The Cure for the Catechesis Blues

One of the most insightful bits of pastoral theology in Augustine's On Instructing  Beginners in the Faith is his diagnosis and remedies for a lackluster teaching ministry. A priest from nearby Carthage has written to Augustine for help because his teaching has become boring, and Augustine gives six potential reasons for his discouragement, and some possible solutions.

Some of these are more practical (like make sure you have chairs for people who get tired standing up), while some are deeply theological. I want to look at two in particular here that are especially insightful. Both deal with how to remain interested in the more basic, rudimentary features of Christian teaching.

Imitating the Humble Savior

A first reason for discouragement is the gap between our brilliant thoughts and their slow minds:

"One reason for discouragement ... may be that our hearer does not grasp our insight, and so we are compelled to come down as it were from the pinnacles of thought and delay over each slow syllable in the plains far below" (10.15).

If our thoughts (well, Scripture's thoughts) are too high and lofty, and it would ruin them to "translate" them for the hearer's who doesn't have our same level of insight, it seems like we just shouldn't say anything at all.

To combat this form of discouragement, Augustine suggests we take our cue from the Master teacher, who has "shown us an example that we might follow in his steps" (1 Pet 2:21). This example is, namely, that of Christ's humbling himself in becoming a human, and dying on the cross (Phil. 2:6–8). What else did Christ do, Augustine asks, except "become weak for the weak in order to gain the weak" (1 Cor. 9:22). 

They way to overcome this kind of discouragement and find delight is by following the steps of the master—we go down to go up:

"if our understanding finds its delight within, in the brightest of secret places, let it also delight in the following insight into the ways of love: the more love goes down in a spirit of service into the ranks of the lowliest people, the more surely it rediscovers the quiet that is within when its good conscience testifies that it seeks nothing of those to whom it goes down but their eternal salvation." 

We may be more enraptured by that flash of insight we have when we read a brilliant piece of theology. But Augustine rightly points us to the proper ordering of our loves: any proper contemplative insight ought to move us towards compassion for our neighbor, to greater Christlike humility. 

A Perichoretic Theology of Catechesis

Another cause for boredom in our teaching is that "we find it distasteful to be constantly rehearsing familiar phrases that are suited to the ears of small children" (12.17). In catechesis, we deal with the basics of the faith—especially the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Decalogue. After a while it could seem to get rather repetitive and basic. Let's talk about something more interesting like the economic and immanent trinity, or that cool book on the New Perspective in Pauline theology. 

Again, though, Augustine cautions against this kind of intellectual pride (which in Confessions 10 he'll diagnose as the vice of curiositas). Instead, he counsels, we should "draw close to these small children with a brother's love, or a father's or a mother's," and as a we do, we will find that "as a result of our empathy with them, the oft-repeated phrases will sound new to us also."

To describe the kind of compassion that we ought to bring to those we're teaching, Augustine draws on the perichoretic language of John—that the sense of "mutual indwelling" one another to such a degree that we become knit together in one body:

"For this feeling of compassion is so strong that, when our listeners are touched by us as we speak and we are touched by them as they learn, each of us comes to dwell in the other, and so they, as it were, speak in us what they hear, while we in some way learn in them what we teach." 

Augustine compares this to giving someone a tour of your hometown. It's familiar territory—these are the same old sites you drive by everyday, usually without even noticing. But when you're showing someone around your town for the first time, you also begin to see it through your friend's eyes, and so you see things afresh. Our own enjoyment, Augustine says, "is revived by sharing in the enjoyment that others derive from seeing them for the first time." And this enjoyment only increases the closer our friendship is, "for the more the bond of love allows us to be present in others, the more what has grown old becomes new again in our own eyes as well."

There's a key insight here, and it goes back to the point he made earlier: true contemplation isn't really true unless it shares it with others. There's something inherently other-oriented in a genuine love of truth. Our contemplation of the divine is not fully realized until those we love also catch a glimpse of it is well.

"If ... we have already made some little headway in contemplation, we are no longer happy if those whom we love are delighted and astounded when they consider the works produced by human hands; we want them rather to lift up their minds to the design and purpose of the maker, and to rise higher still to the veneration and praise of God, the creator of all, in whom love has its riches goal."

And so, we can't pursue the knowledge of God without incorporating others into it. Approaching our study of truth with this in view enables us to re-invigorate ourselves with the joy of teaching the basics.

"How much more then should we be pleased when people now come to us to acquire knowledge of God himself, for to acquire knowledge of God is the object of all our learning. How much more too ought we to find refreshment in their fresh approach, so that, if our preaching customarily lacks warmth, it may catch fire from the unaccustomed attention which which they listen" (12.17).