- Trying to square the circle
The opening days of the Synod on the Family have revealed distinct differences of opinion between the participants. How can their commitment to church teaching be matched with compassion for those who struggle with it?
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I was attempting to explain the concept of prayer to my year 7 class. It was not going well – objectives were not being met! The concept of “talking to God” was falling on stony ground.
Suddenly, inspired by the spirit that comes to help us in our times of weakness, I went off plan. Why does Chichurreto (Javier Hernandez, the Manchester United footballer) kneel down and pray before every football match?
I knew this would capture the wandering minds of the boys in the class and, right on cue, a hand shot up in goal-like celebratory fashion. “He’s asking God to help him score goals,” said the football-mad and indolent lad on the back row – his first and only contribution to date to “class discussion”.
Do you think that is how God answers our prayers, I enquired.
“My Dad says praying to God is a waste of time,” said the precocious young girl on the front row. Why does he think this?” I asked. “Because he never wins the lottery,” she replied.
I took another tack – not on the lesson plan or scheme of work (inspectors look away now!) “I pray every night” I declared, “that I will wake up in the morning – and I have done so every morning”.
“No way,” exclaimed my back row sceptic.” You don’t need to pray to God to wake up; it just happens.”
I asked the class to comment. “You might not just wake up,” said the brightest boy in the class,” because you heart could stop or your brain forget to work”.
“No way,” declared the young sceptic, “I always wake up and I don’t pray.”
I needed some inspiration, some wisdom from the mouths of babes.
“You might not pray but your parents might pray for you,” said the worryingly quiet girl in the corner of the classroom.
At the end of the lesson I was not convinced that the class understood the concept of prayer. We had read and examined the occasions in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus had prayed – as the lesson plan had dictated – but the experience of praying seemed beyond the understanding and grasp of my pupils – and my didactic skills!
Perhaps this is a symptom of our times: we need instant feedback. We seldom have the time to stop and stare; instant gratification and next-day delivery are de rigueur.
The complex and deeper discernment of prayer is at odds with our increasingly secular culture. We seek distraction, diversion, escapism and noise, not contemplation and silence.
Prayer requires training, discipline and commitment. As with reading, we have to build up our stamina, but it would appear that our children seem reluctant to commit to such an arduous fitness programme. They seem content to live and breathe and have their being in a virtual X-Box, cyber-world.
They crave instant fun – a world of virtual and unreal possibilities – and parents seem reluctant to disabuse them of such fabulous and false expectations.
I despair at this superficial and short-term utilitarian philosophy. It will probably, lead, inexorably, to the isolationism and dislocation of many.
I pray every day but perhaps I am an oddity – a throw back to a dungeon-dim world. Yet it would seem I am not alone. Politicians and royalty on the news plead for our prayers in the midst of terrible accidents and disasters. Is this merely an appeal to a bygone age or a clarion call to a lost cause, a nervous spasm in a dying body?
Perhaps the last word should be from one of my pupils, who said "prayer is for sad people".
Daniel Kearney is the headmaster of St Bede’s College, a Catholic private school in Manchester