Catholic teachers working in Catholic education today face significant challenges. There is the demand to deliver high quality teaching and lead the children in the search for truth. Fr Bollan leads the reader to the deep insights of the Christian faith and the Catholic tradition.
He uses scripture passages and the liturgy to develop awareness in the reader of their vocation as teacher and leader of children into the mysteries of love and life. He does this in clear, simple language that communicates his own enthusiasm for the task.
Part II is a tool-kit of resources to be used throughout the school year to help the teacher and their students develop a sense of who they are as growing Christians and leaders. he has two lovely chapters on the Rosary.
John Bollan is a teacher in the Department of Religious Education, with specific responsibility for spiritual and pastoral formation across Initial Teacher Education programmes at the University of Glasgow
- A WORD ABOUT SPIRITUALITY
Blowing in the wind
Today many people are more comfortable describing themselves as spiritual than religious. I suppose in our increasingly secular and materialistic world we should be grateful even for that. To my mind, the best visual expression of this is a scene in the film American Beauty. Although some might raise their eyebrows at a movie which takes a subversive approach to domestic propriety, it is actually quite a moral story. It shows us two young loners who drift together, finding common cause in their contempt for the perceived hypocrisies of their parents generation and its stifling routines. One day the boy shows the girl a film of the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. While we might expect footage of a sunset or a mountain panorama, what he gives us is a silent movie of a white grocery bag blown about by the wind. The word he uses to describe its motion is dancing. This discarded bit of plastic is dancing with him and in doing so it makes him aware of an unseen force behind things, a reassuring and consoling presence. Those teenagers speak for a whole generation - indeed more than one generation - who want to rebel against the suffocation of their spirits. We have a hard-wired sensitivity to what the boy calls this incredibly benevolent force and in describing themselves as spiritual most people are implicitly affirming this. What sets the twenty-first century apart is the way most of us are happy to leave that force without a name and our relationship with it free of the constraints of words and images. It just is.
Since this a book about spirituality and the spiritual lives of educators, it might be worthwhile clarifying what is meant by this increasingly vague word. To borrow the imagery of the film for a little longer, we are indeed moved and guided by this force. We experience its energy, impelled and propelled throughout our lives. Beyond the apparent randomness and occasional solitude of our existence, there is the intimacy and rhythm of something very like a dance. This is God moving with us, through us, in us. Spirituality is, first and foremost, the awareness of this energy we call grace. It is grace which takes us as it finds us and moves us closer to God. Or rather, since God is everywhere, it simply makes us more conscious of that loving presence. Spirituality also describes the ways and the language in which we express our relationship with God and our fellow seekers-after-God. Although we respond to God in ways which are uniquely personal, we do not do so in isolation. We are enriched by the insight and experience of those who have surrendered to the motions of grace. By reflecting on their accounts of darkness and light, agony and ecstasy, we get a sense of our bearings. For Christians there is a treasury of accumulated wisdom stretching back thousands of years to the pages of the Old Testament. In Jesus we have someone to get to grips with in making sense of our spiritual lives. He reveals this force as Father and this wind as Spirit:
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)
We are not blowing aimlessly through life. No matter how absurd and circuitous our route may seem, grace moves us in the right path. The Holy Spirit knows where it is going. This same Spirit breathes through the diaries and stories of the Saints in which their own spiritualities are preserved or, better still, alive and accessible to us. In this book there are echoes of Ignatius, Benedict, Augustine, Margaret Mary and many others. While their writings are sometimes regarded as brands or schools of spirituality, they are all expressions of a desire to live ever more fully the life of Christ. As teachers we certainly have something to learn from them. At the same time, we are also moved by grace and we should be attentive to what the Spirit is saying to us. Do not be afraid to sketch out your spiritual vision because that is something Christ is doing in you. At least that is the way I understand those final words in Johns Gospel about the whole world being too small a place to contain all the books about Christ. We are all still writing.
TELL AND SHOW
The Transfiguration as Learning Environment
As soon as I had typed the above sentence I was overcome with a strong urge to change it. Anyone glancing at the words The Transfiguration as Learning Environment might well be tempted to shut the book as quickly as possible for fear of being buried under an avalanche of edu-babble. That said, I decided to keep the title as it is, for the simple reason that the terminology of the classroom should not be kept separate trom the language of faith: grace can seep into the cracks and wrinkles of human experience and education is no exception.
