Thursday, September 29, 2011

Fightin' Feti

Last night we started with the miraculous conception & birth of Isaac, and stopped as Moses returned to Egypt. In between we covered yet another in a series of miraculous conceptions, that of Jacob & Esau. These conceptions are not as miraculous as Jesus' conception; nevertheless, when a heretofore barren marriage becomes fruitful due to divine intervention, it's a miracle.

Here's the Bible lead-in to the story:

And Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her; and she said, "If it is thus, why do I live?" (Genesis 25)

I like to dramatize that Jacob and Esau don't get along even before they were born. I take two rubber fetuses out of my prop bag.

"Hey, who're these babies? Who are the two boys that Isaac and Rebekah had? Umm, Jacob and Esau? That's right, and they already don't get along. Look, I'm Rebekah, here they are in my womb, fighting [I bang them into each other in front of my stomach like Punch & Judy puppets, accompanied by grunting sounds]. "There ain't enough room in this womb for the two of us! Then you get out! No, you get out!" And Rebekah is groaning, "Oww, y'all settle down in there!" That's weird! What's weird? Those things. What things? Those babies, they're weird looking. Oh yeah? I think they're cute [I give 'em a kiss], they look like my kids when they were growing in my wife...would you like to kiss them? No! Hey now, don't get squeamish on me, this is what you looked like when you were a couple of months old and still in your momma....and I bet she loved you even if you thought you were weird-looking." This provides an intro to spend a couple of minutes on the unborn: they're already people, even if they're weird-looking; even when they were just a dot of a fertilized egg, they were people; everyone looks like this at some point; it's normal.

After the kids have settled back down we return to the story; but not until they are ok with the idea that these squirmy little goobers are already human beings. It's just the first of many appearances that the rubber feti will make during the catechetical year as part of an ongoing pro-life theme.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Fine Art Handout 3: Chagall

When I used to teach RCIA and adult ed, I never worried much about engaging people's imaginations. But it's a requirement for teaching kids, so I am always on the lookout for anything beyond the classroom that can help me do that: scenes from movies such as Prince of Egypt; excerpts from stories such as A Christmas Carol; newspaper articles; sticks, bones, and rags; and especially fine art. I've posted recently about my preference for art that isn't aimed specifically at kids, but rather art that is the best the world has to offer.

Marriage and children are big topics in Wednesday Sunday School. I give the Bible and the Church every opportunity to teach this valuable life template:

Get married; stay married; have children.

But as often as marriage comes up in my class, I've never seen anything on the subject that really grabbed my imagination. At least not until this weekend, when I surfed into yet another piece of art that will work perfectly: Marc Chagall's Wedding from 1910.

Sweet, isn't it? Little angels, pretty flowers, an affecting and childlike innocence. We won't discuss any of that in class unless the kids bring it up. See, that's looking at the painting as an illustration of marriage; that's ok, but Chagall isn't illustrating marriage, he's painting a portrait of marriage. Whose marriage? My modest amount of research didn't provide an answer.  That suits me just fine: I can proceed with my own opinion. I think it's Chagall and his wife Bella, whom he met in 1909. What a pretty thing she was:

 bella Bella

They were engaged in 1910, but not married until 1915: her prosperous parents weren't keen on Chagall until he showed he could earn a proper living as an artist. But didn't he paint this Wedding in 1910? Yes: he painted the wedding he longed for, created a portrait of his marriage ahead of time. Does that bride look like Bella, and the man Chagall? I say yes. We may discuss Marc and Bella a bit in class, just to broaden the kids' horizons, but they aren't the point of the portrait either. So what is Chagall's point? Let's see.

Right off, I don't believe this is primarily a painting of Marc Chagall and Bella Rosenfeld: rather, Chagall  has made a wedding portrait of Adam and Eve, using himself and Bella as models. Why does he do this? Because he sees his longing to be attached to Bella through the lens of Adam's longing for, and attachment to, Eve. But why would Chagall necessarily think of Genesis when he thought of marriage? Because when little Moishe Segal was growing up in Vitebsk, Russia, he attended Jewish grade school.

