By Father Corey Close
Now that the school year has started, I have the great joy of being able to teach again at Prince of Peace Schools in Clinton. This year the religion teacher and I are concentrating more on how we might teach not only the truths of the faith, but prayer as well.
Prayer — the silent, still time we take each day to spend with God — lies at the heart of our faith. The religion teacher and I agree that if we don’t teach our students this, then we will not have done our task well. Statistics show that around three out of four youths stop going to church during their college years, and I think a big reason for this is because they have not encountered the living God in prayer. They may have gone to Mass, and prayed a little for the things they wanted, and they may have learned much in their education, but if they have not encountered the God who loves them in prayer, staying in the faith becomes infinitely more difficult.
We decided to start off with Ignatian-style meditations. Basically, we take a text from Scripture that is powerful and which conveys a vivid scene. I ask the class to get in a comfortable place, whether in their desk or elsewhere, to relax and enter prayer without distraction. Sometimes we think that “real prayer” is done on our knees, but Ignatius of Loyola said that we should pray where we are comfortable. So after students relax and settle in, with the lights dimmed, I prayerfully read the Scripture passage, usually twice, to set the scene. After this, the imaginative part of the prayer begins.
For this, you imagine yourself in the scene, experiencing the different senses — feeling, hearing, tasting, etc. — of that place. Since many of the Bible stories happened in an arid climate, I usually set the scene with these images: sweat on your brow, sun on your skin, insects singing on hot days, dirt in your skin. This calls you to the place, and allows your imagination to more easily enter the rest of the story.
Then I lead students through a personalization of that particular Bible passage. Generally, you become one of the characters in the story. Perhaps you are a bystander, watching what Jesus is doing and saying; maybe you are the person Jesus is talking to, perhaps healing you; or maybe you are one of the Apostles. You enter the scene concretely and participate in what is going on. Since this was the first time the students had done this, I assigned them a character and helped guide their imagination. Usually the most powerful moment in these reflections occurs when you have a one-on-one with Jesus, and see him looking at you, hear him talking to you, and feel the desires you feel for him. These desires are deepest in our souls, but often covered up by lesser, louder desires which take our attention away from what is deeper and truer.
I found the students’ reactions to be powerful, demonstrated through the quiet that overcame the class during and after the prayer. I led the seniors on a reflection on the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John in the Gospel of Mark, the juniors through a reflection of one of Jesus’ healing miracles, the freshman through a reflection on the call of St. Matthew, and the seventh-graders through a reflection on the creation story of Genesis 1. It was great leading them through these reflections, and, to my surprise, the younger students responded really well and even shared their experiences afterward.
It was an encouraging and deeply satisfying experience to help others be brought into a living encounter with God, which can make the faith mean so much more. This style of prayer is a rather simple one, and I encourage you to try it for yourself, maybe with the Gospel of the day. You never know where the Spirit will lead you! I look forward to teaching the students many more ways to pray as the year goes on!
(Fr. Corey Close is parochial vicar at Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton.)