In this chapter I would like to explore the Transfiguration of Jesus, both as it is recounted in the Gospel and depicted in sacred art. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini penned a brilliant pastoral letter on this very subject which has been translated as Saving Beauty. I recommend it to anyone who wants to approach this key episode from an aesthetic angle. My main aim in this reflection is to consider the Transfiguration as a lesson prepared by Christ. Just how successful the lesson was, is for you to evaluate.
Background to the lesson
It is important for us to consider the disciples as learners. The very word disciple implies a relationship of listening and learning. Jesus very clearly assumes the role of Rabbi or teacher and the Gospels are quite unambiguous in describing much of his activity as teaching. Even those bits of his ministry which do not involve instruction, such as healings or exorcisms, are meant to convey a clear message about the nearness of Gods Kingdom. The real thrust of his mission is the culmination of what we call the Paschal Mystery, the events surrounding his suffering, death and resurrection.
This is the background for the lesson of the Transfiguration. Ever since the rather embarrassing end to John the Baptists ministry, Jesus is increasingly focused on his own. The full horror of the impending crucifixion is hard
for us to grasp, accustomed as we are to the happy ending of the story. For the disciples, however, the idea that their friend and teacher could be exposed to the most accursed of deaths was so extreme as to be inconceivable. So the events on the mountain are designed to help the disciples, especially the privileged inner circle of Peter, James and John, to jump the gap between the abject awfulness of the cross and the hidden workings of providence.
The lesson itself
The Gospels all agree that the Transfiguration takes place on a high mountain, with Mark and Matthew adding a note of privacy: although this is to be an elevated experience, there is also an element of intimacy to the gathering. Perhaps to this note of privacy should be added a hint of individuality. Although the disciples are there as a little group, Jesus intends each one of them to take something unique from the encounter. The physical location of the Transfiguration is important not just in providing a setting (the higher we go, the more our perspectives are altered) but also for the effort which is required to get there. Luke adds a little detail which is also significant: the ostensible purpose of their hike is to pray and it is against the backof prayer that the transformation occurs.
Suddenly, without warning, Jesus changes. While all three evangelists comment on the brilliance of Christs clothing, Luke and Matthew note a change in his aspect: his face shone like the sun (Matthew 17:2). The light comes from within him, like the sun. This transformation is not brought out about by any outside agency. Jesus is not floodlit on Tabor. Then the next element of the lesson unfolds: Moses and Elijah appear on either side of Jesus and speak with him (although only Luke ventures to suggest what their conversation was about). It is traditionally considered that these figures represent the two great streams of religious inspiration - law and prophecy. Jesus appears firmly within the context of his peoples religious understanding and yet adds something new. His passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31) is hinted at in the foregoing lessons of the law and the prophetic utterances of Israel but this next step is a radical and challenging one. His passing is going to be accomplished through rejection, suffering and death. Christ is leading his disciples to an awareness of what his words about the cross actually mean for them all; not some metaphorical surrender of life but a nasty and brutal seizing of it.
What is really happening in this privileged moment? The disciples are offered, albeit for a fleeting instant, a chance to see Jesus as his Father sees him. This is a moment of true insight. Peter, James and John are seeing in to Christ through the eyes of Love itself. Love, which has the power to transform the ordinariness of life, allows the disciples to bask in the light of a radiance which is in Jesus all the time. Not all insights can be clearly articulated. Peter clutches at words to convey something of the depth of their wonder (only Mark refers to it as fear). It is easy to be patronising about his suggestion to pitch tents; no matter how daft it may sound, Peter is trying to get hold of this event and break it up into manageable concepts. He is taking a transcendent experience and trying to fit it into the framework of his understanding of the world and its workings. This is not to be scoffed at: Peter is attempting what any intelligent person would do.
