Classroom Invitations to Ponder Our Faith
by Michael J. Daley
As a teacher, I've always taken a certain amount of pride in the appearance of my room.
As a teacher, I’ve always taken a certain amount of pride in the appearance of my room. On one wall I have the woodcuts of Fritz Eichenberg picturing the life of Jesus and the saints. Bumper stickers with social justice themes surround the clock. Editorial cartoons touching upon a host of issues complete the artistic work that I like to call my classroom.
Imagine my disappointment then when one of the school’s workers came to me recently and said, “Mike, I was wondering if you could do me a favor.” “Sure,” I replied. “Well, I’m going to be painting in your room soon and need you to take all those pictures off the wall.” What could I say but “You got it.”
What had taken me some years to create came down in minutes. The classroom where I spent time placing expressions of faith and justice seemed so barren. In the next few days, however, the everyday objects of that room which were so easily overshadowed by the other images have re-emerged. In their own ways, they too present opportunities to ponder our faith.
The Threshold and the Door
If there is one thing the building has a lot of its doors. And for every door there is a threshold. Besides providing support for the door, thresholds are dividing lines between what was and what will be.
There is a telling scene in the movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when Samwise Gamgee and Frodo are about to leave the Shire. With a sense of excitement in his voice, Samwise remarks: “If I take one more step, I’ll be the farthest from home that I’ve ever been.” The journey is dependent on a whole host of characters who choose to cross a threshold and challenge themselves to new beginnings.
As a door or threshold, Jesus images for us the openness we must have as catechists and teachers inviting our learners and colleagues to new relationships with one another and Christ.
The Cross and the Flag
By the grace of God I was baptized Catholic; by the grace of geography I was born an American. Two classroom symbols that describe this dual identity are the cross and the flag.
At their core, both call to mind the image of sacrifice. The Church and America have saints and heroes who gave their all, including life, in support and defense of their faith and their country. They are not the same however. American values such as individualism, privacy, and choice can weaken the central Catholic values of community, tradition, and justice.
If you’d like to give your learners a sense of the difference and possible tension between being a Catholic and being an American, ask them to stand up and say the Our Father. Then follow that up with the Pledge of Allegiance. This should bring forth some questions and conversation about the connections and tensions of citizenship and discipleship.
When God wanted to communicate the fullness of revelation, the Word made flesh—Jesus Christ—entered into human history. When we want our learners to know something important, we, too, stress our words. We even write them on the chalkboard and say, “Remember this. It’s important.”
More to the point, our learners’ minds are fragile (chalk can break easily) and await the impression of faith just as the chalkboard awaits the imprint of chalk. In this we can see the learners before us as chalkboards upon whom we are privileged to write the truths of the Catholic tradition.
It’s almost too obvious a connection. Windows let in the light; Jesus is the light of the world. Yet, there are a lot of “shades” in the lives of the learners before us. The light of the Good News has a hard time coming through. It’s always a challenge for us to find the right window to connect the gospel with the lived experience of our students.
When we do it right though—when students can see out the window to the world beyond the textbook—they are freed from the boundaries that existed previously. In his own ministry Jesus sought to free people—open windows—from who and what enslaved them physically, mentally, and spiritually.
The Student and the Teacher
Sometimes at the end of a hard day, I breathe a sigh of relief and say, “They’re gone.” But a classroom isn’t a classroom without learners; it’s just an empty shell.
As the years progress, I marvel at the opportunity I have to be in relationship with the learners in front of me year after year. We aren’t always at our best, but that is part of the humanity of the learning environment. We come as we are; we bring who we are. Interestingly, it’s the students who most resist the invitation to relationship, who challenge us to be and see Christ in others. That, ultimately, is who we are as catechists and teachers and students to one another.
The American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr put it well: “When the student and teacher are related to each other as mature beings who trust each other and keep faith with each other, they are at the same time acknowledging each other as selves who are bound to serve a cause that transcends both.”
The Sacramental Imagination
At first glance, what may seem odd—connecting objects from a classroom with our faith—becomes quite natural in the end. This is because as Catholics, we have a way of seeing the world. We have a sacramental imagination that finds God in all kinds of ordinary people, places, and things.
Everyday bread and wine, staples of daily life, allow us to partake in the eternal banquet when they are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Likewise, water, upon which all life depends, drowns us to sin and brings forth baptismal life in God.
The sacramental imagination doesn’t close us off to the world, but invites us to see that God communicates who God is through the gift of creation. Simple yet profound. Ordinary yet sacred. That’s the beauty of the sacramental imagination. Catholics don’t sweat the small stuff; they see God in it.
The next time you’re in the park, make a point of stopping to take it all in. What do the flowers, trees, people, and animals reveal to you about God. When you get home, consider the people under your roof, the rooms, the furnishings, the furniture—and how they speak to you of the presence of God in your life.
Look around your learning environment and do this as well. The potential is boundless.
Mike Daley is a published author and teaches at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, OH. With William Madges, he is the editor of The Many Marks of the Church and Vatican II: Forty Personal Stories (Twenty-Third Publications).
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