embodied faith formation: living ideas and habits. 

As stated previously, the intersection of the living ideas of our Catholic faith with the formation of spiritual habits (disciplines) is what forms disciples of Christ. We have to both cultivate the mind and train the body in the life of faith. This means that we have to inspire children with living ideas that deepen their knowledge of truth, and we have to walk with them in building spiritual habits that put those living ideas into practice in their daily lives. 

We need both of these components in religious education; moreover, we need to acknowledge and facilitate  the natural relationship between these two components. James 2:17 (RSVCE) says: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” In the life of the properly catechized Catholic (child or adult) there should be a natural flow between learning what the faith teaches and then putting that truth into practice. 

Education philosopher, Charlotte Mason, speaks of this connection as “forming the right habit upon the right idea” (Mason, p. 66). How fundamental this process is in the life of faith—at all ages—but how incredibly helpful in the early years of faith formation to focus on establishing spiritual habits right away as they correspond to the inspiring truths of the faith presented to our minds. Habituating truth, embodying it in our lives, means that we are providing a means for living it out. Applying what we believe in our daily living is what makes our faith real and experienced. 

Mason goes on to say that we shouldn’t be teachers that make children believe “that to know about things is the same thing as knowing them personally” (Mason, p. 66). Earlier this year, I heard Fr. Mike Schmitz make a similar comment, which brought this principle of connecting truth with habit to my mind. He said, “We will never be able to replace worship of God with hearing about him” (Schmitz, Day 51). For our catechesis to be dynamic we must actually practice the faith with the children, live it with them in real ways. Thus we are acting as a real community—real communities of the domestic church and real communities of the local church. 

And so, as we continue this series, our next focus will be to describe for ourselves in practical ways what living ideas and habit formation looks like in our homes and classrooms—keeping in mind that these two components work together. We will identify more clearly what sources of living ideas should be primary teaching texts, and we will identify some examples of opportunities to build spiritual habits with children in the home and classroom settings.

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References:

Mason, Charlotte M. 2018. School education. Volume III, p. 66.

Mason, Charlotte M. 2018. School education. Volume III, p. 66.

Schmitz, Fr. Mike. 2021. “The Bible in a Year”. Podcast, Day 51.

Faith Formation Series: Living Ideas and Atmosphere

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.

Faith Formation Series: Prayer and Posture

My last post in this Faith Formation Series explored the possibility that parents and teachers can sometimes get in the way of the Holy Spirit’s work in the hearts of children, even though that is not our intent. I introduced to us some questions that might serve as “a catechist’s examination of conscience.” In this post, I am unpacking the first three questions. As we walk through them, let’s open our hearts intentionally to the voice of the Holy Spirit.

Question #1: Do I enter into this formational work with prayer, asking for God’s will and not my own to be accomplished?

I could reference a litany of scriptures and saints here when it comes to the principle that we should bathe every effort and action in prayer. We instinctively know this, but it is often our tendency to plunge into a class or a conversation with our own agenda firmly in place. How much better to resolve to start every movement with humble prayer, with a recollected heart that seeks God’s will to replace our own. Proverbs 19:21 holds a lot of wisdom for us on this issue: “The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.” We want to start with prayer because we want God’s purpose to be the one that is established in our lessons (formal or informal) with children.

I’ve often seen bumper stickers with the question: Have you prayed about it? We know it’s the reminder that we need in many areas of life, but we so often forget to pray and ask for God’s direction. We get into the habit of making plans without running them by God; and when it comes to passing on the faith to the next generation, our unchecked methods seem good to us. What’s at risk? Scripture warns us: “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12; Proverbs 16:25). Let’s pause there. That might seem like a heavy statement to apply to catechetical work. Surely, we might say, none of my words or methods regarding faith formation are going to lead to death! But the truth is that our posture, tone, emphasis, words, and methods—if not led by the Spirit—can often cause death in the spiritual life of a child. The stakes are high. Have we asked for God’s purpose and spirit to be establish in our words and actions?

Question #2: Am I recognizing the child as a person made by God in his image, or am I trying to remake the child into an image of myself? 

We must always remember that discipleship is about making “little Christs”—not miniature versions of ourselves. We are all unique individuals, and there is great diversity in the body of Christ. Catholicism is a big tent in many ways, encompassing a great variety of cultural expressions and devotional aesthetics. Our goal should always be that children become the best version of the unique people that God made them to be, with their unique personalities, charisms and devotional relationship to the Trinity.

The children in our homes and classrooms will not have identical lives of faith to us or anyone else. There will be different gifts and different struggles; they may connect with the Lord in prayer differently than we do. Scripture passages may inspire different ideas for one person than they do for another. As a guide and friend in the journey of faith, we must keep this principle foremost in our minds. We need to ask whether we are giving our own experiences and perspective undue influence on the life of another. We must be careful not to communicate that our devotional experiences are the best to emulate. We need to walk humbly, always pointing the children toward Christ’s example. We would also do well to remember that we can learn much from these children that we don’t already know. Could it be that a child in our midst may lead us to Christ in a new way? I think that God intends that more than we realize.

Question #3: Do I treat the children God has placed under my authority with respect?

I find that culturally we don’t talk enough about respecting the personhood of the child. Of course, children are to show parents and teachers due respect, as these individuals have been deputized by God as spiritual authority figures in their lives. But the principle of treating other human beings with respect is irrespective of age and authority position. In fact, teachers and parents are under a greater obligation to demonstrate and teach respect by their own behavior towards the children in their midst. Children learn how to respect others by being treated with respect; and that respect is due them simply because they are human beings created in the image of God.

Our behavior towards them communicates whether we believe they have worth. There are various behaviors that will reveal a respectful or disrespectful attitude toward children. Do we take their questions and concerns seriously? Are we careful not to offend their sensitivities or convictions? Do we act as if their ideas are silly or uninteresting? Do we hold our place of authority over them in arbitrary ways? Ultimately, respect for children reflects whether we as parents or teachers see ourselves as under God’s authority.

We will continue to unpack the remaining questions in our “catechist’s examination of conscience” in the next post.