METHODS OF CATECHESIS
Presentation by Father William Caldaroni
I have been assigned the topic of “Methods of Catechesis”. After the historical overview of the catechumate and of catechism throughout the life of the Holy Church which we have already been given, I do not wish to deal with the question of how catechesis was done in the past. Rather, I would like to consider with you, my brother priests, the question of how we can be doing catechetical instruction today.
II. THE PARAMOUNT IMPORTANCE OF THE WORSHIP OF THE CHURCH
One of the things that I insist upon with catechumens in our parish is that they be faithful in attending the services of the Church. This means Vespers and Matins and not simply Divine Liturgy.
LEX ORANDI LES EST CREDENDI – ‘THE LAW OF PRAYER IS THE LAW OF FAITH”
To my mind, this is the paramount method of teaching. There is no better way to learn the faith of the Holy Church than to listen attentively to the hymns and prayers of Her Divine Services. This absolutely crucial means of catechesis is equally important for our faithful as it is for those preparing for reception into the Church.
Examples: Can we really do better than the hymnographers and fathers of the Church in teaching our catechumens? Just consider the following few examples:
1. STICHERON FROM “BIRTH OF THE THEOTOKOS”:
“Today God who rests upon the spiritual thrones has made ready for Himself a holy throne upon earth. He who made firm the heavens in His wisdom has prepared a living heaven in His love for man. (Virgin Mary as the abode of God) For from a barren root He has made a life-giving branch spring up (Barrenness of Joachim and Anne – miraculous conception of Theotokos) for us, even His mother. God of wonders and hope of the hopeless, glory be to Thee, O Lord.”
2. APOSTICHON FROM “EXALTATION OF THE CROSS”:
“Hail! Cross of the Lord: through thee mankind has been delivered from the curse (atonement). Shattering the enemy by thine exaltation, O Cross all-venerable, thou art a sign of true joy. Thou art our help, thou art the strength of kings, the power of righteous men, the majesty of priests. All who sign themselves with thee are freed from peril. (teaching about the value of the sign of the Cross). Thou art a rod of strength under which we like sheep are tended, thou art a weapon of peace round which the angels stand in fear. Thou art the divine glory of Christ, who grants the world great mercy.”
3. STICHERON FROM NATIVITY OF OUR LORD:
“Come, let us greatly rejoice in the Lord as we tell of this present mystery. The middle wall of partition has been destroyed, the flaming sword turns back, the cherubim withdraw from the tree of life, and I partake of the delight of paradise from which I was cast out through disobedience. (The Incarnation reverses the curses of the fall). For the express image of the Father, the imprint of His eternity, takes the form of a servant and without undergoing change He comes forth from a mother who knew not wedlock. For what He was, He has remained, true God: and what He was not, He has taken upon Himself, becoming man through love for mankind. (proper Christology). Unto Him let us cry aloud:
“God born of a virgin, have mercy upon us.”
4. APOSTICHON FROM TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD:
“David the ancestor of God, foreseeing in spirit from afar the sojourn with men of the Only-begotten Son in the flesh, called the Creation together to rejoice with him, and prophetically lifted up his voice to cry: “Tabor and Herman shall rejoice in Thy name.” For having gone up, O Christ, with thy disciples into Mount Tabor, Thou wast transfigured, and hast made the nature that had grown dark in Adam to shine again as lightning, transforming it into the glory and splendor of Thine own divinity. (the reality of the deification of our humanity in Christ). Therefore, we cry aloud unto Thee: “O Lord, and Creator of all things, glory to Thee.”
Those hymns say it all! I believe it is vital that our catechumens get into the habit of attending Vespers and Matins. They need to be taught the importance of not simply attending these services but also actively listening to the hymns as they are chanted. I even highly encourage the catechumens who are gifted in singing to stand with the chanters and help out. They can intone or read Psalms, for instance. I would strongly encourage them as well to work with our chanters at learning how to chant!
I am absolutely convinced that there is not better method of teaching the faith of the Church!
At our parish we have had a group that met weekly and was open to all the faithful (not simply the Catechumens) that read and discussed the hymns for the upcoming weekend services. This enables the participants to more actively listen to the chants in Vespers and Matins so that the glory and wisdom of the Church’s hymnology can be experienced more fully.
I also encourage the faithful to obtain copies of the 5-pounder or the Festal Menaion and the Triodion in order to study these all-important hymns of the Holy Church.
