When people ask
me what brought me to my new job, or what caused me to leave my old one, I have
been saying things like, “I wanted more time to think” or “write” or even “be
human.” Those are just other ways of
saying I wanted more silence, more space. I thought, if I didn’t have to grade
papers all the time, or fret about tomorrow’s lesson plans, I’d have more time
to pray! To write that novel! To be involved in my community! To really
And I have had
more time, it’s true. And I have been writing more. And it’s been wonderful.
But I also find myself filling a lot of that time with Columbo episodes, and NPR, and podcasts, and plenty of social media scrolling.
inside of me,” you see. Or perhaps concerted efforts not to listen to it.
expert on human nature, said once that when an evil spirit is driven out of a
person, it wanders “through arid regions searching for rest but finds none”
and, upon returning “home,” finds it “empty, swept clean, and put in order.”
And then the spirit brings back lots of its demon friends and “the last condition
of that person is worse than the first” (Matthew 12:43-45).
My gloss on
that rather terrifying parable is that this pattern applies to other kinds of evil
spirits, too—less alarming but perhaps therefore more insidious: spirits of
exhaustion or discouragement or burnout or busyness. We get rid of them, we
think, by changing jobs or going on retreat or embarking on a pilgrimage. We
set aside real time for prayer. We get ourselves situated, “swept clean and put
in order”, if you will. But notice that Jesus begins his description of the
recently freed soul as “empty.”
Free from that
troublesome spirit, yes, but free for what?
to fill the space inside us, we may just fill it with noise, or invite the old
spirits in through the back door so we don’t have to hear the echoes in the
Leisure is a form of that stillness that is necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. Such stillness is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power, as real, of responding to the real — a co-respondence, eternally established in nature — has not yet descended into words. Leisure is the disposition of perceptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real.
Since I’m leading a seminar on poetry this fall, in which I propose that poetry develops in us habits of attention that help us read ourselves and the world better, I think one way I might fill my new empty spaces of time is by memorizing some poems. Poems aid us, I think, in filling silence well without resorting to distraction, because they help us re-attend to the world. Lyric poems in particular often have that companionable voice that can visit us in our clean-swept houses. Emily Dickinson knew all about that:
Silence is all we dread. There’s Ransom in a Voice — But Silence is Infinity. Himself have not a face.
I might add, though, that poems like hers often offer us that “Ransom” without thereby rescuing us from the silences we all need to confront.
I was teaching a senior elective a couple of years ago called “Christian Authors,” and I remember trying to teach my kids about this idea of the “persistent concerns” of a writer– the issues that an author keeps coming back to, over and over again, in story after story, book after book. It’s a hard thing to teach in a one semester course because you can only really see it if you have read lots of things that one person has written.
A wonderful professor of mine in college, Dr. Roper, mentioned something like this in our literature class in Rome. He compared the act of real, honest writing to the rather unattractive image of scratching an itch that just won’t go away. And great writers, I suppose, are those people who keep scratching perpetual itches.
So, think about your favorite author– someone whose wide body of works you have read. Think of this person’s novels, short stories, essays, letters–whatever you have gotten your hands on over the years. Aren’t there certain threads that keep pulling on each other again and again? Isn’t there this sense that, somehow, every story he ever wrote is somehow the same story? Or perhaps there is an image or moment that keeps coming up over and over– not in a way that is forced, or even intentional–but nonetheless unmistakably patterned on another scene you’ve seen her try to articulate before?
You may have discovered this phenomenon long ago, but when I finally did, I felt like I had stumbled upon a small revelation: most writers, even the really great ones, keep writing about the same darn things.
And for most of them, it’s just one thing. Maybe two. Three at most.
It may look like lots of different things. C. S. Lewis wrote about everything from lions in wardrobes and men traveling to Mars to older demons teaching young devils the ways of temptation–but, in the end, wasn’t he always really writing about that mysterious, unbidden joy and longing? Lucy follows it, Ransom is baptized in it, Screwtape tries to kill it, Orual stifles it, Reepicheep plunges into its depths– but it’s always there. The most beautiful passages in all of Lewis’ stories and apologetic works describe that longing he called “joy”.
