I did not want to teach religion this year. I did not want to put my kids in the religion program. I did not want my Sundays eaten by afternoon classes, nor did I want to sacrifice my ability to leave town for a weekend for the course of the school year. And of course God had other plans. Never in my life have I received such a clear series of signs as I was constantly sent about being a catechist, to the extent that ignoring them would have moved past the level of spiritual culpability into spiritual blindness. Finally, I thought I would put the idea to the final test by running it past Darwin, who would also have to shoulder some of the burden of interrupted family time on Sundays, and who might be annoyed by my blocking out our weekend days, and who would have to watch the baby while I was gone.
"Oh yeah," he said mildly. "It sounds like they really need people."
So I went down to the office and volunteered, and I ended up in the middle school session with my two oldest. Our parish uses The EDGE program, and I am a small group discussion leader for 7-10 sixth graders (none of whom are my sixth grader) out of a group of perhaps 60 kids. The EDGE seems solid enough, and it's fairly scripted, so that I can look over the next week's lesson plan and have a good feel for how the class will run. We meet in the gym, a big impersonal space, but our small groups manage an almost intimate feel by tucking in next to a wall and sitting in a circle.
"These kids have so many questions," I was told in training. "Just listen, take their questions, and answer them as best you can, or look up the answers and get back to them. We want to make sure they know they can find answers to their questions here."
Hm. In my experience, sixth graders do not have a lot of questions. My group doesn't even know that they're supposed to have questions. They do not want to be put on the spot. It is a challenge to get anyone to speak, with one or two chatty exceptions. These kids desperately want to be told something. So I ask the prescribed discussion questions, and I get very short, very basic answers, and I redirect the child who has a breadth but not a depth of discussion, and I talk. The Socratic method isn't working much here. Here's what works: I tell them what I want them to know. And they listen, and -- what I did not expect going in -- they don't challenge me. They don't press me to explain myself. They soak it in, and they believe me. I feel daunted by this power, and I pray that I always say the right thing.
Our first class was on Revelation, and why we need it. After the "Proclaim" (the group teaching), we break into our discussion groups, and after a little introductory icebreaker, I start with the first question.
"Why did God give us the Scriptures?" I ask. My two chatty ones give answers that are serviceable enough (willingness to talk, I realize, is only an indicator of personality, not of greater knowledge), but then there is painful silence. Kids look at the ground, at their icebreaker papers, at their Bibles.
"Is anyone here an artist? Or a writer? Who likes creating things?" A few hands go up. "When you draw something, does it tell everything about you? When you look at a painting, or read a book, or watch a movie, do you learn everything about the person who created it? Are you suddenly an expert on that person's life?" Heads shake no. "When you read The Fault in our Stars," I said, turning to a girl whose icebreaker slip listed that as her favorite book, "do you know everything about John Green?" (Thank God for the WSJ profile of John Green several weeks ago.) "You can tell some things about him, can't you? By reading the book, you can discover some of his ideas about life? What sorts of ideas did he talk about in the book? The idea of life after death, and how the soul lives on?" (Oh please, WSJ profile, don't have led me wrong about the plot.)
My student seemed unused to having to draw ideas out of a text, but she was a fan of the book and articulated how the themes had resonated with her.
"So, in reading The Fault in our Stars, you can learn lots of important things about the author -- what he thinks about life, and death, and how we should face them. But does the book tell you everything about him? Can you learn everything there is to know about John Green by reading his book? Or does he have to reveal some things to you?"
The group thought that he might need to reveal some things.
"When we look at creation, we can see that it expresses a lot about God. But it can't tell us everything about him. No creation can tell everything about its creator. We need God to tell us some things directly, through revelation. And He does that two ways, through scripture and through the Tradition of the Church."
More silence, but at least heads were up now.
Next question: "How is God like our "secret admirer"? (This was an avenue of discussion I thought wasn't very fruitful, but since in the talk God had been called not just an admirer, but a "secret stalker", I better get a better message out there.)
