The original title for this talk was going to be the 5 Faith Languages, a tie in to the ultra popular book, the 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman.
I had it all figured out, too. I’d list the faith languages as follows:
I was going to do this really cool thing where I linked all of those to religious orders, then add a 6th and final, all encompassing Faith language that all the others flow into like tributaries into a river. It was going to be evangelization, because prayer, scholarship, servitude, fasting, and creativity are all forms of evangelization.
But then I thought, “No, that’s not right. There’s another word for it all. Peace. Yeh, that’s it, they all lead to peace, too. Prayer, scholarship, servitude, fasting, creativity all lead to peace. Peace in ourselves as individuals. Peace within our families. Peace within our broader community. And eventually peace in the entire world! Peace!”
Then I thought, “No, that’s not right. Not that those aren’t sources of evangelization, and not that they wouldn’t lead to peace, but there’s something missing…
I delayed writing this for weeks because I didn’t have a definitive answer to my quandary. I was stuck on a final word, the cornerstone of the entire presentation. This blank void remained in the back of my mind, begging to be filled like the triangle block fitting into a child’s shape-play toy.
Sanctity? Immortality? Veracity? Tenacity? Originality? Rationality?
Distractedly, I kept trying to resolve my complecality.
My answer came in the form of a story, a true one at that.
A student walked into my classroom on the first day of school and made sure to assert the fact that he was a sports guy. At 11 years old, he strolled through the threshold with an old school Dwayne Wade Miami Heat jersey, a pair of tear-away Adidas warmup pants, the latest Lamelo’s and a wrist band that mismatched on only all of his colors, but sports as well– it had a Detroit Lions logo.
“Can’t just play one sport,” he said. “Gotta play em’ all!”
Gotta play em’ all, I repeated silently in my mind as he took his seat toward the back of the room with all of the other sports guys. Gotta play em’ all.
Little thing you might not know about me, but I have a Charmander sticker on my personal computer. It’s the only sticker I have, and I love it because it attracts a certain type of student, namely the Pokemon fans. These students tend to be super niche in their love for the Pokemon world- the cards, the game, the cartoons, the apps– Pokemon fans are either all or nothing. Hence the Pokemon motto– “Gotta catch em’ all.”
Sounds quite similar to the words used by my “sports guy” student, right? “Gotta catch em’ all? / “Gotta play em’ all.”
Something was afoot.
It didn’t take long for me to make conversation with this young boy- I’m a sports fan, too. I loved Dwayne Wade’s game; smart, scrappy, tenacious – just how I like my students. We rode the current conversation into the waves of NBA, NFL, even had a couple predictions on who would win the next World Cup. I had to hand it to the kid, he knew his stuff. Stats, dates, teams, even the brands some of the players wore, kid knew it all.
Which was funny to me because last spring, when this boy was in 5th grade and his last day of school was behind him? He was climbing onto the bus with a Squritle card binder and a backpack that had Ash Ketchum hugged by Pikachu with the backdrop of a Pallet Town sunset. Know what was written in bold florescent yellow letters just below the zipper line? “Gotta catch em’ all.”
As this memory popped into m head, I pulled my computer over and showed him my Charmander sticker, hoping to gage his reaction among the rest of the hoopers and baller boys he was associating with.
So, I dug a bit deeper. “I said, “Alright alright. You all know sports. I know your favorite teams and players. You know mine. Now, let’s shift topics; who’s your favorite Pokemon?
I filled the sound waves with dorky teacher jargon, “I‘m a big Charmander fan. I showed them the sticker on my computer.
Detroit-Lions-wristband-clashing with Dwayne-Wade-jersey-wearing sports-boy curved the side of his mouth, but only slightly before he caught himself and ripped the tiny smirk off the face of his face. His eyes darted from one of his new sports-guy friends to another, hoping they didn’t notice.
But I did.
I curbed the conversation for later when I could speak with sports-boy one on one.
“No Pokemon fans?”
The biggest of the sports boy spoke up, “That’s 2nd grade stuff, Mr. B. Like Minecraft.”
They then all made fun of the block-building game my pronouncing it in high-pitched, boyish voices like they didn’t still play it just yesterday and would that very night.
11 year-olds, man. Still trying to figure out who they are. And I get to help them.
It’s my favorite part about being a teacher.
The days turned into weeks and after all the back-to-school stuff was finished, I finally got to dive into the personal side of things with my students. I’m always seeking the why to the what makes this student tick. Sports is easy. So is Pokemon. The hard ones for me are the theater kids and the musicians – I simply have no ground to walk on with them as all I can do is listen to them talk about what they’re passionate. In the end, I guess that’s a good thing because isn’t that the whole point of music and theater? To be listened to? To be heard?
Sometimes they tell me with their voices, in the hallways, during recess, allowing me into conversations with their friends. Sometimes I pry, like I did with the sports-guys. But most often, I get to know them best through their writing. Short stories, journal entries, poetry, even research essays – in their written words its just me and them, and that’s where I get to know them best.