One of the points I emphasize to catechumens in particular is that the point of catechism is not simply to obtain “facts in the frontal lobe” about God—-IT IS PRIMARILY TO LEARN HOW TO GET TO KNOW GOD DIRECTLY AND PERSONALLY! This is at the very heart of the Orthodox Christian theological tradition! Unlike the Christian West, we are assured by the Tradition that we can know God PERSONALLY and DIRECTLY – not simply through created intermediaries. “Theology” is primarily knowing God and not primarily knowing THINGS ABOUT GOD! There is indeed a place for knowing about God as well – and I will address that in a moment – but knowing God directly and personally in Christ is paramount.
THIS PERSONAL KNOWLEDGE OF GOD comes only through prayer and the worship of the Church. Teaching our catechumens to attend actively to the hymns and prayers of the Church (as well as helping them develop a personal prayer rule) is the best way of allowing them to get to know God personally!
III. GUIDED FORMAL TRAINING: THE CLASSROOM WITHIN THE CHURCH
The subjects covered in catechism have historically been covered not only in the worship of the church, but also in formal classroom-type training. A prime example of this can be found in the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem and others of the Fathers which have been handed on to us. Here is an example from St. Cyril:
“Therefore with fullest assurance let us partake as of the Body and Blood of Christ: for in the figure of Bread is given to thee His Body, and in the figure of Wine His Blood; that thou by partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, mightest be made of the same body and the same blood with Him. For thus we come to bear Christ in us, because His Body and Blood are diffused through our members; thus it is that, according to the blessed Peter, we become partakers of the divine nature.
“Contemplate therefore the Bread and Wine not as base elements, for they are, according to the Lord’s declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ; for though sense suggests this to thee, let faith establish thee. Judge not the matter from taste, but from faith be fully assured without misgiving, that thou has been vouchsafed the Body and Blood of Christ.” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, on the Sacraments, pp. 68-69)
In this formal training, I tend to emphasize four main areas:
Father – eternal Source of the Godhead
Son – eternally begotten of the Father
Spirit – eternally proceeding from the Father and resting in the Son
2. Incarnation – God the Son taking our fallen humanity into his one person, thus uniting our humanity with his deity
3. Theosis – and the logical corollary of theosis -Ecclesiology/(which is often the make or break doctrine for converts from Protestant backgrounds)
How our humanity actually “partakes of the divine nature”
(2 Peter 1) through our union with Christ’s humanity. – “THE SWORD IN THE FIRE.”
illustration of the Fathers
This teaching tends to be conveyed in a formal “classroom style” setting. But, there is another method . . .
IV GUIDED INDEPENDENT STUDY – through the use of books and other writings.
What I often do is ask the catechumens to read a book and then when we gather together we discuss the reading and I field questions. I ask them to read with a pen and paper handy to jot down questions or comments that arise in their reading.
Indeed, I have found this method to be more effective than simply formal, classroom-style lectures. Our culture has an aversion to lecturing!
A. SOME BOOKS I REGULARLY ASSIGN: (NOT EXHAUSTIVE)
1. Fr. Jon Braun – Divine Energy (Conciliar) (Comment: Brilliantly, but simply presents the points of TRINITY, INCARNATION AND THEOSIS – and draws out the implications of these awesome realities for our getting to know God and our walk in holiness.)
2. For Protestant Converts:
Jordan Boyis – Common Ground: An Introduction to the
Eastern Church for the American Christian (Light and Life Publishing)
(Comment: Clearly presents the inadequacies of the
Protestant tradition of SOLA SCRIPTURA and the
INDIVIDUALISM that so bedevils Protestantism.)
3. For Roman Catholic Converts:
Clark Carlton – The Truth: What Every Roman Catholic
Should Know About the Orthodox Church (Regina Orthodox
Press) (Comment: Brilliantly shows the inadequacies of
Papal supremacy, the Filoque and the Western
Teaching on the Trinity and the SCHOLASTIC NOMINALISTIC
MINDSET of traditional Roman church life and thought.)
I also use many of the little booklets produced by Conciliar Press to address topics that may not be adequately covered by Fr. John’s book, etc.:
IN PARTICULAR, – Tithing by Fr. Richard Ballew. It is vital that new catechumens be taught the vital necessity of this historic discipline of the Church.