For Austen, one obvious persistent concern is marriage. For Flannery, it’s that violent intervention of grace. For Dostoevsky, it seems to be something like human suffering and the beauty of God.
What are the persistent concerns of your favorite writer? What questions or ideas do they keep going back to?
My kids actually notice this phenomenon all the time with the very few authors the curriculum demands they pay attention to more than just once, but they express their recognition with something less than awe: “Ms. Shea, why does Shakespeare always write about relationships with trust issues?”
I don’t mean to ignore the complexity and nuance of what great writers and poets do–but I believe that considering a large body of someone’s work in this way can help us find a more meaningful path towards knowing him better. When I was assigned the onerous Junior Poet project in college, and had to absorb all the writings of a particular chosen poet, I found that sitting back and asking myself rather simply about Richard Wilbur’s persistent concerns helped me to see connections in his work I had been too overwhelmed to appreciate before.
I bring this idea up because something occurred to me today as I was thinking about the Feast of Christ the King– a feast, I admit, that never has captured my imagination or spiritual feelings in any powerful way before. Gaudete Sunday always does, the Easter Vigil does, the Visitation… and lots of other minor memorials. Most of them probably have some kind of connecting thread to one of my own persistent concerns. But not the Feast of Christ the King. It’s the feast that lets me know that I can finally get excited for Advent, and that has been about it.
Yet for some reason today, as I was listening to a podcast about this last Sunday in Ordinary time and thinking how the whole kingship thing doesn’t really resonate with me, I remembered a priest asking once, in a homily perhaps, “Do you know what Christ talks about most in the Gospels?”
I remember my mind flitting through a list of possibilities. Love? No, too obvious. The poor? Mm, Jesus acts always with them in mind and heart, but how often does he actually use the word “the poor” besides in the Beatitudes and “the poor you will always have with you”? Maybe forgiveness– or something nobody would say, like bread? Fish? No. Ah, of course. Abba. Father. That must be…
“The Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven as it is called in Matthew. The Kingdom is what he loves to talk about most.”
I remember being rather astonished and almost… disappointed? Not love? Not hope? Really, Jesus? What you talk about most is “the Kingdom”? What even is that?
As a comparison, the English word “love” occurs 57 times in John, 18 times in Luke, 10 in Mark, and 16 in Matthew.
That’s 129 to 101 in favor of “kingdom” over “love”, folks. And we know there are (at least four?) different Greek words for love, and John employs different ones throughout his Gospel, and so that 101 number would go down quite a bit if we distinguished the different actual Greek words being translated with the one English “love”. (For a brief but interesting summary of key Greek words in John, see this website.)
But the consistent word for Kingdom, βασιλεία or Basileia in Greek, appears 162 times in the New Testament according to Wikipedia–and most of those instances are from the lips of Christ himself.
Okay, so even if this priest was exaggerating, and even if you did more searches and found out that another word appeared more frequently, it’s clear that “the kingdom” is certainly a persistent concern of Jesus.
So why, I wondered, isn’t it a persistent concern of mine?
Partially, perhaps, because I don’t fully understand what the kingdom is. It always seemed synonymous with the Church or with heaven, or perhaps with the new creation–and those identifications are all true. Yet still it is only in the context of the term “kingdom” that I ever identify those already mysterious concepts with one another.
I remembered vaguely that in Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict reflects on the meaning of “the kingdom” quite a lot, so I searched for his explanations:
“‘Kingdom of God’ is…an inadequate translation [of the Hebrew malkut and the Greek basilea]. It would be better to speak of God’s being-Lord, of his lordship” (emphasis added, 56).
“He, who is in our midst, is the ‘Kingdom of God,’ only we do not know him (cf Jn 1:30)….He himself is the treasure; communion with him is the pearl of great price” (60-61).
“The Kingdom is not a thing, it is not a geographical dominion like worldly kingdoms. It is a person; it is he. On this interpretation, the term ‘Kingdom of God’ is itself a veiled Christology. By the way in which he speaks of the Kingdom of God, Jesus leads men to realize the overwhelming fact that in him God himself is present among them, that he is God’s presence.”
But at least I’m beginning to think about the Feast of Christ the King in a different way–that is, I’m actually thinking about it.
It’s a feast that celebrates the consummation of that kingdom, the already-but-not-yet reign of the one true king.
