Tag Archives: Charlotte Mason

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: Getting in the Way

In my previous post in this series on faith formation, I discussed the role of parents and teachers in passing on the faith. I shared how it is the Holy Spirit who is the molder of our children’s minds and hearts, and that we parents and teachers have the privilege of being tools in our Lord’s hands. The Holy Spirit is at work in the children’s lives and hearts from the moment of baptism (CCC 1265-1266). Therefore, we are at the service of the Holy Spirit in this formation process; we want to cooperate with the Spirit in our work, and in no way do we want our methods of catechesis to interfere with the work that he is doing in the children’s hearts. 

Now, rarely do we intend to get in the way of the Holy Spirit in any aspect of our lives; but all of us can honestly say that we often do so nonetheless. We are disciples in progress, on a journey of holiness ourselves. That is why regular examination of conscience and the Sacrament of Reconciliation are such important means of restoring us to God and keeping our actions under his will and not driven by our own. The Holy Spirit reveals truth to our hearts when we regularly get quiet with him and ask for clear sight and understanding. 

Just so, we can follow a type of examination of conscience in reviewing our conduct as teachers of the faith. We need to regularly get quiet and check in with the Spirit, especially when faith formation is going poorly in the home or in the classroom, and ask him to show us if and how we are interfering with his methods. In light of the guiding principle that the Holy Spirit speaks directly to children since children are persons just like us adults, capable of digesting the living ideas of our faith and responding to the Holy Spirit in a life of prayer, I offer us some questions that might serve as “a catechist’s examination of conscience”:

  • Do I enter into this formational work with prayer, asking for God’s will and not my own to be accomplished?
  • 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? 
  • Do I treat the children God has placed under my authority with respect?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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?

There is a lot for us to meditate on in this list, and in upcoming posts in this series I will be unpacking each of these questions so that we can meditate more deeply on them. These questions help us to reflect on the atmosphere, ideas, and habits of our faith formation practices. In the last post, I introduced British education reformer Charlotte Mason, who has a great deal of insight to offer us in regard to considering the atmosphere, living ideas, and habits of religious education. As we work through these questions, I will introduce some of Mason’s principles, which are anchored in the primacy of the work of the Holy Spirit and the dignity of human persons. As we unpack these questions together, a few at a time, we will be opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit; and we will be able to listen to his voice and discern guiding principles by which we can approach faith formation with great joy.

Wonder & Whimsy: Prayer, Poetry & Habit

A weekly curation of quotations I come across in my reading life (or on random condiment jars) — from the inspirational to the miscellaneous. Perhaps one inspires you or catches your fancy too…

How to approach prayer today…

“In our petitions we will receive more by sighs than by speech, more by tears than by words.”

(The “Response” to the second reading in the OOR in the Liturgy of the Hours for today)

From St. Robert Southwell’s poem “Content and Rich”…

“I dwell in Grace’s court,

Enriched with Virtue’s rights;

Faith guides my wit, Love leads my will,

Hope all my mind delights.”

Are we living as God intended us?

“The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God.” (St. Irenaeus)

The power and role of habit…

“Education is the formation of habits.”

“Habit is 10 natures.”

— Charlotte Mason (Home Education, Vol. 1, pt. 3)