Thursday, December 17, 2009


This WSJ article prompted me to organize some disparate thoughts about imagination: Children's Imagination Important for Cognitive Development -

Between my blog and catechism class, I frequently look for images to amplify Bible stories. I'm surprised at how long I sometimes have to search to find an online image that sheds light on what I think the point of the story is. Sometimes I find an image that's better than what I imagine, one that actually deepens the meaning, and those are the best. But to do so I have to cull through lots of well-done pictures that lack compelling content. It matters because the kids use the pictures to refine and expand their imagination and understanding of faith. God necessarily exceeds human imagination; but the bigger the imagination, the more God can be understood, the closer he can be approached. Let's look at a couple of examples.

Two of my favorite classroom stories are the Healing of the Paralytic, and the Prodigal Son. Because the perfect picture is worth at least a thousand words, I seek....The Perfect Picture; in the first case, the Perfect Paralytic Picture. I've looked at a hundred images or more, seeking not an illustration of a paralyzed man being made to walk, but the mystery, the miracle, the hushed wonder of a sin-wracked body and soul being healed together. Here are two Paralytic pix that are fine paintings, but neither of them wins my prize:

This is a lovely one:

Got it? Me too. And this next one as well. It's by James Tissot, who made 350 watercolors in the late 19th century of the Life of Christ; this is one of them. Wiki says: "The merits of Tissot's Bible illustrations lay rather in the care with which he studied the details of scenery than in any quality of religious emotion. He seemed to aim, above all, at accuracy, and, in his figures, at a vivid realism, which was far removed from the conventional treatment of sacred types."

Great composition, it. Thanks.
And now, the pearl of great price by John Armstrong:

Got it? Umm...ehhh...I gotta think about it for a while. Even now, at the hundredth viewing, this one is about more than the first two. It's not all that concerned with the event, per se, but rather the meaning of the event, the truth beyond the facts. As a question I heard in a Sola Scriptura debate put it, what's more important: the text, or the message? Yeah, ok, so in this picture that I love, what's the message?

I have to digress. In the summer of '08, my family took an Alaska cruise, courtesy of My Wife The Energizer Bunny. Among other stops, we visited Hubbard Glacier:

The glacier face is about 300 feet tall, 6 miles wide, and beguilingly blue. It's not the usual.

Cruise ships are alive with sound. People chat, music plays, wind blows, water splashes, tableware clinks, the ship itself hums and thrums. When the glacier first came into view from miles away, people got very excited, the sound level went right up. But over the next couple of hours as the ship carefully crept up close to that weird blue wall, all 2,000 people Just Shut Up. Hardly a sound except the clunk of ice against the hull. No-one spoke above a murmur, and briefly. Total hush at the wonder.

This is how I imagine the moment of the Healing of the Paralytic: a hush at the wonder. The hubbub "we've never seen anything like this before" would come later, as it did on the ship when it eased back out of the fjord. But at the moment when the people realized that Jesus had healed both soul and body, my God, who would have made a peep? That's the meaning I take from the Armstrong image. A sinful wretch floating on a sea of sinners, at the moment of healing. The utter, preposterous wonder of that moment. It's beyond one's grasp. Just shut up.

Speaking of images and meaning, Aristotle formulated the concept of Accidents and Substance as a way of organizing reality. Take, oh, glaciers for example: if water is frozen, we call it ice. The ice-ness is an accident; sometimes water is a liquid, other times a vapor, still other times a solid. But it's all water, regardless of the accidents. Water is the substance. This seems obvious to us, but in 19th-century subtropical India, e.g., people were confused by the product delivered by New England's ice merchants. They didn't understand it was water with a different accident than they were used to. Some referred to ice as "blocks of Yankee coldness." Even observing ice melt didn't change their perception of ice being something quite different from water. It must have taken a huge shift, not just of knowledge, but also imagination, to accept ice as just another form of water.

The influence of imagination on understanding is underestimated.

Some Catholics will be familiar at least in passing with the fact that Aquinas referred to Aristotle's accidents and substances in explaining Transubstantiation. Catholics are used to the idea that while the bread and wine are Accidents, the Substance of the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus. To put it in sacramental terms, there's Form, and there's Matter (to digress again, most Orthodox aren't comfortable with such a technical analysis, referring to the Sacraments as Mysteries).

What's this post about? Oh yeah, images. Religious images. More to the point, Bible story images. Why so many are workmanlike, yet some select few are profound, and deepen our understanding of a story. Ehhh...let's consider the second story I mentioned, the Prodigal Son.
Here's a serviceable illustration of the Prodigal Son by Murillo:

Boy howdy, it sure is scriptural: the plea for forgiveness, the ring, the robes, the fatted calf about to be axed.... and a little Fido symbolizing faithful devotion. But I know all that already. I don't need an illustration. I need a portrait.

