Sacraments Outside the Box

About this article

Lorraine Kilmartin, new senior editor of high school textbooks, has a wonderful way of bringing sacraments into the lives of young people. Filled with stories and teaching ideas, this article will help you look at sacraments in a new light.

I'm sure that one of the first things you did when you returned to school in September was to check your faculty mailbox. Most schools have a bank of neatly labeled cubbyholes. Get an image in your mind's eye: some boxes are overflowing, some are empty. Now, look more closely and you'll notice that instead of your colleagues' names, the labels read family relationships, personal values, athletics, leadership roles, church teachings. You realize that you are looking at the various aspects of your students' lives. Now step back--look out! The rows of cubbyholes suddenly explode, leaving a gaping hole in the wall. Step over the rubble and peer through the opening. To your surprise, you see another world: you can't quite take it all in, but you have the impression, as in a dream, of shimmering light, a gentle breeze, the music of trickling water. You hear many soft voices, urging you to come--to bathe in cool water, to be anointed with fragrant oil, eat and drink without price. . . . Do you step through and explore?

It is to this place that we want to lead our students, to the threshold of a new heaven and earth where the contents of friendship, creativity, and sacraments can mingle, each retaining its own identity yet supporting and being supported by the others. All teachers want their students to integrate what they learn into their life. Not all teachers may realize, however, just how entrenched their students are in the habit of compartmentalizing. Not long ago, a student asked me a question that truly opened my eyes. Erin was a junior in my Sacraments class, and I had taught her before, so I was very aware of the struggle she was having between her personal beliefs and church teachings. She was deeply engaged in the process of coming to faith, and she was having a rough time of it. She and I had one of those student-teacher relationships marked by mutual respect and genuine liking. One day toward the end of the school year, Erin asked, "Ms. Kilmartin, when you talk about God, what exactly do you mean?"

I was stunned! That was the first of a series of reactions that occurred within a split second. Next came indignation: What, have I been talking to a brick wall all this time? Then came a thought that went something like this: How ironic! Here I am, thinking I'm doing quite an effective job of communicating nuances to my students, and they don't even know what it is that I'm dissecting! Finally, grace brought me to a place of quiet joy: Erin, growing, reaching out, at last putting her finger, on the one important question: What part of my experience can be named God?

As I reflect on Erin's question, other young people, each of whom I recall with fondness, come to mind. These are the students who seem to let all of our God-talk drift over them like smoke, but who contribute profound insights about creativity, love, or service to class discussions. It's as if they know God in their daily life but don't know that they know! I'm sure you've had students like these. They are in love with life and exquisitely in touch with their spiritual nature, but they resist any attempt to label their experience with religious terms. They seem to have taken the contents of their God cubbyhole and thrown it all in the trash. Yet I have always sensed that these are the very students teetering on the verge of discovery. I wonder if they are simply wary of talking about God in terms that are too small--just the sort of terms that we use when we want to fit God into a cubbyhole. I think these students would be very pleased with the mystics who suggest that we can't say anything about what God is; we can only say what God is not.

The Power of Integration

I have found that Sacraments was the course where I was most able to guide my students toward an exploration of faith that transcends the cubbyholes. Perhaps this is due to the incarnational nature of the sacraments: they are grace in a sensual form, flesh that reveals spirit. They are also rituals, and as such they share in the unique ability of symbol to use physical reality to evoke a whole realm of ideas, beliefs, and emotions. As we explore the sacraments with our students, we can continually encourage them to integrate faith into daily life. The contents of our daily life is the very stuff that we celebrate in the sacraments. Moreover, we celebrate the sacraments with our five senses, clothing our beliefs and values in flesh. Students may know that the sacraments reflect the ministry of Jesus, but we can help them to recognize their own ministry in the sacraments too. Finally, we can teach students to look for the seeds of challenge contained in each sacrament, an echo of Jesus' words, "Go also and do likewise."

All of this may be very new for students who come to us with a magical view of the sacraments: when the priest says and does X, then Y happens. The role of the worshiper in this system is simply to believe that Y has happened. On the other end of the continuum, some students may have the idea that the sacraments are "just symbols" (a phrase that I banned in my classroom, by the way). Our challenge is to communicate that real transformation occurs in sacrament, but that the swoop of a magic wand is not a good image of God's power. Better images might be fire that burns without consuming, water that quenches our thirst forever, or bread that we eat and wine that we drink. All of these images represent integration. Moving faith from head to heart, bringing a whole self together in an act of worship, melding a ministry with Jesus' ministry, uniting a human will with God's will––these are incredibly powerful experiences, because their object is to bring the power of God into our life.

We can start with the students' experience of their own holistic nature. The categories that we use to organize our experience are purely conceptual; our reality is much more fluid. Students already experience themselves as complex, multifaceted beings, but they need us to validate that experience: "Yes, this is what it is to be a human being!" We can provide a biblical basis for a holistic anthropology--an understanding of ourselves as a unity of body, mind, emotion, and spirit. Have the students brainstorm ways that our experiences influence our be-liefs about ourselves and others. Ask small groups to present com-edy sketches about how mood affects behavior. Direct them to journal about a time when sickness or injury had an impact on their outlook. They can appreciate that celebrating the sacraments is powerful for us because the sacraments engage all the many levels of our human experience, including the experience of the Divine.

