One of the spiritually nourishing rituals of working in a Catholic school is the small inbuilt time for prayer in morning homeroom. It’s a rite of greeting, a space in the day cleared just for God, a welcoming of him into our daily lives.
It may be only two or three minutes between marking attendance and notices for sport and music and debating and who’s going on excursion. It is a sliver of sacred time amongst the myriad things that constitute the educational megamart that is the 21st Century school.
But, for us, it is a sure way of checking in with the divine. We pray as one, but there are twenty seven hearts and hopes beating heavenward, twenty-six young ones and an older one maturing nicely. With the girls I insist that these few minutes are reverenced. No chatting or fidgeting or last minute homework.
The prayers cover the spectrum between petition and gratitude in what Catholics have long known as special intentions. Sometimes there is the soft shoe shuffle of supplication. Occasionally, the almost dervish dance of demand. Mostly there is prayer without strings; prayers of hope and thanks, prayers that look beyond self, prayers that look out for others. Occasionally there are prayers to special saints, intercessions to those who have the ear of God and will put in a good word.
The girls pray for parents and friends. They pray in response to world events and for people they don’t know. They pray for pets and grandparents and peace. They pray most fervently that they will pass their Maths tests later in the day.
Now, in schools all across the country, the academic year is moving inexorably and fatefully towards the examination season. The thirteen years of education for our students is coming to an end and our hope is that they take their faith into the world with them. Meanwhile it’s a time of midyear results and stress and doubts and countless cups of coffee and the secret stories of the Year 12 common room. It is also the time of holding onto the steady pattern of endeavour. This is where the power of prayer can be used as a gentle and restorative means of settling those whose minds are racing and whose nerves are jangling because there are only forty five teaching days till the final assembly and the last rendition of the school song.
Michel McGirr writes in his book Bypass (the history of the Hume Highway), a book many of Victoria’s VCE Literature students know well that prayer is a pillow; a place of rest and repose where we place our urgencies in the hands of God. And so before each assessment task and most especially before the exam I pray with my students. We make the Sign of the Cross, a signal that we are clearing a sacred space where random thoughts and jitters and the recollection of key phrases are banished.
These two dedicated minutes are just enough for the girls’ thoughts to fly up. We pray to the Holy Spirit for clarity of expression and help to synthesise the solid learning of the subject into answers that will be well-rewarded by those who pass judgement. It is the most crucial and heartfelt of prayers. The girls then have time for their own private prayers. They may be eloquent or incoherent, ragged or rhyming, fluent or flailing, but their shape is not as important as their clear and present intention. They know God hears every last word. Then we sign off with an effusive Amen and the girls start writing down everything they know in an eight hundred word hand written thematic essay on Luke’s gospel.
The small redirection of thought and purpose before an exam or an assessment task in the shape of a prayer may not bestow additional marks, but it bestows its own blessing. The girls have taken on an internal rhythm that holds them steady.
The Spirit is with them.
And, whatever the result at the end of the year, in some unfathomable, mysterious and graced way, their prayers are answered.
Ann Rennie teaches senior students in a Melbourne Catholic girls' school.
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