In a newly published book, St. Xavier High School teacher Dr. Thomas Malewitz aims to help adults understand the natural, but challenging changes most adolescents are going through.
“Authenticity, Passion and Advocacy: Approaching Adolescent Spirituality from the Life and Wisdom of Thomas Merton” explores spirituality in young people using the teachings of the influential Trappist monk who lived and wrote from the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Ky.
The book explores topics in 12 letters Merton wrote to middle and high school students between 1949 and 1968, and how they relate to the lives of adolescents today, said Malewitz.
For example, in one of those letters Merton talks about sports and how the soul needs to be conditioned like an athlete’s muscle to prepare it for “spiritual challenges.”
“We know how important sports are for adolescents. What most youth ministers and teachers don’t think about is how important sports were to the lives of the saints,” said Malewitz in a recent interview. “In that chapter, I explain how it helps adolescents to understand discipline and dedication to a sport and how it’s similar to spirituality.”
Malewitz said he also hopes the book will serve as a guide to help parents, teachers and youth ministers connect with adolescents and understand the changes they are going through, especially in light of how technology and social media have changed the way they develop relationships.
“One of the things we need to recognize as catechists and evangelizers of youth is that what may have worked for our generation may not work the same way with adolescents today. A lot has changed because of technology and social media. We have to recognize that adolescents develop relationships differently than we may have just a generation ago,” said Malewitz. “We have to get to know what’s important to them, what they put value in and how that defines their reality.”
For example, he said, adolescents now develop relationships through the use of social media and the adults in their lives need to be aware of that.
“We have to get to know how the new media works. To be a good evangelist we need to know the new media and use it like St. Paul used the skills he had as an early evangelist to relate to what’s important to that generation and recognize the dignity of who they are.”
In the book, Malewitz also addresses the pressure that he said many young people feel to achieve. Many parents don’t understand the pressure, and place “adult” expectations on their children, he noted.
Some high school students have said to him that the pressure to do well on college entrance exams has left them feeling “objectified.”
They feel as if their “worth is judged by just numbers trying to get into colleges,” said Malewitz. “My hope, with this book, is to remember that education is about self-discovery … the whole person … mind, body and spirit.”
He hopes that turning to Merton as a guide to self-discovery through education will help restore the faith of those young people who are feeling this way.
“It’s important,” he noted, “to let them know they have much more to contribute and much more value.”
Art Turner, director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Faith formation, has read Malewitz’s book and approves.
Turner said Merton wrote about the concept of forming the whole person, mind, body and spirit, long before that concept became widespread and he is pleased to see it presented in Malewitz’s book.
Turner also noted the book’s emphasis on creating space for young people to have the type of internal dialogue that can lead to conversion. Adolescents go through that experience just like adults do, Turner said. They reflect on the “meaning of life” and the “role of God” in their lives and ponder what the church teaches.
“Catechesis has been looked at as feeding the intellect … and formation is the internal dialogue with oneself. It’s where transformation and conversion happens. In the book you see Tom (Malewitz) focusing on those two aspects,” said Turner.
Turner also noted that he was moved by the knowledge that Merton reached out to young people. Excerpts from the letters are included in Malewitz’s book.
“In those exchanges, you see his understanding of theology, God and being able to dialogue. It’s what catechesis should be,” he said.
Malewitz said he’s included some reflection questions at the end of each chapter to help parents, youth ministers and other adults think about how they are relating to the adolescents in their lives. The questions are a type of “examination of conscience” he hopes will spur such questions as:
“Am I allowing my adolescent to grow and ask questions about what it means to grow?”
“Is there trust in this relationship?”
Some of the questions such as, “Have I invited an adolescent or my son or daughter to go do a service project with me?” serve as a reminder of small actions that can strengthen the bond with a young person, he said
The book is available on amazon.com and at Tonini Church Supply Company in St. Matthews.