Dear Liam, I am writing to thank you for your contribution to our class this year. Most of the time you sat down the back but I could tell you were listening. Even when you were talking to the person next to you, you were waiting to hear something you could sink your teeth into. You loved biting back.
I relish teaching Year 8 Religion. The age of fourteen is perfect for the subject. A couple of years younger, and students are still a bit too accepting. A couple of years later, they seem to have made up their minds about a few things, although I know from experience that life has a way of teasing open even the most closed minds.
Year 8, however, is an age of articulate wonder. That wonder can be expressed in awkward and disbelieving words. Yet there is a deep search going on and it is a privilege to share that search with you.
Sometimes, the official curriculum fails to do justice to where fourteen year olds really are on life’s journey. It can be dry and arid and, worst of all, inhospitable. God invites all your questions with an open ear and responds with patient wit. Jesus was often called ‘rabbi’, which means ‘teacher’ and, apart from everything else he did, his lessons have resonated through the ages. Mine are more likely to resonate through the corridor when I get cross with yet another child whose attention has been trapped by their iPads like flypaper. Jesus knew when to step away from the approved curriculum to meet the real needs of people. He would have been a source of frustration to the educational bureaucrats of today.
One day, we had strayed off the topic yet again. I think we were meant to be covering the difference between actual grace and sanctifying grace, but the class wanted my views on same sex marriage and, even more desperately, they wanted to know what happens after you die.
I did my best to explain my belief in eternal life. I said that the experience of God may be beyond words but that does not mean it isn’t real. Something can be beyond reason but that doesn’t mean it is irrational. I mentioned that, for example, I have often had the sense that people I have loved and who have died are still praying for me and my family, especially my children. Their love continues to sustain us in a mysterious way.
That was when you, Liam, shot up your hand.
‘Sir, you said, ‘have you ever heard the word hallucination?’
The class laughed. Put on the spot, I didn’t know what to say.
This is when the text book does come in handy.
‘Alright,’ I said, ‘you need to know the difference between actual grace and sanctifying grace. It might be on the exam.’
I have often told my students that the exam that really matters is the one at the pearly gates. Even so, earthly exams have their purpose, not least when routines need to be imposed on chaos.
I thought long and hard about your question, Liam, and about the leap of faith that we all have to make. For me, I first made that leap when I was in Year 8, on a camp, looking at the stars in the night sky and feeling the warmth of a log fire. I felt then both the closeness and the majesty of God. But I have made the leap countless times across more and more challenging gaps. I want my students to make that leap. It is the leap to freedom.
Deep down, I think you want that too. There was a question hiding within your question. The deeper question was about trust and authenticity. Who and what can you believe? I am sure you want a faith and not gimmicks or clever words or lifeless answers. The years ahead will be full of invitations to discover exactly what you most need. God will be working around the clock for your freedom.
Michael McGirr is the Dean of Faith and Mission at St Kevin’s College in Melbourne and author of Finding God’s Traces.