Let's look at key bits of Genesis Chapter 2: "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him."...but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh...Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed."

Cling is a critical word. The verb to cling/ to cleave in Hebrew is dabak, דָּבַק. Yes, it means to cling, to adhere, to stay with. But it also means to pursue, to overtake. I like that.

See how Adam holds Eve: he is tender, but forceful: even her arms are caught in his urgent embrace. The couple is not side by side; not arm in arm; not hugging each other. No. He holds onto her; not vice versa. And though she's caught in his arms, he's not elated or victorious: he's profoundly relieved. At last, at last, bone of his bone, he presses Eve close to his left side, where his heart beats.  And he doesn't look at her, but bends a bit to inhale her scent. I don't know how to artfully express that, but I well know its drug-like effect.

Eve is nonplussed by Adam's intensity; surprised even. But to find your rib among a multitude- well, that's the achievement of a lifetime. And once you have it back, never let her go*, as the song says.

Oh yeah, the point. Chagall's point is that this is what he expects his marriage to be. Not so much because he uniquely loves Bella (although he does), but because every marriage should be like the first one. I'm especially moved because he's portrayed my wedding & marriage as much as his own, or Adam's. Isn't it amazing that in 1910 he understood marriage well enough to say so much about it while yet remaining unmarried himself? Well, yes; but through the winsome Genesis account of how God gave Adam his mate, even the unmarried Chagall knew that a man shouldn't be alone; a man misses his rib and wants that one-and-only missing rib to be pressed once again against his heart; that his wife is bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh; and that he is impatient to leave his family and cling to her. And of course that they'd be naked, and not ashamed, and make some babies, but the kids don't need a picture of that.

We already cover all of this in class; but we never had the right image until now.

*Some Enchanted Evening

Monday, September 19, 2011

Catholic Time

A couple of days ago I posted about making quick handouts for my Catechism class. One of them included this image of St. Michael's Church (Michaeliskirche) in Hildesheim (Hilda's Home, a Saxon goddess), Germany:

I was tempted then to say something about the pattern of the snow in the shaded foreground, but it wasn't relevant to the subject of catechetical handouts. But I'll say something about it today since it points to something important about Catholicism.

Germany sits higher on Earth's globe than America does (excepting Alaska). Hildesheim lies at the 52nd parallel, further north than Winnipeg, Manitoba. So at the winter solstice, the sun doesn't get very high, and even at noon will cast long shadows. Looking at the shadow in the foreground, you can see that beyond the shadow there's almost no snow.

So I was looking at the snow and thinking that the building behind the photographer lay on an east-west axis. And because the edge of the shadow is parallel to the church, then the church lies on an east-west axis as well. Of course this makes sense: Catholic churches are traditionally "oriented" to face the rising sun. And if the east-west orientation is correct, the shadow of the leftmost tower tells us it's a bit before noon, on a day near December 21.

Idly curious about just how well-aligned the church was to true East, I had a look on Google Earth:

That's odd: the church is oriented a bit North of true East. Maybe it was oriented to align with where the sun would rise on St. Michael's feastday...that'd be September 29. The answer is no, because after the Sept 21 Equinox, the sun will rise and set in the South; look at Hildesheim's solar chart for Sept 29:

The yellow line shows the sun rising about 3 degrees South of 90 East, not North. But wait a sec, Europe used the less-accurate Julian calendar when construction of St. Michael's began in AD 1001. When the Church replaced the Julian calendar with the Gregorian in 1582, there was a 10-day error between the sun and the calendar. In 1001, there was a 6-day error. To get the proper solar chart for Sep 29, 1001, we have to subtract 6 days, which gives us Sept 23. But that date still has the sun rise a couple of degrees south of East.