Here we go, the one that makes the point, by Rembrandt (I saw the original at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, during a Baltic cruise. It's big.):

My Number One work of visual art, Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son doesn't even show a scene that's especially scriptural. No plot, no talking, no rings, no time. Instead there is stressless patience, love, and peace. Mmmmm....aaaaahhhh. If we repent, God will forgive us, embrace us and love us forever. Forget the rings and robes. The forgiven son floats in an eternal ocean of love before the father has mentioned baubles or dinner. At last he can rest. This is the meaning of the story. I knew the Facts. Rembrandt shows the Truth.

Aristotle might say Rembrandt has seen past the Accidents and given us the Substance, as does Armstrong in his Paralytic. He might go so far as to say both artists showed us God.

Now where ice, stuff, is concerned, we can get at the substance which lies beyond the accidents pretty easily. But it's harder to get at the substance of truth: one has to have an imagination, like Rembrandt and Armstrong. Ideally a nimble imagination, well-trained by the habits of Christian faith to see God in a man; to see water become wine. Or maybe a Catholic imagination also trained to see water wash away sin; or wine become blood; or bread become flesh.

I want my 6th graders to learn and love the Bible. To know the Substance as well as the Accidents; the Form and the Matter; the Stories and the Truth.

Their eyes can look; they need imaginations to see.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Preparation H

I posted this article earlier this month at: Preparation H » Amazing Catechists

I teach 6th graders. That's my little catechetical world: 11 and 12 year-olds. In keeping with Amazing Catechists' mission statement, this column will be about "the how-to, hands-on, here's-what-worked-for-me stuff that will help our readers to bring their faith and morality lessons profoundly to life"....for 6th graders. Don't you think that's enough introduction? I do. Time to discuss what works in my classroom. Let's start at the beginning.

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, "Let there be a lesson plan."

The most important part of class happens before class: Preparation. It doesn't have to be painful like the title of the article, but you must prepare. Physical preparation: you must write a lesson plan for every class. By that I mean before each class starts you have a written description of what you are going to cover. Reading the chapter a few times isn't enough. Having some key terms on a note card isn't enough. Reading from the textbook during class is a cop-out. And no fair filling time with something other than teaching! Movies are a time-filler! I know I'll get flak for this, but I believe craft projects and games are time-fillers in 6th grade as well. The kids are old enough to learn without diversions such as movies or projects. Besides the fact that they're old enough, every minute of available class time is precious and should never be lightly used. We all know how indifferently-trained in faith many of our charges are; part of fixing that is being prepared to teach nonstop for the whole class period. A lesson plan doesn't just make that possible: it makes it easy.

Now I know everyone has heard "make a lesson plan" before. And then the catechist reasonably thinks: yes, but how do I make a lesson plan? Well, let's look at one of my lesson plans and see how I do it.

First I should mention our textbook (which comes with a separate workbook). It's a good one with orthodox, substantial content. It's a textbook for a regular 180-day school year. Uh-oh. Catechism meets 30 times a year....see the problem? To try to use the textbook directly won't work timewise, yet the material must be covered. I don't know if other Religious Ed textbooks are purpose-written for 'Sunday Schoolers,' but isn't it nice to have a worst-case for an example?
The book has 31 chapters. Since not all chapters are created equal, I was able to leave one out without skipping anything important in the book's progression of concepts. I cover the remaining 30, one chapter per class period (more or less).

To begin a lesson plan, I read the chapter (this includes the workbook questions and the support material in the teacher's edition) twice in one sitting with a magic marker & a pencil. The pencil adds comments, the marker both highlights and crosses out. Then I do something else for a while, to get away from it. I won’t pick up the book again until the next day at the soonest.

For the third reading, I sit with a pencil and an 8.5 x 11 legal pad. I now have a pretty good sense of what I need to cover due to my prior notes & marks. It works out for me that one full page of a lesson plan takes me a full class period (50-55 minutes). If the chapter runs, say 4 pages, then each page in the textbook gets about 1/4 of my legal sheet. As I read the chapter, I am noting on the legal pad how I'll teach the material. I add/subtract from the textbook as I see fit. Sticking to a one-page limit forces me to budget what I expect to teach in the allotted time. I itemize the concepts, it keeps them separate: I don't want one huge paragraph. I should get to the bottom of the pad as I reach the end of the chapter.

