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Joining the Dots: a programme of spiritual …

12 June, 2012

joiningdotsTeachers in Catholic schools have so much to cope with in the daily grind of classes, preparing, correcting, meetings, invigilating, etc. that the vision which inspired them to become a teacher in the first place can become blurred or even fade away altogether. They need to nourish their spirituality. Joining the Dots is an attempt to provide that kind of nourishment. It is a 5-week programme offering teachers, administrators, board of management members, parish educators and pastoral ministers an opportunity to reflect on the deeper meaning of what thay do and why they do it.

Amalee Meehan, PhD Boston College, taught science with Coláiste Iognáid, Galway, before joining CEIST – Catholic Educationn an Irish Schools Trust – where she works in faith development. She teaches on the MA Christian Leadership in Education with Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, and is co-author of two religious education textbooks for US Catholic High Schools as part of the Credo Series (Veritas, forthcoming).


1. Original Context: The Irish Catholic School
2. Facilitating Joining the Dots
3. Joining the Dots – The Five Week Programme

Week 1: Spirituality and the Journey of Life
Week 2: Being a Reflective Practitioner in the Christian Tradition
Week 3: Imago Deb Who Am I and Whose Am I?
Week 4: Jesus – The Face of God
Week 5: Connecting the Dots: Your Faith, Your Spirituality and Your Community

4. The Pedagogy of Joining the Dots
5. The Theology and Spirituality of Joining the Dots (written with Dr Daniel O’Connell, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick)


144pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie


Standing in the Cafe Paradis in Cabo Roig, South East Spain choosing helado with my two-year-old son, a woman approaches me. Instead of the burst of Spanish I was expecting, she said, ‘I think I know you. You came and spoke with us at the beginning of the school year last September. I’m from Presentation Secondary School in Limerick and we had a great Joining the Dots experience with you. We are still finding ourselves pulled between Martha and Mary — the polar temptations of a teacher’s life.’

The woman was spot on. I had ‘done’ an adapted section of the programme with the staff of her school the previous autumn. Joining the Dots is an initiative in Christian theology and spirituality for educators. What my ‘Spanish’ friend was referring to occurs in Week 2 of the programme — a contemplation on the Scripture passage where Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary (1). It is a piece that teachers in particular really get to grips with as it reflects one of the inherent tensions in teaching — the pull towards action and the longing for contemplation. So often, the reality of daily life goes something like this: ‘I am so busy running about all day — I go from class to class, group to group. I deal with maybe 240 students formally on any given day, and that’s not counting the kids I meet in the corridors or the school yard. I am preparing, marking, and teaching, not to mention disciplining, listening, counselling, consoling, invigilating, examining, nursing, even parenting. It’s all right for the “Marys” of this world, but I don’t have time to sit at the feet of Jesus!’

Of course, as they tease it out, teachers come to realise that although the work of teaching might appear to be all Martha, there are many Mary moments too. There can always be contemplation in action, even in the most active of environments. Mary, in Luke’s story, may have chosen the ‘better part’, but that is not always the case, nor is it the only part. As one member of the very first Dots group remarked, ‘It is Martha, the woman on her feet, who opens the door; it is Martha who bids him welcome.’

Joining the Dots
Joining the Dots came about following a specific request to CEIST (Catholic Education, an Irish Schools Trust) (2) for a programme that would offer teachers time out to reflect on their own spirituality and questions of faith. It began as a school-based programme with no fees, no travel and no exams. Over the space of two years, it has grown into a five-week programme for educators in Catholic settings — school and parish. By ‘educators’ in this context, I mean adult members of a school/parish community who are dealing with people in a teaching-learning environment — teachers, administrators and members of boards of management in schools, as well as parish educators and pastoral ministers. Of course, as primary educators of their children, the term also refers to parents.

In short, Joining the Dots is an invitation to people to explore their spirituality and connect it to their lives, including work lives, and to come to know for themselves the Christian ultimate value that is a personal lived relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Through connecting how God is revealed with the deep desires of the human heart, it hopes to deepen participants’ own faith, praxis and relationships — with God, with themselves, and with others — especially in the context of a Christian community. In the Catholic Christian tradition, there is nothing in everyday life that is irrelevant to the spiritual life. The aim of the programme is to put this rich resource at the service of educators.

