By Fr. Sean McDermott
Editor's Note: This is the second part of a series on teaching youth in a digital age. The first part may be found here. Given the rapid increase of Zoom or other video platforms and the rise of distance/digital learning platforms, we have decided to write a series of post about how teaching in a digital age affects youth and provide resources on how to teach youth groups.
The Grammar and Vision of the Christian Life
In order to learn Latin, students must understand the grammar or ‘content’ of the language. This takes time memorizing and studying, but it will not be beneficial unless the students use their imagination in order to understand the charts and vocabulary at a deeper level. Therefore, I always encouraged the students to put the charts to songs, draw them out as illuminated manuscripts, create pictures and wacky sentences for hard vocabulary words, etc. The options, of course, are endless, but it required this imaginative work to understand the grammar fully. Likewise, kids must understand ‘grammar’ of the Christian life. They need to know the stories of the Bible, the list of virtues and vices, etc., and this work must be done imaginatively.
This is not a new idea, of course. St. Paul uses imaginative analogies to describe how Christians should prepare to face the world as a soldier putting on armor (Ephesians 6). Medieval manuscripts are full of wonderful and imaginative teaching aids such as ‘virtue trees’ or monsters depicting certain vices.
It is helpful for students to still use these methods as well, given that they are age-appropriate. Younger children should draw out images of soldiers wearing the armor of God, even making portraits of themselves wearing that armor. Older kids could follow the medieval examples and draw out more complex charts of virtues and vices, while depicting each one with a character or symbol. They should be encouraged to consider the order and placement of each virtue and vice, thinking about what virtue counteracts the opposite vice.
All of these imaginative methods of learning the grammar of the Christian life must be combined with an imaginative vision of the end result: living out a Christian life. This brings up several important considerations in regard to teaching virtue to youth. Unlike adults who are more set in their ways, youth tend to still be searching for self-identity. They have seen examples through books, movies, role models, etc., but they are still trying on these examples in their own life. As the youth are growing into a virtuous life, they have to start looking at their own lives and start imaging what a good life looks like.
Therefore, when teaching youth about the Christian life, it is imperative that we help them engage their imagination to see what a Christian life would be like. Let me give a couple of examples that had some success. I encouraged the youth to envision their life as a garden in which certain plants (the virtues) are growing. The weeds (vices) might also be growing in the garden, sometimes appearing very similar to the virtues. Once they wrote about their life as a garden, we thought about which virtues need to be watered more, which weeds to pluck out.
For those less agriculturally inclined, I asked them to envision their lives as a video game like Zelda. They are on a quest and need certain weapons (virtues) to defeat the level bosses (vices). I encouraged them to write the narrative of their video game, effectively making them see what virtues and vices are in their lives. Through these imaginative exercises the youth could engage the virtues and vices in a new way that deepened understanding and moved them to action in their own life.
Finally, stories in the Bible and the Saints’ lives are also vital to engage the youth’s imagination and help them envision what their life should look like as Christian. Learning the stories of Ruth, Timothy, or St. Nicholas can help the child think how they want to live their own life. These saints provide good examples but they also provide an arena in which a child may ‘play out’ his or her own life. They will come to realize that their life has the possibility of growth just like these other humans. In the wide variety of personalities and cultures, they will see how the life of Christ is imaged through these brothers and sisters. Read how St. John Chrysostom encourages his parish at the end of his first sermon about the martyrs from 4 Maccabees.
“Taking all these factors into consideration, let us, women and men, young and old, inscribe her contests and wrestling matches on our heart as if on a tablet and have her endurance stored up in our soul as a perpetual counsel for scorning troubles, so that by imitating the virtue of these saints here, we may be able to share their crowns too there, with us displaying as much endurance in the irrational passions as they exhibited philosophy in their tortures, in anger and desire for money, bodies, vainglory and all other such things.”
Notice how Chrysostom encourages his parishioners to emulate the life of the saint by ‘inscribing’ her story onto their hearts. By dwelling upon her magnificent struggle and death and imagining the same virtue in his own life, the Christian may grow in virtue and turn aside from the temptations facing them.
This is a great example of how the use of imagination is so important for youth to learn how to lead virtuous lives. In this case, the story of the saint becomes their story as their lives are wrapped up into the life of the saint, into the life of the Body. As they grow, the story of their life becomes tied into the story of their Maker, Jesus Christ. Their imagination, their will, their desires, and loves grow into His as they become little Christs, His Body.
Fr. Sean McDermott is Curate at All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, VA and Editor in Chief of Earth & Altar.