When I was growing up, we had catechism classes at the church, occasionally at school when one of us was going to Catholic school, and also at home—and those were real, formal lessons. Sitting on the couch in the evening, we would go over the reading and do a question-and-answer section, true and false and multiple choice, and sometimes my mother would even set up little games to reinforce what we had learned—bingo and catechism baseball.
We had memory work and little practice sessions and occasionally prizes for good work. My mother was an incredibly organized person, and dedicated one or two days a week to catechism.
This is not my style. My style is more to be in a constant state of freaking out over how much my kids don’t know about their faith. But my life is very different from my mother’s, my family is different, and I am different. So I do things differently. Sometimes I’m even able to convince myself that it’s not a bad system.
Of course we avail ourselves of the faith formation classes offered by the parish when we can. Sometimes we can’t, for various reasons, and sometimes it’s just not what our kids need right now. But there is a method we’ve found that consistently yields some kind of good fruit. I’ll call it “microdosing theology.”
Silly name, simple method: You just do a tiny bit almost every day, and you don’t stop. Or if you do, you start again as soon as you can. That’s it. That’s the method. The theory is that it doesn’t overwhelm anybody, because it’s just a tiny bit. You can keep it up because it just takes a few minutes; and the kids can hardly complain, because it’s just a few minutes.
And even if they do complain? Well, it’s just a few minutes.
When you keep a constant, steady stream of words and ideas about theology in the family conversation, it no longer feels like some kind of uncomfortable, rarified activity that it would be weird to introduce. This way, even if the topics you’re introducing are not what they’re interested in, it’s not such a big leap to begin talking about the things they do want to talk about.
It works the best if you already have an established routine. We do have a pretty firmly entrenched habit of evening prayers (and that, too, follows the “just a little bit every day” model, because someone once told me to pray as you can, not as you can’t, and how we can pray is a little bit), and after prayers, we read a little bit.
Two books we recently used for microdosing, that have worked very well:
Saints Around the World by Meg Hunter Kilmer. We had the kids take turns reading aloud the short, punchy biographies of saints, one a day. I had never heard of most of them, and have been fascinated and occasionally incredibly moved to learn about the vast variety of saints, from ancient to modern times, all finding a way to follow God’s will in circumstances that could not vary more widely.
The tone and reading level is aimed at maybe grade 3, but the material is more than interesting enough to capture the attention of all ages; and although it doesn’t go into gory detail, it doesn’t sugarcoat the facts of martyrdom or persecution. It is thought-provoking and frequently made me want to learn more about the saints we met in these pages. Really good for a child preparing for confirmation, and it just provides a good, natural overview of what holiness looks like in action, in real life, which is the entire point of studying theology.
The illustrator has gone to a lot of trouble to include historically and culturally accurate and meaningful details in the pictures, which are briefly explained in the captions.
When we finished the saint book, we switched gears and began Michael Dubruiel’s The How-To Book of the Mass. This is less entertaining, but it’s an intensely practical book, written by someone who really understands the obstacles and temptations that beset the typical Catholic, and offers actionable advice about how to deepen your relationship with Christ and to enter more deeply into worship at Mass.
It is systematic and thorough and extremely clear. It is probably aimed at teens and older, but some parts of it are extremely simple and easy to understand, so I’m comfortable with the “take what you can manage, leave what you can’t” approach. Did I mention, it’s short? It’s broken up into very short sections, just a page or two, so you can easily read for just a minute or two per day and work your way through the Mass that way.
When we’re done with that, I’ll probably return to a book we read some time ago: Peter Kreeft’s Your Questions, God’s Answers. I recall that it did answer many of their questions, answered questions they already knew the answers for (which counts as review, which is fine), and opened up discussions about things they didn’t realize they had questions about.
And here is one of my important rules, vital to the whole microdosing operation: Always let the discussion happen! Doesn’t matter if it sticks to the original topic or not. If they ask a question about God, then right now is the right time to answer it, period.
The segments are short enough to read in five minutes or less. It’s intended for teenagers and is slightly goofy but not pandering. It’s theologically meaty and profusely studded with scriptural references, but written in a clear and chatty style that is easy to understand. Some sections are better than others, but some are very good indeed.
In general, I try to remember what several people told me when I signed up to teach faith formation one year: No matter what else I did, I must remember that it is not about me. It is about being there and letting the Holy Spirit do what he wants to do with the hearts of the children in that room. Yes, I had to do my best, and I have to put the effort in. But my efforts, my performance, are not what will make the difference. I have to remember to stand aside and make a place for the Holy Spirit.
That is harder than it sounds. Sometimes—most of the time, even—you really don’t know how good of a job you are doing when you teach your kids. All I can tell you is to keep going. Just a little bit at a time is good. And if you stop, start again.
A version of this essay originally appeared in The Catholic Weekly in May of 2023.
Image sources: eyedropper ; Bible (Creative Commons)