… from the newsletter notes of Head Teacher John Boyce
This is one of the hardest questions we face, and I wish I could present this for you in more simple terms. But in a world with mostly secular values, most of us find it hard to be clear about what “spirituality” even means.
Are we a spiritual people?
As a leader in a new school that could not rely on old assumptions and definitions, I have spent quite a lot of time thinking and reading in this area. The Australian Catholic writer Denis McLaughlin clarified one part of the debate when he said:
Indeed, even if institutional religion appears to be eschewed by the majority of students in Catholic schools, research tends to confirm that Catholic schools seem to be significantly unique contributors to the nurturance of a humanity that is generating an authentic non-institutional spirituality.
What he is saying is that the majority of young people in Australia (and I think, New Zealand) no longer go to church regularly-for all sorts of reasons-but that does not mean that that they are not spiritual. Indeed my experience tells me that young people are as spiritual now as they have ever been. But the style and expression of that spirituality has changed.
I agree with Denis McLaughlin, and the research he is referring to, when he says that “Catholic schools seem to be significantly unique contributors to the nurturance of a humanity that is generating an authentic non-institutional spirituality.” The “non-institutional” means that they don’t get their spirituality from church-going-but they do seem to be getting it in part at least, from their experience in Catholic schools. That places a huge responsibility on our schools. Our students really want to make a difference in the world: you see examples of that in every newsletter in buddy swimming, Special Olympics, the Vinnies, Caritas fundraising and all the rest.
Now, what do we do to give all of our students the chance to grow and value aroha, and beauty, and wonder in the relationships of their lives?
Deus caritas est: God is love
My own understanding of spirituality is based on 1 John 4:16: God is love. To me, that means that every experience of love is an experience of God, and that experience adds to the depth and richness of our spirituality. In simple terms, especially in a school environment, this is summed up by American writer Tom Groome:
The essence of our spirituality is our relationship – not only with God, but also with self, others and the world.
The most important place most of us live in relationship is at home-so home is a very important part of the Catholic school environment. But because we spend so much time at school, the relationships found at school are very important: with teacher, classmates, in the classroom, the playground, on the sportsfield, and in all the other places we come together. As a Catholic school we look for these moments and do our best to create an environment where there can be depth in the connections.
We employ the best teachers-and that means more than looking for curriculum experts. We also look for people who share our vision of adults working alongside students. Our staff go out of their way to work with students in and out of the classroom-on camps, in tutorials, running sports teams and arts projects, and doing Christian service.
Inside the classroom we have always done our best to create an environment where good relationships will flourish. Research tells us that the size of a class doesn’t make all that much difference to the learning that takes place. Where it does make a difference, is in the teacher’s ability to interact personally with individual students. It also changes the style of education. With big numbers, the teacher becomes a deliverer of information, and discipline becomes a problem; but with smaller numbers teachers can help students learn and the environment can be more relaxed most of the time.
Our behaviour management is built on the principles of restorative justice: and that is all about the relationship between the person who gets it wrong, and the victim. Our whanau system is about relationships with more than just our peers. Our Journey programme is also designed to develop and enhance relationships with “self, others and the world” as well as God. But Tom Groome’s definition is deceptive in its simplicity.
The unseen world around us
Spirituality is not just about the relationship: it is more about what the relationship does to us. That is where we see caritas or aroha on a daily basis. It is through our relationships that the door is opened to the unseen world the poet Wordsworth wrote of:
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
Learning about ourselves, facing challenges, solving problems with the help of teachers or peer mediators, all add depth. But so does our curriculum-our emphasis on creativity, the imagination, our appreciation of beauty in all its forms, and the development of intuition and conscience, all come about through school relationships. But as well, all these experiences help us gain the sensitivities that enable us to feel the presence of the Creator in our lives-and to respond to that. And this is really hard stuff, because nearly every message of our world tells us that is not real.
Spirituality in the modern world
If we think about it, most of the problems we face in our homes, our community, our country and our world have to do with relationships. Our world doesn’t seem to value the tenderness, joys and fears of the human heart-so it might be fair to say that our modern world faces a spiritual crisis.
Certainly we would like more money, more goods, more security-but it is entirely possible to see these needs as the answers the world gives us to our real search: for love and relationship. We all look for love in relationship: and on top of that most of us are looking for some certainty in the bigger questions: is there a creator, and how do we build a relationship with our creator?
Adolescence is a key time in the development of relationships – and the search for a spiritual identity. We spend a lot of time helping students with this.
We also try really hard to provide students intensity of experience in our classes – but also through liturgies as relevant and innovative and communal as we can make them, through our Journey programme, by taking education out of the classroom, through our Enterprise education, through team sports and arts activities and Christian service-and through support for communal activities like World Youth Day.
Catholic schools in New Zealand were started in the poorest suburbs of our nineteenth century cities, and their goal was to lift the children of poor immigrants from the working classes into the middle classes and the business classes. These days that is not so much an issue. Today Catholic schools try to support students who need them – although our goals are no longer expressed in terms of class.
But still today we don’t give up on kids easily. Our staff and Board are all aware that sometimes a young person does need us-and we do our best to help when possible.
As an older Catholic, there are times when I look to the future of the Church and wonder what organised religion will be like for our students as they move through life.
Certainly the authority of the Church has faded as the world has changed over the last 50 years.
Mass-going has dropped. But it is important to remember that Jesus didn’t come to bring us authority or organised religion. He came to bring us the Good News and a new commandment: that we love one another. The Church has always been a very successful vehicle for that message. John’s understanding produced one of our earliest and most important teachings.
My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love-so you can’t know him if you don’t love.
Or, as another John (and Paul) wrote more recently, “all you need is love; love is all you need!”