I’ve spent almost all of my adult life researching an Orthodox approach to education. Twenty years later, it has become a deep passion of mine, which has led me on an unexpected and joyous journey.
When I realized we would only be an hour away from St. Vladimir Seminary in New York on our trip east last month, I somewhat begged my husband if we could take a detour to the seminary so I could make copies of some of the unpublished works in their library. He’s always been incredibly supportive of my research and the time I take to work on Illumination Learning, so he didn’t even hesitate to tell me yes. It’s an understatement to say how incredibly thankful I am to have him as my husband.
I could not have been more happy when he dropped me off at the St. Vlad’s library and took our kids to the park to play for a couple of hours. With rolls of quarters in my pockets, I set to work copying several works by Koulomzin, Schmemann, and Tarasar.
One of the unpublished works at St. Vlad’s is Dr. Constance Tarasar’s doctoral dissertation, A Process Model for the Design of Curriculum for Orthodox Christian Religious Education. It is seriously a gem. The basis for her entire dissertation is the explanation of how the Church has used the model of worship, teaching, and praxis as the educational method for teaching.
“This integral connection between worship, teaching and practice continued in the church and was formalized in the 2nd to the 4th centuries when an elaborate system of education called the catechumenate was developed in the church.” This “provided a holistic approach to Christian religious education through total involvement of persons in the life of the Christian community – in worship, teaching and praxis.” (Constance Tarasar, A Process Model for the Design of Curriculum for Orthodox Christian Religious Education)
Worship is our active participation in living our faith and glorifying God. One of the ways we do this is by attending services as often as possible. The Divine Liturgy is a teaching service. We are engaged in the service through all five of our senses – touch: making the sign of the cross, lighting candles, kissing icons; hear: the Gospel & Epistle readings, sermons, singing the hymns; sight: reading the icons, watching the movement in the service, the different colors of the vestments; smell: the incense and candles burning; and taste: Holy Communion. The entire structure of the service is set up to teach us about God.
How often do we attend the services offered at our parish? Do we show up on time? Do we stay until the end? It is through our example that we teach our children the importance we place on worship. How are we striving to fill ourselves with Christ in order to shine forth the light of Christ?
“…’Liturgical catechesis’ is not just an interesting custom of the ancient Church, but the traditional method of religious education” (pg 11)
“What then should Christian education be, if not the introduction into this life of the Church, an unfolding of its meaning, its contents and its purpose? And how can it introduce anyone into this life, if not by participation in the liturgical services on the one hand, and their explanation on the other hand? ‘O taste and see how good is the Lord’: first taste, then see – i.e. understand. The method of liturgical catechesis is truly the Orthodox method of religious education because it proceeds from the Church and because the Church is its goal.” (pg 13)
– Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Liturgy and Life: Christian Development Through Liturgical Experience
This encompasses both teaching and learning. (The teacher perpetually as learner as well.) Teaching includes not only the passing along of knowledge but also how you engage the learner. Engaging a learner in a variety of different delivery methods (visual, auditory, written, hands-on, etc), just as the Divine Liturgy does, enables better retention because the students have the ability to be taught according to their strengths.
Learning is a lifelong process from infancy to old age that can neither be confined nor defined by a classroom setting. Therefore, teaching moments can be planned, formal lessons in a church, a school, and at home – or they can be impromptu, informal teachable moments anywhere.
Do we attend Bible studies or retreats at our parish? Do we read books about Orthodoxy or listen to podcasts to learn more about our faith? Do we rely exclusively on a textbook style of teaching? Do we rely too heavily on a craft, without much of a lesson? What are additional ways of teaching beyond worksheets and crafts? (Textbooks, worksheets, and crafts are not bad teaching methods in themselves, but there are additional ways to engage students’ in their learning strengths. Students who are highly visual-spatial learners will struggle with doing exclusively worksheets or listening to lectures. Students who are highly auditory-sequential learners will struggle with doing exclusively crafts especially if there are not written, step-by-step instructions.)
“You can teach only that which you have made your own, and this means that there is always the danger that your personal mistaken judgment or insufficient knowledge will be reflected in your teaching.” (pg 19)
– Sophie Koulomzin, Our Church and Our Children
Praxis is living our faith everyday of our lives. We cannot compartmentalize God to only Sunday morning and call ourselves Orthodox Christians. Being a Christian is a way of life.
How do we point everything we do towards God? How do we live a Christ-centered life?
It is one thing to intellectually know the definition of fasting. It is quite another thing to experience it. How many of us know what we should eat to be healthy, yet how many of us actually do it? How many of us know how much we should exercise, yet how many of us actually do it? How many of us know how we should fast, pray, and give alms, yet how many of us actually do it?
How many of us are taking what we learned during the Divine Liturgy or from church school (retreats, Bible study, inquirer’s class, etc) and taking it home with us throughout the week?
Praxis is critical – it’s participation.
“When Christianity became the accepted ‘everyone’s religion,’ when it was easier to be nominally Christian than to be non-Christian, a new type of teaching method was introduced by the desert fathers who through their striking feats and their way of life proclaimed the supreme importance of ‘living in the presence of God’ in a world where Christian and non-Christian values became inextricably confused.” (pg 12)
“There was an Orthodox way of life that made itself felt, in which the liturgical calendar and liturgical services permeated the social patterns of home and village life.” (pg 14)
– Sophie Koulomzin, Lectures in Orthodox Religious Education
“Christian pastors and religious educators must recover the educational dimensions of worship and praxis alongside that of schooling in order to restore a sense of wholeness to education in the church.”
– Constance Tarasar, A Process Model for the Design of Curriculum for Orthodox Christian Religious Education