Academic journal article Journal of Catholic Education

Teaching While Praying, Praying While Teaching: An Interactional Sociolinguistics of Educational Prayer

Academic journal article Journal of Catholic Education

Teaching While Praying, Praying While Teaching: An Interactional Sociolinguistics of Educational Prayer

Article excerpt

You will understand then that prayer is education.

--Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

In Book II of Confessions, St. Augustine ponders why he prays: surely an omniscient and unmoved God already knows the desires of his heart, he asks, so why offer them in words, aloud or on the page? Augustine's answer is simultaneously educational and sociolinguistic: "I need not tell all this to you, my God, but in your presence I tell it to my own kind, to those other men, however few, who may perhaps pick up this book" (II.3.1). Rather than praying solely to cultivate an inner disposition or to motivate an impassable God's actions, here he suggests that he prays for any immediate or distantly-mediated listener, for anyone who might happen to overhear his fervent supplications.

As a speech genre, prayer is ubiquitous in Catholic schools, and St. Augustine's contemplation (1) offers an instructive entry point into the topic of educational prayer. To which addressee does a teacher address their prayers? What does it mean to pray amongst a listening audience, notably in a school amongst listening (Catholic and non-Catholic) students? When is a prayer? And who is praying when someone offers thanks and supplications in the common collective pronomial deictic "we"? Accounts like St. Augustine's remind us of the fundamentally linguistic and situational nature of prayer, attentive to institutional and personal histories of language use, but equally attuned to the particular exigencies of the moment. These tensions mark educational prayer as inescapably social--not merely in the sense that the words of prayer have been entextualized and recontextualized over decades, centuries, and even millennia--what Mauss (2008) calls "the echo of numberless phrases" (p. 33)--but also insofar as prayer is often constructed in media res amongst overhearers (heavenly and corporeal) to whom it must be attuned. Prayer is as much about managing relationships with those around the speaker as it is about addressing the Divine. For teachers in contemporary Catholic schools, this means, in part, managing relationships with their students.

Consider this familiar example of a classroom interaction from St. Sebaldus, a Catholic high school that serves a range of Catholic and non-Catholic students (noted in this transcript as "Ss"). Mr. MacPherson (MP) (2), the teacher, begins an improvisatory prayer amongst a busy and largely inattentive class to start the period. (3)

MP: ((Ss talking and moving in seats)) Dear Lord we thank you for
     this:::
    ((to Ss)) Alright let's take some prayer time
    Let's be lead to this reflection and meditation
    (3.8) ((most Ss stop moving and chatting))
    Be at peace
    Be open
    (1.8)
    Or at least just be still
    (4.0)
    Dear Lord we thank you for the gift of your church

This recognizable interaction presents the simultaneous intersection of a variety of sociolinguistic properties: speaking on behalf of another, speaking in the collective pronomial deictic "we", providing educational directions as to how to bodily and mentally participate in a prayer, and the invocation of ritual formulae to let the listeners know this is now a prayer. It also presents familiar teacherly properties, most notably strategies for quieting a boisterous classroom. Through all of this, we see the way prayer and classroom relations are intertwined.

This article considers the intersections of prayer and language practice (Mauss, 2008), and throughout I make two principle arguments. The first is that educational prayer--a particular type of teacher-led extemporaneous prayer in Catholic schools--is a highly-flexible set of linguistic resources, captured within a special interactional frame marked by ambiguous boundaries which contains both prescribed formulaic linguistic properties and those which allow the performer to attend to real time classroom contingencies. This marks educational prayer as less a distinct genre than a hybridity of overlapping and blurring genres (Bauman & Briggs, 1990). …

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