Huh...suppose instead of using the saint's feastday, we go with Sept 21, the Equinox? Maybe the builders fully intended to lay the church out at 90 degrees East by measuring at dawn on September 21. Yes, but we already know that wouldn't get them true East; but maybe they didn't know. If we subtract 6 days to correct the Julian error, we have Hildesheim's chart for Sept 15:

    That's more like it. The sun rises about 4.5 degrees North of East, and sets about 4.5 degrees North of West. By the way, the sunset & sunrise are figured from the top edge of the sun. The software also accounts for where Hildesheim lies within its time zone: you can see how the yellow 12 representing clock noon doesn't quite match the sun's noon, which is always 180d South. But no-one knows at what instant after the sun broke the local horizon on Sept 21, AD 1001 (Julian calendar) the authorities might have marked the church's axis. And the sun itself is over half a degree wide, so anything between a 4 and 5 degree northward skew on the church's alignment would be extremely accurate.

I inserted the above enlarged image into an Autocad drawing and measured the angle of skew: despite the fuzziness, I get 4 degrees. How about that.

So what does this have to do with Catholicism? Well, consider that in Genesis God saw that all he created was good. And that even after the Fall, God used his physical creation to show his promise to Noah (the Rainbow); to show the Israelites when to break camp (the Shekhinah cloud); and to show the Magi where Jesus was born (the star). So the Catholic Church still stays in touch with God through his creation, and vice versa. We have churches "oriented" to the East, or a saint's feastday dawn; a holiday whose date is calculated each year based on the movement of the Moon and the Sun (Easter); and another which was probably originally observed on the Winter Solstice (Christmas). Given the intimate relationship the Church maintains with God through the physical world, it's no surprise that it was she who recognized the 1-day-per-128-years error in the Julian calendar, and had the knowledge and the authority to fix it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Maybe Not the Most Underappreciated

It's beauty contest time at The this the most underappreciated Catholic blog? Vote here if you agree. 

Or not.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fine Art Handout 2: Hildesheim

In last Wednesday's class we started with about 5 minutes' review of Genesis, up through Chapter 2, verse 24: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh." In that prior class I deliberately left off the last verse of Chapter 2, "And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed," because I wanted to use it in the next class to link the new material to the just-reviewed material. Planning-wise, I like to treat Genesis 2's innocent nakedness in the same class that we read, "Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons."

So the new material began with explaining that sinless Adam and Eve were no more embarrassed or ashamed of their nakedness than a baby would be. Then we covered Adam & Eve & Sin, reading, discussing, and acting from the beginning of Gen 3: "Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the LORD God had made," to "He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life." To illustrate Adam & Eve's shame and guilt-dodging, I described an old bronze bas-relief I'd learned about in Art History back in 1977:

"I love Adam & Eve after they disobey God. God says, "Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" and they start whining about like I would: "The man said, "The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate."  Adam means: you gave me this woman, and she gave me the fruit so what was I supposed to do? It ain't my fault! "Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent beguiled me, and I ate." That is, it ain't my fault either, the Devil made me do it! So is that right? No, it's their fault! Yes, but didn't the serpent bring the whole mess up? Yes, but they could've said no. Right, because they will! Yes. Couldn't God have forced Adam & Eve to be good? Yes, but it wouldn't have counted. Right. God doesn't force anyone to love Him. Would I want to force my kids to love me? No. Right. So tell me, Adam and Eve should have obeyed God because...he's smarter than them? Yes, but I'm looking for a more wonderful reason...'cause He loves them? Yes, but not so much because He loves them, but...because they love God! Yes, genius! The best obedience comes from love. But Adam and Eve loved themselves more than they loved God. That's a problem all their children struggle with, too.

"Hey, this reminds me of a great picture of this whole forbidden-fruit business, I have to show y'all [I draw and act out]. God's like this, jabbing his finger at Adam & Eve: man, y'all are so bad and I Am Angry! And then Adam's all scrunched over like he needs to pee, covering his crotch with a leaf in one hand like so, and pointing at Eve with the other hand, nooo, it's her fault! And Eve's covering up and scrunched down too, pointing at the serpent: it's his fault! Anyway, I just love all the finger-pointing business. Yes? Where's the real picture? It's on the door of a church in Europe, I forgot what church though. Well, I want to see it! Me too! OK, I'll try to find it on the Net."

