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Holiness and Prayer

God is holy by definition. When the prophet Isaiah describes the seraphs as singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” in the Jerusalem temple (Is 6:3), a praise of God taken over in the Christian liturgy, the triple affirmation precisely describes God. The word “holy” (Hebrew: kdsh) means something like “separate” or “different.” The word designates God’s separateness: God is not the cosmos, not a creature, not we humans infinitely magnified. God alone can say without qualification “I AM” (cf. Ex 3). Everything else called “holy”—whether it be places, times, instruments, clothing, images, persons, or whatever—is holy only in relation to God who alone is holy. Not to put too fine a point on it: to be holy is somehow connected to God who alone is, in fact, holy. One primary link to the holiness of God is by prayer. When we turn to God in prayer, either as a community or as an individual, we are doing something that is holy, which is to say, we are making some conscious connection to the source of holiness, God. …

The Raised Hand

You can tell a lot by the timing, posture, and movement of a raised hand. The quick and sudden, mid-sentence hand raise often catches my attention and I anticipate a thoughtful inquiry into my lecture. The slow, slouching, ninety-degree elbow raise frequently precedes the request for the bathroom and freedom from the current attack of information and instructions. The shaking, waving, over-eager, over-achiever hand raise almost always offers to write on the board, deliver the mail, pass out the tests, clean up after projects, email the class, and bring in cupcakes. All of these examples are caricatures of our students, and yet each of these students is in our classrooms this year, and will be every year. I offer this image of a raised hand to share a reflection I had during my third year of teaching. It occurred to me that I had gradually altered my approach to raised hands. When I began teaching, I naïvely called on each and every hand that was raised, and gave my absolute best, most exhaustive answer to …

Encountering Christ, the Eternal Word

Within the Catholic high school, formation often becomes fragmented. Differences in staffing, resources, and approaches to ministry lead to a lack of integration among different dimensions of the spiritual life. Students study religion in class, go on retreats, celebrate Mass, and earn service hours, often overseen by different departments or staff members. Yet, “it’s all curriculum.” What happens on the athletic field, in conversations on retreat, during class sessions, in afterschool activities, or while in prayer all contribute to the development of young men and women of faith. This holistic vision of formation guided the restructuring of our campus ministry department at a Chicago high school. In restructuring, we made the decision to lay everything on the table and ask first: “How can we best serve the needs of our students? How can we focus on ministering to people rather than administering programs?” Our response was to move from two separate departments of Pastoral Ministry and Community Service to create the Department of Formation and Ministry. Guided by a Director, the rest of the staff …

The Dangerous Art of Becoming

I stopped writing cursive in the sixth grade. If I were to handwrite this sentence for you, you would likely find my penmanship immature, unrefined, and inefficient. Its unwieldy form and bubbly profile—adorned with loopty-loops and fancy curls—would sit fat, proud, and unapologetic upon the page, the way a toddler wears her protruding belly. Such is my cursive, hopelessly stuck in the grasp of my pre-adolescent hand. My painting, ceramic, and clarinet playing skills are also frozen in an earlier time. I have just recently acquired a loom and an easel, though not with any intention of “showing” my work. Suffice it to say, no one would call me an “artist.” And yet, my experience of fashioning retreats for Echo apprentice catechetical leaders over the last eight years has made it impossible for me to consider faith formation without also considering art. “Art is not a thing; it is a way.” —Elbert Hubbard   The art experiences that have become inherent to Echo formation retreats are not a professional cover to explore a personal hobby. …

The Pedagogy of Faith

Blessed be God! During my Dad’s final years of life, he was unable to communicate through the gift of voice.[1] A victim of Alzheimer’s disease, Dad’s voice suddenly departed a few years before he died. Other family members, already Dad’s advocates, became Dad’s voice in new and distinctive ways. His own vocal expressions were gone but Dad, child of God, was not. I am convinced that Dad communicated during his last years through the gift of sight. On the day he died, his eyes scanned the room where he lay, focusing intently on each of the family members gathered around his bed. Dad, even in the moments leading up to physical death, continued to “speak” to us. He continued to proclaim the goodness of God. In today’s language, we might identify him as an emissary of the New Evangelization. Faith in God, the one true God of all who reveals himself to us, is faith that enables us to proclaim in word and action, in thought and look, in Gospel and glance, the goodness and …

