It is hard to walk more than 10 feet in our sons’ school, St. Monica, without seeing a wall hanging, bulletin board, statue or class project that has to do with some aspect of God, faith or values. Some might see this as a lack of subtlety, but I like it.
If St. Monica School chooses to barrage my children with construction-paper Gospel quotes, glossy inspirational posters, and crucifixes at every turn, I’m not going to complain. When they’re not in school, McDonald’s is doing the same thing with ads for super-sized fries.
I like that every time third-grade Jacob comes in for recess, he sees this year’s theme — “God has chosen you,” hanging in the hall near the drinking fountain. I like that Liam needs to walk past a bulletin board with a Psalm on it on his way to his kindergarten classroom. Granted, he may only be able to read the high-frequency words in that Psalm, but still, I like it. I’m glad Saint Monica herself and her three children stand guard in a beautiful oil painting outside the office, and a statue of the child Jesus watches over the children as they go up and down the stairs.
St. Monica is not unique among Catholic schools in its commitment to adorning hallways and classrooms with sacred words and images. I’ve taught in two Catholic schools and visited many, and while each school has its own style, they hold in common an understanding that if faith is to be part of children’s school day, expressions of that faith must be all around them.
Ann Chrusciel, a sixth grade teacher at St. Monica, put it this way: “The spiritual component of St. Monica is like air inside of a balloon. It’s what’s filling up the school.” While Ann was speaking specifically of St. Monica, I believe the same can be said for any Catholic elementary school, high school or university that does its job well.
I see the “air in the balloon” analogy so clearly when my sons have their friends over. As I drive kids home after a play date, talk invariably turns to school. Mixed in with conversations about who scored the most touchdowns at recess are off-handed remarks that I wouldn’t hear if they went to a public school. Sentences that start, “Yesterday, after church, we…” or “For Advent, our class is…”
Before Christmas, Jacob and his friend Joe used the ride home to practice for their upcoming Christmas concert. They were belting out I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In with an energy particular to eight-year-old boys. As they bellowed “…the Virgin Mary and Christ were there, on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day…” I glanced in the rearview mirror and couldn’t help but think that we already got our money’s worth out of our tuition payment, and the year was only half over.
I think Catholic schools do their job so well in terms of faith formation that they raise the bar for us as parents. If St. Monica School hands our sons Christianity neatly wrapped up in religion assignments, prayer services and paintings of Saints, it’s up to us to unwrap that Christianity at home. When Christianity is unwrapped, though, it gets messy. And the closer you follow Jesus, the messier it can get. (The areas Christ chooses to trod — where people are hungry, naked, or in prison — are rarely neat and tidy.)
My husband and I once heard a great homily that included the refrain, “Come on in, the muck is fine.” The priest was saying that being a follower of Jesus is not like diving into crystal clear water, it’s more like wading into muck. To be a follower of Jesus is to get involved in messy situations you might rather avoid. In muck, you can’t see the bottom, and you fear you might get stuck. From the shore, muck can look scary, but once you’re in — once you’re immersed in it — you find it’s not so difficult after all, and you invite others to join you. Come on in, the muck is fine.
If St. Monica’s job is to teach my boys about their faith, my charge is to help them live it. Our current family muck happens to be foster care. The children’s court system is murky and little is clear about our foster daughter’s future. From the boys’ point of view, Teenasia is equal parts fun little sister and a whirling tornado who can destroy a Lego tower in one swoop. And the messiest part is yet to come — the day when Teenasia is returned to her birth family and we are left in a quieter, neater house with all Lego towers standing. And on that day, I will be so grateful to be sending our boys to a school where the spiritual component is like air in a balloon. I will be so grateful for the prayers that will surround my sons.
This Catholic Schools Week, I give thanks for all Catholic schools, and I pray for the parents who choose those schools for their children. I pray that we may always view Catholic education as just the beginning. That we will have the courage to wade into the muck ourselves, so that we might be able to call out to our children, “Come on in, the muck is fine.”