Today I pulled out my old Art History textbook and started turning pages in the Renaissance chapters: if it was a bronze bas-relief that'd likely mean it was in 15th-16th century Italy somewhere, but not Ghiberti's doors in Florence. No luck. So I described the image to My Wife the Art History Professor...she ponders for 5 seconds. Then: "Have you tried St. Michael's at Hildesheim?" No! And I love St. Michael's anyway! Yes! There it is...I was off by about 500 years.

This newly-made handout will be part of the review of our last class:

St. Michael's Church in Hildesheim, Germany

  God, Adam, Eve, the Tree, and the Serpent on the original doors of the church.

Whose fault was it that Adam and Eve ate the fruit?
Isn't that a terrific teaching tool? And St. Michael's is so lovely with its six towers. I show the church just in case any of the kids ever find themselves near Hildesheim, they can tootle over and have a look.

P.S. The handout was quite the success. Some of the kids thought it was so funny that on their own initiative they got up in the front of class to act out the above scene. One might say that hilarity ensued.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Fine Art Handout 1: Ravenna

Regular readers may remember I was in Ravenna, Italy this summer, where I saw some mosaics I wanted to use in this year's catechism class. Images help children learn, but I like to use fine art rather than something specifically pitched at 11-year-olds. The kids can learn from a "grownup" mosaic as well as they can a cartoon; and fine art is simply a richer experience, spiritually, culturally, aesthetically, you name it.

Next week we'll be covering Genesis from Cain & Abel through the Sacrifice of Isaac. I've made up a 1-page handout for the class showing the mosaics, and a bit of scriptural narration to go with the images.

Here it is:
Genesis 4: "Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering..."

Genesis 14: "And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High."

Genesis 18: "Abraham looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him... Then he took curds, and milk, and the calf, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

Genesis 22: "Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. 10 Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."

These two mosaics flank the altar in San Vitale church in Ravenna, Italy

This is typical of my handouts: one page with big images so the kids can discuss the details, and leftover space filled with supporting verses. Fast and easy. It doesn't mean much without class discussion, but that's deliberate: time & effort go into the lesson plan, not the handout. The handout isn't intended to replace live learning, but to support it. And I want the kids to evangelize their parents. I tell them to show the handout to their parents and explain to them what they learned. All of them don't do that, but some of them do (I get feedback).

As usual there'll be some step-by-step Bible reading, questions, answers, picking out relevant information from the mosaics and relating it to the following themes:

Abel: shepherd, innocent victim, altar, red cloak, sacrificing a lamb, resentment; Abel is a type of Christ.

Melchizedek: a priest outranking Abraham, bread and wine, what a priest's job is, Melchizedek is a type of Christ.

Abel & Melchizedek: God finds both of their offerings acceptable, unlike Cain's.

Abraham and the 3 visitors (the Hospitality of Abraham): Married love wants to create children; 3 visitors foreshadow the Trinity; a miraculous (but not immaculate) conception; Isaac means Laughter.

Abraham & Isaac: sacrifice of only son; pagan sacrifice of firstborn; faith & works; a substitute sacrifice (lamb/ ram); Isaac prefigures Christ.

All of the above can be taught without pictures; but pictures make the learning so much more effective. Depending on how the discussion goes, I may say a few things about how these Genesis stories connect to Jesus and/ or the Mass. If I don't, they'll be reviewed on the fly when we cover the Gospels and the Mass later on.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Res Ipsa Loquitur 4

Here are the audio files to the first of two Isaiah classes. This one is recounted in the post The Christmas Prophet. The written account is a condensation of this class, and classes from prior years covering the same material, so the audio and the post vary a bit in content & flow.

Isaiah part 2

For more live classes, click on the Res Ipsa Loquitur label at lower right.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Catechist Tool

I bought a digital recorder last year (not that specific one). It's been much more useful than I had imagined; I should've bought one sooner. If you're a catechist you want one too, even if you don't know it yet.

