Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Because There Are Depths to Plumb and Heights to Climb

I am preparing to teach a religious education class this afternoon. Once again, I am brought up against how little I know, how much there is to learn about Catholicism. Anyone who thinks Catholicism is for the lobotomized should be required to teach The Lord's Prayer to fourth graders.

One shocking fact about teaching what used to be known as CCD is how little these kids know, how thin is the Catholic culture in which most are brought up in America today. Like, I should talk, right? The convert? Who was raised in a church-going but hardly Bible-studious Protestant family? Fact is, I know much more than these kids, having attended Sunday school pretty faithfully for ten years. One example of their appalling ignorance: Asked to place the following events on a timeline, they all but draw a blank — (a) birth of Christ, (b) Noah's ark, (c) Adam & Eve, (d) journeys of St. Paul, (e) birth of Pope Benedict XVI. Some kids, not all, will successfully place A&E at the head of the line. After that, it's a crap shoot.

So one of my strategies, as a first-year, you're-teaching-me-more-than-I'm teaching-you teacher is to throw away the lesson plan and just get one thing through their little skulls every week. Today, The Lords' Prayer . . .

The book the children use, Christ Our Life (Loyola Press), is quite lovely, and the half-page on The Lord's Prayer is enough to provoke a short discussion. Illustrated by a picture of Jesus praying and five men watching Him, it reads:

The apostles watched Jesus when he was at prayer. They could see that he knew how to speak to God our Father. Afterward they came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Then Jesus taught them the prayer we call the Lord's Prayer or the Our Father. We should try to pray it every day. In this prayer we praise God and ask for all our needs. We ask to be forgiven as we forgive others. We also ask to be saved from evil. 

Nice? Yes.
Enough? Not if I have to teach for an hour.

The teachers' guide offers half a crutch to lean on, a list of questions to ask the children about the prayer. Examples are:

Who are the men standing in the background? (apostles)
What are they doing? (watching Jesus pray)
What did the apostles want to do when they saw Jesus praying? (They wanted to pray like Jesus.)
And so on . . .

I don't know about you, but this doesn't instill me with great confidence that I can survive an hour of questions. Like, why do we call God Father and not Mother? Or, why is He "ours"? And that just takes care of two out of fifty-five words.

I have two key sources on my own bookshelf to shed light on The Lord's Prayer: Catechism of the Catholic Church and Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict, which has a chapter on the prayer. My grand strategy for this week was to read both (not the whole catechism, of course, but the closing section on The Lord's Prayer, 2759–2865). But I've run out of time, as I usually do in my overbooked life. It's 4:45 a.m. and I have to teach at 3:30 p.m., after working a good part of the day. So I reach in desperation for Peter Kreeft's Catholic Christianity (Ignatius Press), given to us in RCIA as a sort of Cliff Notes to the Catechism. Not to belabor this post (I have to prepare a class!) and to give Kreeft his due, here are a few choice excerpts:

1. The perfect prayer: It is the perfect prayer because it comes from the perfect Pray-er. . . . Christ gives us these words, not like a book, to read, but like a piece of sheet music, to sing. We must pray this prayer not just with our words but with our minds, and not just with our minds but with our hearts.

2. “Our”: When St. Teresa of Avila prayed the Our Father, she found it almost impossible to get beyond the first two words, for they were like a beautiful country that she wanted to dwell in forever. Until we feel that way, we have not understood these words. 

3. “Father”: The word is not just “Father” but “Abba”—the intimate word “Daddy.” Jesus restored the intimacy we had lost in Eden. 

4. “Who art in heaven”: Heaven is a real place but not a spatial place: it is not anywhere in this universe. . . . One thing we do know about heaven is that it is our home, our destiny, our happiness; and that even now Jesus is preparing a place there especially for us (Jn 14:2–3).

5. The structure of the seven petitions of the Our Father: The structure of this prayer is parallel to the structure of the Ten Commandments, because both follow the structure of reality. Both are divided into two parts: God first, man second. . . . [Like the first three Commandments,] the first three petitions of the Lord's Prayer also tell us how to love God . . . The other four tell us how to love our neighbor, since they tell us to pray for “our” primary needs, not just “my” needs.

6. “Hallowed be thy name”: We do not make him holy; but we do make his “name,” his “reputation,” his being-known on earth, holy. We do this by being saints. Saints are the unanswerable argument for Christianity. 

That's my favorite line in the whole book right there: “Saints are the unanswerable argument for Christianity.” The saints brought me to the Church in the first place.

7.  “Thy kingdom come”: The major obstacle to “Thy kingdom come” is “My kingdom come.” Every person who has ever lived has one absolute choice: “Thy kingdom come” or “My kingdom come,” letting God be God, or playing God. 

8. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”:  The way for God's kingdom to come is the easiest thing in the world to understand and the hardest thing in the world to accomplish: simply turning over all our will to God. . . . “Thy will be done” is both submissive and active. For his kingdom comes by our submitting to his will and by our working to carry it out.

9. “Give us this day our daily bread”: Does God love us less than our earthly fathers? Or does he have less power to give us what we need? Or less wisdom to know what that is? Put these three non-negotiable dogmas of God's love, God's power, and God's wisdom together with the fact that Christ has made God our Father, and you get a totally realistic, reasonable, and non-sentimental basis for the total trust that this petition expresses.

10. “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”: It is intrinsically impossible for us to receive God's forgiveness if we do not forgive others, as it is impossible for someone with a closed fist to receive a gift. . . . To forgive is to will good to those who do not deserve it, as God does to us.

11. “Lead us not into temptation”: “Temptation” could also be interpreted as “trials,” so that this petition means we humbly confess our weakness and ask God to be gentle to us, as promised: “A bruised reed he will not break” (Is 42:3).

12. “But deliver us from evil”: Christ puts this petition last. We tend to put it first. The child puts it first; his first prayer is usually: “God, help me!” This is a perfectly good prayer, and the greatest saints never outgrow it; but they outgrow putting it first. Instructed by the Lord's Prayer, they wrap it in adoration. 

13. “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, now and forever. Amen.”: This doxology (“word of praise”) is not in Scripture, but the Church added it very early in her history. It is right to end the prayer as it began—with adoration and praise. . . . The Lord's Prayer is not a mere thought or wish but an act (an “act of prayer”). In fact, each petition of the Lord's Prayer, if honestly meant, is sacramental: it effects what it signifies.

On retreat last week, Father Matthew invited us to think more deeply about prayer. I have tried to do that here.  

Now, if I can just communicate some of this to fourth-graders . . .