Honor the Past and Move into the Future by Encountering the Present

When it is hard to imagine the future, looking to the past often gets us where we need to be. When I’ve hit a wall teaching, it helps me to remember that my job in the present is a way of honoring my past.

By Adam Green

Any person reading this blog is likely well aware that teaching often feels quite bleak.  We have a lack of instant-gratification in a world that thrives on that very thing.  Teaching requires patience and perseverance in a culture of rapidly increasing quick-fixes and focus-changes.  To make matters worse, we are called by God to instill patience, perseverance, personal connection, and meaningful pondering to teenagers –a demographic simultaneously most impressionable and most affected by the contemporary culture.  Sometimes I feel like the Little Engine who could…only as I chug along, I see other people continuing to building and lengthening the track I am on. 

I swear I love my job, but I sometimes question a God who would call me to such a frustrating career vocation.  I trust that the fact you are reading this blog means that I am not alone in this seemingly contradictory mindset of frustration and fulfillment.  This tension brings us to my point:  As teachers –particularly theology teachers- our job is to honor the past so that our students can move into the future, by means of encountering the present.  Put a bit more directly, I have developed my own teaching mantra: “I am not teaching the teenagers of 2019, I am teaching the adults of 2050 when they are teenagers.”  Any person who agrees with this mindset is likely able to do so only because they were once young and nurtured by an adult who was encountering the same struggles we do now. 

When I was an undergraduate studying theology, my mentor was a beloved Jesuit named Fr. Gray.  I remember Fr. Gray saying that “the purpose of Catholic education is to humanize students.”  In other words, the true purpose of any subject matter when approached from a Catholic worldview is to help the learner grow in their own humanity.  This is admittedly difficult in a world that is becoming more inhumane –more disconnected and sterile, less compassionate and empathetic.  Attempting to operate with a sense of hope –not optimism, but hope- can remind theology-nerds of the mantra of Realized Eschatology: “Already, but not yet.”  And thus, we return to our title:  Honor the Past and Move into the Future by Encountering the Present. 

In times of doubt and frustration –when the “not yet” seems to obscure the “already”- I remind myself of Fr. Gray.  Although I would love to say that thinking of the future of my students restores my hope, I would be lying.  I must honor my own past.  When it is hard to imagine the future, looking to the past often gets us where we need to be.  When I’ve hit a wall teaching, it helps me to remember that my job in the present is a way of honoring my past.  So ask yourself: “Who is a mentor that you honor in your vocation?”  What memories of a person in your past helps you continue moving into your own present?  Connect with that memory now. 

Presumably the individual or individuals you conjured into memory are people you wished your own students knew.  Well, guess what…your students can know them through you.  As teachers, we bear the privilege of linking our students to teachers whom they will never meet.  In doing so, we link back to the Ultimate teacher, Jesus of Nazareth.  What a privilege, to introduce the young people in front of us to the wisdom of people whom they will never meet so that our students’ futures can be a bit better.  And yet, this is not purely altruistic, we do not teach merely for our students.  We also do not teach merely to honor our own past.  Honor the Past and Move into the Future by Encountering the Present. 

Honor the Past is laudable, and moving into the future is progressive.  But do not forget that Encountering the Present is to encounter God.  By encountering the present we tread on hollowed ground no less than Moses did before the burning bush.  To encounter the present is to enter God’s realm, to enter Kairos.  In teaching, this is our primary responsibility.  The student in front of you…that is the present.  The “you” that you are in the classroom on any given day…that is the present.  When we accept the present as it is –not as we would have it be- we honor the past and move into the future.  The present moment is the linchpin.  And so we ask:  How can we encounter the student in front of us today?  How can we authentically honor who we are today?  How can you –as you are today- participate in the reality of the moment you are in?

Adam Green

Adam Green teaches Scripture, Ignatian Spirituality, and World Religions at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, OH.

The Mid-Year Boost: how to reenergize your teaching in January

At this point you know your students well. You know their interests both in and out of class, you know the skills they struggle with and those they use to shine.

by Margaret Felice

We’ve had a short break for the holidays and are back to work! Here in New England it’s hard not to be dreaming of snow days, and all of us might be thinking about upcoming holidays are looking toward spring break. Here are a few ideas to help you do your best teaching during these long mid-year months.

Consider the benefits of the middle of the year

At this point you know your students well. You know their interests both in and out of class, you know the skills they struggle with and those they use to shine. There is a string of long weeks coming up, too: a perfect time for a long-term project or workshop.

