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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.

Models & Moderators: Parenting to Pass on the Faith

In writing and speaking about the life of the domestic church, I often encounter a version of the following question from earnest Catholic parents: How do we effectively pass on our faith to our children?

It’s certainly not a new question. We’ve been collectively working at it for centuries. Many read the story of St. Monica’s actions and prayers on behalf of her wayward son Augustine with a knowing sympathy. But not all similar stories of parental faithfulness through history have produced the same end. We hear many times of children coming of age, leaving the Church, and losing their faith in God.

I have witnessed flawed responses to this disheartening fact. There are well-meaning individuals who sincerely want their children to develop a relationship with God and love for His Church as they walk toward adulthood. Because of this desire, they strive after a “system” or “formula” that will ensure this result. Catholic parents can so often fall into a problematic mindset of religious “box-checking”. We can easily forget that our children belong to God, and that He—not us—is directing their journey. We are asked only to be faithful (not perfect) stewards of HIS children while they are under our guard.

With this foundational truth in mind, I want to offer a life-giving framework (not a system) for how we may go about being parents who are stewards of God’s children. How can we be faithful in our responsibility to pass on a knowledge and love of God, while ultimately leaving our children in God’s hands.

I would like to adapt the marvelous “Teacher’s Motto” established by British educator Charlotte Mason (1842-1923): “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.”[1] I would offer that spiritual formation (religious education) is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life. Let me explain briefly what Mason meant by these terms. The atmosphere is the environment, that which individuals take in and absorb all around them just as one breathes in a breath of air. What is part of one’s atmosphere becomes part of oneself. Discipline has to do not with aspects of punishment (as some may attribute the word), but rather with the formation of habits. And finally, the “living” component refers to the life of ideas. I would offer that we Catholic parents are called to both model and moderate these three vital elements in our domestic churches.

Let’s look first at being models of the faith to our children:

  • Let us consider the atmosphere that we cultivate in our own individual lives as parents and/or as spouses. Is our faith life one that exudes the fruits of the Spirit? Do we walk in peace and order as we experience both joys and sufferings in our lives, or are our lives chaotic and lacking healthy rhythms?
  • Next, we should look at our habits. How do we practice our faith? Have we made prayer, the sacraments, Mass, etc. primary habits in our daily and weekly lives of faith? How do we habitually respond to others? What are our reflexes when we encounter suffering or difficult things?
  • Finally, need to consider whether we are filling our minds and hearts with the living ideas of our faith. Have we settled for unimaginative or “packaged” explanations for our faith, or have we dug in ourselves to the original sources of truth in Scripture, the Catechism, and primary church writings and documents? Are we spiritually and intellectually curious people who take joy in discovering for ourselves God’s truth wherever we might find it?

Now let’s examine our role as moderators of these vital elements in our children’s lives:

  • First, we must consider the atmosphere we parents create in our homes. What family and faith culture are we cultivating in the lives of our children?  What are they taking in to be part of themselves and their lives of faith as they would take in breath?
  • Second, we are to provide habit-building opportunities for our children. How are we helping them to practice their faith? Have we made space for building the habit of prayer gradually as they grow older? Have we considered how to replace the bad habits of their lives (vices) with the opposite good habits (virtues)?
  • Third, we are to be spreading living ideas of faith before their minds and hearts. Have we thought critically about the books we allow to form their understanding of the faith? Have we offered them watered down ideas or ready-made answers for their questions? Or have we put in their path the most beautiful and well-articulated ideas of our faith and respected the minds God has given them to discover truth, whereby learning to love the discovery of it?

At best, I’ve laid out a skeletal framework here; but these ideas and questions should hopefully lead us toward a deeper and more life-giving consideration of what our true role is as parents in passing on our faith to our children. I believe that God would have us take heart in what He has made us capable of doing and experience peace in what is ultimately in His hands.

[1] Mason, Charlotte M. 2017. Home education. p. XI

More Present Than the Pain

“Life is pain, highness!” replies Wesley with a hardened expression to his sweetheart in The Princess Bride. While the melodramatic exchange between Wesley and his love takes place on-screen within of a comedic fairytale, sincere words of such despondency have been uttered up and down the centuries, from ancient to postmodern times. Life involves great pain, and one does not need to look far for suffering.

I recently heard this sentiment expressed during a conversation between Bishop Robert Barron and Alex O’Conner, of Cosmic Skeptic. Toward the end of their moderated discussion, titled “Christianity or Atheism?”, Alex made the comment that suffering—not evidence of God—was the most obvious phenomenon in our experience of the world. For that reason, he said that you had to start with the question of suffering, from which he has not found a path to evidence that God exists. Bishop Barron disagreed with that metaphysical starting point, explaining that there are various problematic philosophical conclusions to which it might lead.  

However, aside from this philosophical line of argument, which is most important to such a discussion, there begs a vital experiential question—is suffering actually more observable than the presence of God? It is to the perception of this atheist; and, in fact, he is arguing that such a conclusion is objectively true. What would a Christian say? A Catholic? The question stayed in my mind for quite a while after viewing this discussion.

What would most people’s experiential knowledge reveal? Do people in general experience suffering more frequently than they experience the presence of God? Is the experience different for the average person who believes in God? Other than saints like Catherine of Siena who spent regular hours a day in ecstasy, would most Catholics agree with Alex O’Conner that they feel the presence of suffering more often than they do the presence of God?

About the same time, I was reading The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom with my Well-Read Mom book club.  Corrie wrote in that autobiography of her horrific experiences with her sister Betsie in Nazi prison and extermination camps after their arrest for hiding Jews and participating in the underground opposition to the Nazi party in occupied Holland. If we want to talk about suffering, we don’t get worse than Nazi atrocities. So, with this question fresh in my mind, I asked it of Corrie and Betsie as I read their incredible story. Did these women experience the presence of human suffering to a greater degree than they experienced the presence of God? No. Shockingly, No! I don’t think a reader could come away from Corrie’s account with any other honest conclusion. These women witnessed God at work in the midst of the worst kind of human pain.

But why this discrepancy of the human experience? Why does Alex O’Conner (and others with him) have one experience and the Ten Boom sisters (and others with them) have another perception? I certainly can’t draw universal conclusions about people’s personal experiences (or lack thereof) of God; nor can I make theological claims for why God seems to make himself known to some and not to others. But I can look at Corrie and Bestie’s experience and draw one conclusion quite confidently for myself. They looked with eyes of faith for God to be present in their suffering, and they saw Him.

If we start with the expectation that suffering is meaningless and devoid of God’s presence. Then, not only will we continually seek to avoid it, we certainly won’t look for God in it. And if we are not looking for Him, I doubt highly that we will see Him. What I saw over and over in the Ten Boom’s story, and what I see continually in similar accounts of so many faithful Christians, is that they look for God in all circumstances, especially in suffering. If “life is pain,” and we are averse to looking for God in it, then perhaps we modern Catholics may come to the same conclusion that pain is more present in our world than God. But if we look for God in all the pain, both small and great, that we are sure to experience in this life, perhaps we will discover to our astonishment that He is more present than the pain.