In this paper I will discuss the catechesis of adolescents, specifically, prayer. First I will describe one of the many problems that some catechists considered while catechizing adolescent, and at the end I try to illustrate how the “problem” may be seen as an opportunity for both the teens and the Church as a whole. Next, I will talk about the stages of prayer, with the appropriateness of these different stages of prayer to the particular needs of the teenager. I think teens need to learn to pray because the need is most urgent, and most critical, in the years of personal change that come in adolescence. I see that in adolescence, God is awakening in the young person adult human dimensions that need, for their incorporation into true life, effectual communion through prayer.
I have heard from some catechists that the catechesis of teenagers is sometimes a pointless exercise. Without doubt, it is difficult, and there are great challenges in passing on the Faith to our adolescents. I have seen that one of the challenges catechists face with youth is the crisis of many changes the adolescents go through at this age. I believe that this stage of life is a great opportunity for those who will teach them because it is in this stage when adolescents challenge what is presented to them. In this stage I also see that the adolescent is open to the real truth, and has freedom to receive it, which may never again become present.
I believe that in present times, teens especially are listening for authentic witnesses, whose lives match their words. Therefore, I can almost be assured that in these hard listening moments teens have a special freedom to remain with the Lord. Like the Good Samaritan (in Luke 10:30-35) who had nothing to lose by touching the ritually unclean and wounded man on the side of the road, teens can have a freedom to respond genuinely to the truth. The priest and the Levite had a personal investment and concern that kept them away from the imperatives of charity, and they passed the poor man by on the far side of the road. Like the priest and the Levite, adults who are well invested with their busy schedules can find good reasons for avoiding the radical ways of Christ. There is an openness to truth in adolescents that can truly help us too, if we can have the courage and openness to remain with them in the truth. For this reason, I think the catechesis of teenagers can then be a great opportunity for everyone because teenagers need the Gospel for their own survival in this world of increasing hostility to authentic human life, and they need the moderating guidance and stability of more mature believers. We adults need the confrontation and challenge, as well as their example of natural enthusiasm that is part of the package of catechizing teenagers. We all need one truth, and this is in our Lord Jesus Christ.
As a goal to reach this truth I believe we need to teach our teens to pray because my philosophy is that our prayer life reflects the relationship we have with God. I see adolescence is a fertile time to encourage and teach a deeper prayer life. In looking at some of my nephews and nieces I see that the average teenager probably knows little about prayer beyond verbal prayer. Consequently, we as catechists need to inform the teen catechumen that prayer is indeed communication with the eternal God, and in addition that it is a gauge that helps one to realize the depth of that communication. Our prayer reflects our relationship with God, just as ordinary communication reflects our relationships among people. Depth and intimacy are manifested in the communication and in the prayer.
In reading a book by Thomas Dubay, I see that prayer can be understood in levels, or stages of intimacy. The two major stages or types of prayer that seem to be discussed in Dubay s book are ascetical prayer and mystical prayer. Ascetical prayer is a prayer that we are capable of initiating and doing, with ordinary grace. Mystical prayer is prayer that we are not capable of initiating or doing with ordinary grace. Mystical prayer is a communication initiated by God, which we are especially graced to receive. In my readings, I understand for mystical prayer as something God does to us; it is His communication and work within us. Ascetical prayer is ordinarily our first experience of prayer, which may, with perseverance and the grace of God, lead into the deeper and more intimate relationships of mystical prayer.