A few quasi-answers. "Do you think God is like a stalker? Human stalkers are creepy, aren't they? But why isn't God creepy? Well, a human stalker doesn't truly know the person he's stalking -- or she! A human stalker creates an imaginary person out of a real person, and wants a real person to be just like the imaginary person in his or her head. But God knows everything about us, more than we know about ourselves -- we're the creation, remember? -- and so He doesn't stalk us, He constantly draws us to Himself through His love. And one way He does that is through His revelation to us in the Scriptures."
And so on. "What does it mean that God wants to be in relationship with us? Well, one thing it means is that God is a person. Who has a pet?" Several dogs, a guinea pig, a fish, some cats. "Do you love your pets? Sure. But can you have a relationship with your dog? Can he reveal his mind to you? You know him from the outside -- there's no way you can exchange ideas with him. Only a person can be in a relationship. And God is a person, and He can be known. He's not remote from us, or something we can never touch. He wants to be known -- that's why He reveals himself! That's why He came to us as one of us, as a human. That's why Jesus became incarnate. Where do we hear that word, incarnate? In the creed, right? Do you know what it means? It comes from the Latin word for meat. Anyone ever eat carnitas?" (This is Ohio, so of course not.) "It's just meat. God, a pure spirit, became meat, flesh, like us, because only a human can atone for human sins but only God can fully wipe out offenses against Himself."
This past week, I did have a question from someone, a "gotcha" question: "Is God male or female?"
"God is a spirit," I said. "He doesn't have a body."
"But you said, 'he'."
"Of course, because when God became human, He revealed Himself as a man."
"So God is a man?"
"He's a spirit. He contains everything within Himself. As a human, He's a man. But God is love. Is love male or female?"
Everyone shook their heads no.
"Is Justice male or female? Is Joy male or female? God IS love. He IS Joy. He's pure existence. He contains male and female within Himself because everything that exists exists in Him, through His will."
"Then why can't he make everyone be good? Why doesn't he show himself to people all the time instead of letting people do bad stuff if he loves us?"
"You mean," I said, "What if God came down to earth, and showed Himself to people in person, and they crucified Him? God gives us free will, and people are free to accept or reject Him even when they can see Him in person."
"Yeah, but...," said the student. "I mean, God could make us be good and keep bad things from happening."
"Well, if my husband gave me a love potion every morning, and then asked me to cook and sweep the stairs and give him a kiss, and I said, "Oh yes, dear!", would that really be love?"
"No!" said the group.
"God wants us to choose Him freely. He doesn't turn us into robots who are programmed to love and obey Him. But He does show himself to us. He did it today, in the Eucharist. He shows Himself to us in the Scriptures. He shows Himself to us through every act of love, because He IS love and all love participates in Him."
My same questioner wanted to know about how Jesus could be God if he was God's son and God created him.
"Ah," I said. "What do we say in the creed? Created by the Father? No, we say 'Begotten of the Father'. The Father generates the Son, but they've always existed. Think of fire and heat. What comes first, the fire or the heat?"
"The fire," said one.
"Both at the same time," said someone else.
"Yes, both at once, and yet the fire generates the heat, doesn't it? It doesn't create the heat, it generates it."
Then we discussed the Trinity. "Here," I said, drawing a triangle. "Here are three points on the triangle. They're all equal, right? But this point isn't that point, even though they're equal. And this point isn't either of those two. But the triangle is one. Having three points doesn't make it three separate triangles."
"But so, if you have the fire and the heat, then the fire definitely comes first and so the Son comes after the Father..."
"But you're thinking as humans think," I said. "Our minds are trapped in time, and we want to think in terms of before and after. But God is outside of time. He contains time within himself, just as He contains all things in Himself, but time has no power over him. Every time is now to God. So the Father generates the Son, but not in time."
"Wow, this is making my head hurt!" said one of the guys.
"Good!" I said. "It should make your head hurt. The greatest saints and the most intelligent people on earth have wrestled with these ideas. Welcome to the club."
My interlocutor was still chatty and wanted to carry the point about fire coming before heat.
"What came first, the chicken or the egg?" I demanded.
There was a moment of silence, and then a confused and circular explanation among several people. I turned to the girl next to me and said confidentially, "I did that on purpose." And she smiled, a real smile full of humor and understanding and the promise of adult engagement.
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