Friends of mine are parents to five teenagers. When they were five infants, toddlers, and tykes, they were cute, fun, and adorable—also a handful. These parents, who have a clear and unified sense of God and faith, found it easy and enjoyable to teach their little kids about the Lord, right versus wrong, and making good choices on an elementary level. It’s a bit more difficult now that they’re teenagers when the issues of life are murky with increased exposure to the world, broadened experiences, and enhanced moral dilemmas. Yet, whereas many parents claim that they’d like to freeze time when their children are small and adorable, these parents find the teen years to be even more enjoyable. The energy of adolescents, their eagerness to challenge traditional thought, and their search for deeper meaning and self-understanding, combine to present a tremendous period for growth and identity. It is also a prime time for faith formation and embracing one’s identity in and with God.
The old Baltimore Catechism offers Catholics a good foundation for our religious faith. Though anyone who reads it from the perspective of modern times would find some of the illustrations and dialogue to be comical, disrespectful to other beliefs, and even, at times, misguided, it presents a pretty good elementary sense of what our church teaches. But as people develop their faith lives and relationship with God, they should also advance beyond the base level. Unfortunately, it seems that many, if not most, Catholics don’t advance much but instead prefer to exist in an elementary realm where every religious question is given an answer. But if we advance to a more teenage state of faith, we will delve into areas of mystery where we recognize that answers don’t exist for all of our questions—at least not on this side of eternity. This advanced adolescent stage of faith development invites us to go deeper. Rather than knowing about God, it guides us to know God better, and rather than educating us about religion it takes us to more profound levels of spiritual union.
In my experience, a lot of teenagers in school understand this better than many adults do (probably because after we graduate we are permitted to take off our thinking caps). During my years at Saint Thomas More Parish, I served as chaplain at Notre Dame de Sion and was a frequent guest in religion classes there as well as at Rockhurst High. One great example of adolescent faith development occurred when I joined Mr. Norman in teaching a theology class at Rockhurst called Prayer and Worship. In it, each student took a turn facilitating a class period in which he selected a piece from literature or art—lyrics of a song, a painting, poem, sketch, photograph, or obscure prayer—and presented it on three levels (examples: The Beach Boys’ Love and Mercy, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata, or a favorite rap song). First was the surface message, i.e., the presented meaning of what we hear, read, or view; this is when classmates shared their perspectives of what was expressed in the piece. For the next level, the student presented deeper meaning by researching what was going on with the artist or author at the time of its creation, what might be hidden in the words or picture, what directions or mysteries the creator might be pointing us toward; that brought a more vigorous level of conversation and interaction. Then we went to the divine level to search out what still deeper meanings exist even beyond that known to the author of the product. At this “god-level,” students brought forth perceptive insights, enlightened spiritual discernment, and, in some cases, incredible grasp of mystical transcendence that children and adults usually miss.
It’s a marvelous experience to witness teenager’s faith advance beyond catechisms and commandments as they recognize God’s beauty, truth, and goodness revealed personally to them in mysterious ways. Through their search for meaning and insight into this sort of divine revelation, they challenge and inspire me to also go deeper. Much as Jesus instructed His fishermen-disciples to lower their nets, to go below the surface to seek greater understanding of His words and actions, so does He invite us to go deeper to recognize His presence in what we hear, read, or gaze upon. Teenagers, in their blunt and inquisitive nature, their unabashed energy and exploration, are good companions and guides for us to advance our faith beyond an elementary level if we are willing to engage their challenge—for their challenge to us to go deeper reflects Christ’s challenge to those who followed Him.