By Nathan Carr
On the front row stands a little boy whose face is scrunched so tightly that he appears to be counting to 110 while his classmates run to find the world’s best hiding place for a game of hide-and-seek. He’s praying. Behind him my daughter, whose piety is slipping a bit, whacks the kid next to her with a Bible to get a laugh while her older sister (the House of Athanasius Prefect) glares down in reprimand.
The other 250 children in Trinity Chapel are in various states of attention, but their angelic voices cause these concrete floors to rival the very streets of heaven in acoustic brilliance. Two fifth-graders to my right stand with eyes transfixed, awaiting my nod for the ringing of the bell to conclude Matins. They are among the coveted this morning, for no greater honor can be bestowed upon the hordes of eager acolytes. A final blessing, and a moment of soul-stirring silence, only broken when two Pre-K students trying to juggle Holy Scripture drop their Bibles on the ground and accidentally give us a Tenebrae-like distraction. Chapel is dismissed.
This is my every morning as a priest-headmaster at a Christian school of classics. Here are a couple key concepts behind our practice at the school, geared toward forming young hearts and minds.
Though intuitively palpable in the room, we should make it obvious: students have bodies whose growth often outpaces their discipline. In the 1662 prayer book, the following call to confession anticipates the need for embodied prayer in child and adult alike:
Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God, devoutly kneeling.
If grace is mere leniency — the laissez-faire outworking of God’s indifference to our sanctification, then its call to embodied prayer — kneeling — is entirely superfluous. If, however, grace is transformative down to the very sinews of both knee and heart alike, then it is Christian paideia at its finest, and its recommendation uncomfortably obvious: if at all possible, put kneelers in your school chapel, a physical acknowledgement of a transdenominational reality with biblical precedent: “Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (Ps. 95:6).
The layered effects of the Hours upon our earthly rhythms, whose undulations are perfected with heavenly focus, are not rhythm enough. The content of the prayers — of the marked hours of meditative and joyful reflection upon the goodness of God — is crucial. Prescriptive in several traditions, the principles in the Book of Common Prayer are universal:
- at every opportunity, be thoroughly biblical;
- as many prayers and canticles as can be repeated and sung through the day by nonreaders and readers alike, do it (i.e. Lord’s Prayer, Kyrie, Venite);
- excite the attention of your young scholars through as much memorized call-and-response as possible.
The people of God are the participants in worship, and not only the observers of long-winded administrators. Whole worlds of theology and emotion can be covered in 11 minutes or less — all of which can be hung upon the great hooks of catholicity and historical rootedness with musical and liturgical ease. The rise and fall of the service, a studied art in its own right, is not to be underestimated. The first words of a school day should be Scripture in a call to worship or acclamation. Announcements of any kind can wait. It is song that awakens heart and mind alike, and therefore it should be positioned as early in the service as possible, with a chanted acclamation as good an option as any.
The Psalter, 150 chapters strong, is easily recited in its entirety when layered over the 36 weeks of the average school year. Read responsively by whole verse, this poetry of the Church is our Homer, our Virgil. And it belongs, if nothing else, at the center of your Morning Prayer each day.
Halfway through the service and only six minutes in, the likelihood of having spoken and sung exclusively in unison is strong. Polyphony, or “rounds” singing, is crucial at this junction. It is the musical embodiment of our Trinitarian claims — a oneness and a threeness in perfect unison and harmony. So many of the Christian canticles have polyphonic versions that are as accessible for Pre-K as they are for the high school choir. A sung Kyrie, for example, even in two parts, can fill a chapel with chillingly beautiful music — from the mouth of babes.
Done poorly, it will be better than anything else you could attempt (we’ve tried it all). Ten years later, it’s in their blood. Most have never known a school day without it, or without a closing Evensong at the end of each day of study.
At the center of every debate over matriculation rates, test scores, and job-readiness stands a mystery: the eternity-haunted, God-imaged soul of a child. What need not remain inaccessible is how to shape that soul for what is True, Good, and Beautiful.
The Rev. Nathan Carr is headmaster of the Academy of Classical Christian Studies in Oklahoma City.