One of the questions that comes up is how do we go about teaching the adolescents or others to pray? In looking at my own life I see that in my “elementary” stage, the first prayers I learned were vocal prayer, so I believe this is a foundational stage, and needs not to be neglected. By vocal prayer I mean any verbal prayer, written or spoken, formula or spontaneous. These types of prayers are the ordinary entrance into prayer and communication with God. In order to perfect this primary stage I see two requirements: attentiveness of mind, and devotion of heart. As catechists of young children, teens, or adults, we need to help them in their prayer life to regain both attention and devotion in their vocal prayers. For example, with young children, this would call for teachings on the meanings of the words of the prayer. In a class of teens or adults, having more background to bring to the prayer, they may need only the opportunity to really listen to what they are praying. St. John of the Cross teaches us that this engagement of the mind in prayer, in simply listening more carefully and therefore praying more carefully, has two important results. First, the mind would be enlightened with the beauty of the truth of this prayer, and calls forth from the will its proper responses to beautiful truth, which are devotion and love. Secondly, the enlightenment of the mind with truth is in itself the beginnings of meditation, the second stage of ascetical prayer.
In observing my growth or the growth of human beings, I see that adolescents and we as adults need to see the rationality of our religion because religion deals with the supernatural, and it cannot be encompassed totally by our rational concepts. Yet, my experience of Christian Faith is that it is completely reasonable. For this reason, I believe that it is in adolescence that meditation should be first introduced and taught because in meditation the reasoning mind is put into communication, so to speak, with the truths of the Faith. In my experience I have seen that the adolescent mind desires truth; therefore, I think we must invite them to integrate an emerging capacity for truth into their prayer. I think that as catechists we need to give adolescents appropriate prayers to their growing minds and wills. I also think that we as catechists should not neglect the needs of the adolescent soul for more mature, authentic, rational communication with God in prayer, and I consider that the appropriate method or tool needed is meditation. As I have read in St. John s works, one s purpose of Christian meditation is the virtuous action of a life in Christ. The goal is life in Christ, and the deeper and truer relationship with Him transcends the ordinariness of our life into holiness.
Another stage of prayer that we as catechesis need to help the young person to develop is the affective prayer because this type of prayer is a natural progression from effective meditation. The catechist teaching adolescents to pray must, therefore, help them to discern against the mere release of emotion that is certainly not affective prayer. In my reading I see that affective prayer does involve the experience of feelings, but feelings that come from supernatural truth that, having enlightened the mind, also inflame the heart. Consequently, I see that teens, as well as adults, need to learn affective prayer because if they have not learned to engage their minds rightly in prayer, through meditation, they may begin to experience the lethal intellectual dualism of this age. They may begin to see a separation between their reason and their religious life. Soon the wrong thinking of this age could begin to seem right to them: religion is irrational, it is a fantasy. Soon their religious life could be placed in a box by itself, isolated from their minds, and cut off from all reality, abandoned, or discounted.
A final stage of prayer that I believe needs to be encouraged with adolescents is the prayer of simplicity, but it should be clear, however, that it is not wise to try to force oneself, or anyone else, into this prayer. This prayer should be a way which suggests itself to the soul because it is Jesus Christ Himself who works this growth into deeper prayer. The prayer of simplicity is in a sense an advanced form of prayer. As was asserted about the stages of meditation and affective prayer, it is also asserted here that teens have a unique need for the prayer of simplicity. The prayer of simplicity is a resting before God, a quiet and peaceful waiting in His presence. I believe that if the catechist does a good catechesis the young persons would be naturally ready for the relationship with God that would enable such enlightenment and integrity, through meditation and affective prayer. But a problem that I believe we face in our Catholic church is that adults understand little about prayer beyond the formula prayers they learned in childhood. These beautiful formula prayers lack nothing in themselves, but if adults pray them with no more depth they that learned as children, the prayer as communication is lacking. In this course, as well as other courses, I have seen that the Church has a great treasure of spiritual theology, with wonderful and profound understandings of the interior life of prayer. I affirm my philosophy that we Catholics need an intimate relationship with God in prayer, and we all deserve to learn from the wisdom that the Church holds.
Kavanaugh, Kieran, O.C.D., Rodriguez, Otilio, O.C.D. The Collected Works of St. John of the
Cross. Washington D.C.: ICS Publications, 1991.