As a department leader, I insist that every period of teaching starts with a prayer. About three years ago I began to question why I insisted upon this. Is it acceptable to say prayers just for the sake of it? When a teacher says a Hail Mary at the start of every lesson, what impact does it have on the spirituality of our students? Very little I suspect. Prayer at the start of a lesson should be a positive experience for our learners, should be linked to lesson themes and objectives and could encourage students to pray more in their lives. Prayer needs to be a positive experience for both the teacher and the student. When we asked students and RE staff about their praying habits, most said that they couldn’t recall the prayers that were said at the start of lessons and that they had been said simply because it had become a matter of routine.
I began by asking students about times when they have prayed. The results were varied, it was clear that some element of prayer did exist in their lives. Responses were mainly; I pray when I go to church, or, I pray when someone is sick or when bad things happen. When asked if prayers continued when they had received what they had prayed for, students were a little evasive. On the whole, children said that they simply did not pray. I decided to think about prayer from the perspective of a 14-year-old student and began to think about the picture that I have of their lives. I could never imagine the level of stress that these students have in their daily lives. Many live in broken homes, some having no male role model or father figure.
Some are expected to fulfil adult roles and behave in adult ways at a young age. Unfortunately, some have been brought up in deprived areas with experiences of social problems. Some students, from affluent areas, have lived in homes with parents who have very intense careers and the typical idea of the nuclear family is certainly one that most of our students would not be able to comprehend. Some are brought up as Catholics, but are not taken to church or supported in their faith by their parents. Their parents were brought up in a similar way. Children’s lives are more varied today, as are their experiences and the consistency of these experiences. Having thought about their lives in more depth I went back to a selection of children and asked them about times when they are quiet, times when they reflected and probed for information about times in their lives when they obviously do pray, but they don’t understand this as being actual prayer. Their responses have led me to believe that it is not the children who have abandoned prayer rather it is adults who have misinterpreted their needs. Typical responses were:
• When I am stressed I will go to a field behind my estate where I will sit and look out upon all the people who I know. It helps me to relax and to think. • At night, before I close my eyes, I go through all the things I have done during the day and think about all the things I need to do tomorrow. • I get stressed when revising for exams, so a friend has taught me some breathing exercises that help me to focus on my revision and break it down into manageable chunks. • When I need to think things through I go to the gym and get into the zone. When I have finished I feel a lot more positive. Are the children here not describing elements of reflection, peace, ways of prioritising their emotions and energy, relaxation techniques, focus and requests for time out in their hectic lives? A typical prayer does not have the desired affect and maybe children have found their own way to focus and to direct their thoughts to a higher power. Because of this we decided to try out a few things in the RE department. Firstly, our daily worship is now linked to major events that have happened or the topic content of our lessons. Prayers are sometimes tactile, opportunities to use actions. We have really been helped by the production of Swatch and Pray by Fr David O’Malley. This series of prayers and reflections is accompanied by linked actions and elements of focus that allow the students to visualise their prayers and thoughts and make it real to them in their lives. Usually a member of staff will select a passage that may link into a lesson or form period. Students have their favourite prayer and many request to have a certain reflection read out. It has certainly enhanced our collective prayer experiences and has been adopted as a whole school approach to prayer.
In addition, the RE department has listened to the feedback from students and has built into the curriculum key opportunities for children to pray. This is done via guided journeys and meditations which are held in the school chaplaincy room or the school chapel. The students are taken through breathing exercises before being given advice on how to focus and clear their minds so that they can fully become in tune with the reflections. They are then taken on a journey accompanied by music, incense and candles and are encouraged to think about the things that they need to prioritise in life. This is done in a subtle manner and relies on complete trust between the teacher and the student. The students love doing this. They are at peace throughout the session and show a maturity that helps to prove that prayer is still important to teenagers. They tell us that they rarely get time to be quiet and that stillness and peace usually comes only via sleep. The constant requests for meditation are now overwhelming and it is up to my team to ensure that students fully understand why we do this and get them to try and do it in their personal lives.
So it isn’t difficult to get children to pray; they actually want to pray. The difficulty is making prayer relevant to their life experiences and shaping it in a form they can enjoy, feel safe participating in and gain peace. The proof is clear for observers in our school to see. Students are curious about prayer and they are obsessive about buying and carrying symbols of their religion. SDB badges and lapel crucifixes are worn by many; there are constant requests for more. Rosary beads are very popular and we have held classes to show students how to use them traditionally and in a more modern way. Prayer is obviously still an important part of the lives of our children; but it took us some time to understand their needs. The challenge is to find out how to help young people to make prayer meaningful and important.