A Medieval Catechism

Jul 15, 2017

At the Society for Classical Learning conference in Dallas last month, I gave a lecture on writing and using catechisms in the classroom. Before writing a catechism for my classroom last year, I wrote an essay on what I hoped to accomplish; a year later, I can report the use of a catechism in the classroom was a complete success in every way I hoped, but also offered additional benefits I could not have predicted.

I have by no means mastered the catechism as a classroom tool, but after a year I am revising my catechisms for use next year, cutting certain sections, expanding others. After nine months of reciting the catechisms, I could ask my students any of the questions and they could answer. They could not recite the answers and questions in order, but I do intend to keep using the same catechisms with the same students next year on occasion. Suffice to say, I am still working a few kinks out of catechism use in class.

Several attendees have asked for an example of the catechism I use. The catechism should be specific to the curriculum. The catechism is comprised of the most powerful maxims and proverbs from each book, but also contains synopses of arguments, a timeline, and lengthy quotations from great literature. Each student was given a photocopy of the catechism, a series of prayers, and the rules of decorum which govern my classroom. They had two weeks to copy all these out by hand into a notebook, and the notebook also served as a test and quiz booklet wherein all essay work was completed. The notebook could not be decorated and was also not used for notetaking in the classroom.

What follows is a work in progress (and I will concede the 11th question is overly formal at the expense of historical "accuracy"), but constitutes most of what my Medieval students will copy into their notebooks when class resumes next month. Every day of class will begin with a recitation of the following:

Medieval Catechism

1. What is the Divine work?

The fruits of the Holy Spirit are Love Joy Peace Patience Kindness Goodness Faithfulness Gentleness Self-control

2. How should a man live?

The virtues are Faith Hope Love Wisdom Justice Courage Temperance

3. What is temperance?

Modesty Self-control Chastity Humility

4. What are the vices?

Pride Greed Lust Envy Gluttony Anger Sloth

5. What are the spheres of cosmos?

Earth Moon Mercury Venus Sun Mars Jupiter Saturn Stellatum Primum Mobile Empyrean

6. What is faith?

The Centurion said to Christ, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it,” and Christ replied, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”

7. What does it mean to be human?

Dante teaches that being human is: willing, acting, and receiving recompense for that action.

8. What is freedom?

Free will is the ability to do good or evil; freedom is the inability to do evil.

9. What is righteousness?

Dante teaches that righteousness is wanting what is good, not merely knowing what goodness is; if a knowledge of goodness is not married to a desire for righteousness, mere knowledge profits a man nothing.  

10. Who are the twelve apostles?

Peter Andrew James John Philip Bartholomew Thomas Matthew James Thaddeus Simon Judas

11. What are the twelve high feast days of the Church calendar?

The Nativity of Mary (September 8th), The Annunciation (March 25th), The Nativity of Christ (December 25th), The Presentation of Christ at the Temple (February 2nd, 40 days after Christ’s birth), The Baptism of Christ (January 6th), The Transfiguration (August 6th), The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (The Sunday before Easter), The Crucifixion (a moveable feast), The Resurrection (40 hours after the Crucifixion), The Ascension (40 days after Easter), Pentecost (50 days after Easter), The Assumption of Mary (August 15th)

12. What do you believe?

I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.

I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

13. What are the earthly consolations?

At a funeral, an atheist may say of the dead, “He lived a good life. He left behind a great inheritance for his children. We will always remember him. He is no longer suffering.”

22. What are the heavenly consolations?

A Christian may say, “God is man’s friend and the lover of man’s soul. All men will someday die, though death is God’s enemy and Christ has defeated death.”

14. Where does God live?

God dwells in all places; God is beyond place; God is place itself.

15. When does God live?

God dwells in all places, at all times; God transcends time and is beyond time. 

16. What does God know?

God knows all things; God is the very act of knowing.

17. How good is God?

God is all good; God does all good; God is goodness itself.

18. What is justice?

The Franks refuse a preemptive strike against the Saracens, even though God has told them they will be betrayed. The just man does not condemn his enemy for a sin he has not yet committed; the just man prays his enemy will repent of the evil he intends to do.

19. What is just war?

The Franks refused to take every tactical advantage open to them. The Franks voluntarily chose weakness in faith that God fights on behalf of the weak. If the Franks took every strategic advantage possible and won, they could not credit God.  

20. What is evil?

Evil is nothingness; an absence; a cancer. Evil corrupts good things, but evil has no private existence of its own.

21. What has St. Paul taught us about the pagans?

Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.