And then I remembered–how did I not see it before–how so many of Jesus’ stories are about the kingdom, how one must be “like a little child” to enter it– how the teacher of the law who answered him wisely was “not far from” it — how the poor in spirit would “inherit” it — how it is like a treasure in a field or a pearl of great price.
He even seemed, sometimes, to struggle to put it into words for us–as sometimes we all do when we are talking about what we love best: “What is the kingdom of God like? To what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that a man planted in a garden… To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour…” (Luke 13:18-20).
There is much more, of course, to think about here. Like the kingly gifts he received from the magi as a poor infant, or the mockery of his kingship that he suffered at the hands of the Romans. The crown of thorns and the purple robe and the “King of the Jews” notice by Pilate take on a new poignancy when you reflect on how much Jesus loved to preach about the kingdom. And that pointed question we actually heard in the Gospel this Sunday from Pilate touches, rather deeply, on the whole mystery of what Jesus meant by the term:
Pilate said to Jesus,
“Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own
or have others told you about me?”
Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I?
Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me.
What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.
If my kingdom did belong to this world,
my attendants would be fighting
to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.
But as it is, my kingdom is not here.”
So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say I am a king.
For this I was born and for this I came into the world,
to testify to the truth.
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Perhaps as we get ready for Advent– a season full of persistent concerns I can more easily relate to like waiting and hope– I can first pause and reflect, in this last week of ordinary time, on one of Jesus’ favorite things to tell stories about: his Father’s Kingdom.
“Do we have to ask to go to the bathroom or can we just go and sign out?”
“Can I go get more tissues from the office?”
“Can I have a pencil?”
“Can I write in pencil instead?”
“Can I make up my quiz tomorrow during H block?”
“Are you going to do the scrapbook thing Ms. Otten used to do this year?”
When I first started teaching, I had no idea how many little decisions I would need to make throughout the day, every day. I had anticipated the instructional decisions, and I had spent many hours worrying about classroom management decisions–but I never could have predicted the tiny, moment-by-moment micro-choices that are unexpectedly overwhelming.
And as a brand new teacher, I was plagued by self-doubt. I often did not know the “right” answer. I would go home and agonize about a call I made in a brief moment–a decision to intervene with a kid, a consequence I had given, a “no”, a “yes”, a decision not to say something. Did the other kids notice? (Yes.) Did I think the repercussions through well enough? (Nope, didn’t have time.) Had I agreed to something I was going to regret later? (Possibly. Okay, probably.)
The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. (Tierny, “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue?” New York Times)
This first week at my new school has reminded me not only of how many decisions teachers have to make (a widely-circulated estimate is 1,500 per day!) but that the thinking we do about these decisions at the beginning of the year is far more intense and, therefore, far more exhausting than at any other time. We know that the first few days of school are crucial in relationship-building and expectation-setting. Like it or not, first impressions with kids do matter, and it is much easier to establish healthy and welcoming environments with them at the beginning of the year than to try to recover lost ground with them later on. And in order to do that, you have to make a LOT of decisions: where to put your desks. Who sits where. How will they enter the classroom? What will you do when they don’t do you what you want? How much of the syllabus to cover the first day. How much to tell them about yourself. What activities to welcome them into your classroom and to establish it as a place for learning.
(For some great ideas on these first few days of school and these kinds of decisions, see the great work Tyler Hester does on his website here: agapemanagement.org )
I’ve found that being at a brand new school this year increases this kind of decision-making anxiety for me– simply because I am still learning the culture of the school. What are the kids used to? Do they usually get seating charts from teachers? Have they ever had to follow an attention procedure? How do other teachers in the building handle going to the bathroom?
There are the written policies in the handbook and, much more importantly, the unwritten, day-to-day lived policies of the school that you really only learn by experience.
Here’s an instance of a tiny incident that involved a lot of mental decision-making for me this week:
During a senior class right before lunch, I noticed that one girl in the back of the room took out a sandwich and began eating it during the Do Now. Everyone else was silently working on the assignment on the board. A thousand things rushed through my mind as I calmly circulated the room, making positive comments on student work, standing in strategic places so all students could see and feel my active presence: Did I make my expectations clear about no food in the classroom when I was going over the syllabus the other day? Does this girl have an accommodation or medical condition I don’t know about that means she can take out food whenever she wants to? Do other teachers just let kids eat in the classroom, and so this is just what she’s used to? Do I have time to address this now, or should I wait until I get everybody talking during the Pair Share activity to create a greater sense of privacy? Is it really that big of a deal? What will happen if I just let this one go?