In 2010 I was using an all-new, no-textbook-in-class curriculum which I had developed during the summer. I decided to record all the classes so I could compare each lesson plan to the reality in the classroom. Within a day or so after a given class, I'd listen to the recording, and mark on the lesson plan what needed review, what I'd missed, etc. (For example, in last Wednesday's class, I forgot to introduce myself, and didn't discuss the inspiration of the Bible, even though both were in the lesson plan. Next week I'll take care of those items before beginning the new lesson.)

At year's end I had an mp3 file of each class, and moved the whole year onto an external drive. Every class is about 50mb; less than a mb/minute.

But there are other benefits which I wasn't aware of when I bought the thing:

1. If there's any "my child says the teacher said thus & so" heartburn, I have a record of what I said, and what the kids said. Heh. By the way, the sensitivity of the microphone and the quality of the sound are shockingly good.

2. Before this year's class I listened to last year's class; a terrific head start.

3. The recorder can do basic editing of the files. It's easy to split a 55 minute class into topical chunks, trim the getting settled/ roll-calling minutes from the beginning, and chatting from the end.

4. It names each new file with the date all by itself.

And the best thing about recording your classes:

5. To listen to yourself teach is a great way to refine your skills.

One problem I do have is that I forget to take the recorder with me after class. I tell the kids when class starts to remind me to pick it up and turn it off when class ends.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Catechesis Basics: The Lesson Plan

In case anyone in their first year of catechesis has stumbled in here, I posted an article a couple of years ago on how I write a lesson plan.

Friday, September 9, 2011


 Nice Cadre

Wednesday was the first Catechism class of the year. When classes ended last spring, as usual I had the pleasant sense of a burden lifted. That first free week always seems like a little vacation. But after a month, I start to miss the stimulation of teaching. Then as September approaches I think of the impending year of catechesis more as a duty than a satisfaction, and grow wistful about summer's free Wednesdays.

This Wednesday evening the mood was here we go again: same bag of books, props, and notes; same lesson plan (new last year); same classroom; same bisected evening. But then class started and it was the best: better grasp of the content; bright, unspoiled kids; lots of thinking and learning and laughing. Within five minutes I was completely re-motivated.

Going home I thought again about being motivated, and what motivates me in particular.

In July I read the obituary of a friend I had in middle school. He and I both attended our parish school, cut up on the bus together. I still belong to that same parish, and hadn't seen him in decades (I bump into other fellow former schoolmates and their siblings from time to time), so I was naturally curious about how his life had gone. Per the obit, he'd gotten married, had kids and a grandchild, still lived in town. The visitation and funeral were being held at a local non-Catholic church. So even though he'd gone at least through 9th grade in Catholic schools, he fell away from the Church in his adulthood. Of course he didn't fall away from Christianity, but from Catholicism.  I have no idea why; maybe he married outside of the church. Or like many Bible-Belt former Catholics, maybe he was unable to respond effectively to a Bible-based critique of the faith. By respond I don't mean argue, but as St. Peter so winsomely put it, "Always be prepared to make a defense* to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence." St. Peter not only gets it right on "gentleness and reverence," but also on "calls you to account." There are lots of serious Christians here, thank the Lord, and Catholics can expect to be "called to account" (not necessarily in a bad way). I don't want my kids to be unprepared for that; rather, I want them to anticipate it (not necessarily in a bad way). And in particular, I don't want them to leave the Church because they couldn't explain their faith to themselves, much less a stranger. That's my negative motivation to be a catechist: I'm personally worn out from seeing decades of poorly-catechized Catholics abandon what they really don't understand.

6th-graders shouldn't be trained to be little apologists. But in order to hold fast to the faith and evangelize here, Catholics must have a working knowledge of the Bible and Catholicism as an integrated whole. And the process of acquiring that knowledge can begin when they are young. That's my positive motivation: to teach the children a cadre, a framework of faith in which both Bible and Catholicism are inseparable.

So this year will be like last year, but better: 25 classes of learning the Catholic faith by going straight through the Bible from Genesis to Revelations, followed by 3 classes on the Mass.

* ἀπολογία, apologia: an explanation, a verbal defense.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Deus ex Caelis

My Fabulous Wife and I watch crime shows on Roku. We regularly hit pause to discuss new clues, spy something that may be a clue, and refine or propose new hypotheses. We try to figure stuff out before the detectives/ cops/ lawyers do.

