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Learnings from the Shekinah course

Shekinah Reflective Essay 

head shot Dr Pat Nugent

My Learnings Cognitively and Experientially from the Shekinah Course

by (Patrick Nugent, former Seminarian) now ordained and an external examiner for Shekinah Ireland.

My cognitive understanding developed through an engagement primarily with Piaget, Erikson, Marcia and Fowler. Collectively their hypotheses on the different stages of learning helped me to understand how children and teenagers engage with learning and by extension faith. Piaget led the way with his four stages of cognitive development in children and teenagers. He stressed how assimilation and accommodation underlie how children understand their world and adapt to it and organise their experiences. Cognitive processes are influenced by biological maturation. The two most pertinent stages in relation  to the children and teenagers on the Shekinah retreats were the concrete operation stage (7-11 years old) and formal operations (11-15 years old). Erikson built on Piaget and developed eight stages of psychosocial development from infancy to adulthood. The fourth and fifth stages, middle childhood (6-11 years old) and adolescence (12-18 years olds) are worth exploring since Erikson identifies the psychological crisis which prompts an individual do progress from one stage to the next. The crisis in middle childhood arises from the tensions between industry and inferiority. While the crisis in adolescence concerns the interplay between identity and role confusion. Erikson identifies competence as the psychological strength  on middle childhood and fidelity as being the psychological strength of adolescence. The dominant environmental influences operating in these two stages are school and peer group respectively. Marcia built on Erikson’s hypothesis by focusing on adolescence identity formation in particular. Marcia interprets identity as an ego-driven, internally self-constructed and dynamic organisation of aspirations, skills, beliefs and personal history. Marcia’s paradigm postulates that identity formation  is domain specific, Adolescents will or may have a distinct identity status in  the following four domains; occupation choice, sex roles, political ideology and religion.

He identified four stages of identity formation. Beginning with identity diffusion, where an individual does not have a sense of having a choice, through to foreclosure which occurs when an individual makes up their mind too soon. A crisis time will result in identity moratorium which will result in the outward rejection of some aspects of the identity foisted on them in childhood or the one which they previously held (immaturely). Identity achievement will emerge from dealing with this crisis.

When the religion domain is examined, adolescents in an identity diffused status will not have experienced an identity crisis.  They will not have made any commitments regarding religion. If an adolescent spends a prolonged time in the identity diffused stage without further development these individuals are often confused or overwhelmed and make little efforts to progress. Adolescents at the foreclosure phase of development, will not experience crisis because they have already made commitments to a religious identity enforced by  their parents or other authoritative structure. They are unable to distinguish between their own goals and interests and that of their parents, etc. Individuals who remain in the foreclosure stage for a long period of time often make choices without thinking too  long about them. Adolescents at the moratorium phase are experiencing crisis. This is the pre own personal commitment stage. Consequently they often feel perplexed, unbalanced and dissatisfied. They often act out in rebellious ways and are uncooperative. They have not yet found an acceptable identity and are still investigating their options. At the identity achieved stage, an individual have experienced and resolved crisis carefully and have evaluated all of their options. Once and identity has been achieved there is a self-acceptance, a stable self-definition and a commitment to a religious ideology. Nevertheless there is still anxiety present relating to achieving the goals which they have set for themselves.

Fisherman (2001) used Marcia’s model to assess religious teenagers. (cited on Marcia website listed in bibliography) During healthy development adolescents discard childish faith, recognise and deliberate their doubts. This results in a mature and personal spiritual identity. Unhealthy developments that emerge if doubts have not been recognised and addressed maturely include sloganeering, diffuse spiritual identity, moratorium and emphasis on ritual and behavioural aspects of religion. This may lead to dangerous pathways such as joining a cult or excessive use of mind altering substances.

Fowlers six stages of faith (1981) were primarily influenced by Piaget. His six stage model of faith maturation works best with individuals who have been reared in cultural environment where a belief system is a significant sociofact and mentifact. The majority of the children and teenagers attending the retreat did not appears to come from such a cultural environment. Consequently they would not fit in Fowler’s third stage called synthetic-conventional. This stages corresponds with the teenage years. Fowler postulates that a person usually adopts some sort of all encompassing belief system with which they have protective attachment. Because this is not at all obvious amongst Irish teenagers, Marcia is a better model than Fowler for understanding where they are at.

I was a bit anxious about the planning of the three retreats initially but as the course progressed I became more familiar with the methodology and cognitive understanding underpinning the course. Time and again we were reminded to get to know where the children/teenagers were at and to let this inform our plans. Consequently material was chosen which would appeal to their contemporary cultural milieu. The ever changing nature of some aspects of this milieu was illustrated by their unfamiliarity with a Pussy Cat Dolls song about identity whereas Emile Sandé, more recent hit on the same topic resonated with them immediately. Sandé’s song while useful was also very age specific and would not have been suitable for primary school children. There was also a noticeable difference between the second year girls from Holy Faith and the two fifth year mixed classes from Scoil Caitriona. The fifth years generally exhibited traits which would suggest they were at the moratorium stage of identity through their empathy with Sandé’s personal story about switching from being a medical students, the preferred choice of her parents, to a musical career, her own personal occupational choice. They also appeared to identify with her lyrics about finding your own voice and not being afraid to speak out. The younger girls from Holy Faith could be viewed as being generally at the foreclosure stage where they were generally following the religious ideology of their parents or school. However there was significant evidence that some of these girls were questioning these certainties. 

The general ethos of the Shekinah approach to retreats with young people is to engage with them where they are at and not from where you think they are at or where you want them to be. Consequently one has to be very well prepared for a wide variety of scenarios. While there are general age specific activities which will work with most groups such as ‘ice breakers‘, practical activities and meditation exercises, the use of power point song presentations, excerpts from film and choice of scripture passages are very class specific. Even within the same school and year we found that one had to be prepared to change when material that worked very well two days earlier, ‘bombed’ with a different class of the same age. The Shekinah course gives you the knowledge, skills and resources to adapt to different circumstances quickly. Enshrined within the ethos of the course is deep respects for young people, a non-judgemental approach and ensuring that the retreats are conducted in an emotionally and physically safe environment.


  • James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, (Harper: San Francisco, 1981).
  • James Marcia, Identity Formation and Marcia, (amberfinan.tripod.com/Marcia.htm) consulted 29/03/2013
  • Jean Piaget, The Essential Piaget, (eds.) Howard E. Gruber & J. Jacques Vonéche, (Routledge: London, 1977)
  • Doreen A. Rosenthal, Ross m. Guiney & Susan M. Moore, ‘From Trust to  Intimacy: A new inventory for examining Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development’ in Journal of Youth and Adolescence Vol.10., No. 6., (1981)

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