Medieval timeline:

The Apostolic Era: 33 AD through 90 AD

The Age of Martyrs: 90 AD through 313 AD

313 AD: Constantine issues the Edict of Milan and legalizes Christianity

325 AD: The Council of Nicaea confirms the dogma of the Trinity

380 AD: Emperor Theodosius makes Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire

393 AD: Emperor Theodosius ends the Olympic games and closes all theaters

410 AD: Rome is sacked by Alaric

400s and 500s: The Late Antique period, in which the pagan, barbarian hordes on the outskirts of the Roman Empire slowly move into Roman space

571 AD: Mohammed is born

590 AD – 1321 AD: The Medieval Era

590 AD: Gregory the Great becomes Pope; the Medieval Era Begins

714 AD – 1124 AD: The Carolingian Project: swamps are drained, forests are cleared, roads are built, monasteries and libraries are established

800 AD: Charlemagne crowned Holy Roman Emperor

1054 AD: Separation of Eastern and Western churches

1124 AD: The great cathedral building work of Europe has begun; the city replaces the feudal farm as the organizing principle of society

1321 AD: The Divine Comedy is finished; the Medieval Era ends; the Italian Renaissance has begun

Prayers for food:

Monday. Rich men have turned poor and gone hungry, but they that seek after the Lord shall not want for any good thing. Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Wednesday. The poor shall eat and shall be filled. Those who seek the Lord shall praise Him; their hearts shall live forever. Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Friday. Lord Jesus Christ our God, You blessed the five loaves in the wilderness and fed the multitudes of men, women and children. Bless also these Your gifts and increase them for the hungry people in the world. You are the One who blesses and sanctifies all things and to You we give glory forever. Amen.

Prayers before study:

1. Creator of all things, true source of light and wisdom, origin of all being, graciously let a ray of your light penetrate the darkness of my understanding.

Take from me the double darkness in which I have been born, an obscurity of sin and ignorance.

Give me a keen understanding, a retentive memory, and the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally.

Grant me the talent of being exact in my explanations and the ability to express myself with thoroughness and charm.

Point out the beginning, direct the progress, and help in the completion.

I ask this through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

2. Christ my Lord, Giver of light and wisdom, who opened the eyes of the blind man and transformed the fishermen into wise heralds and teachers of the gospel through the coming of the Holy Spirit, shine also in my mind the light of the grace of the Holy Spirit. Grant me discernment, understanding and wisdom in learning. Enable me to complete my assignments and to abound in every good work, for to You I give honor and glory. Amen.

3. O Lord our God, Who has honored us with Your own image, Who has taught Your elect, so that most wise are they who give heed to Your teaching, Who reveals wisdom to babes, Who has imparted wisdom: open the hearts, the minds, and the lips of these Your servants, that they might receive the power of Your Law, and successfully apprehend the useful precepts which shall be taught to them, to the glory of Your Holy Name, to the profit and upbuilding of Your Holy Church; and that they understand Your good and perfect Will. Deliver them from every hostile oppression: preserve them in Your Holy, Faith, and in all uprightness and purity all the days of their life, that they might advance in wisdom, and in the fulfillment of Your commandments; that being thus prepared they may glorify Your most Holy Name and become heirs of Your Kingdom; for You are the God of Mercy, and gracious in strength; and to You do we send up Glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and to the ages of ages.

4. O God, our heavenly Father, who lovest mankind and art most merciful and compassionate, have mercy upon Thy servants, the sophomore students, for whom I humbly pray Thee and commend to Thy gracious care and protection.

Be Thou, O God, their guide and guardian in all their endeavors, lead them in the path of Thy truth, and draw them nearer to Thee, that they may lead a godly and righteous life in Thy love and fear, doing Thy will in all things.

Give them grace that they may be temperate, industrious, diligent, devout, and charitable.

Defend them against the assaults of the enemy, and grant them wisdom and strength to resist all temptation and corruption of this life, and direct them in the way of salvation:

Through the merits of Thy Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Prayer for the sick:

O Merciful Lord, visit and heal Thy sick servant, (name), now lying on the bed of sickness and sorely afflicted, as Thou, O Saviour, didst once raise Peter's wife's mother and the man sick of the palsy who was carried on his bed: for Thou alone hast borne the sickness and afflictions of our race, and with Thee nothing is impossible, for Thou art all-merciful. Amen.

Prayer of Thanksgiving:

O Lord my Savior and my Master, I, Thine unprofitable servant, with fear and trembling give thanks unto Thy loving goodness for all Thy benefits which Thou hast poured so abundantly upon me, Thy servant. I fall down in adoration before Thee and offer Thee, O God, my praises; with fervor I cry to Thee:

O God, deliver me from all adversities and mercifully fulfill in me such of my desires as may be expedient for me. Hear me, I entreat Thee, and have mercy, for Thou art the Hope of all the ends of the earth, and unto Thee, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit, be ascribed glory, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

I praise Thee, O God of our Fathers, I hymn Thee, I bless Thee, I give thanks unto thee for Thy great and tender mercy. To Thee I flee, O merciful and mighty God. Shine into my heart with the True Sun of Thy righteousness.