If your classes are struggling with writing, maybe a week-long writing intensive would raise their confidence (and make your grading more pleasant for the rest of the year). You don’t need to abandon your curriculum to do this; pick a topic for them to explore in more detail and guide them through the steps of good writing.

You can also break up the winter slog with contemporary topics if they are not already a part of your curriculum. Make connections to Women’s History Month, or Black History Month, or current events – and give yourself the time to really dig in and make them more than a token.

You might even have time for some play! Plan a simulation (in Church History, my students have enjoyed imagining they were bishops at Vatican II, or representatives at the French Revolution) – the prep is labor-intensive but once it’s set up your students will be able to run with it. Letting them walk in another person’s shoes and consider themes from a personal perspective will be an unforgettable learning experience.

Be patient with yourself (and your students)

I write from the perspective of someone living in the northeast, where winters are dark, cold, and tough. Each year I become more patient with myself at this time of year, realizing that my energy levels in the winter are lower than they are during milder seasons. Sleep, nutrition, and quiet time become even more important during these dreary months.

No surprise, then, that my students might be dealing with the same doldrums. Depending on your school schedule, you might have a January mid-year exam routine. How can you help students through that stressful time? Are there nights when you can give no homework? Can you give them more precise guidance on how to study? Can you build in an extra few moments of quiet reflection during class to let them catch their breath? It’s tough to balance the value of slowing down with the pressures of tackling your curriculum, but with planning it can be done.

Find things to celebrate

Routines have been established at this point, but that doesn’t mean you can’t bust those up once in a while! Be creative about ways to make the time special. Adolescent brains love things that break from the norm!


Maybe there is a day of the week, or of the schedule cycle, when you can add in something different (playing hangman is a great 10-minute energizer, with the added benefit of being good for vocab acquisition). Point out notable days on the liturgical calendar, or bring an allergy-free treat on the day of a test or project.

Many of these ideas involve the dreaded “more work”, and I understand how daunting that can feel when we are swamped with everything else we have going on. But in my experience, energizing myself and my students has long-term benefits that far outweigh the burden of picking up a few bags of Jolly Ranchers or preparing character cards for a group project.

And hopefully this goes without saying, but however you decide to give your teaching a boost this season, find time for prayer and reflection so that you can listen for God’s wisdom and consider how your efforts have enriched your students’ lives.

Margaret Felice is an educator, writer, and musician. She teaches religion and music at Boston College High School and is an Assistant Director of the Liturgy Arts Group at Boston College.

She is the author of 2019: A Book of Grace-Filled Days (Loyola Press) and is writing two booklets on teen spirituality for Twenty-Third Publications which will be published in 2020.

Margaretfelice.com

Teaching Ignatian Prayer through Chess

As our youth continue to plunge deeper into the tech ridden postmodern age and its information overhaul, self-centeredness, and omnipresent noise, silence and contemplative prayer will be drowned out unless creative means are put into action.

by Russell Fiorella

The point of chess is to checkmate, or to force the opposing king into a position where it is unable to occupy an unthreatened space. It may sound simple, but within a few opening moves, the amount of possible combinations swells exponentially to near infinity. While each player controls her or his movements, they can only forecast how the opposing army shifts, parries, advances, making the game uncannily similar to the dynamics of life. Benjamin Franklin, an ardent chess player himself, expressed something similar in his “Morals of Chess:”

The Game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of Chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effect of prudence, or the want of it.

Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, cherished active prayer through meditation and contemplation in his Spiritual Exercises. Prayerful meditation is filtered primarily through the mind, inviting participants to linger over meaningful relationships, ideas, symbols, and words. Contemplative prayer on the other hand is about harnessing the imagination in order to induce the heart to discover authentic emotions and desires.

Every high schooler in America is subject to the frenetic pace and braying of contemporary life. Introducing teenagers to prayer in our postmodern context requires creatively reaching them where they are in their daily lives. Entering into a good game of chess usually means finding a quiet setting and over time my classroom gradually became favorable for chess playing mixed with spirituality. Again, I turn to Ben Franklin and his list of skills chess imparts on its players: foresight, introspection, and caution.