Last night we watched a murder mystery in which the victim was one of a group of academics at a college campus, who were held there by the cops until they sussed out who the killer was. We were keeping up with the plot, adjusting our theories, when out of the blue in the final scene a cop reveals a critical datum. The killer, whom we never suspected, was a martial-arts expert. The cop had looked him up (and the others,  I suppose) in the school library's copy of  Who's Who.

So I was way unhappy with this clunky solution. I whined to The Beautiful One, "I can't stand to watch a mystery and have the writers pull this Deus ex Machina (DeM) crap." DeM isn't always a bad thing, but the phrase usually carries a negative connotation. In this case it was definitely bad. Anyway, that got me thinking about the whole Deus ex Machina history, dating back to Greek actors playing gods, and being hoisted onto the stage with little cranes. And I thought out loud, "Hey, the most memorable DeM I can think of is at the end of Lord of the Flies (LotF) when the naval officer saves Ralph." I Googled around on Deus Machina Lord Flies, and confirmed that the officer is widely understood to be a Deus ex Machina. But in the case of LotF, I believe the author, William Golding, wasn't simply resorting to DeM as a cheap fix, but carefully using plot devices to make puns on the very term Deus ex Machina in its literal sense of a god plopping into the scene to fix things.

 [I assume y'all have all read Lord of the Flies (1954) in school. If not, here's a way-brief synopsis: the Cold War has turned hot, and a group of English boys are being flown to a place of relative safety. The plane is shot down, and the boys are thus left to their own devices on an island (the TV series Lost was partly inspired by LotF). The boys try to be responsible and civilized, but in short order become a mob of little murdering savages. There are thousands of words on the net discussing LotF, its symbolism, its themes; I'm confining this post to Golding's literal use of Deus ex Machina.]

Midway through the book, the boys have become about half-savage. Following an air battle, a pilot parachutes onto the island. The pilot and his parachute drive the plot for a while, which I'm not concerned about here. What I like is that the pilot is a literal Deus ex Machina, that is, he descends God-like from his machine (American note: other countries colloquially have used the word machine in lieu of airplane or automobile), out of the blue (so to speak) into the boys' world. This is very much unlike my detective movie, in which there was a DeM in an abstract sense, but not a literal sense. Indeed, the pilot would be better described as a Deus ex Caelis, a God out of the Sky. The parachutist isn't just a plot device, but a pun on the original idea of Deus ex Machina. If he had landed intact, the story could have ended right there: a responsible adult restores order, drama over. But he floated down dead, foreshadowing the arrival of another literal DeM.

By the last chapter, all the boys but one (Ralph) are weaponized killers, and they are hunting Ralph down. The boys set the island on fire to flush him out. Chased onto the beach, Ralph is saved by the abrupt arrival of a naval officer whose machine/ship drew near, having seen the fire. Chastised by this bigger, stronger Deus ex Machina, the killers revert to their prior status of little boys.

I see Golding carefully creating this second literal, recognizable, Deus ex Machina partly as an amusement. But he also makes a point about the wider world. By using Dei ex Machina, Greek playwrights acknowledged humans' inability to manage their own affairs. The audience of a play sees an imaginary problem resolved by an imaginary god; but within the play itself, real human problems are being resolved by a real god. In other words, in the story a real Deus comes down out of the sky without need of a Machina.

Golding is drawing a literal Deus ex Machina parallel: in a Greek play the DeM is a literal, fictional device that represents a real god, without whom a problem is insolvable. In Lord of the Flies, there is also, oddly enough, a literal, fictional DeM who also represents a real god. Not so much in terms of the fictional story; the naval officer is clearly not a god (although he's commonly understood to represent God). But as the story is an allegory of humans beings in general, making a mess of everything since Eden, the officer, as a literal Deus ex Machina, points directly to the real Deus, who of course isn't just an actor on a pole.