The sacraments are even more powerful because they arise out of our own life experiences, endowing them with deeper meaning. When I taught the sacraments, there was one phrase that I repeated so often that it began to feel like a mantra: "There is nothing that we celebrate in the sacraments that does not already have a place in our daily life." Name a sacrament! Reconciliation: Didn't you forgive someone today? Were you forgiven? Eucharist: Did someone receive a kind of nourishment from you today? Were you nourished? Holy Orders: To whom did you offer service to-day? Who served you? This appreciation of the dailyness of what we celebrate in the sacraments can compliment the students' awareness of how special the sacraments are. Ask the students to identify what we celebrate in each sacrament and then to find parallels in their daily experience. Have them read over the words of the sacramental rites, looking for descriptions of God's work in each. Small groups can develop reflections on God's work in our life and how the awareness of that work can transform us. Students can compare and contrast the Catholic sacraments with ways that other religious traditions mark transitions such as coming of age or marriage. Students may recognize that the sacraments are not separate from the rest of their life; they are celebrations of the best in their life.

The Power of the Word

Sacraments are powerful, too, because they partake of the reciprocal relationship between a reality and our expression of it. The ancients, including the Israelites, had tremendous respect for the power of the word. They understood that expressing a reality enriches it perhaps because in order to express it one must experience it physically. To express an idea, a belief, or a promise one must create it in the real world. One perceives something and then names it--speaks it, sings it, draws it, dances it, acts it out. The more physically involved one becomes in expressing a reality, the more the reality takes hold. Students know this power of expression in their daily life. Discuss how receiving "please-forgive-me" flowers from a boyfriend affects the relationship or how a pep rally affects the game. Have students share rituals connected to family holidays. Do they promote unity and caring? Direct students to analyze school rituals in terms of their effectiveness in expressing and encouraging values. Ask small groups to design rituals for turning points like getting a driver's license. The ritual should express and promote values such as freedom, responsibility, and maturity. Students may appreciate the ability of sacrament to express something about God in a way that respects the hugeness of God by drawing on all our senses and powers.

Sacraments, of course, draw their power from Jesus' work. They are ritualized versions of Jesus' ministry, but they are ritualized versions of our own ministry as well. Students need to know that Jesus continues his ministry in the sacraments. It was not only Jesus who welcomed, healed, sacrificed; Jesus' followers did the same, at his command, and we continue this ministry ourselves. Our work can never be separate from Jesus' work. He pictured himself as the vine on which we are the branches. Present Jesus' teachings on the unity between himself, his followers, and his Father found in the Last Supper discourses (see John 14--17). Ask students to find passages in the Gospels and Epistles relating to the works of Jesus and his followers. Provide lists of ministries in your diocese and ask small groups to identify which sacraments each relates to. Is the work of some sacraments--Reconciliation, for example--missing from the list of ministries? If so, groups can develop a plan to include them in some way. Have students write and illus-trate children's stories, incorporat-ing symbols from the rites, about forgiveness or faithful love. Students may find that although we retell Jesus' story in the sacraments, they are not historic relics; they're living springs.

Sacraments tie together not only past and present but future as well. Each sacrament contains the seeds of challenge. You have been forgiven; will you now forgive? You have been nourished; will you now nour-ish others? Sacraments express a promise--Jesus' promise to send the Spirit to help us. Young people need to hear that sacraments are powerful because they open us to God's power, which is very real. God will grow the crop. Our job is to be fertile soil. Young people need to know that God does not expect them to be anything other than themselves; they just need to put themselves at God's service. Ask students to journal about their own ministry or service experiences, identifying gifts to thank God for and needs to pray about. Have students read the prayers of historical or modern spiritual figures to find the connections between their prayer and their ministry. Ask students to make pie charts of all the influences that led them to choose a certain type of service, or to develop a particular character trait. Have them write poems that express what it means to be Eucharist for others. Students may begin to hear a call to let their life become God's presence in our world.

Sacraments was the most challenging course I have ever taught. I didn't find the subject matter dense or the material dry, I never ran out of ideas for lessons or projects, and I loved exploring the topic with my classes. In fact, Sacraments was also the course that most energized me.

The challenge of teaching the sacraments seems to be less professional than personal. As persons of faith, we share with our students something that we find very precious. Other topics may hold a special place for us too, but because of the holistic nature of the sacraments, we are really sharing ourselves. It is impossible to explore the sacraments without opening up our own life experience on all of its many levels.

Because our understanding of sacraments is so personal, it may be especially important to review and update our theological understanding. We can be careful in our use of language so as not to find ourselves teaching Vatican III (some of us may need to resist the call of Vatican I!). We may also find that we need to delve into prayer to cultivate the attitude of respect with which we hope to speak, respect for the power of the sacrament, and respect for the widely varying degree of sophistication among our students. We may also need to reflect on our own stories to find material that's suitable for sharing with our students. Again, because the sacraments involve the deepest levels of who we are, we may find that the very things that most closely connect us to the sacraments are the most personal. And, oh, those cubbyholes! We need to be vigilant in our resistance to letting our Sacraments class become a woodworking shop where the final project is a wall of neatly labeled boxes!


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Published October 1, 2000.