Joining the Dots does not presume the religious faith of the participant. Indeed, it is cognisant that, just as there is a diversity of students in Christian schools and settings, so there are educators of varying faith levels and from various faith traditions — and none. On the other hand, it is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. It finds many ways to explore that tradition, for instance through music, art, literature, and particularly Scripture — both Hebrew and Christian.

Theological and spiritual content of Joining the Dots: A summary of the five weeks

  1. Joining the Dots begins by breaking open the concept of spirituality and how an integrated spirituality can help us to live life with meaning. Week 1 identifies our longing for God which is a reflection of God’s longing for us. It explores how God has been revealing Godself to humankind throughout history and is still doing so today. We can look in a special way to Sacred Scripture, to Church tradition, and to our own experience to help us know and take God’s revelation to heart in our lives.
  2. Week 2 explores the notion that if ‘we teach who we are’, then it is important that we know who we are and who we can be. It reflects on ourselves as educators, on the person of Jesus and on Jesus as educator. It concludes with the importance of being a reflective practitioner with Jesus Christ as model and mentor.
  3. If Week 2 contends with ‘who’ we are, then Week 3 moves to explore ‘whose’ we are. It delves into the Creation myths and the concept of Imago Dei to reveal God as bountiful Creator and Loving Father. The third week explores the notion of agape, God as Love. It challenges participants to identify their own evolving images of God.
  4. The Christocentric emphasis of the programme re-emerges in Week 4 centred around the mystery of the Incarnation. Participants explore the 2,000-year-old question Cur Deus homo. Jesus is the face of God and the Gospel message is incarnational. It reaches out to dialogue with human culture, just as Jesus did. We seek to inculturate the Gospel message in all its integrity in our time and culture, specifically in the education community.
  5. The final week focuses on living and working from a Christian spirituality: what this means for the participants — individually and collectively, and for their school. Leaving room for the Spirit in the hustle and bustle of everyday life and engaging in spiritual practices are paramount in cultivating a healthy spirituality.

Thus the roots of the programme are Trinitarian, Christocentric and Incarnational. God the Spirit is the underlying emphasis of Weeks 1 and 5 so the conclusion of the programme feeds back to the beginning, emulating the cycle of life and the Spirit always and forever in our midst. God the Son is the focus of Weeks 2 and 4 — with the central mystery of the Incarnation highlighted specifically in Week 4; God the Father forms the emphasis of Week 3. Inculturation is central to the process — each week must resonate with the lived experience of participants and the reality of how Christian faith is expressed in their lives.

Every week of Joining the Dots begins with silent prayer and reflective journaling. Every week concludes with a different prayer form to include:

  • Contemplation on Scripture
  • Guided meditation
  • The examen
  • Praying with music
  • Communal prayer.

The hope is that every person will find one or more prayer forms that appeal to them which they can incorporate into a daily prayer habit.

Building on what already exists
One of the most important outcomes of Joining the Dots is deepening the bonds of community as it already exists. This is a great advantage of running the programme on site with members of the already extant school/parish community. The shared experience, shared language and shared understandings gained among participants are the hope for the future. Third-level programmes for Christian educators are often faced with the question: what happens when participants qualify and enter an education setting cut off from the learning community? When participants have finished a programme and are ‘released back’ to schools and parishes as isolated units, how can they keep up momentum; where do they go to refresh and re-energise? This is a question that has challenged third-level groups I have worked with such as the ACE Ireland programme with Notre Dame University, USA, or the MA in Christian Leadership in Education in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. Online communities tend to have a very short life cycle, mostly because people miss the personal interaction, and because their actual work environments can differ greatly, the bonds of connection weaken. A school/parish based programme is able to address this difficulty.

How to approach the book
The book is in two parts. Part One addresses the programme directly. Chapter 1 introduces the context of the programme — why it is needed and why now. Chapter 2 is a very short chapter with practical advice for facilitators. In it I share some of the best learning I have gained from my own experience of presenting Joining the Dots, which can be adapted to suit the facilitator’s own style and the needs of the group. Chapter 3 presents the five-week programme, week by week, in the form of a text that participants can use directly and a facilitator can use to present to participants.