Until Deus really does come down out of the sky (with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man) the mess will continue. So in Lord of the Flies, the Deus ex Machina isn't a cop-out: it's the point.

illustration by Houston Trueblood

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Book Review

Fellow catechist Lisa Mladinich has written a new how-to booklet, Be an Amazing Catechist: Sacramental Preparation. If that sounds familiar, it may be because I link all of my catechetical posts to Lisa's Amazing Catechists website.

I have not reviewed a book before, but given my particular interest in, you know, catechesis, I'm inclined to go through Sacramental Preparation a section at a time, hitting a few points, and see how each compares to what goes on in my classroom. By the way, I think the content would apply just as well in the homeschool classroom. Not that I have ever homeschooled.

That's the cover: is your class like that? Fired-up, attentive kids? Lisa's classes are, and if you follow her instructions, your class can be, too.

Let's start with the introduction, God's Living Grace.

I like the opening line: This small booklet is a guide for teaching the Seven Sacraments accurately and vibrantly, so that both you and the children will come to a more complete appreciation for their purpose, beauty, and power to transform lives. Number one, vibrant is good: kids won't learn a thing if they're in a stupor. Teacher is vibrant/ kids learn. Number two, the teacher learns too. Three, if the sacraments can transform lives, then catechesis can transform lives as well (although not in the same way). No point in aiming low, is there? You say: NO!

Chapter 1: Here I Am Lord! (btw, that's from 1Sam 3)

This bit reminds us that a catechist, like Samuel, is called by God to a particular task. And like Samuel,  catechists can't be casual about their vocation. That's right: vocation. Like marriage and parenthood and all that. Serious, substantial business. Lisa writes that if you do take it seriously, God will support you, just as he supported Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. You're in famous company; you should feel ennobled. I do.

Chapter 2: God's Faithful Love

Handing down the faith isn't just serious business, but joyous business as well. What? In the classroom you aren't feeling the joy? Lisa tells the reader that the catechist stands at the living tip of a long shoot going back to Jesus & the apostles, who may be reasonably regarded as the first Christian catechists. The future depends on how well that tip hands on a living faith to the kids. Still no joy? It may take some time, and the support of the Holy Spirit. No kidding: my #1 catechist prayer is Holy Spirit don't let me screw this up. 

Chapter 3: Heroes in the Classroom

The title photo is a kid in a homemade Superman outfit. Don't think for a second that the kids are the heroes: that's a kid imitating the heroes the catechist has got him fired-up about. Great points in this chapter:

Mention those "quiet heroes" who care for the sick (I use Mother Teresa, Fr. Damien, St. Clare). You know, small-scale heroes.

Introduce the kids to Bible heroes and Saints: I like to discuss the tough-guy saints: Isaac Jogues, Max Kolbe, Joan of Arc. (Yes, Joan is a tough-guy saint). Lisa doesn't give you a list of saints: you're supposed to teach the ones that matter to you. Don't have any? Then go find some, and not just Peter and Francis.

Saints are sinners: not as in 'sin,' but as in SIN. Like St. Augustine...ewww. Hey, Jesus doesn't demand perfection. Thank the to speak.

You are the face of the Church to a lot of your charges: oh, man, how many kids in my class actually go to Mass? Don't ask. So be aware that you may be it as far as religion goes in their lives. That's not bad: it's an opportunity. God put you in front of the class for a reason.

Chapter 4: Holy, Holy, Holy (from Rev 4; known in Greek as the Trisagion, the triple holy. Also like Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom)

Teach the kids to be reverent...among other ways by treating God and His stuff with reverence yourself. Lisa suggests a lot of good things I, ummm, don't do in my class, such as praying a decade of the rosary; actually going into church; praying before the Tabernacle; simply learning to be reverent in church. Ehhh...ummm...on the other hand, she also recommends using religious art in class regularly, to which I can offer an emphatic ditto.

Chapter 5: Lesson Planning Basics

I am a fervid believer in the Lesson Planning Gospel.  Lisa doesn't tell you how to make a lesson plan (that would be a whole 'nother book), but rather covers some stuff that you (or at least I) may not have considered, such as:

A quick and useful rule for gauging attention spans. No I'm not going to give it away for free. Buy the book.

