My name is Marie Maher and I teach at Patrician Presentation Secondary School, Fethard, Co. Tipperary.
During the summer of 2014, I found the brochure for the Shekinah course at the back of St. Mary’s Church on Haddington Road. The reading on the brochure that first day really attracted me and so I applied for the course.
It is a really interesting, engaging, practical course which will equip anyone who is either a Religion teacher or interested in working in the area of youth retreats with a wide range of skills to do so. I have never attended a course that has been so useful to me as a Religion teacher. The academic input was excellent and even if Religion wasn’t one of my subjects, as a teacher I gained huge insights and learnings into the world of young people to-day and what’s going on for them, both of which are necessary to be a more effective teacher.
On top of these learnings, we as participants engaged in a wide range of practical but also fun activities – the same activities which we in turn do with students on retreats, e.g making masks, salt jars etc. I absolutely loved doing these activities and there was great connection and fun in the group while doing them. Every week there were talent slots & Icebreakers – whereby everyone in turn had to do an icebreaker with the group and in time a talent slot i.e. play music/sing/make a powerpoint etc. This was hugely enjoyable but also educational as we picked up lots of things and learned from each other.
As part of the training we gave three retreats to secondary school students. On these retreat days, I watched students participate in these activities and I know they really enjoyed them. I have NO DOUBT that this is because of the Shekinah approach and methodologies. Apart from the fun, creative element, all the activities have another important role to play – they serve to develop student’s reflective skills and in so doing help them understand and appreciate the Gospel message and ultimately develop a relationship with Jesus.
Since finishing the Shekinah course, I have given a number of retreats to junior cycle students in our school. Again, just like on the training days, the response from students has been very positive. Using the Shekinah approach of weaving the Gospel message through fun, creative, reflective days has engaged students very well. This is not just my observation - it has been borne out in written evaluations by students at each day’s end.
It was while on the Shekinah course that I was introduced to meditation with young people. I was really interested to learn that in Australian schools where it had been introduced, levels of bullying/violence in the school community reduced with the practice of meditation. Thus, with encouragement while on the Shekinah training, I started doing meditation at the beginning of all my classes for 3-4 minutes. I was (and maybe still am!) amazed at how well students embraced this practice. I did a survey after three months and students’ responses were really positive. The majority of students welcome those few minutes of quiet to be, and be with God. Two years later we are still doing it and 99% of the time you could hear a pin drop!!. Quite often, if I forget to do it with the busyness of classroom life, they remind me!
We don’t have a sacred space in our school within which to do retreats but I’ve discovered this need not deter one. My other subject is Home Economics so retreats to date have happened in the Home Ec room. This has worked out quite well as Shekinah retreats can be ‘messy’ business what with creating art work, filling salt jars, pottering with clay etc and anyway, didn’t St. Teresa of Avila say ‘God is among the pots and pans’!! The Home Ec room with it’s big tables and sinks nearby was an ideal space within which to do this part of the work. I wasn’t so good in the beginning at creating a more reflective sacred ambience for the quieter prayerful moments of the day but I’m learning. I’ve discovered that with lots of candles(battery operated!) and blinds pulled down and when the students have finished their work creating a sacred space, the cookers and sinks really do fade into the background.
I have been very fortunate with the help I have received from different people for this work. My Principal – Michael O’Sullivan, from day one was both encouraging and supportive. This support ranged from providing cover for my classes when absent on retreat practicals, to wandering in and out on the retreat days and facilitating some of the ice breaker activities which students absolutely loved, through to participating in prayer services and Masses at the close of the day. I think this kind of involvement sends a strong message to students that their retreat day is an important one.
I have also had huge support from Fr. Gerry Horan OSA – one of our local Augustinian priests. Last year, being the Year of Mercy, we took this as the theme for the 2nd Year retreat – looking at the three parables of The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin and The Prodigal Son through story, film and drama. Fr. Gerry offered to facilitate The Sacrament of Reconciliation as part of the day – the aim being to help students have a greater understanding/appreciation and a more positive experience of the sacrament.
Shekinah retreat days usually end with a prayer service which students create and prepare themselves. This year on both the 1st and 3rd year retreats, we were able to end our day with a class Mass celebrated with Fr. Gerry. In the written evaluations afterwards, it was obviously a highlight of the day for some. Quite a number of students mentioned both the preparation and participation in the Mass as one of the positives of their retreat day.
As well as Michael and Fr. Gerry – other staff members have also helped out at times with short inputs and ice breakers. Shekinah training promoted and encouraged team work. From my experiences so far, I really appreciate and value the help & support I’ve received from others. It really adds wider and deeper dimensions to retreat days that I alone could not give. With all of us coming together to share ideas, resources, gifts and talents, we can bring the Gospel message to young people in a stronger, deeper, more effective way.
I had not heard of Shekinah before this, and just found the brochure while looking for information at the back of the church about a picture of The Mother of Good Council. As a Religion teacher, this course has been invaluable to me in the classroom. I think it was Good Council to follow the prompts of Our Mother to help The Spirit in some teeny way to do His work. As St. Teresa of Avila says ‘Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on Earth but yours’ !