Part Two details the theory and praxis of the programme. In Chapter 4 I describe the pedagogy — grounded in the General Directory for Catechesis and brought to life through the Shared Christian Praxis Approach (SCPA) of Thomas H. Groome. The final chapter delineates the theological conceptual framework and spiritual roots of the programme.

In one way, it is not difficult to trace the beginnings of Joining the Dots. John O’Roarke, Principal of Mercy Mounthawk, Tralee, set the challenge and collaborated on the initial venture; fifteen members of his staff took part in that pilot run of seven weeks. Their active participation, feedback and evaluation transformed the project. It would never have got off the ground if other schools had not taken the plunge — St Mary’s Secondary School, Mallow; Coláiste na Toirbhirte, Bandon; St Mary’s Secondary School, Nenagh; and Christ the King Secondary School, Cork were all early hosts.

My colleagues in CEIST, especially Anne Kelleher CEO, Ned Prendergast, Director of Faith Development, Lloyd Bracken and Margaret Farrell, made it possible for me to take on this project
and encouraged me all the way. Their understanding of the human spirit and its impact on education is rare and heartening. Margaret deserves enormous credit for taking the programme to Nenagh while it was still on scraps of paper! Thank you also to Maura Hyland, Donna Doherty and the team in Veritas. Donna’s enthusiasm right from the start was effervescent.

The deeper roots of the programme can be traced to Coláiste Iognáid Galway where Terry Howard SJ, with an ancient text and his own exceptional skill, guided me through a spiritual journey which would change my life. Tom Groome and Boston College provided the project with an academic home. Under Tom’s direction, BC’s Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry (IREPM) showed me just how life-giving a Christian community can be, especially when it holds in balance all the ministries of the early Church.

In many ways my husband Dan O’Connell is the silent partner in this project. Without his help, the material for the programme would never have evolved, and he wrote the final chapter with me. The depth of his learning was invaluable. Of course his contribution went way beyond that – his belief in the wider project and his belief in me, his vitality, interest and constant good humour make everything a joy.

1. Luke 10:38-42.
2, CEIST (Catholic Education, an Irish Schools Trust) is a new organisational framework for exercising educational trusteeship set up by the Daughters of Charity, the Presentation Sisters, the Sisters of the Christian Retreat, the Sisters of Mercy, and the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. In existence since 2007, CEIST has responsibility for 110 schools associated with the five collaborating congregations in the Republic of Ireland. One of my first school visits as Faith Development Coordinator with CEIST was to Mercy Mounthawk in Tralee where the principal, John O’Roarke, engaged me in a conversation on the need to support teachers in Catholic schools.



It will not do to leave a … dragon out of your plans
if you live near one.
(J.R.R. Tolkien, from The Hobbit) (1)

The nature of education
There is no doubt but that educating is a busy profession. Four months after his election in May 2007, president of France Nicolas Sarkozy wrote an open letter to French educators outlining his views and priorities. In it he acknowledged the primordial importance of the teacher’s role and ‘how demanding the marvellous career of a teacher is, how it forces you to give a lot of yourself, also how difficult and sometimes unrewarding it has become since violence entered schools’ (2).
Sarkozy may have been addressing a French audience, but his words and sentiment find echo across many Western states. Teaching has become a difficult profession, far beyond its inherent challenges. The problems of a society tend to be reflected in its schools; the school operates as a microcosm of society. A recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report identifies problems such as image and profile of the job, public confidence in and affirmation of teachers’ work, the quality of pre-service teacher education, the opportunities for continuing professional development, for partnership and input to policy, the conditions of work, opportunities for diversification and supports in times of difficulty. The report also admits further difficulties and problems among which are the lack of teacher induction systems, the unsatisfactory condition of some school buildings, inadequate investment in teaching resources and equipment, high pupil-teacher ratios, and the stress levels in some teaching contexts. Another problem, emerging from the policy of pupil integration, is the training of classroom teachers as well as learning support assistants for pupils with disabilities. When these factors are appraised, they reflect a complex, changing and challenging world of teaching.