Enlighten my mind and keep all my senses, that henceforth I may walk uprightly and keep Thy commandments, and may finally attain unto eternal life, even to Thee, Who art the source of life, and be admitted to the glorious fruition of Thine inaccessible Light; for Thou art my God, and unto Thee, O Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be ascribed glory, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Prayer at the end of class:

Let Your mercy be upon us, O Lord, even as we have set our hope on You. Blessed are You, O Lord; teach me Your statutes. Blessed are You, O Master; make me to understand Your commandments. Blessed are You, O Holy One; enlighten me with Your precepts. Your mercy endures forever, O Lord! Do not despise the works of Your hands! To You belongs worship, to You belongs praise, to You belongs glory: to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

A Prayer in Time of Trouble:

O God, our help and assistance, who art just and merciful, and who heareth the supplications of thy people; look down upon me, a miserable sinner, have mercy upon me, and deliver me from this trouble that besets me, for which, I know, I am deservedly suffering. I acknowledge and believe, O Lord, that all trials of this life are given by Thee for our chastisement, when we drift away from thee, and disobey thy commandments; deal not with me after my sins, but according to thy bountiful mercies, for I am the work of Thy hands, and thou knowest my weakness. Grant me, I beseech thee, thy divine helping grace, and endow me with patience and strength to endure my tribulations with complete submission to Thy Will. Thou knowest my misery and suffering and to Thee, my only hope and refuge, I flee for relief and comfort; trusting to thine infinite love and compassion that in due time, when thou knowest best, thou wilt deliver me from this trouble, and turn my distress into comfort, when I shall rejoice in thy mercy, and exalt and praise thy Holy Name, O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Decorum

1. If you are tired when you come to class, there is no need for you to announce this to your peers. If you have stayed up late studying, do not boast of how hard you have worked. Do not demand sympathy from others, or from your teachers, just because you are tired. Your friends are tired, too, as are your teachers, many of whom have children to care for. Loudly announcing that you are tired as you come into class is often a way of suggesting to the teacher, "Don't bother me today," and a way of suggesting to your peers, "You will have to carry the conversation today. "As Christ instructs those who fast, if you are tired when it is time for class, splash a little water on your face and put on a cheerful expression “so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting (from sleep), but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” 

2. A school is a place for learning. A book is a thing for learning. A student is a person for learning. Additionally, there are attitudes for learning and postures for learning. While in class, sit up straight and keep your feet on the floor. Do not put your head on the table or prop your feet up on the chairs. Treat your body as the outward, physical manifestation of your soul. If you conduct your body with dignity and respect, your soul will likely follow soon enough. 

3. If you cannot remember what you read for homework just two nights ago, you have not done your homework. You should be able to answer simple questions about what you’ve read. If you are asked about an assigned text, the reply, “I read it really late last night and I don’t remember it” is not an acceptable excuse. It is an indication you have not done your work. Read slowly and patiently so that you are able to discuss assigned reading in class whenever the time comes.

4. The humanities are not graded the way math and science are graded. For example, if you take a math examination composed of ten problems and you answer seven correctly, you would expect a 70%. However, if you are assigned a 1000 word essay and only write 700 words, you should not expect a 70%. You have failed to complete the minimum requirements and may receive a 0% grade; you may or may not be invited to resubmit the paper. Think of it like this, though. If you went to a restaurant and ordered a 10 oz steak which cost $10, and then received a 2 oz steak, you would send it back. You would not pay $2, eat it and leave.

5. Likewise, if you write a 1000 word essay which is uniformly terrible (endlessly redundant information, not proofread, few citations, etc), you may receive a 0%. If a 1000 word essay is assigned, not just any 1000 word essay which is submitted will warrant a passing grade. It is even possible for an essay which receives a 0% to have some merit. Think of like it like this, if you went to a restaurant and ordered a 10 oz medium rare steak and then received a raw 10 oz steak, you would send it back. In sending the raw steak back, you would not be indicating the meat had no value, but simply that it was unacceptable in its present condition.  

6. If you are assigned reading for homework and do not do that reading, you need to inform your teacher of that fact before class begins. The same goes for homework. If I am collecting homework and you do not have any to turn in, tell me; if you do not tell me at the time I am collecting homework, I will not accept it later.

7. Speak of this school with respect. If you have a grievance with any decision made by a teacher, the staff or the board, those grievances should be addressed privately to a teacher or to the principal, who will be glad to sit down with you and hear out your complaint.  Speaking critically of the school to your peers, especially on school grounds, is inappropriate and disrespectful. This means that all complaints about the dress code, assemblies, homework load, grades, teachers and so forth must be directed to a teacher or the administration. Ours is a God who takes complaints seriously, but you must direct your complaints to someone who can do something about them. Your peers can do nothing about the dress code. The principal can, though. 