To use the language of lesson planning, what Jesus intends the disciples to take from the experience is an image
of himself in glory, reinforced by the words of the Father that he is the Beloved. The next time they see Jesus in a similar setting it will be under very changed circumstances: not in glory, but utter humiliation; not in the company of Gods spokesmen, but of two condemned criminals - and his fate no better than theirs. Although this is the intended outcome of this particular episode, it would be fair to say that the disciples are on a fairly steep learning curve and do not immediately grasp what Jesus has been trying to get across. They fail to understand what rising from the dead could mean (nor do they ask the teacher!) and allow the sorrowful spectacle of Golgotha to drive the lesson of Tabor from their minds. It is only much further down the road that these three disciples are able to reflect back on their experience and the connection is successfully made.
Looking at Christ: Eye contact for the teacher
The Transfiguration is chiefly a visual experience: the lesson is conveyed by looking at Jesus, rather than simply attending to the voice of the Father. Virtually all the artistic imaginings of this Gospel episode show the disciples shielding their eyes against the glare of glory. This seems to be something of a missed opportunity, especially as Luke suggests that they stayed awake to miss nothing of this awesome spectacle. Teachers are only too aware of the value of illustration: a well-used image can be twice as effective as words. But the purpose of their looking at Christ is also bound up with the way in which he had looked at them indeed, into them. The lofty mountain setting serves to underscore the leg up that this Transfiguration is giving the disciples in terms of their perspective. Not only are they seeing Jesus as the Father sees him; they are also seeing themselves as Jesus sees them. Their potential for goodness and greatness is unlocked by Christs insight. He has the gift to look and love and see what is lacking in someones life; his penetrating but respectful gaze provokes the amazed response but how do you know me?.
Eye contact often features in the arsenal of classroom management: a quelling look can put down a potential mutiny. I have seen teachers who would have made Genghis Khan turn-tail with a raised eyebrow. Yet by far the most important element of eye contact is the tacit signal it sends: I see you. Some of the most self-destructive behaviours in life often issue from a sense of futility; that nothing matters, that nothing I do (good or bad) gets noticed. To counter this Jesus says quite clearly that the Father sees all that is done in secret. This loving scrutiny is not some invasion of privacy: we are Gods business. Why, every hair on your head has been counted. The Transfiguration invites teachers to make eye contact with Christ and to see themselves reflected in that light. Teachers, in turn, are called to look at others in the same way, especially those poorest of children who are starved of love and frequently ignored. In other words, these rough-edged weans (children) have never been looked into shape by someone who genuinely respects and cares for them. To look someone into shape is to make them aware that they are seen, understood and accepted. Even if not everything they do can be approved of, they are still accepted. Disruptive behaviour may be a form of attention seeking, but there are times when it is simply a byproduct of feeling insignificant. It does not matter what you do because you do not matter either.
What I am trying to say might be better served by an illustration. One of the most moving aspects of the story of Lourdes is the way Bernadette describes the eye contact she made with the Lady in the grotto. As a young girl, especially with her poor, unlettered background, Bernadette would frequently be addressed in the curtest of terms. Seldom would anyone take the trouble to actually look at her while speaking to her. What struck Bernadette about the Lady was that she looked at her as one person looks at another. She was left in no doubt that she was the object of the visions attention and words requesting - politely - that Bernadette might do her the courtesy of coming back to the grotto for two weeks. Those words are certainly full of grace, and brought about an equally gracious response: grace invites graciousness.
Beauty in a world of ugliness
The Transfiguration affirms beauty, especially that extraordinary beauty which shows itself in unexpected places. There is a real need for beauty in our world. We are constantly bombarded with images which some viewers might find upsetting (as the newsreaders warn us): death, famine, disease, violence. The explosion of the Internet means that these distressing images are only ever a mouse-click away. A couple of years ago I found myself sitting at the Internet corner of a hotel lobby beside a child who was browsing through autopsy photographs. When I pointed out to him that that sort of thing wasnt for children he looked at me as if I were a monster. I am very concerned about the potential after-effects of exposing children to such images of real-life horror. There is, I think, a kind of stealth trauma which creeps up on children (and adults) when they are subjected to a drip-feed of such images. Not that long ago I was observing a student teach a very impressive lesson to a Primary One class. She had her little charges sitting around her chair, legs in a basket, gazing up at her as she showed them some pictures of autumn. Now, boys and girls, Im going to show you an amazing picture, she told the class with infectious enthusiasm. One little boy sitting beside her chair recoiled and covered his eyes pleading, Miss, dont show me anything yucky! My first reaction was to smile at this oversensitivity but then I wondered just how many yucky things he might have seen in his short life. The world is only too full of yuckiness.