In the face of these difficulties, one might wonder why teachers stay in the profession. American education researcher Sonia Nieto concludes that what keeps teachers going has largely to do with their inner lives. Nieto’s findings resonate with an emergent body of literature which concludes that it is the inner spirit that makes and sustains good teachers (3). Nourishing the spiritual lives of teachers is crucial; healthy spirituality can be a sustaining force, helping teachers to thrive rather than simply survive in our schools today. A teacher does not merely impart knowledge. A teacher is a mediator between the knower, the known and the would-be knower, between the learner and what is to be learned. A person, not some theory, is the living link in the epistemological chain. The way a teacher plays the role of mediator conveys both an epistemology and an ethic — an approach to knowing and an approach to living. If Parker Palmer is right when he says ‘we teach who we are (4) then now more than ever there is a need for intentionally engaging and nurturing the spirituality of teachers.

The Christian tradition
The Catholic Christian tradition is a rich resource for nourishing the spirituality of teachers in Catholic schools. Indeed it considers that, because ‘the Catholic educator must be a source of spiritual inspiration … formation is indispensable … and must be kept up to date … and in harmony with human formation as a whole’ (5). Constant busyness and over-busyness of teachers’ daily lives militates against nourishing their inner lives. However, research has shown that reflection on the experiences of daily life — the good and the bad —sustains our spirits. Despite the religious history of education in this country, there appear to be very few opportunities either in teacher preparation programmes or in continuous professional development for teachers to explore the spiritual dimension of the human person, or more specifically, and perhaps more importantly, of themselves.

The Catholic school context
While they share many characteristics with other schools, Catholic schools seek to reflect a distinctive vision of life based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. According to the Irish Bishops’ Pastoral Letter commonly known as Vision 08:

The Gospel sees the world in which we live as God’s creation. As human persons, we are made in God’s image and destined for everlasting life with God. Life is a pilgrimage in the footsteps of Jesus, who is ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (Jn 14:6) (6).

This implies the fullest possible human flourishing in this world and a hope for the world to come. Fullness of life with God makes sense of our whole human existence. Catholic education at any level is an education with room to address the fundamental questions about the meaning of life.

In a climate of growing secularism, Catholic schools are distinguished by faith in the transcendent mystery of God as the source of all that exists and as the meaning of human existence. This faith is not simply the subject matter of Religious Education but forms the foundation of all that is taught and learned and the horizon of all that takes place in the school. This not only offers our pupils a rich heritage of wisdom but also gives them stability, a framework of meaning and a sense of direction for their lives in a time of rapid and often confusing cultural and social change. Daniel O’Leary describes how, in the Catholic school, God is at the centre of the learning process and is the ultimate goal of the curriculum. Although it may be convenient to speak of the ‘religious’ curriculum in the Catholic school, as though these were separate and distinct, in reality the curriculum as a whole, and every part of it, is religious, since there is nothing which does not ultimately relate to God.

Catholic schools are marked by an expectation that pupils will grow in self-understanding, develop a language of prayer, celebrate the liturgy and experience everyday realities as sacramental signs of God working in the world. God is found in the bits and pieces of everyday life. The spontaneous Spirit of God is equally at home in the awkward, the giddy, the sullen, the world of iPods and iPads. A further expectation is that pupils learn to make sense of their experiences and respond appropriately.

Catholic education can never be reduced to a process by which the State seeks to produce good citizens, or provide productive contributors to the wealth of society, or enlighten students about the wonderful new knowledge science has acquired. All these are undoubtedly part of the process but education is always about more and is concerned with the whole person and the community to which they belong. Catholic schools aspire to be warmly participative communities (7). A Catholic ethos is not a set of rules or prohibitions. Nor is it a list of boxes to be ticked. Rather, as Benedict XVI says, it is a ‘positive option’, based on the recognition of the dignity of the human person called to a loving relationship with God.

The challenges
The challenges to shaping an authentic Catholic ethos are often daunting. Incessant advertising teaches young people that the desire for happiness can be satisfied by the acquisition of consumer goods and transitory gratification. Education is often reduced to competition for points, to the transmission of skills whose only goal is a career. Pope Benedict presents us with a clear assessment of these challenges when he says:

In a society where relativism has become a dogma, the light of truth is missing; indeed, it is considered dangerous and ‘authoritarian’ to speak of truth, and the end result is doubt about the goodness of life … and in the validity of the relationships and commitments in which it consists (8).