Here's my class binder open to my plan for Chapter 17, the Last Supper. It's typical. The whole class will be run from what you see here, plus a Bible. Before we consider the notes on the right, look on the left. I've copied the chapter cheatsheet from my teacher's edition, and holepunched it on the right side so it will face my notes. I have noted the terms the chapter wants the kids to know, and pinked them. While roll is called at the start of class and kids settle in, I write these on the board. Also see the four lesson blocks at the bottom; I highlight critical ideas there, it helps me see how I'm doing time-wise. If I'm running behind, I'll usually drop something rather than go faster.

The little pink sheet is some stuff from the prior class I wanted to recap and questions I needed to answer.

Now to the right, The Lesson Plan (drumroll). I have 8 items on the page, it just worked out that way. Being a Last Supper class, Item 1 gives background for Item 2, which is the Passover. I will stick to the original document and ignore the extra notes and changes that I added over the years.

Item 1 notes read: Exodus- Prince of Egypt (Moses & Rameses) Hebrews-famine [Nile] slaves of Pharaoh (Great House), 9 plagues, last plague death of firstborn.

This doesn't tell me what to say, and it's not something I can read aloud. It's simply notes to guide my teaching. Part of this will be storytelling, some acting out, some questions the kids will answer, and no reading. It may vary in detail each year, that's fine. But look, how hard was that? (You answer, "Maybe not too hard.")

Item 2 covers the Passover itself and is a little different: Exodus 11 read, then 12, discuss each part in turn. Conclude unblemished Lamb sacrifice/ eat Lamb/ sprinkle blood/ perpetual institution/ free from slavery/ covenant sign blood
I read from my cheap Bible, but not the whole of the chapters, just parts I've highlighted. (the Bible is cheap so I don't feel bad marking it up.) And I don't read more than a verse or two without asking the kids a question, such as, "suppose pigs were on sale at the market...could the Hebrews just kill a pig instead of a lamb? No? Well, why not? Could they just put red paint on the doorposts? No? Why not?"

Item 4 notes treat the Bread of Life discourse: Jesus- John 6 discuss each part, whole chapter. Count times 'eat flesh.' Recall yesterday's miracle. Note Passover. Peter doesn't understand yet, either. Again, some reading, some storytelling, some acting out, some questions & answers.

Now let's jump ahead to Item 7, which is different.

Item 7 is a diagram that will go on the board, comparing the Passover meals of the Old and New Testaments. It's part textbook notes, and part my thinking. As each bit is added to the board, I ask the kids what goes next, or why two things such as the Lamb and Jesus are alike.

The other lesson plan items are similar enough to these in execution to not need examination. The point is that this and every other lesson plan gets me through the class period without using the textbook, without dead time, and with enough variety and some flexibility to keep things stimulating. It can be tough to write the first one, but it gets easy real fast. Yours may be nothing like mine, that's ok, right? (You answer, "Yes, it's ok!")

What matters is that you write one, and that it works for you and your children.

[Jesus said] "you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth." 9 And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? Get started on your lesson plans!"


BTW, once you can compose a lesson plan in your head as well as on paper, you may do something much simpler, such as this; or this.

Monday, December 7, 2009

I Remember It Well

I was born in 1957, which makes me, ummm, ehhh.... you do the math. I well remember the Mass in Latin, and also the first Mass in English. Growing up with the Tridentine Mass meant that like all Catholic kids of the day, I learned a lot of Latin. We didn't just know the sounds of the words, but the meanings of many. The missals had the English & Latin on facing pages, parents knew the Latin, no big deal.

One of my favorite lines of that Mass was, "Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum: sed tantum dic verbo et sanabitur puer meus/ Lord, I am not worthy that thou should enter under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant (literally, my boy) shall be healed." Of course in English we say soul, not servant. I like servant better: it sticks to the know the story, right?

So when I read recently that the latest changes to the English Mass were approved, I eagerly checked here USCCB - Roman Missal Examples to see if the language of my childhood had been restored.

The only problem is, I remembered wrong. This is the actual Tridentine Mass line:

Dómine non sum dignus ut íntres sub tectum meum: sed tantum dic verbo, et sanábitur ánima mea/ Lord, I am not worthy that thou should enter under my roof; but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed."

Oh. But I had been taught the story of Jesus and the Centurion. I remember the story and the original verse, which is stronger than the Mass version. So at every Mass, even though the Missal said in both Latin and English, "my soul shall be healed," I was thinking, I heard, "my servant shall be healed," while I imagined the scene at the top of the page.

