The Spiritual Life of the American Teenager: Catholic Teens Look for Quiet Spaces to Develop Personal Relationships with Jesus through Prayer and Contemplation

By Griffith, Jessica Mesman | U.S. Catholic, August 2016 | Go to article overview

The Spiritual Life of the American Teenager: Catholic Teens Look for Quiet Spaces to Develop Personal Relationships with Jesus through Prayer and Contemplation


Griffith, Jessica Mesman, U.S. Catholic


When I think of my teen years, I mostly remember a dark road. When I turned 151 got my license and, with a small sum of money my dad gave me after he sold my childhood home, I bought myself a real beater of a car that you could hear coming from blocks away. I didn't want to go home; my mother had died the year before, and my Dad had remarried and had a whole new family and a new house where I felt like a stranger. So I was always driving. Gas was less than a dollar a gallon then, and though I usually couldn't afford dinner, I could always scavenge enough pennies and nickels to get a few more miles.

Sometimes I'd pick up another kid I saw walking on the roadside. My hometown was like that then; I felt like I knew everyone. Even when I didn't, if they were of a certain age and dressed a certain way, I could bet I knew someone who knew them. I made a lot of new friends that way. My old friends--the friends I'd grown up with--were part of another universe, one from which I'd been expelled by personal tragedy. There was an awkwardness between us now, too many moments when none of us knew what to say. I needed friends like me, I thought. Friends who didn't have to be home for dinner.

It was on one of those long, aimless nights that I ended up in the chapel of St. Margaret Mary. Perpetual adoration was going on, but even though I'd been raised Catholic and had gone to Catholic school my whole life, I had no idea what Eucharistic adoration was. I don't think I even knew the Eucharist was there. But I liked that the chapel was quiet and candlelit and safe. It felt like home. It felt like my mom. I remember I signed my name in the little book at the back of the church and sat in a pew. The chapel was empty and dimly lit. The only noise was the air conditioning rattling on and off. The air smelled of spent matches.

Sitting in that chapel made me feel safe. It gave me a place to step outside of my life. And it set me on a lifelong journey toward faith and a relationship with God.

When I started writing this story about the spirituality of teenagers, I wanted to see if kids today have experiences similar to mine. But the teens I talked to weren't traveling alone with no one waiting for them at home. They weren't necessarily troubled or "at risk." However, like me, they expressed a need for a place to be apart from their lives: an oasis, a time to step outside of themselves, their problems, their schedules, and their responsibilities.

For many of these teenagers, time in church--especially time spent in adoration and silent prayer--was their chance to plug into another kind of experience altogether. Like me, they each responded positively to the opportunity to be quiet and alone with Jesus--together. In adoration, there is no pressure, no set prayer, no youth programs that pander to what they think young adults want. Just presence.

Columbia University professor and psychologist Lisa Miller, author of The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving (St. Martin's Press), suggests that during the teen years, along with a surge in hormones, teens experience an increase in capacity and desire for connection with others and with God. Teens--far from being less interested in communication and relationship--are "propelled like clockwork into an accentuated hunger for transcendence, a search for ultimate meaning and purpose, and the desire for unitive connection."

Miller argues that the right kind of influence during this tandem hormonal and spiritual "surge" can "make or break the development of adolescent spirituality and can influence the child's lifelong physical and mental health." According to her, children who have healthy spirituality (defined as a personal relationship to a higher power who is both attentive and loving) are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, to become depressed, or to have unprotected sex.

The teens I talked to have found this relationship with a higher power. …

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