Catholic schools as mixed communities
As microcosms of society, Catholic schools are a mixture of practicing and non-practicing Catholics, as well as some from other faith traditions and none. This presents a challenge for schools to remain inclusive, welcoming, participative communities and at the same time proclaim clearly and courageously the essence of all that we do: the Christian life invites a personal lived relationship with Jesus Christ. That is the heart of our Catholic schools. The school can provide plenty of daily opportunities for building that personal relationship and to participate in the communal witness to a multitude of such relationships. This implies, at the very least, provision of faith development opportunities appropriate to educators. As developing spiritually is a lifelong journey, educators need continuous opportunities throughout their working lives to reflect on the spirituality of persons and foster their own developing spiritualities.

Inculturated faith
Christian witness at a time when many predict that the ‘centre cannot hold’ is very important for the well-being of society at large.’ However, for Catholic education to remain relevant in this climate it must meet the challenge of inculturation; it must root itself in the distinctive and real features of contemporary culture. People are hungry for healthy spirituality. The human search for meaning is as prevalent as ever and resonates through popular culture, as indicated, for instance, by Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club choices. One of her most popular choices of 2010 was New York Times bestseller A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. When the author of the book, Eckhart Tolle, partnered Oprah for a series of webinars based on the book, they attracted more than 11 million viewers.

Similar indications emerge from the extraordinary success of books like Tuesdays with Morrie. Tuesdays with Morrie is a nonfiction novel by US writer Mitch Albom, later adapted into a TV movie of the same name. In the book, Mitch recounts time spent with his 78-year-old sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz. When Mitch discovers that Morrie is dying, he flies to Boston to visit him. From then on he begins to meet with his old professor on a weekly basis. During these visits he becomes aware that not only is he rekindling an old friendship, but he is also tackling a much larger subject — the meaning of life. Before these visits, Mitch had been living in the fast lane. A famous Detroit sports writer, he had no time or inclination to focus on things that really matter. The Tuesdays spent with Morrie lead him to change his life and outlook completely. The book is still an international bestseller.

Another example of inculturated faith is more recent and closer to home. London band Mumford and Sons are a group of twenty-somethings who blasted onto the music scene after their performance at Glastonbury 2009. Their debut album Sigh No More has sold over 1 million copies. They won the ARIA Music Award for Most Popular International Artist in 2010, and the Brit Award in 2011 for Best British Album. Marcus Mumford is typical of his generation, describing his lyrics as spiritual but not religious. ‘We’re not a Christian rock band as such, the album deals with dilemmas every man deals with in life … Faith is … real and something universal.”‘ It’s one subject that can’t be ignored’ (11).

Faith cannot be ignored. Throughout history and at its best, Catholic education has honoured both faith and reason so that people can live well, as well as make a living. The heart of such an education is encountered especially in response to the great questions of life: what is, could be and should be (12).

1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Wisdom Quotes, http://www.wisdomquotes. com/quote/j-r-r-tolkien.html (accessed 6 December 2011).
2. Nicolas Sarkozy, ‘A Letter to Educators: President Sarkozy Writes to French Teachers and Parents’, http://www.ambafrance-uk.org/PresidentSarkozy-writes-to-French.html  (accessed 6 November 2007).
3. See, for instance, the work of Parker Palmer.
4. Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 1.
5. The Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education. Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith, n. 62,
http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccatheduc/documents/rc_con-ccatheduc-doc-19821015-lay-catholics_en.html (accessed 2 August 2011).
6. Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Vision 08: A Vision for Catholic Education in Ireland (Maynooth: Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference 2008), 2.
7. Ibid.
8. Benedict XVI, ‘Address to the Participants in the Convention of the Diocese of Rome’ (Rome, 2011).
9. John Coolohan, ‘Church, State and Education in Contemporary Ireland: Some Perspectives’, in From Present to Future: Catholic Education in Ireland for the New Century, Eithne Woulfe and James Cassin (eds), (Dublin: Veritas, 2006).
10. From an interview with Laura Barton, guardian.co.uk, Thursday, 11 February 2010.
http://fourfingerculture.com/2010/07/12/four-finger-inspirations-iimumford-and-sons-sigh-no -more/ (accessed 30 March 2011).
12. Thomas H. Groome, Educating for Life: A Spiritual Vision for Every Teacher and Parent (Allen, Texas: T. More, 1998).

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