On Teaching Christianity

Did you ever wonder how the Apostle Paul might have been evangelized? He gives us a hint in a famous passage in 1 Corinthians 15: For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Cor 15:3–5) Paul here talks about what he “received”—you might say, the “information,” the basics of the Christian proclamation. As he says, he also “delivered” this or “handed it down” to the Corinthians in evangelizing or catechizing them in turn. This little catechetical formula is the basis for Paul’s long reflection and exhortation in 1 Corinthians 15 regarding the resurrection of the dead. Faith in Christ’s Resurrection implies hope for a resurrection of our own, for Christ is the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20). After reflecting with them on the hope implied …

Thoughts on a Theology of Teaching: “You give them something to eat”

When I found out that I got a job teaching high school theology, I began to ask all of the teachers I knew what advice they had for me. I heard all kinds of things about classroom management and lesson plan preparation. However, the one piece of advice that has stayed with me came from a professor at Notre Dame. “I’m going to be a high school theology teacher, Professor. Do you have any advice for me?” “Jesus told his disciples, ‘You give them something to eat.’” “Pardon?” “Jesus told his disciples, ‘You give them something to eat.’” “…?” I’ve thought more about this puzzling piece of “advice” than any other. In the ninth chapter of Luke (and the sixth of Mark), Jesus goes out to a deserted place. When the people follow Him, but turn out to be hungry, the Apostles ask for Jesus to send the crowds away. Jesus says instead, “You give them something to eat” (cf. Lk 9:13 and Mk 6:37). Of course, they have no money to be able to …

Improving Catholic Homilies, Part 3: Explain the Liturgy

I have in parts one and two of this series dedicated to improving Catholic homilies suggested two major pieces of advice. First, avoid homilies that are unfocused and difficult to absorb by driving home only one important point per homily. Second, avoid sentimental moralism by grounding every homily message in the Good News of what God has done for us as the foundation of anything we might need to do. I might in addition suggest a handful of other ideas to help improve Catholic homilies. One would be simply to make time to prepare homilies. Priests are often so busy that preparing homilies can get short shrift. But focused preparation is essential to a good homily. I might also suggest keeping homilies to less than ten minutes long. There again, the adage “less is more” pertains when it comes to communicating a key point effectively. But I think one other substantive suggestion is particularly important. Homilies should take advantage of opportunities to explain various parts of the Church’s liturgical practices throughout the Church year. Many …

The Sweet Burden of the Moral Life

Our faith in Christ bids us to become “perfect” as our Heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48). Such an invitation to perfection is often perceived as an “impossible” (Mt 19:26) goal, since the moral life is perceived as a burden, an unbearable weight. This burden is felt even more acutely if we notice ourselves being “told” what to do or how to behave by an authority. In Western civilization, when one is confronted with a law and a lawgiver, the natural response is to first analyze circumstances in order to ascertain if there is a possible exemption from the regulation. This notion—that moral living is an avoidable burden—even manifests itself in expressions of sympathy and promises of intercessory prayer to those who announce that they are going to university to study ethics or moral theology! No doubt, to be purified of our beloved sins is a painful process, so painful that we may be tempted to remain in the artificial consolation of sin itself rather than venture toward “perfection.” Our fear that living according to …

The Universality and Idiosyncrasy of Sainthood

Every saint is idiosyncratic. On the face of it, this seems so self-evident that we might wonder why it even needs to be said. Of course, St. Ignatius of Antioch is different from St. Ignatius of Loyola. Obviously, St. Teresa of Ávila is not St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Even when saints bear the names of the holy men and women who preceded them, they are never carbon copies of their namesakes. Each saint’s radical particularity deserves special attention, because it tells us something vastly important about the personal character of every individual’s pathway to sanctity. It should not surprise us that God calls everyone to embrace the vocation of sainthood, because each person is destined for union with God—an everlasting intimacy that the Holy Spirit enacts in us through the process of sanctification. Sainthood’s universality entails its idiosyncrasy. If God wishes for all of us to be saints, there must be as many ways of being a saint as there are people whom God transforms into them. Thomas Merton, famed twentieth-century Trappist contemplative and social …