Learning styles. Uh-huh...I agree with the three she describes and how to adapt to them. What three? La-la-la, I can't hear you!

Taking risks: I support this 100%. How else will you learn what works? Hey, that reminds me of a famous saying I like in Italian better than English: chi non risica, non rosica (nothing ventured [risked], nothing gained). It's true even in catechism class. And when stuff bombs, just channel Pee-Wee, say "I meant to do that," and change the subject.

Be crafts conscious. Uh-oh: I am not only crafts un-conscious, I am crafts-comatose. But hey, Lisa's advice and examples extend way down to a younger crowd where I can see it'd be indispensable. OK, I allowed crafts once; it was terrific, I must confess.

Give the children your best: Pray for them, dress nicely, and smile! All catechetical gospel. I always wear a coat & tie (if not a suit & tie) to class. Early on a child will always ask why. I say it's a way to show that I respect them. makes a difference.

Chapter 6: IGNITE. That's an acronym. Letters I really like:

I for Investigate, as in investigate the Catechism and the Bible. Totally valuable advice. It does take time to do it, but I bet God took up a lot of  Peter's time, too. And catechists can still live with their spouses, which is a better deal than Peter got.

The other I for Illustrate: Not just drawing on the board which I do, but telling stories with vigor, and other stuff such as...just get the book.

T for Trust: ya can't do it all; leave something for the Holy Spirit to do so He can keep His job.

Chapter 7: First Reconciliation

Like most sacraments, Confession is given depth by comparing it to everyday circumstances when we screw up, have to apologize and make amends. Lisa offers ways to to get these points across in class.

Chapter 8: Be Not Afraid! (Matt 28, John 6...)

This chapter isn't about drownproofing per John 6, but about putting the kids at ease for First Confession. I've never had to teach kids this young, but the advice is practical and doable.

Chapter 9: First Holy Communion

15 (as in fifteen) pointers here. I might have thought of five of them. Per First Confession, I teach kids who have already had their First Communion. Regardless, my favorite here is to tell miracle stories (especially food miracles such as Feeding the Multitudes) and act them out. Did Jesus teach by telling stories? Why, yes he did! Did he tell them while firmly grasping a lectern? I doubt it.

Lisa also adds a block of points about the physical reception of the Eucharist.

Chapter 10: Confirmation

My excuse this time is that my 6th-graders are too young for Confirmation, so I never have to cover that sacrament in any detail either. Here Lisa is concerned with dealing with teens, which is definitely different from teaching the 11 and 12 year olds I'm used to. Lisa reminds the reader that vivid storytelling connected to Catholic concepts is always a winner no matter what the age of the audience.

And this is worth remembering: the teacher is not the kids' friend.

Chapter 11: Rote, Rote, Rote Your Boat

Aaack! Memorization! I don't make my kids memorize anything! But Lisa outlines 9 sets of Catholic terms or concepts that students should know by the time they are confirmed. Let's see...Gifts of the Holy Spirit...aren't there 7 of them? Yes! That's a relief. What are they? Ehhh...let me look at this list.

Chapter 12: Go Team

Lisa discusses reinforcing the teens' Catholic identity, which is a critical part of the kids acquiring a Catholic worldview. The first of 7 points is the Life & Dignity of the Human Person, which even 6th-graders can begin to understand.

Chapter 13: Parents & Progress

Uh-oh. Lots of useful ways to keep parents engaged in the children's catechesis. I'm a slug where parent stuff is concerned; although per Lisa's last bit, I do recognize that I may be the face of the Church to the parents as well as the kids.

Chapter 14: Help Wanted

This editorial reminds the catechist of the importance of his work, points out that the catechist should always grow in faith and knowledge, and emphasizes how much the Church needs committed catechists.

Chapter 15: The Holy Last Word

On this last page, Lisa offers some final words of prayer and encouragement.

The verdict: 30 pages of pithy catechetical advice, including many how-to's; a good tool especially for those looking to invigorate a textbook-based curriculum.  

Here's the order page.