8. Learning to be a good student in high school is preparation for being a good student in college, and being a good employee when you are older. Having good manners is essential for being a good student. As such, you should not be seen yawning in class, or turning your head to look at the clock. If you must yawn, cover your mouth and do it discreetly. If you are fastidious about knowing what time it is, wear a watch and check it covertly. Yawning and looking at the clocks are signs of boredom, even if you are not bored. While I will be understanding if I see you yawn or check the clock, your employers and college profs might not be.

9. If you talk in class, you must contribute to a group conversation. Private conversations with people beside you and across the table are not polite. “Private conversations” are not limited to spoken words. Silently mouthed conversations and hand gestures back and forth are just as distracting to your classmates as spoken conversations.

10. I host an after school detention on Mondays. It runs from 3:10 until 4:00. A scheduled sports practice is not a viable excuse for not coming to detention. If you are given detention, we will listen to a Johnny Cash record together and talk about how to become better people.

11. If you believe a grade you have received is unfair, please come and speak with me after class. Present your case. I am a reasonable person, but from time to time I will misunderstand your essays. When this happens, come and explain yourself and I will reconsider your grade. When you present your case, your case should stand on the merits of your own work; do not compare your work with the work of a classmate who scored better and allege your work and your classmate’s work are essentially identical.

12. When you struggle with the material, talk with me. Do not wait until the end of the trimester (when report cards are about to come out and you are unhappy with your grade) and say, “Well, I’ve had a very hard time understanding this class.” You are obligated to bring such concerns to me as they occur, not merely when you are getting nervous about your grade.

13. Do not begin packing up your things until you have been dismissed. There should be no rustling of papers and backpacks in the final moments of class while a lecture is going on, or reading is going on, or discussion is going on. Students who begin getting ready to go before class is over will stay for an extra minute or two after class.

14. If you are not present for a test or quiz, you will receive a 0 for that test or quiz until you make it up. It is not the teacher’s responsibility to track you down to take a test or quiz. Rather, it is your responsibility to track the teacher down and arrange a time you can take the test or quiz you missed. You will need to be vigilant in track the teacher down to take tests or quizzes.

15. Enter class silently. Once you are in the classroom, class has begun. Silence helps prepare the mind to yield, to receive, to concentrate.

16. As a general rule, homework (reading and writing) will only be assigned on fasting days, meaning Tuesday and Thursday evenings, as well as every night of the Advent fast and every night of the Lenten fast. As a general rule, no homework will be given during festal periods.

17. Respect must be shown to the task and work of education. Conduct yourself with dignity and speak of learning as a worthy goal. Do not disrespect the work of education by parading your disinterest in learning before your peers. If you waste your entire weekend playing video games, do not make light of this on Monday morning. Do not make sport of God by speaking of shameful, vicious, and slothful things as though they are enviable and good.

18. Do not ask, “How can I get a better grade in your class?” The answer to this question will always be, “Do better.” Ask instead, “How can I do better in your class?” In like fashion, do not say, “I am worried about my grade in your class.” Say instead, “I am worried that I am not learning enough in this class.”

Grades:

Most grades will fall into one of the following five categories.

A zero. This work does not meet minimum standards for submission. While this work is not devoid of value, there is not much evidence that the student understood the assignment and made an honest, valiant effort to meet the requirements of the assignment.

A seventy-four percent. An honest effort was made to meet the requirements of the assignment and the student enjoyed some success in this effort. The work is a partial success and exhibits some knowledge. However, there were significant aspects of the work which were deficient, lacking. Comment has been made on how this work can be improved. The student should note criticism and recall it when he sets to work next, striving to improve in the ways he was deficient. 

An eighty-four percent. Good, not great. Good enough. The student’s work is passable, and exhibits an acceptable knowledge and opinion of the subject. The student’s work is not lacking in any necessary way, but neither is there a brilliance to the work which warrants praise. The work does not require modification. The work covered a predictable range of information and opinion, and the opinions were expressed reasonably enough. The work is neither excellent nor terrible, thus it does not warrant comment from the teacher. If this work were the food at a restaurant, the patron would neither complain about the food, but neither would he be eager to return.

A ninety-four percent. Great work. This work is better than average, exceptional, worth commenting on, and excellence is evident in the clarity of thought and profundity of opinion. This is work of some degree of academic maturity and ambition. The student struggled and succeeded in making his thoughts memorable and compelling.  

A one hundred percent. A rarity which might only be glanced a few times over the course of the school year. Work which warrants such a score is worthy of the world of adults and might be mistaken for adult thought in another context. 

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs.