Tag Archives: religious education

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: 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.

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.