Then, the girl behind her took out a tupper-ware with some kind of green vegetable in it, and she began eating, too.
The thing is, later in the year this kind of thing really isn’t a big deal. And I often allow kids to eat in my room if they won’t have time during lunch, or didn’t have time during lunch, or are especially hungry, or whatever. But at the beginning of the year every move you make is setting a precedent and communicating something to the kids about what kind of person you are and what kind of expectations you have for them.
So I went over to the first girl’s desk and whispered, “Hey, are you doing okay? Will you not have a chance to eat during lunch today?”
“Oh– uh, no, I’ll be able to eat then.”
“Okay. The expectation is not to eat food in class unless you ask me about it first. Just make sure you let me know if you need to.”
“Oh! Oh, okay. Sorry!”
She put her sandwich away, and the girl behind her tucked her Tupperware into her bag.
It wasn’t a big deal. And they’re seniors, and they’re probably just used to being able to eat in other classes. And I tried to convey with my tone that they weren’t in trouble–but also that I do notice everything in my room. Dun dun dunnn.
I tell you this example of my over-analyzing of a micro-decision in order to give you an idea of the decision-fatigue many teachers, and people of countless professions, can fall into. And I think it’s important that as teachers we be very aware of the decisions we make, and plan them carefully every year so that we make the best environment possible for our kids, where they can truly flourish.
But I also give this example to illustrate the sort of false, self-absorbed analysis that I have found myself prone to this week–and the kind that I think perhaps other teachers struggle with as well.
I mean the sort of anxiety we feel that we say is about beginning of the year procedures and classroom management, when really it’s rooted in a powerful desire to be liked and admired and respected–to be the positive center of attention.
The Gospel from yesterday was one of the most famous and beautiful in the Bible, but it struck me in a new way this time:
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 19:13-14)
Given the horrible revelations about the ways in which our Church has failed to protect children and has actually kept them from experiencing the closeness of Christ, these words were especially painful to read. But I don’t feel ready to write about that part right now.
What I do feel ready to write about is much smaller: the fact that the disciples were just getting in the way.
The children were coming to Jesus–the whole point of discipleship, you know–and the disciples themselves were “hindering” them! Parents, relatives, other adults were bringing the kids to hear Jesus, to be prayed over by Him, to be healed by Him– just like the parents at my school are. And the disciples “rebuked” them!
I can imagine Peter, thinking he is being helpful, managing the crowd, trying to protect Jesus. “Oh, no, He’s in the middle of a sermon right now. This really isn’t the best time.” Or the ever practical Thomas, “You know, He’s talking about marriage and divorce and sexual morality right now–maybe another time would be better for the children to listen. Could you just have them stand over there until He’s finished?” Or even John, “The Master is tired. We were just about to get into the boat again. Can you bring the kids tomorrow when He’s had time to rest?”
They were getting in the way, trying to manage everything–making all of these little decisions, coming up with all of these solutions, thinking they knew best.
I thought, too, a little of John the Baptist, and his humility in saying, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” I must become smaller, I must be willing to recede from view, so that people can see Jesus and not get distracted by me and my management skills and the way I want things to be run.
I realized how much of my own teaching, especially in the first few days of school, can get so caught up in me. What will they think of me? Will they like me? Will they take my expectations seriously? Will they think I’m strict enough? Will they want to engage in my lesson?
And of course, this is kind of ridiculous. The class isn’t about me at all. At some level, it’s about the invitation to a kind of beauty and adventure that only literature can afford. At a deeper level, it’s about them–about the kids themselves, and what they need, and where they are, and how they can grow. And at the deepest level of all, it’s about Christ.
I just need to get out of the way.
“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them.”
I began to think about my own decision-fatigue in a new way. Yes, the little choices are still there, popping up at every moment throughout the day. Some of them are voiced by student questions, some of them are my own silent internal questions, some of them are below the level of conscious deliberation. But I might feel a lot less exhausted if I stopped thinking about these decisions in terms of how they were going to impact me and my year and how I want my class to be run, and started thinking more about how each decision is going to impact these kids ability to feel loved by God. (Do I really need absolute silence right now because that is what is best for them? Or do I need it just to calm my own nerves? Or to make myself look strict?)
And the kids do want to come to Jesus, whether they realize it or not. They want to learn, to be joyful, to make strong friendships, to be challenged, to be cared for. They are approaching Him all the time. And like the disciples, maybe all I need to do is get out of the way.
It’s been too long since I’ve written about Flannery, but as usual her voice is on my mind and ever-ready to set me straight.
There have been a lot of difficult changes going on around me recently #beingateacher #catholicschool, and today this quote by Flannery came to mind:
Naw, I don’t think life is a tragedy. Tragedy is something that can be explained by the professors. Life is the will of God and this cannot be explained by the professors; for which all thanksgiving. I think it is impossible to live and not to grieve but I am always suspicious of my own grief lest it be self-pity in sheeps [sic] clothing. And the worst thing is to grieve for the wrong reason, for the wrong loss. Altogether it is better to pray than to grieve; and it is better to be joyful than to grieve. But it takes more grace to be joyful than any but the greatest have. (Collected Works, via Flannery O’Connor in the Age of Terrorism: Essays on Violence and Grace)
That quote is worth rereading a few times.
I remember seven and a half (!) years ago while I was studying abroad in Rome, our Literature professor Dr. Roper framed our Lit Trad III course around the question “Is life ultimately a tragedy or a comedy?” We read Aeschylus and Sophocles and Aristophanes and Shakespeare and others that semester. Dr. Roper gave us that question again on the final exam.
These words by Flannery helped me, during that challenging semester and during the years afterward, to confront that question.
Dante (whom I always read with my kids this time of year) named his work the Commedia and gave us the traditional Christian response: life is ultimately comic (in the literary sense of the word) because Christ’s love redeems humanity.
But unless you yourself get a vision of hell, purgatory and heaven, it is much harder to see Dante’s vision of things except by faith. The ancient Greeks seemed convinced that life was ultimately tragic, and had a lot of good reasons for thinking so. Indeed their greatest works reflect the view that human beings are subject to fate or the whims of the gods and can only learn wisdom by accepting their humble (and tragic) state #Oedipus.
As an English teacher with a melancholic disposition, I tend to see my life, my work and my students very dramatically. This tendency can be good because it means I take everything seriously but it can also be bad because I take everything seriously.
I like that Flannery O’Connor, in the quote above, acknowledges but then pushes aside the question of whether or not life is ultimately tragic (note her friendly “Naw”, but not a firm “no”). If you read her stories, you might get the impression that she thinks life very tragic indeed. However, she pushes past the tragedy question and gets right to the heart of the matter, as she always does: “life is the will of God and this cannot be explained by the professors; for which all thanksgiving.”
Her tone is lighthearted here and characteristically critical of intellectuals, but it is not disingenuous nor dismissive. She is suspicious of her own grief lest it be “self-pity in sheeps [sic] clothing”, but as is usual in her letters you can hear her own experience of loss in the background as she wrestles with what faith demands: “The worst thing is to grieve for the wrong reason; for the wrong loss. Altogether it is better to pray than to grieve.”
Ultimately, she concludes, it is “better” also to be joyful than to dwell in grief, as perhaps Dante teaches us. Pope Francis, too, is always urging Christians to be joyful, going so far as to say that “without joy [a] person is not a true believer” (via Breitbart.com).
But I like that Flannery O’Connor openly acknowledges the challenge of joy: “It takes more grace to be joyful than any but the greatest have.” She suggests that joy itself is a divine gift–requiring “grace”– and that it is an experience we cannot muster on our own.
Only “the greatest”–that is, the saints– have this joy, not because they are not well-acquainted with grief, but because they are actually more well-acquainted with it than the rest of us. Their grief is joined to the grief of Christ on the cross, and so too is their joy. If you read her letters I think you’d agree that Flannery herself is included in their number.
Some two and a half years ago, Pope Francis told us about the Christian way to encounter God in the world:
“We need to touch Jesus’ wounds, caress Jesus’ wounds, bind them with tenderness; we must kiss Jesus’ wounds, literally. Just think: what happened to St. Francis, when he embraced the leper? The same thing that happened to Thomas: his life changed. To touch the living God”, Pope Francis concluded, “we do not need to attend a ‘refresher course’ but to enter into the wounds of Jesus.” (Pope Francis, VIS)
In this homily, the Pope contrasts this Christian approach of touching the wounds of Jesus with three other approaches: the “Gnostic” approach (pursing “knowledge of God” rather than a relationship with the God-Man, Jesus Christ), the “Philanthropist” approach (doing good things, creating the Kingdom of God rather than working to receive it as a gift) and the “mortification” approach (earning one’s way to God through self-denial).
These three approaches are what you could call “pseudo-Christian”. Each has an element of Christianity in it, but each neglects something or exaggerates something.
As a teacher, especially a former ACE teacher, I think I am very much tempted to adopt these mistakes:
1) The Gnostic Approach: Let’s face it, I’m what Flannery O’Connor disparagingly calls a “big intellectual”. So are a lot of people who went to liberal arts colleges. We thrive on ideas, and connections, and relationships, and books. We love learning ABOUT God. But of course, that is not the same as learning to know God. The former is fascinating, the latter is frightening–and causes us to change. Gnosticism treats one’s relationship with God as an elite journey into higher levels of spiritual knowledge and tends to either despise the world or ignore it.
2) The Philanthropist Approach: ACE teachers, and members of other service organizations, are especially prone to this error I think. The theology goes something like this: Jesus was always talking about “The Kingdom of God.” This “Kingdom” is “the reign of God on earth,” or a society founded upon peace and justice. As Christians, we are responsible for creating this society by opposing and changing the pre-existing unjust structures.
There IS a lot of truth to this approach–but like all distortions, it’s all the more dangerous because it has only part of the truth. This was the Christianity I learned in high school and many learn at colleges that are comfortable professing only the parts of the faith that no secular person could be offended by.
The philanthropist’s mistake is a misunderstanding of what “The Kingdom of God” really is. Notice Jesus never says, “Go out and build the kingdom of God, and as soon as you manage that, I’ll come back!” He says “The Kingdom of God is at hand” and “The Kingdom of God is within you.” That is, the Kingdom is the gift of God’s presence that we can choose to participate in or reject–but it is not something we can bring about by our own efforts.
Often I think it’s up to me to change education single-handedly. Really, it’s God’s work in which He invites me to participate.
3) The Mortification Approach: This is the approach that, I believe, the Philanthropist approach (ie. “Spirit of Vatican II) was trying to correct. This more “traditional” mistake falls too far in the other direction– it makes the journey of faith a bunch of requirements. It encourages people to remove themselves from the sinful world and focus on personal acts of self-denial and good works. It is rigid and prideful. It’s the error of the Pharisees.
Interestingly, it makes the same fundamental mistake as the Philanthropist approach: it relies far too heavily upon human effort and not enough upon God’s grace. Unsurprisingly, the Self-Mortifier and the Philanthropist fall into similar sins of pride and lack of charity toward others.
The Christian approach, according to Pope Francis, is quite different. Unlike the Gnostic, who prizes knowledge and esoteric ways of knowing God, the Christian realizes that knowledge of God is available to everyone, and that the only real way to know God is through love. Unlike the Philanthropist, who focuses only on trying to bring about a utopia on earth, the Christian remembers he is a citizen of heaven and that the Kingdom is a gift, not a political agenda. Unlike the Self-Mortifier, who focuses so much on his idea of heaven and his own advancement in the spiritual life that he cuts himself off from the world, the Christian is willing to walk boldly into the mess to find Jesus in everyone he meets.
There are some books you always come back to, no matter how long you have been away from them. You come back to be comforted, uplifted, to see old friends again…
Or you come back because there is something still nagging at you.
This post is for people who have read The Chronicles of Narnia. There are spoilers, so if you have not read the books, please go fill the gaping hole in your childhood as soon as possible and come back to this post afterwards.
The Pevensie children, who enter the world of Narnia through the wardrobe, help put an end to winters with no Christmases, and become kings and queens, appear in five out of the seven books in the series. One wonders if perhaps Narnia with all its creatures was created justfor them — for their particular salvation, though of course they play a large role in saving Narnia in return many times.
They appear at the very end of book seven, The Last Battle, on the other side of the stable door and in Aslan’s country.
There are three fascinating plot choices Lewis made in this last book regarding the Pevensies:
Peter, Edmund and Lucy die in a train crash. That is how they end up in Aslan’s country (heaven) at all.
Susan, however, was not on the train, and does not die. So she is left alive in our world and is not present with the other three in the last book.
We learn that Susan has stopped believing in Narnia altogether.
Briefly – #1 is fascinating because up until this point, the only main character who dies during any of the stories is Aslan himself, and he comes back because of the “deeper magic before the dawn of time.” The children’s deaths are not dwelt upon at length, but I remember feeling a little shock when my dad read this part to me when I was a child. I may have been dimly aware that I would have only been a few years younger than Lucy was at that point. Lewis does not seem to shy away from hinting at his young readers’ own mortality as they learn that the characters they have followed and identified with met a rather tragic end.
But it is points 2 and 3 that surprised me far more when I first read The Last Battle. In fact, “surprised” isn’t really the right word. “Horrified” might be closer.
The whole book, of course, is about the battle of belief. Eustace and Jill find themselves in a Narnia where many people do not believe in Aslan anymore, or confuse Aslan with the demonic figure Tash. The Pevensie children, who had saved Narnia long before, are now perceived as mere legends themselves.
And then we find out that Susan herself has also stopped believing:
“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?” “My sister Susan,’ answered Peter shortly and gravely, ‘is no longer a friend of Narnia.” “Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’” “Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”
C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle
I was crushed.
Initially, I was devastated by Peter, Edmund and Lucy’s seemingly quick recovery from the loss of their sister. They seem irritated with her instead of deeply wounded by her absence.
Then, I was angry with the culprit herself. How could Susan give Narnia up for nylons? How could she leave her brothers and sister and the world they had shared? Above all, how could she leave Aslan?
And, finally, I was furious with the author. How could Lewis have left Susan?
If your feminist side, like mine, is also angry with Lewis for condemning Susan’s interest in “nylons and lipstick” and growing up, see Eileen Lee’s wonderful response to that complaint here. A taste:
It is not so much Susan’s external activities, I think, that Lewis wanted to highlight, but the condition of her heart. And this was her condition—that she was preoccupied with things that, while not necessarily bad, were not worthy to be the foundation of her identity or source of affirmation. For she was a Queen. She had simply forgotten so.
My younger self was angry with Lewis, and my older self is still troubled by his choice, but now I think perhaps he was onto something.
Losing one’s faith really is a form of forgetting.
How many friends of ours, or family members, have fallen away from faith because they seem to have forgotten something? You kind of want to shake them sometimes and say, “But don’t you remember?”
In Susan’s case the relationship between faith and memory is particularly striking. She wants to be “grown up” and leave her former identity behind. She has forgotten who she really is.
But of course Aslan has not. He always did say, “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.”
That line gives me hope for Susan, and for all the Susans in the world (of which number I am often included).
Later, Lewis gave this tantalizing response to a concerned young reader in 1957:
“The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there’s plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end . . . in her own way.”
I have this crazy desire to write that book. How does Susan “get to Aslan’s country in the end, in her own way”? How does she react to the death of her entire family? (We learn the Pevensie parents also died in the crash.) Does she grow up like she wants to? Does she get married and have kids? Does her daughter get to Narnia somehow, even after the ending of that world in The Last Battle? (Time always was flexible between that world and ours.) Does the story somehow involve the horn of Queen Susan, which was lost after the events of Wardrobe and rediscovered in Prince Caspian? Or does it perhaps explore the chase of the ever-elusive White Stag?
I have, of course, no right to attempt such a story. The “canon” is closed.
And perhaps leaving Susan’s fate unresolved is wise. Lewis’ troubling, irritating choice alerts young readers to the fact that “the last battle” of your life–the only battle of your life–is the battle of faith, and that it is ongoing. You win, you lose, you win again, you lose again. Even a Queen of Narnia is not safe. And even a “grown up” is not lost.
