Jesus answered: ‘Will you lay down your life for me?’ - John 13:38

Support the Holy Father and pray with him!

"Young people in particular, I appeal to you: bear witness to your faith through the digital world!"

-Pope Benedict XVI

Pray for Pope Benedict's prayer intentions for this month. Find out more here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Teaching Kids to Pray: A Closer Look on Spiritual Maturity

These days, while spending my school holidays in Manila, I work as an assistant at a friend's tuition center. I handle a small class of 10 primary one kids from my alma mater, one of the more prominent Catholic schools here. Although I knew that handling small kids isn't an easy job, I was fairly confident that I would be able to find it easy to teach them since the subject matter is pretty easy. As it turns out, I ate my words when I tried teaching them two prayers that were assigned for the day - the Angelus and the 3 o'clock prayer (a.k.a. the Divine Mercy prayer).

I didn't realize it was so difficult to teach and explain formulated prayers to kids until I tried it last evening. They were supposed to memorize these two prayers as their homework today (this is a Catholic school after all), and we (the main tutor, and I, his assistant) didn't want to let them memorize without trying to make them understand what the prayers mean. Because I had not known beforehand that they were going to be assigned to memorize these prayers for the day, I was not able to prepare for it. Although I do know the Angelus by heart, it was a different thing trying to explain why we have this prayer and why it is recited at noon. And the "Pour forth we beseech you O Lord..." part was simply too much for a first grader to comprehend (they couldn't even pronounce "incarnation" and "resurrection"). The 3 o'clock prayer was even worse. The tutor handling the class gave up on the first sentence ("You died Jesus, but the source of life flowed out for souls, and the ocean of mercy opened up for the whole world"). In the end he just said that the prayers were too complex to be understood by kids, and I ended up asking them to read the prayer aloud over and over again for them to be familiar enough with it. After two hours they were barely able to remember the short responses in the Angelus, and wanted to give up on the intensely literary 3 o'clock prayer. These kids haven't even started formal Religion classes yet (here we call them Religion class instead of catechism class, and it's one of the subjects taught in school), so words like "grace", "mercy", and "sacrament" are lost on them. One kid even asked if it was okay to become a Buddhist when he grows up. :P

Our classes are pretty amusing, but this experience made me think of my own experience learning the basic prayers of our faith when I was a kid. I must not have understood or tried to understand my Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Glory Bes until I was perhaps Primary 5 or 6. At that time, whatever I learned about my religion was mostly head-level stuff that we had to memorize in order to pass Religion class. I was going for morning mass at school everyday because I was always early and even learned the Monday Holy Spirit novena, Wednesday Perpetual Help novena, and Friday Sacred Heart novena because I was usually picked to lead them during mass. I was religious in that sort of way - I knew the workings of the liturgy better than the older lectors who only came whenever they were rostered to read, and I learned how to prepare the altar and light the candles. Going to daily mass became part of my school routine. That went on for about four or five years before I had a personal spiritual encounter in Sec 2, and from then on I started paying attention to what my faith was all about, including the prayers that I had learned from my childhood. Today I can't say that I've matured fully in my faith but at the very least I can say that I'm growing, thanks to the Legion of Mary and my parish youth group.

What about the others? I thought. I know of a lot of people who have been Catholic since birth but remain blissfully ignorant about the meaning of their religion that they don't progress beyond the spiritual childhood they've been in since they were children. Perhaps it is unintentional on their part due to a lack of proper formation from their family and community. Perhaps they have given up on religion after being exposed to the materialistic wiles of the world - career, money, relationships, power, popularity, etc. Perhaps some are hurting and traumatized after a bad experience with a Church authority. There are many possible reasons, but in the end, it is always a loss for a person to remain stagnant and stop growing in faith.

John Westerhoff in his book, Will Our Children Have Faith? (New York, Seabury, 1976) offers an enlightening theory on the different stages of faith development, which I think is quite relevant and applicable to most people. The first stage is what he terms experienced faith, which is characteristic of young children. In this stage, children participate in the rituals of the liturgy of the Church without understanding them. It is important for them to feel loved and accepted since this is where they start associating themselves with the community and placing importance on going to Church. This lays the foundation of our faith and our belongingness with the Church. So this is where my kids are!

The second stage, affiliative faith, is usually developed in early adolescence. In this stage, a person seeks to join a community and deepen his/her relationships within the group. Experiences like youth camps and retreats are especially meaningful at this stage. Support from peers help build up a strong sense of belonging to God's family.

The third stage, searching faith, corresponds to the shift in intellectual capacity that naturally occurs in late adolescence and early adulthood. It is a process of questioning and internalizing what one has been taught. Usually a person at this stage tries to know more about his/her faith by reading up on theology and spirituality and engaging in debates and discussions on topics such as the existence of God. It is also a risky period because this is when a person chooses to accept his/her faith as his/her own, or abandon it altogether.

The fourth and final stage is termed as owned faith. By this stage, one's faith becomes one's own and not that of one's parents or friends. A person believes because he/she wants to, and goes about witnessing to others this faith in daily life through his/her decisions and actions.

Owned faith is God's intention for us, but most people get their faith arrested at the first or second stage. It is sad to realize that a lot of born Catholics are at the same level of faith as the primary 1 kids I'm handling.

The challenge for us is to bring our lapsed brothers and sisters back into the Church, perhaps by being friends sincerely with them and introducing them to members in the community to let them feel a sense of belongingness once more. Perhaps they need to have a fresh experience of God in their life through us journeying with them in friendship and in worshipping together. Perhaps they need to hear our testimonies, or need our companionship and encouragement in their personal struggles. Whatever the case, it seems that a person needs to belong before he believes. And it is up to us to reach out to them as instruments of God's love to awaken and nourish the seed of faith in them, and to do so without watering down the faith.

Meanwhile, I need to think of a way to get my kids to memorize the Angelus and the 3 o'clock prayer. :P

1 comment:

Dom said...

Wow thanks for this interesting reflection Kriz.

About your kids, why not explain the intention of the prayers: the Angelus to remind us of God becoming man and the love that this miracle symbolizes. Also you can talk about Mary's complete obedience and humilty.

For the 3 O Clock prayer, you can say we remember the hour in which Jesus died for us. There's nothing we should be more grateful for than our Lord's death for our sakes. So it's nice for us to stop what we're doing to remember and say 'thank you'.

But it's great for the kids to have this grounding in the faith so that when, like you, they have a personal encounter, or when they begin to understand the faith more deeply they have already encountered the Church's treasures of prayer, tradition and liturgy and can then love and respect these more as they grow in maturity.

My mother taught me the 3 O Clock prayer when I was a kid. I guess initially I just said it without really understanding its meaning. And I thought I had to say it EXACTLY at 3 o clock...not a minute earlier or later. I used to force my sister to do so too and scold her if she was a bit late(annoying kid wasn't I? haha). But I'm glad for that initial kiddish "devotion" because I got into a habit and now that I understand (at least a bit) the doctrine of the salvific death of Christ, and appreciate better the depths of our Lord's love, I can say my 3 O Clock prayer more meaningfully.

"I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it" 1 Cor 3:2

"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child." 1 Cor 13:11