What the Transfiguration offers is an antidote to all that conspires against beauty. The three figures on the mountaintop also mirror a triptych of Gospel scenes, with the Passion and the Resurrection completing this story arc or rainbow of theological colour. Although brutality and disfigurement dominate the central scene, these give way to the beauty which precedes and follows. The sadness of Christs death gives way to the bright promise of immortality. It is worth remembering that this pattern is also played out in life in general. Whenever we enter the dark night, be it in our private or professional lives, it is important to remember that it will pass. We may be overshadowed for a time, but only for a time.
Tell and show: Witnesses on the ground
Matthew and Marks accounts more or less end with Jesus instructing the apostles to say nothing about what they witnessed; Luke opts for a spontaneous vow of silence on their part. At first sight this may sound slightly odd. Surely they would have been bursting to tell the others what they had seen. Why should they wait until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead, whatever that might mean? My handle on this apparent conundrum is that Jesus is using a layered teaching approach: the full impact of the experience will only become clear later." I find this to be especially true of students in teacher-formation programmes. What they are being offered by their teachers sometimes appears of dubious relevance in the short-term. You might receive positive feedback from students on an enjoyable lecture presentation but still hear niggling doubts about its practical value. Students often voice a desire simply to be taught what to teach, as if being a page ahead of the class were enough. My students have become familiar with the mantra, You may not get this right now, but later on you will see! As I have suggested above, the disciples are only to grasp the depth of this encounter in the light of Easter. It is then that they can begin to witness to the whole mystery of Christ.
Although the disciples are described as witnesses we should not overlook the fact that Jesus himself is the faithful witness (Revelation 1:5). His teaching is not just about telling, but showing as well. This sets out the pattern which his disciples are to follow as they extend the Gospel message to the ends of the earth. Their witness is not just a matter of words. The Word became flesh and so their words must also take solid form in their lives and actions. As much as I love Raphaels famous mosaic of the Transfiguration in Saint Peters Basilica, I am a little disappointed that the three central figures are levitating, caught up in an eddy of wind and light. To a generation brought up on a diet of science-fiction imagery, they look like alien abductees with the spaceship just out of the frame. The icons of Eastern Christianity seem more faithful to the Gospel account: Jesus, Moses and Elijah are standing on solid ground. For all the transcendent power of this event, at no point does anyone involved lose touch with the earth.
No matter how heavenly it may be, the message of the Gospel needs to be grounded in reality. It is far too easy to take the Word made flesh and turn it back into words again. The key challenge for the Catholic teacher is to witness to the whole package of the faith and to ensure that their words are confirmed by their actions. What our children and young people need are real people engaged in living the faith in the often messy circumstances of the twenty-first century. Teaching reinforced by example is the authentic continuation of Christs ministry. Here was one who taught with authority and not like the scribes. His witness was genuine and compelling because he was being true to himself.
If we as teachers are to be true to him and his lesson plan, we must be prepared to replicate his methods and, those of the disciples. Their witness took on a new shape when they were asked to embrace suffering. This they were able to do because the light of Tabor was never fully extinguished in their hearts and minds. Even when the demands of the Gospel conflicted with the normal and sensible options offered by the world - such as the chance of staying alive - they chose martyrdom, which is the most exalted form of witness there is.
The next time you stand in front of a class and find the words are dying on your lips, and your heart is overshadowed, look at your feet: they are planted on the same earth that witnessed the awesome transformation of Jesus and the inner illumination of his friends. Then look at the class: if the eyes looking back at you are filled with boredom, indifference or incomprehension, do not despair. This is just one moment in the unfolding of understanding which started before you and does not end with you. All that you have to give in that moment, in that place, is yourself. Offer that, and the circuit between you and that high mountain-top will be complete. The class may not be dazzled, but you should become more aware of your own light. You might even catch your inner voice echoing those words of Peter, It is wonderful for us to be here.
An interesting aspect of Raphaels Transfiguration is that he brings his visual account of Christ in glory together with the next episode in the Gospel. The (top tier) of the painting shows Christ caught up in shining splendour while, at the foot of the mountain, the boy possessed by an unclean spirit is being brought along by his anguished parents. Here it is Raphael who is offering us a lesson through art: here he shows us what such moments of clarity and insight are actually for. What we experience on the high places is always in the service of what we are asked to do in the plain, ordinary moments of life. Notice too that the Transfiguration represents an all too brief respite from the harsh demands of Jesus ministry.
We should not be altogether caught out by the rapid alteration between triumph and challenge, between the sublime and the mundane.
When Words Fail Us
There is one song that any mouth can say,
A song that lingers when all singing dies.
Joyce Kilmer, The Rosary
By now I am well prepared for the blank expression on the faces of my students when I begin to talk about the Rosary. For most young(ish) people, if the Rosary had ever been a feature of their prayer repertoire by the time they hit their teens it has undergone something of an eclipse. This happens for a variety of reasons. Many people are (rightly) turned off by the unthinking, unfeeling monotone in which most public recitations of the Rosary are conducted. It is sometimes hard to see how hearts and minds could be raised by a prayer which seldom seems to lift its landing-gear. There is a reason, however, that the Church continues to hold this particular form of prayer in such high esteem. It has taken me a while to appreciate this. If I had to put my finger on the moment when I began to understand the Rosary it would be during the last hours of a saintly little woman in Paisley.
I used to visit this woman each month to bring her Holy Communion and over the years I got to know her quite well. I enjoyed her sprightly banter with the eldest daughter who shared her house and provided constant care for her mother. A fall during the night led to the diagnosis of an untreatable tumour and the mother was moved to the local hospice, where she spent the little time remaining to her. I was aware that she had three other children (I had seen their photographs on the mantle-piece) but I only got to meet them the day before she died. Although she was no longer able to receive the Eucharist, I took the chance to pop in and see her as I was passing. I knew she was very poorly and, as I was going to be away from the parish for a couple of days, I was concerned that I might not get to see her again. As soon as I walked into her room I sensed that all was not well. This was the first time that all four children had been together in the same room for a good number of years and it was a difficult reunion. There appeared to be a division of opinion as to what arrangements were to be made for the inevitable moment of the mothers death. My opening gambit - that their Mum was not dead yet and could hear them bickering - at least gave them the opportunity to direct their pent-up feelings at me instead of each other. By now I am used to this kind of reaction: as a freshly ordained priest it was sometimes hard not to take this personally but now I am a little wiser. Thankfully it was their mother who came to my rescue: just as they were about to really turn on me she managed to work her right hand out from underneath the bedcover. Perhaps because it was so unexpected, it was as if this merest of movements had become amplified, as though she were shouting for everyone to be quiet. I noticed that she was holding her Rosary and, albeit almost imperceptibly, she was. telling the beads between finger and thumb. What possessed me then I do not know but I suggested that we join with her in saying the Rosary. I experienced a little panic as I realised that I did not have any beads but managed to make a weak little joke about having ten fingers so it would be alright. You could have heard a pin (for all the wrong reasons). Still, undeterred, I began the recitation of the glorious mysteries.
To my relief (and I would have to say surprise) one by one the family fell in line. The mother continued to tell her
beads, wordlessly but effectively leading us in the rhythms of this prayer. As we reached the end she attempted to bless herself but could no longer raise her hand. I recalled her telling me of the times she would bless them with Holy Water before they headed out the door and suggested that this would be a good time for them to return the favour. All but one of them did (the daughter who lived with her found it too upsetting) and the matriarch settled back into a contented sleep which more or less continued until her death the next day.
I thanked the family for sharing that time with their mother. Somewhat sheepishly, the other three children confessed that the last time they had said the Rosary was at their fathers funeral some thirty-five years previously. In that time their relationship with the Church had more or less fallen apart and they had followed paths which led away from the faith of their childhood. It just goes to show you, said her son, that it never leaves you. Its in there somewhere. He was absolutely right and that is, I think, the strength of the Rosary. Some may argue that the constant repetition of the words forms a barrier to truly getting inside the prayer. I would suggest that it is precisely this mantra-like quality which allows people to be carried along by it. The issue for that emotionally exhausted family was that they did not really know how to be together and what to say to each other. In the absence of positive words and feelings, negative sentiments often come more easily to hand. What the Rosary achieved in that fraught moment was little short of miraculous: it took the heat out of that situation and gave them words they could say together. And not just any words. They were able to say words expressive of faith, hope and love. In that moment they were able to reconnect with something that had deeper roots in their memories and lives than the gaps which had opened up between them as a family. It was, in other words, an occasion of grace. More importantly, the moment of grace was prolonged beyond the womans death and real healing came to that family.
