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Teaching the Invisible

The union of the invisible with the visible is one of the great mysteries of the Catholic faith. The invisible God became flesh and dwelt among us; the invisible soul is experienced through the body; invisible grace is transmitted through the physical signs of the sacraments. As corporeal beings with finite intellects, we naturally prefer to ponder the visible and the tangible, even though as adults we understand how the invisible fits into the equation. But for young children lacking the ability to reason abstractly, teaching the invisible realities of faith is a serious challenge.

Of course, we do not slug children with dogmatic theology or metaphysical terminology in our catechesis; rather we try to find concrete examples that they can readily understand. Even for adults, every definition needs a suitable example to aid comprehension. But if we are not careful, our best intentions can lead children astray. For example, if we describe God as an old man with a white beard who rewards the good and punishes the wicked, we have reduced God to Santa Claus. If we compare the Trinity to a Transformer robot, we are guilty of the Modalist heresy that first appeared in the third century.

How, then, do we teach children the invisible truths of faith? My four-year-old son forced this question upon me recently when we were leaving church. Just before exiting through the front door close to the tabernacle, we paused to genuflect. And as we did so, someone removed the key from the tabernacle door. “Why does God need a key?” he asked as we walked out. How he associated God with the key I do not know, but his was no easy question.

I explained how God did not need a key because Jesus lived in the tabernacle. “Is there a statue of Jesus in there?” he asked. It was a natural follow-up: his encounters with Jesus to this point were all through visible statues and portraits. How can a person be invisible? My wife and I then took turns explaining as best we could the nature of Jesus’ invisible presence in the visible Eucharist.

“Is Jesus inside the bread?” At last there was a sign of comprehension, yet we had to tread lightly. Technically, Jesus is not inside the bread but is the bread, but this distinction is not likely to send him down the road to consubstantiation. So, we acquiesced, realizing that we should not belabor the point as if we were speaking with an adult. Yes, I said, Jesus is inside the bread. He had created his own legitimate example to aid his comprehension, and in doing so he taught me a lesson in early childhood catechesis: find a child-generated spark and then help it grow.

            Christ and a Boy by Carl Bloch (1875)

“Unless you become like little children, you can never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Though this analogy commends the virtues of humility and docility for Jesus’ adult disciples, it also offers a reminder to catechists. With their native innocence and limited experiences, children see the world differently from adults. The same goes for the truths of faith. Had I continued to hammer out examples until he saw my side of things, I would have failed: he is incapable of seeing my side of things. Adult reasoning foisted upon the young would violate our Lord’s commandment to let the children come to Him.

This is not to say that there is one right method for teaching children the faith – far from it. Good teaching is an art rather than a science, and there are countless ways we can make the invisible real to them. But we need not avoid the invisible, nor empty it of its mystery, when teaching them. If we did, we would not be handing on the faith in its fullness. The truths of faith are not known in the way we know biological facts or geometric proofs, for they include elements of mystery and wonder that draw us deeper into what is ultimately incomprehensible. Child-like creativity and innate curiosity are precisely the right dispositions for encountering the invisible. Our job as first teachers is not to stifle the mysteries of faith, but open them.

After our little exchange my son was not ready for a quiz in sacramental theology. Nor should he have been. His mind was able to engage the invisible through his own thinking, but the strange mystery of “Jesus inside the bread” is now his to ponder with his own imagination. He is, after all, only four, and he has a lifetime to consider the sublime mystery of the Real Presence.

And lest my wife and I beam with pride after our little exchange, our son immediately followed our explanation with a declaration of another sort: “I don’t like the Yankees,” he announced in the same tone, as if we had been talking about baseball the whole time. Perhaps he did not learn as much as we thought. Or perhaps he was helping us fulfill our Lord’s commendation to become little just like him to experience the kingdom of Heaven. In teaching him the invisible, he taught us how to approach it.

David G Bonagura, Jr.

David G Bonagura, Jr.

David G. Bonagura Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism (Cluny Media).