When our first writing assignment came along, we dove into personal narratives- stories of their lives that were based on big emotions. Intense joy, insufferable sadness, you name it, these kids know the full spectrum. On day one, I approached sports-boy individually, one-on-one, at his desk. No sports-guys around. No girls to impress. Just me and him, and a blank piece of paper between us.
“Having difficulty getting started?”
“Yeh,” he responded.
“You could write about sports, you know a lot about those.”
“Why not write about a time you won a big game? Or a time you experienced a great loss, but learned a big lesson?”
At this point sports-boy became a little uncomfortable. Thats when I noticed he wasn’t wearing his regular Adidas warmups, but a pair of khakis. And he didn’t have the Lamelos on anymore, but a pair of Vans.
I also noticed him squirm in his desk a little bit.
“What sports do you play?” I asked.
He looked at the Dwayne Wade jersey he had on, same as the first day he walked into my classroom, same one he wore at least once a week. He looked at it dreamily, as if it somehow transformed him into something he wasn’t.
“I’ve never played on a team,” he admitted through a reluctant whisper.
Now it was my turn to go silent.
The thickness of the air between us grew, but not nearly as thick as his admittance made him think he was distant from his quote/unquote “friends.”
I leaned in closer, keeping the conversation at a low whisper just underneath the murmurings of the other students who were sharing ideas with one another, none-the-wiser.
“Then why all the sports gear? The sports knowledge?”
“It’s what my friends do. I play with them at recess, but that’s it. It’s who they are, but it’s who I want to be.”
I went silent again, carefully choosing my next words.
“Forget about who you want to be for a minute. Who are you. Right now. At the very minute, all of your likes and dislikes, all of your triumphs and failures, all of your life experiences led you to this moment, and turned you into who you are today. Who is that?”
Silence. He was deep in thought.
I was deep in prayer.
He nodded. Took his pen, and clicked it. “I’ve got something to write about now.” Not a second went by that whole hour that his pen wasn’t on the paper.
I dismissed the students an hour later. Sports-boy turned in his first draft.
The title? “My Charizard Stuffy”
Three pages about how he begged for a Pokemon stuffed animal for months, then on Christmas Day, he opened up a box and had it. Three pages about how his older brother taught him how to play and collect Pokemon cards. Three pages about how his parents still took him out to play “Pokemon Go” on their phones. Three pages about the importance of having family that care about you, and a symbolic stuffy that ties together your personal interests with theirs. Three pages about who sports-boy is.
Now, sports-boy never went away from his dreams, he still played ball nearly every recess. He got pretty good, too. Even made the basketball team and wore number three, just like Dwayne Wade.
But every other Friday, I found him with his Squirtle collection card book, trading Bulbasours and Snorlaxes with the 5th graders and, believe it or not, some of the sports-boys he hung out with that were quote/unquote “too cool” for Pokemon. What really made me laugh was watching them wear Minecraft hoodies.
Sports-boy was Pokemon-boy long before he picked up a basketball. But even before that, he was a beloved son and brother, a source of joy for his parents and brother. He grew into becoming a beloved friend and a beloved player for the high school team. He knew who he was, but most importantly, he knew what made him tick.
It wasn’t sports.
It wasn’t Pokemon.
It wasn’t even his family.
Sometimes as Catholics we corner ourselves into a certain identity just like sports-boy. We think we’re the prayer Catholics because we spend long hours in adoration. We pigeonhole ourselves in being just the academic Catholics because we read a lot of theology, philosophy, Apologetics, Sacred Scripture, etc. We think St. Francis of Assisi is the only Saint we should pray to because we are big into service and detachment.
What we sometimes fail to realize that is we are not an either/or Church, but a both/and.
But, we don’t stop there, we’re a both/and, and, and, and, and Catholicism.
Everything that’s good, true and beautiful is who we are.
Everything joyful and painful.
Everything natural and mystical.
Everything right and just.
Everything meaningful and painful.
Everything life and death.
All things boiled down to the one thing. It’s the one thing that I was missing in my construction of the sixth Faith language. It’s the one thing that Chapman placed at the foundation of his book. It’s the one thing that my student sought in communion with his peers. It’s what we all desire as our ends, and it’s the impetus to all of our means. It’s the one thing that matters in life, the one lesson every book, movie, and TV series wants us to understand. It’s the source of the Scriptures, the folly of the the ignorant, the enemy of dictators and devils. It’s the center of the Trinity, the basis of every world religion, the glue that bonds the galaxies, nature, humanity, and our very selves together.
The one thing is love.
And we have an infinite, eclectic way to live that language.
Why limit ourselves to just the one faction when we can have the whole?
St. John Bosco once said to his young students “Run, jump, make noise, but do not sin.”
I’ll add to that.
Run, jump, make noise, pray, study, serve, fast, create, play Pokemon, basketball, football, chess, watch movies, read books, eat, exercise, evangelize…
but do not sin.
Base all of your thoughts, words, and deeds in love, and you will have discovered the one thing that makes life worth living:
God, who is love.