The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Thursday, August 23, 2007

On Old Catechisms

You need to learn to walk before you can run. You need to learn to spell before you can read. And when you are first learning to eat, you first need to be spoon-fed by your mother.

In the year 2000, when I dropped out of college and lived in a retreat center of the Society of St. Pius X, I was put in charge of educating five young children ages 7 and 8. I know, you're thinking, "This guy has no business teaching anyone anything!" You would be more than right, especially considering I was only 21 years old at the time! But I did do my best, even though I found out definitively after that experience that the teaching charism is one that I definitely don't have.

My favorite class, of course, was catechism. And this being the SSPX, we used nothing after the year 1965. The book I taught out of was St. Joseph's Baltimore Catechism. With its cartoon-like pictures and its bare-bone approach to doctrine, it was a cinch to teach out of. It asks a question. It gives an answer. You memorize the answer, and that's it. And if my kids asked any more questions, I could give them a nonchalant, "Don't worry about it". (As my pre-school teacher mother could tell you, avoid using curt, sarcastic phrases around children since they will turn them against you with a dexterity of a person ten times their age.)

I would then often go back in my mind to my own youth where I gazed over old catechisms from times past. Growing up, my family didn't have the means to buy new books, but we did have some old ones lying around. I learned a lot of history and science from 1950's textbooks, which explains my present obsession with Latin and Neoplatonism: I like old things because I am used to them. Among these was an old catechism, though I do not remember which one it was. I do remember, however, learning the fascinating phrase, "the mystical body of Christ" from it. A lot of things from that beaten up old catechism really sunk into my head and stuck.

Going back to my botched teaching experience, one of my favorite books to idly peruse was My Catholic Faith. It was such a fun book since it taught you various truths of the Catholic faith with really neat illustrations. Some of the questions, especially about the Sixth and Ninth Commandments, had drawings that were something out of a film noire scene or a pulp fiction dime store novel. (Also on this, one of my favorite books is My Imitation of Christ, which is Thomas a Kempis' spiritual classic accompanied by similar drawings.) There is no better way to learn about the marks of the Church or preternatural gifts than to read about them in comic book form!

In spite of my rather confused spiritual and theological journey, I am of the firm opinion that if I had to teach people the Catholic Faith, I would use these books, not because I think they encompass all that you can know but rather because they have all that you really need to know. The teaching authority of the Church does not exist in order to tell us what it all means. I am almost as confused as anyone when I pop open a Bible. It is there, rather, to tell us what we can and cannot say about something. And that is why catechisms are so useful. Like my students, we can keep asking "why" after "why", but the depth of the mystery will never be exhausted. At the end of the day, that curt set of phrases is all we know, and we must cling to it like a child clings to his mother's skirt.

Many like the old catechisms since they think that everything that came after a certain year is no good: the result of a time of confusion that is now perishing away. That is no longer my attitude. Just as with the old Mass, I rejoice that these books are starting to be re-published and re-read. But they will not take the place of what has developed since the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps when I was a very young child, we reached the apex of experimentation and a sense that a new order was emerging to take the place of the old one. With Pope Benedict XVI's reign in particular, it is hoped that we will increasingly have what Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre called "the experiment of tradition". This will hopefully be the start of a new dialogue that has been occurring over and over again in the history of the Church between the old and the new, the necessary and the ideal, innovation and tradition.
"Why did God make you? A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven."


At 9:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, but don't the crew cuts in those old books look rather dated?

At 2:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think St. Joseph's Baltimore Catechism is great.
The pictures are good actually somewhat muliticultural.
It is great to teach kids but also good for review and adults.

I do also like the more narrative Faith Explained by I think Leo Terese.

Despite your denials, I bet you are a great teacher.

If I were a boss, I would use the St. Joseph's Baltimore Catechism as the main text in CCD or Catholic schools.


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