In the last few weeks I’ve had the privilege of delivering seminars to Catholic teachers across the country. After a decade doing this work I am increasingly aware of a single main strategy that would do more for most schools than just about anything else.
It’s not rocket science. At the most basic of level a Catholic school is a spiritual enterprise. If it is a spiritual enterprise then it can only be sustained by spiritual sources. My mantra in seminar after seminar is simply that a Catholic school will, sooner or later, be a reflection of the level of personal faith development of individual staff.
How could it be otherwise?
If you have a school full of staff who have individual lives of prayer and sacrament then that is going to flow on into all that they do. It will impact their interactions with students but also with colleagues. Last week, talking to 150 teachers I made the point that a Catholic school where people pray is simply a more joyful place to work. When a Catholic schools tries to survive upon purely human capacities then it eventually descends into various forms of burnout. And burnout soon enough leads to cynicism. In my early years as a presenter working with Catholic schools I kept wondering where the cynicism was coming from. I found myself being quite optimistic and evangelical on stage and could tell that this was confronting for certain people. As Jeff Bridges once said: “Cynics are just crushed romantics.”
Many staff start out motivated and passionate but trying to sustain that on purely human ability is the fast track to fatigue.
Teachers must become people of prayer. So what stops them? I want to suggest three simple barriers and their respective solutions.
I’m too busy.
Probably the most common. The demands on teachers grow annually as do the issues students present with. Schools are increasingly at the very front lines of major socio-cultural change. With all the reporting pressures and other issues many teachers decide early in their career to focus on getting through the next day, term or year. The idea that you might devote any significant time to prayer is a hard sell. Along with that is the idea that prayer is not really doing anything. When you are busy it’s easy to feel the need to do.
The best response to this comes from the book I am reading at the moment. Written by Dom Baptiste Chautard who died in 1935. The Soul of The Apostolate takes about 200 pages to make the one single point. The more you have happening in your life (especially of a spiritual nature) then the deeper your interior life (the life of prayer) needs to be.
Allow me to make this abundantly clear? The more you have happening in your life, the more you need to pray and develop an inner life. The more people you lead (including students) the more you need to pray and develop an inner life.
What conclusion do you draw from the fact that in the midst of an incredibly busy public ministry Jesus was always seeking time alone to pray. What conclusion do you draw from the fact that John Paul II (and probably Pope Francis) would pray up to three hours per day?
We have to cross a line in our minds that what we are doing in a Catholic school can only be truly fruitful if it is based upon a deep inner life. We cannot give what we have not first received.
I can’t pray.
This excuse comes in all sorts of slight permutations. At a conference dinner recently, after I had spoken during the day on prayer for Catholic teachers, a deputy principal told me that if they tried to pray for more that a few minutes they would find it all too hard. They could not concentrate. I made a single main point to him.
I told him that I am a contemplative by nature. That is the invitation that God has extended to me in this life. It’s the type of prayer that suits me by personality. I told him that God was giving him a different kind of invitation. The sage advice from the spiritual master M.Basil Pennington was, “Pray as you can not as you can’t.” I told this good man that he just needed to explore the type of prayer that would best suit him. George Weigel, the papal biographer, made the point that the Catholic Church is like a mansion with many rooms. There is Carmelite spirituality, Ignatian spirituality, Franciscan spirituality, Charismatic spirituality and many, many more. Pray as you can, not as you can’t. Every teacher can find a way of prayer that will suit them.
Prayer is only for saints.
There is a tragic belief among many teachers that prayer is something that only saints or particularly pious people do. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the best analogies for prayer is oxygen. To say, “I don’t like prayer.’ is not dissimilar to saying, “I know other people are into that oxygen stuff, but it’s not for me.” There is a wonderful Latin phrase, capax dei which translates as capacity for God. That is what we are. Prayer is like oxygen. It is crucial to our spiritual and vocational functioning as oxygen is to our bodies healthy functioning.
It’s also important to realise that the saints were simply people who fell in love. When you fall in love you just want to be with the person you love. Prayer is simply a desire to be with the God who loves us. It is just being in His presence. If we are say our Catholic schools are built upon the person of Jesus and yet we spend no time with him you can see how quickly our schools will begin to drift from their mission and become stale and arid places.
So what happens now?
What I say to teachers is just begin. We don’t need some time in Tibet or some mystical experience to begin the journey of prayer. Just begin with five minutes. Just make a commitment that some time in the next week you are going to spend five minutes sitting in the chapel. Just sit in the silence and do nothing. It might lead to ten minutes or it might lead to reading a scripture verse or playing a guitar or none of the above. Whatever happens…just begin.
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