I was truly surprised to learn that the Tridentine didn't say servant. In fact I didn't really believe it until I went home for lunch, where I could check in my father's old Missal: yep, ánima mea/ my soul it is, right there in print. I woulda swore it said servant. But even thinking servant didn't prevent me as a child from knowing that in the Mass the line referred to me, my soul, and not the soldier's servant. I'd been taught the story, how it applied in Mass, and recalled the whole thing each time I spoke/ read that single line.

This little episode makes a catechetical point: one of the best ways to teach is to tell a Bible story. Often the kids will already know all or part of a particular story, but have not learned how it can inform their faith. When a memorable story is connected to the specifics of Catholic faith, faith is strengthened.

When my class learns about the Mass, among other stories we discuss Jesus and the Centurion. Here's how we do it:

Y'all tell me, what's a centurion? A soldier. Yes, what flavor....Chinese? Ha, no a Roman soldier! Yes. Who knows the story of Jesus and the Centurion? Yes, honorary son, tell it. He came to Jesus because his daughter was sick and needed to be made better. Good, half right. It wasn't his daughter....who was sick? His servant! Right. By the way, how many soldiers does a centurion command? No guesses? How many years in a century? 100.... 100 men! Yes. How many cents in a dollar? 100! What language did Romans speak? Latin! So c-e-n-t is Latin for...100! Yes, geniuses!

So let's see: Was the centurion a Christian? No! Well, was he a Jew? No! Oh that's right, he was Russian. No he wasn't, he was Roman! We just said so! Oh yeah, I forgot. Russian, Roman.... aren't they about the same? No! Oh. Well, if he wasn't Christian or Jew or Russian, what did he believe in? He was a pagan. Yes, he believed in a bunch of made-up gods. So if he was a pagan, why was he bugging Jesus? Well, he believed Jesus could cure his servant. Yes. Even if he didn't have faith in Jesus the way the Apostles did, he still had faith, a kind of practical faith. Having faith that Jesus could heal his servant, did the soldier stay home with his servant and pray to Jesus? No, he went to see Jesus and talk to him in person. Yes, because the centurion was made of a...? Body'n'soul! Yes, so if he believed in his soul that Jesus could cure, his body would have to....? Do something! Yes, in this case his body....went to Jesus to ask in person. Yes. He acted on his faith. And this way he could see his faith, Jesus could, and everyone else saw it, too. Did people see his soul? No, but they saw what he did. Yes. Can you see anybody's soul? No, it's invisible. Right, but you can see what people do, including yourself.

So when he told Jesus about his servant, what did Jesus do? Yes, daughter? Jesus started to go to his house, but the soldier said Jesus didn't have to. Yes, what exactly did the soldier say? Nobody remembers? That's ok, y'all are doing fine so far, let me read from Matthew what he said:

"Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed." Oh that's like at Mass! You are right, we'll get to that in a minute, don't give it away yet! What's the first part mean: "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof"? Well, he doesn't think he's good enough for Jesus to come to his house. Yes, is any of us that good? No.....Right, why not? No takers? It's because we all have something in common, we're all...? Sinners? Yes, so the Roman isn't just speaking about himself, he's speaking about us all. Now the last bit, "only say the word, and my servant shall be healed," what's that mean? He still trusts Jesus to fix the servant if Jesus says he will. Yes. Jesus will heal his servant even if both of them are sinners. And though he trusts Jesus, he still needs to hear Jesus say it out loud, because the soldier has a....body'n'soul! Yes, it helps him if his ears hear the words. His body'n'soul believe together. Just like ours do.

Now at Mass, as you noticed, right before communion we hear this: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed." Where's that come from? The story! Yes. At Mass what's this mean: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you"? It means we're not real good all the time. Yes, we sin like the centurion. And this: "only say the word, and my soul shall be healed"? Well, that Jesus can heal our souls? Yes, it's pretty clear. We hear this right before communion to remind us that we as Catholics should have at least as much faith as the pagan Roman, and that Jesus gives us not the body healing the servant received, but...? Ummm, soul healing? Yes, put it another way, please. Ummm, our sins are forgiven?

Yes, genuises, good work! Don't just remember the story; remember what it means.


For those too young to have seen "Gigi," I offer this dab of a song by Honore (Maurice Chevalier) & Mamita (Hermione Gingold). No man ever smiled with such radiance as Maurice Chevalier.

H: We met at nine....
M: We met at eight!
H: I was on time....
M: No, you were late!
H: Ah, yes, I remember it well! We dined with friends,
M: We dined alone!
H: A tenor sang,
M: A baritone!
H: Ah, yes, I remember it well!