At a recent Making Disciples Institute, Diana and I were making the point that the encounter of a seeker with the mystery of Christ is first of all an emotional experience. The Holy Spirit moves the heart of the seeker, causing her to be restless and to long for something that she cannot yet name.
Our temptation as RCIA catechists is to name that experience for the seeker. Using sometimes rather weighty, theological language, we want to tell the seeker all about, for example, the mystery of the Trinity and the sanctifying effects of grace.
In most cases, this is probably an ineffective method. We will be more effective in leading seekers into a deeper intimacy with the Person of Jesus Christ if we can listen to what the seeker has to say about her encounter and guide her in naming that experience for herself.
Setting seekers straight
After having said something along those lines at the institute, a deacon came up to me during the break. He shared his experience with me that seekers in his community were particularly inward-looking and self-absorbed. He said that because of that, he does not discuss the seekers’ emotions with them. Instead, he presents, in a straightforward fashion, the doctrine of the church as a corrective to their self-focused attitudes.
In this description of events, it can sound as though there are two distinct catechetical strategies: one based on the affective experience of the seeker and one based on the logical presentation of doctrine.
I think this is too stark of a contrast. In an article titled “Christian Affectations and the Catechumenate” (Worship, May 1, 1978), John A. Berntsen writes: “Catechesis is the shaping of religious emotions and affections in the context of teaching doctrine.” So instead of focusing solely on the emotions of the seeker or, on the other hand, denying and dismissing the emotions of the seeker, the method of the successful catechist would be to shape the emotions of the seeker in light of church tradition.
In other words, if a given seeker is truly self-absorbed, how can we encourage him to locate his love of self into a larger context through loving Christ? There cannot be a separation between religious experience (the affective encounter with mystery), and thoughtful belief (the understanding of what the encounter with mystery means).
Berntsen turns to the catechetical lectures of some of the great catechists from the patristic era. He notes that the shaping of emotions was a fundamental intention of teachers such as Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia.
Berntsen also notes that these catechists were concerned about the quality of the emotions of the seekers. That is, they wanted to know what kind of affections the seekers had. If the seeker had feelings that led to behaviors contrary the Christ-like living, the patristic catechists were not so much trying to eliminate or sublimate those emotions. Instead, they would amp up the religious emotional experiences available in the rites of the church so as to transform the base emotions of the seekers into more fulfilling passions centered in Christ.
To say it another way, if someone was delighted with himself, the catechist would, primarily through ritual, lead the person to find exponentially more delight in himself in Christ.
Cyril of Jerusalem referred to this movement to deeper experience as enlightenment. One’s body might be plunged into the water at baptism, but if his heart was not enlightened, the emotional experience would remain focused on the candidate and not on the mystery of Christ. Once a seeker’s heart was enlightened, he would know Christ. He would have both an affective encounter with the mystery and an understanding of what the encounter with mystery meant for his life.
Becoming baptismal people
There is a difference between experience and doctrine, but emphasizing those differences is not fruitful. Rather, in imitation of the great catechists of the patristic era, we should instead strive to recognize how experience and doctrine are bound up together. Berntsen concludes:
The pedagogy of the early Church was not exactly experiential nor yet doctrinal and instructional. It was a unity of teaching and experience which, taken as a whole, was understood to be at the behest of the paschal mystery itself. Thus, it is not catechesis and baptism which must become experiential: experience itself must become baptismal and paschal. (Emphasis in original)