Tag Archives: faith formation

Faith Formation Series: What are “Living Ideas”?

Our last post left off acknowledging the natural and vital relationship between living ideas and habits in faith formation. We discussed how this natural relationship involves both inspiring children with the living ideas of Catholic truth, and building spiritual habits that put those living ideas into practice in their daily lives. If you are jumping in here first, it will be important for you to review previous posts before continuing on with the question: what are “living ideas”?

It is helpful first to distinguish what they are not. Ideas are not the same as facts. We are after knowledge of our faith that leads to dynamic change in the way that we live. Ideas are vital things that generate other ideas in the mind of another; they are seeds that continue and grow when passed from speaker to listener or author to reader. Facts are not vital; they are received passively by the mind, without one’s mind acting upon them. We can memorize facts, but they do not grow and develop within us. 

I propose much of the curriculum used in many religious education programs involves passing on bundles of facts to students—facts they are to memorize, facts designed to entertain them, and definitely facts on which they will be tested. Even within Catholic communities that have been careful to preserve Orthodox truth, our approaches to the “how” and “why” we present that truth has demonstrated that we don’t fully understand our humanness, our need for faith to be a living and embodied act. 

There are a couple of ways that we are able to quickly tell a fact from an idea. First, facts tell about truth; ideas tell truth directly. And so, facts lead to information, but not to knowledge. Second, because facts tell only about truth, they often lack an essential element that cannot be separated from truth—beauty. 

In his article “Beauty Will Save the World”, and in his books as well, Stratford Caldecott describes the interconnectedness of truth, beauty and goodness, as they are elements that cannot be separated from each other. “The Christian religion is all about a beauty that ‘saves’ us,” writes Caldecott. “For beauty is that quality in a thing which attracts us towards itself, that calls to us. It calls us out of ourselves, towards something other. The aesthetic experience is thus one of self-transcendence. If ugliness is imprisonment, beauty is a kind of liberation.”

He goes on to say, “Human experiences of truth, goodness and beauty point us towards the ultimate giver of all gifts, the absolute Principle and Origin of all.” What is beautiful is true, and what is true is beautiful. However, there is a lot in religious education curriculum, decor, and method that is lacking in beauty. If we can start to point to sources of knowledge that contain real beauty, then I think we will quickly be able to get better at identifying sources of living ideas. 

As a starting point, I recommend that we look to the primary sources of our faith first—the Catechism and Sacred Scripture. Here we come into direct contact with truth, beauty and goodness. We start to run into problems and lose the vital ideas when we begin choosing more secondary and tertiary sources in religious education to take the place of the Catechism and Scripture. We start telling facts about the faith rather than letting the children discover the living ideas of Scripture and Church teaching for themselves, in the quantity and kind that is appropriate to their stage of development. 

This doesn’t mean that other books should not be used in faith formation, but we should always carefully consider whether the books contain living ideas that put the child in direct contact with the truth of our faith. In selecting what books, videos, and other resources to use in faith formation—and there are so many living materials out there—we should ask the following questions: Is this a living source of knowledge? Does it offer mere facts, or does it plant seeds that give birth to new ideas in minds and hearts? Is it beautiful? Does the writing or composition aesthetic call us out of ourselves and point us to what is good and true?
If we were to pose these questions in reference to half of the Catholic religious education materials available through Catholic publishers today, I would argue that we would find them falling below these standards. We have, unfortunately, become unaccustomed to asking “why” we do what we do and “why” we use what we use in faith formation programs and in our homes. We have taken what has been given to us without measuring it according to the constant and intrinsically connected standards of truth, beauty and goodness. But we can begin anew. We can hold up these standards and discover for ourselves, and for our children, truly living ideas and living materials that will give birth to truth, beauty and goodness in their minds and in their living out the faith.

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.



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.