Last evening, I had the pleasure of speaking to about 65 catechists at St. Julie Billiart parish in Tinley Park, IL, on the final night of a 6 week summer series called The Monday Night Medley, sponsored by the parishes of the Southwest Suburban Cluster of DREs. This year’s focus was on Sacraments, Prayer, and Liturgy and my task was to cover the catechetical dimension, demonstrating how catechists can incorporate elements of these 3 topics into our lessons.
I titled my presentation Teaching a Language of Mystery, emphasizing that sacraments, prayer, and liturgy are all ways through which we enter more deeply into the Paschal Mystery of Christ. Teaching a mystery is not like teaching a science. It is a different way of knowing and, as such, requires a different language – a language of mystery.
We use a language of mystery because this is how God reveals himself to us…beyond words. God revealed his presence to Moses in the form of a burning bush. It was not words that first attracted Moses, it was the sign of a bush that was burning but not being consumed.
With that in mind, I covered the following elements of the language of mystery, offering suggestions for ways that catechists can incorporate them into their lessons on a regular basis. The over-arching idea is that we should strive to have our lessons resemble “going to church” more than “going to school.”
- Song - singing lifts our hearts in ways that speaking simply cannot. That’s why we have Broadway musicals! Incorporating singing (or at least listening to sacred hymns) can touch hearts in a way that the spoken word cannot.
- Ritual – we rely on rituals to take us out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. Catechists can integrate numerous rituals into their lessons: ritually setting up a prayer table, beginning class with a ritual greeting (e.g. “Our help is from the Lord.” “Who made heaven and earth”), ending class by having kids sign themselves with holy water, etc.
- Sign & Symbol - signs and symbols speak to us at another level. An American flag flapping in the wind to the sound of “America the Beautiful” can make one misty eyed. As a sacramental Church, we rely on signs and symbols. Catechists can set up a prayer table with sacred signs and symbols (cross, holy water, bible, cloth with color of the liturgical season, icons, etc.) and can invite children to bring symbols of their own to add to it.
- Silence & Reverence - on my recent trip to Pearl Harbor, I was struck by the silence and reverence throughout the site. We can sanctify our learning environment by incorporating periods of silence, thus teaching the virtue of reverence. Leading guided reflections and ending them with a few minutes of complete silence can bring about a profound sense of the sacred.
- Gesture & Movement – God asked Moses to remove his sandals for he was standing on sacred ground. We perform gestures and movements to express the sacred. Catechists can incorporate processions into their classes to enthrone the Bible and set up the prayer table. Likewise, children can be invited to make the threefold Sign of the Cross on their forehead, lips, and chest as a way of asking that God’s word be in their minds, on their lips, and in their hearts as this lesson progresses.
- Metaphor - We can know God but we can never completely know God for God is mystery. Thus, we use metaphors to assist us in our understanding of God. Our shepherd. Our light. Jesus is the Bread of Life, etc. We can invite students to encounter God in metaphors by inviting them to create crafts that symbolize an aspect of God.
- Story-telling – Ultimately, we catechists are story-tellers. We are telling the story of our salvation and inviting others to enter into that story and to allow that story to guide their lives. We need to remember that we are not teaching a science but telling a profound and extraordinary story. Students can enter into the story by role-playing Scripture stories. Catechists can explore and integrate creative ways of dramatically telling the stories of salvation history.