Foresight and circumspection require a great degree of imagination. Learning from prior mistakes, recognizing familiar situations, and projecting what moves might come in the later stages of the game are intimately woven into a formidable chess player’s decision making. The same is true of one’s imagined prayer space. The third skill listed, caution, is also invaluable to chess players and likewise develops over the course of one’s spiritual journey. Perhaps what is most striking is Benjamin Franklin’s attention to the relationships between pieces and how they impact each other. God is revealed in others. Searching the heart’s inner chambers calls for strong companions. Thus it is through contemplating and meditating on our relationships with others that enlivens the spirit of God within us.

I remember with a smile first introducing chess and prayer to my freshmen as part of their unit on Ignatian Spirituality. Our task was to learn about the principles and charisms that ground Ignatian spirituality like discernment, consolation and desolation, detachment, Finding God in All Things, For the Greater Glory of God and cura personalis. After excitedly setting up their boards, my boys readied themselves, assuming a pensive, prayerful state. Then, quietly, they executed their opening moves. Five minute long segments of playing alternated with journaling sessions responding to reflection questions pertaining to Ignatian spiritual lingo. An example in the opening stages of the exercise are the questions I posed to students to introduce detachment:

“Detachment” means exactly as it sounds-letting go of fears that keep you from fighting like a lion, having fun, being happy, finding God.
Imagine you are an actual general commanding your army of knights, bishops and pawns. What fears do you bring with you to this battle? There are many examples of Jesus in the Gospel confronting his fears, like in the garden of Gethsemane when the Roman soldiers were hunting him. Like us, Jesus experienced tremendous fear when confronting death. Imagine he is near you as you write about what personal fears or “dragons” you face in your life.

With eyes closed the boys listened, paused for a few moments to behold the questions, and then responded in their digital journal. The melding of activity and imagination in a contemplative setting seems ideal for young adults. And these questions along with others in the opening movements of chess and prayer are pertinent to the formation of an adolescent’s unique character.

Over the next few days the focus of our prayer shifted from the personal to the relational. Cura personalis, Latin for “Care for the Whole Person” was another principle contemplated over:

There are many dimensions to you. Imagine now that each of your pieces represents a certain part of who you are. Consider each question carefully before writing. 

Pawns (Soldiers) Who are some of your closest friends, supporters? Describe your feelings towards them? 

Queen (Leadership) Who in your life serves as a role model or leader? Why? 

Castles (Strongholds) What are you most passionate about? What activities or people bring you the most joy?  

Knights (Cavalry) What do you savour doing physically day to day? Do you play a sport? Walk or run?  

Bishops (Faith) Where do you find the presence of God in your life? What is most wonderous or mysterious to you? What are you most curious about?  

King (Your Flag) What values do you hold as most important? Why?

Most of these questions are associated with relationships-role models, friendships, family. Words like “joy,” “passionate,” and “wondrous,” seek to draw out responses predicated on desires and feelings. It’s important to note that writing is an essential component of this process, as it immerses students further into a prayerful state. When we write, we think more actively and intentionally, become more aware of things that normally would go amiss if we did not intend to write about them in the first place. Noticing traces of the sacred is the business here.

As our youth continue to plunge deeper into the tech ridden postmodern age and its information overhaul, self-centeredness, and omnipresent noise, silence and contemplative prayer will be drowned out unless creative means are put into action. I do not think it is difficult to find answers to these pressing questions. Simply look to the ordinary, look to what students enjoy! Purposefully merging Ignatian spirituality with chess is my weapon of choice. And while adapting Ignatian prayer to chess in the classroom has been encouraging, what is more encouraging are my boys’ earnest desires months afterward to play, and pray, over one more game. Checkmate.

-adapted from Russell Fiorella’s essay Knights, Castles, and Ignatian Prayer”  

accessible at https://russellfiorella.wixsite.com/sacraterras/mp-3-projects-exodus

Russ Fiorella teaches Old and New Testament studies at St. Peter’s Preparatory, an all-boys Jesuit high school in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Now We Begin

“For Your Consideration” is a blog by and for Catholic high school religion teachers and campus ministers. It is coordinated by Boston College School of Theology and Ministry Continuing Education.

The idea for the blog emerged during a consultation with high school teachers and administrators in the Boston area in Spring 2017.  It began to take shape in Summer 2017 as we encountered many students and alumnae/i who were engaged in these high school ministries.

Catholic high school teachers and campus ministers have our admiration.  We hope this blog provides a space for conversation about how to make faith real to high school students and how to grow both as a teacher/minister and as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  We expect our guest bloggers will raise timely, helpful, practical topics that surface issues and propose ideas in support of capable ministry in a high school setting.