I also bring in our PMT Coordinator so that early catechumens know how our parish is set up in such a way that each parishioner should be involved in MINISTRY – ideally in the midst of one of the Parish Ministry Teams.
B. OTHER BOOKS TO BE USED:
It is good that the catechumens begin to read some of the writings of the Fathers of the Church and some of the collections of the Lives of the Saints.
ST. EPHREM THE SYRIAN: “Blessed is he who plants in his soul good plants, that is, the virtues and the lives of the saints.”
AGAPIOS LANPROS OF MT. ATHOS: “A person is touched more profoundly and benefits more by reading one beautiful life of a saint than by discourses and philosophies.”
I often recommend THE PROLOGUE OF OCHRID in this regard – in particular so that the catechumen can discover a patron saint with whom he/she specially relates.
C. THE PLACE OF ACADEMIC THEOLOGY – Some would maintain that there is no place for formal academic theology in the preparation of converts to the Church. I would maintain that some academic theological grounding is necessary – especially for well-educated converts.
Allow me to quote a bit from Fr. Jon Braun’s book in this regard: (p. xii)
“The theme of the book is spiritual warfare, but that is not its only purpose. The scope and intention go considerably beyond that to the arena of sound theology. And I hope this theology will build a bridge not only to historic Christian spirituality for those intent on winning the spiritual war, but that it will draw readers into a love for doctrine as well. My aim is to pass on this theology in lay language.
Now and then, you will still hear the naive allegation that study of theology is synonymous with spiritual deadness. True doctrine never produces death, because truth cannot produce death. It brings us life! Correct doctrine about the Holy Trinity, the incarnation of Christ, and our salvation are vitally important to Christian living. So I have sought here to take the historic teaching of the church on these matters and to make them understandable, interesting, and applicable to the average Christian.”
“THE HOLY TRINITY – Chapter 4- (pp. 40-41)
Knowing About God:
“There are some “ground rules” for knowing about God. First, knowledge about God doesn’t guarantee any relationship with Him, but without it you have a guarantee your relationship with God will be shallow at best.”
“Second, it’s foolish to capitulate to the frivolous notion that anything beyond the most elementary knowledge about God is not for your common, everyday Christian, but is only for professional theologians and select super-saints. Sincere Christians need sound doctrine concerning God.”
“It is common to hear insipid, unsubstantiated pronouncements like, ‘Doctrine Divides and kills; it is our experience of Christ that gives unity and life.’ As if doctrine were some sinister culprit to be avoided at all costs! Such a notion may be religiously fashionable, but it is anything but the universal witness of the spiritual winners over the centuries. Besides, correct doctrine about God never has and never will kill anyone.”
“So where do such misinformed ideas originate? Laziness, ignorance, lack of faith, confused thinking, and lack of genuine experience with God rank high on the list of possible roots of such reductionism. How absurd it would be for a husband to say, ‘I don’t want to know anything about my wife. All I want is to relate to her as a person. I’m totally disinterested in her
name, her parents and family, her background, her interests, her education, her likes and dislikes. These will only kill whatever relationship we might have together.’ Only a complete jerk would talk that way, and any potential relationship he might have with her would be doomed to be deficient. How much less will a relationship with God mature if we insist we do not want to know anything about Him! If you desire to know God personally, then desire to know anything and everything about Him you can.”
“God has made many things about Himself known to us. Part of that revelation is doctrinal knowledge, and with the help of God we can understand knowledge revealed about Him.”
I agree completely with Fr. Jon, some knowledge about God is vitally necessary for knowing God, just as some knowledge about another human being is necessary for getting to know him/her.
Now this doesn’t mean that we should assign the reading of Vladimir Losky’s MYSTICAL THEOLOGY OF THE EASTERN CHURCH or Fr. John Meyerdorffs fine church history texts like IMPERIAL UNITY AND CHRISTIAN DIVISIONS to early catechumens! (Although once again, an educated well-informed catechumen will WANT to read such books and SHOULD be encouraged to do so.) But, there are books like Fr. Jon Braun’s book or the Conciliar Press pamphlets that are accessible to most anybody! They should be used as a method of doing catechesis.
I believe a combination of these three methods of teaching Catechism is best:
1. Attendance at the services of the Church and attention paid to the hymns and prayers
2. Lectures – Formal Training
3. Guided study of books and other writings, including basic theological writings and the Lives of the Saints.