They were happy to talk about what they felt happening to them in that room and they are happy for me to talk about it as well. Their experience perfectly demonstrates the truth in that line of Joyce Kilmers poem: the Rosary is indeed one song that any mouth can say.
The Rosary is a prayer which can be as sophisticated or as simple as you like. When it is built into a programme of Lectio Divina, its identity as a deeply scriptural prayer becomes apparent. Pope John Paul IIs addition of five new Mysteries of Light gives the Rosary an even stronger scriptural and theological basis. Even more pertinent to Catholic Teacher Formation, the late Pope was keen to emphasise what the Rosary had to offer children and young people.
To pray the Rosary for children, and even more with children, training them from their earliest years to experience this daily pause for prayer with the family, is admittedly not the solution to every problem, but it is a spiritual aid which should not be underestimated. It could be objected that the Rosary seems hardly suited to the taste of children and young people of today. However, perhaps the objection is directed to an impoverished method of praying it. Furthermore, without prejudice to the Rosarys basic structure, there is nothing to stop children and young people from praying it either within the family or in groups - with appropriate symbolic and practical aids to understanding and appreciation. Why not try it? With Gods help, a pastoral approach to youth which is positive, impassioned and creative - as shown by the World Youth Days! - is capable of achieving quite remarkable results. If the Rosary is well presented, I am sure that young people will once more surprise adults by the way they make this prayer their own and recite it with the enthusiasm typical of their age group.
The Holy Father encouraged us to be creative in presenting the Rosary to children. This is particularly true in considering the visual aids which children and young people often require to get a hold on the mystery. The Alive-O series, which is the agreed Catechetical programme for primary school children in Ireland and Scotland, offers thoughtful suggestions for engaging a class in discovering the Rosary in new ways. A class of younger children might be enthusiastic about making pictures which relate to each of the mysteries, while an older class might benefit from searching for contemporary images which illustrate the events brought to life by the Rosary. Clearly the goal for everyone, however, is that we are able to visualise the mysteries in our own minds. This ancient prayer should fuel the sacred imagination of Gods people. In the toolkit, which forms the second part of this book, I have had the temerity to offer what I call The Teachers Rosary. Hopefully it will forge a chain of new ideas in your imagination and enable you to find something fresh growing in this neglected garden.
THE TEACHERS ROSARY
Although the Rosary is easily dismissed as an outmoded form of prayer, it can, as I hope I have described earlier, offer a way of reflecting upon those bits of our human experience which we share with the protagonists of the Gospel. When other words fail us, the Rosary can offer a framework for our thoughts or perhaps even a sort of scaffolding to which we can tie our thoughts when everything else seems to be coming adrift. Although I have gathered these reflections under the heading of The Teachers Rosary, they are general enough to cross over into any sphere of work or life.
Even if the prospect of praying the respective decades of Hail Marys one after the other leaves you cold, you might derive some benefit from exploring these mysteries as part of your own prayer. After all, the word mystery has more to do with opening windows than solving puzzles. For example, some of these reflections could form part of an exercise in Lectio Divina.
The Joyful Mysteries
The Annunciation: On courtesy
The angel and the woman engage in a gracious conversation. No orders are given, but Gods plan is presented as a scenario which only the most shuttered soul could refuse. The courtesy of this encounter is arresting: Gabriels words stir life in the womb of the Virgin and she has shown herself worthy of the greeting highly favoured.
How do I express my will? Is it delivered as an ultimatum or an invitation? Am I aware of the power of words and my ability to build up or knock down by what I say and how I say it?
The Visitation: On cooperation
The helping hand extended to Elizabeth is itself a lesson in cooperation. Mary was not sent for bu