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

Sadly, some students can emerge from a religious education program feeling inferior because their styles of spiritual expression were not well nurtured or valued.

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