14 Apr Differentiating Prayer Instruction in Curriculum
By Chris Storm, Holy Trinity Catholic School, OR
Approaches to Faith:
Educators know all too well that each student brings a unique mix of academic strengths and weaknesses to their learning. Some are mathematically minded; others, wizards of language and literacy; still others have artistic skills beyond their age! The best teachers know how to encourage a student’s gifts while promoting growth in areas of weaknesses – but even the best Catholic educators can struggle with applying the same pedagogy to religious education.
Many Catholics struggle with a sense of spiritual inadequacy. Who hasn’t felt a little pale in comparison to Grandma’s faith? These attitudes tend to come from an unspoken assumption that a person’s spiritual practices can be ranked on a sort of scale. The “better” one is at Catholic stuff, the more points one gets!
I suggest that it is more beneficial – to students and to us! – to approach Catholicism as a spectrum of spiritual practices, and to identify the strengths and weaknesses that subtly inform the way we share our faith (and teach it). Take, for example, three simple axes:
1. Personal practice / communal practice.
For some people, faith is most easily practiced in a community setting. These people are more likely to join faith-based groups like the Knights of Columbus, an altar guild, or a youth ministry. Meanwhile, others can feel self-conscious expressing their spirituality in a public setting. These people can be people of deep faith and great insight who may not be well known to the community because of their private nature.
2. Interior expression / exterior expression.
There is a type of person who relies heavily on some external expression of spiritual moments. If you find yourself making the sign of the cross when you hear a siren, or folding your hands before saying grace, or taking comfort in religious decorations, you may be gifted in exterior expressions of faith. People who move their lips during prayer – even in whisper – are externalizing a spiritual moment. (I once had a volunteer who would dance her way through the Communion line because her joy in the sacrament just couldn’t be contained!) On the other hand, many modern Catholics rely less on ancient signs, symbols, and rituals and are very comfortable encountering the Holy Spirit internally, in meditation and reflection.
3. Spontaneous prayer / rote prayer.
My staff meets daily for a short prayer, and each person takes a turn leading the prayer for a week. Some arrive with pages from a favorite devotional book or rely on old favorites like the Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary. But there are others who feel more connected when they pray in their own words; they find rote prayer boring or even insincere. The first group finds learned prayer mentally relaxing and spiritually calming; the second group places a greater emphasis on originality and, to some extent, candor.
Differentiating Prayer Instruction
Of course, these aren’t true dichotomies. We tend to lean toward one end of each axis, but rarely to an exclusive degree. Few people will master one axis in both its manifestations, let alone all three! Then we carry our preferences into the classroom and, inadvertently, model to our students the ways we personally express faith most strongly – whether or not the students share those same strengths.
Catechists should catalog their spiritual strengths and acknowledge that their students may have very different blends of strengths. Sadly, some students can emerge from a religious education program feeling inferior because their styles of spiritual expression were not well nurtured or valued.
Celebrating diverse spiritual expressions at the individual, class, and school level can quickly deepen the faith of a community, but it requires an honest self-assessment of the spiritual leadership. Sharing our spiritual strengths with students is an essential part of preserving the kerygma – the ancient faith – but we have a special challenge to seek out and practice more faith expressions and then to invite our diverse spiritual learners to share in them. In this model, the spiritual progress of students and their religious educators run parallel to one another.
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Chris Storm received a degree in theology from Carroll College in Helena, Montana, with a special emphasis on doctrinal development. In his 15-year career as a parish minister he has served as a DRE, youth minister, crisis response counselor, and member of the archdiocesan religious education committee. He lives with his wife and two children in Beaverton, Oregon, where he is the campus minister for Holy Trinity Church and School.