Mary Catherine Berglund
Paul’s Inspired Imagination
Paul’s racing mind, bold and innovative thought, often jagged expression and unfamiliar, uncomfortable Semitic logic, not to mention his distant world, combine to make reading his letters no mean challenge — and we are not the first Christians to react in this way: the author of the Second Book of Peter (who certainly postdates Peter, the companion of Jesus) wrote just short of two millennia ago that in the letters of “our beloved brother Paul” there are “some things hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:15–16). But just as we are tempted in our reading to give up in frustration, we come across one of Saint Paul’s dazzling images, a pearl lying among pebbles in the sand, a jewel that consumes our thought and turns the hours we have spent struggling with Paul into a labor of love.
We are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). We are racers seeking an imperishable crown (1 Corinthians 9:24–25). We are letters of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:3). We are treasure-filled earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7). We bear God’s seal (2 Corinthians 1:22). We are God’s field (1 Corinthians 3:9). We are God’s building (1 Corinthians 3:9). We are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). We are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). By logical extension, since Paul tells us that we are to imitate him (1 Corinthians 4:16 and 11:1, Philippians 3:17), we are also the aroma of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:15) and ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). Paul describes us Christian in all these ways and more, especially if we allow ourselves to hunt beyond the undisputed Pauline corpus into letters that may come from a later hand writing in the name of his or her spiritual mentor. Introduce the images one at a time, presenting each image in its scriptural context, helping the children to wrestle with the image to extract its meaning, and engaging them in an activity that will impress the image on their young hearts and minds. Let them take home a brief explanation of the image to share with their families. The remaining paragraphs of this essay present a few ideas to help children work with specific images.
Bringing Paul’s Images to Life for Children
Create a classroom field of sunflowers to help the children understand themselves as God’s field. Each child can create a sunflower with construction paper stem and leaves and a self-portrait as the center of the flower. Talk about how a farmer or a gardener tends the plants carefully, faithfully, giving them what they need to grow and flourish and taking great joy in their health and loveliness. Talk about how God cares for us even more diligently and lovingly than the farmer cares for the plants of the field.
Lead the children into a discussion of how all the parts of our bodies contribute to the good of the whole person and then, using the thoughts in 1 Corinthians 12:14–30, explain Paul’s analogy of the Christian community as the body of Christ. Drawing on 1 Corinthians 10:16–17 and our most ancient institution narrative, 1 Corinthians 11:23–26, remind the children of our fundamental Catholic belief that bread becomes the literal (resurrected) body of Christ in the Eucharist. Introduce them to the monstrance used in eucharistic adoration; even borrow a monstrance from the church sacristy to show with reverence to the group. To impress upon their beautiful young minds that “the body of Christ” has both these profound meanings, create a monstrance with faces of the children replacing the host. Use geometric shapes cut from gold wrapping paper for the base of the monstrance and surmount the base with the outline of a pyx in which the children can draw their portraits. Let them complete their monstrances by adding jewels or rays and the words “We are the body of Christ.”
Borrow some real medals or trophies from a good runner or a member of a winning sports team and show them to the children, who will respond with expressions of awe. Tell the group that in Paul’s time (the ancient Olympics were still going on during Paul’s time), the prize for winning an athletic contest was usually a laurel wreath, a picture of which is easy to find on the Internet. Talk about how good athletes focus single-mindedly on their goal, devoting enormous blocks of time to their training, enduring physical hardship to fine-tune their bodies, sacrificing outings with their friends and treats their friends indulge in regularly. Make Paul’s analogy that we should have just such consuming, gritty focus on reaching our “imperishable” goal of heaven. Tell them that we sometimes see a picture of a saint crowned with a laurel wreath. Help them make a long banner with the words “We run to win an imperishable crown!” Make the letters of stick-figure runners running on a road of medals towards a laurel wreath surrounded with rays of light.
Bring two small jars of olive oil, each mixed with an aromatic “essential oil.” Health food stores sell scented oils. Balsam, although not cheap, is a great choice because of its traditional use in chrism. Anoint the children’s palms with the oils, using one oil for half the group and the second oil for the other half. Tell the children to rub the oil well into their hands. Invite them to smell their hands and each other’s hands to identify and distinguish the scents. Read them Paul’s words, “We are the aroma of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:15). Let them discuss Paul’s meaning, helping them to see that Paul’s words here, as so often, point beyond their literal meaning to suggest a reality that cannot be captured by words. Remind them of the use of chrism, traditionally a mixture of olive oil and balsam, in baptism.
Talk with the group about seals. Libraries sometimes use seals to mark their books. Some avid readers have their own seals. Some people seal their letters with wax or simple stickers. Let them design seals with their initials. Perhaps an art teacher would help older children make linoleum blocks prints with their initials. Younger children can use Styrofoam meat trays. Invite a face-painter to “seal” the children with a triangle or a trefoil within a circle, both are symbols of our triune God.
Paul is indeed amazing! To share Paul’s images with our children is to give them a gift they will treasure all their lives.
Mary Catherine Berglund has advanced degrees in Scripture and liturgy. She is an experienced teacher, and has ministered with children in the liturgy of the word in Richmond, Virginia, for many years. She is married and has three grown children.
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- Gospel Action Figures
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- The Summer Gospels
- Children and the Triduum
- Internet Resources for Ministers who Work and Pray with Children (Part 3 of 3)
- Saints and Feasts of the Spring Season
This instructive and practical book familiarizes young children ages 5-9 with the New Testament.