Peter, Edmund, and Lucy are not devastated by Susan’s departure not just because the “sorrows of hell cannot touch the joys of heaven” but also because, perhaps, the separation may only be temporary. Susan’s story, Lewis indicates, is not over yet.
Neither is ours.
I can see the beginning chapter now.
They were not to take the train, because Mother hated trains. But Father was very ill and the doctors said country air was the kindest medicine left for him. The small farm cottage that had been left to them years ago was prepared. So the Walker family took a bus from London, and then another bus, and then another—each a little less crowded than the last…
One of my all time favorite passages from the Office of Readings is Saint Augustine’s meditation on desire:
Why he should ask us to pray, when he knows what we need before we ask him, may perplex us if we do not realize that our Lord and God does not want to know what we want (for he cannot fail to know it), but wants us rather to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it. That is why we are told: Enlarge your desires, do not bear the yoke with unbelievers. (Office of Readings, Saint Augustine, “Letter to Proba”, emphasis added)
I remember reading this while I was studying in Rome seven years ago. I was praying a lot then, for many things, and the idea that my prayer was a means by which God was “stretching” my heart so that I could have the capacity to receive his gift really helped me.
It strikes me that this meditation describes very well what Advent is all about. We are waiting and hoping for God to finally come, just like Israel waited (and still waits).
The deeper our faith, the stronger our hope, the greater our desire, the larger will be our capacity to receive that gift, which is very great indeed. No eye has seen it; it has no color. No ear has heard it; it has no sound. It has not entered man’s heart; man’s heart must enter into it. (Ibid)
Because, of course, the “gift” which is “very great indeed” is the Emmanuel Himself.
If you read the Old Testament this way, it makes more sense. All of that wandering in the desert, the exile and return, the judgment of the prophets, the takeover by Babylonians and Greeks and Romans was an enormous stretching process whereby the desire of Israel for the Messiah was increased. By the time of Jesus, that desire was so intense that people were identifying messiahs everywhere.
We see this same desire in the Church as we look forward to the Messiah’s second coming. We see it especially in the “O Antiphons” and the repetition of the word “come” over and over again. Each antiphon has a different name for Jesus– “Wisdom”, “Leader,” “Root”, “Key”, “Radiant Dawn”, “King”, “Emmanuel”, and in each antiphon the speaker begs for the Messiah to “come”:
O Wisdom of our God Most High,
guiding creation with power and love:
come to teach us the path of knowledge!
O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!
O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!
O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!
O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.
O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!
O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law:
come to save us, Lord our God!
Augustine even alludes to “set times and seasons” in which we pray to God “in words” to help us “mark the progress we have made in our desire.” I think this is exactly what Advent is:
In this faith, hope and love we pray always with unwearied desire. However, at set times and seasons we also pray to God in words, so that by these signs we may instruct ourselves and mark the progress we have made in our desire, and spur ourselves on to deepen it. The more fervent the desire, the more worthy will be its fruit. When the Apostle tells us: Pray without ceasing, he means this: Desire unceasingly that life of happiness which is nothing if not eternal, and ask it of him who alone is able to give it.
(Office of Readings, Saint Augustine, “Letter to Proba”, emphasis added)
The other evening I attended the Archbishop’s Lecture Series. Dr. Jonathan Reyes came and spoke about how to preach the Gospel in a skeptical age–and an age in which reasoned arguments no longer have much purchase.
That’s the kind of love that speaks to a world grown blind to logic and deaf to reason. They might not believe in absolute Truth any more, but they can still perceive its counterpart, absolute Love. And from that encounter of being loved, of being valuable…a conversation can begin. (“My Little Lepers”)
She goes on to recount Dr. Reyes’ reflection on Mother Teresa. The reason the world loves Mother Teresa is because although it cannot comprehend faith very well, or the idea of “objective truth” (the phrase even makes me cringe a little), or rational argument, it is still attracted to beauty, for all of its infatuation with ugliness. And because Mother Teresa went to the ugliest human places with love, she reminded us of what real beauty is like. And the world noticed.
Dr. Reyes encouraged all of us to “get our hands dirty.” The world will not really listen to what Christians have to say anymore, but it is still watching us closely, and it may yet be moved by something beautiful.
Dostoevsky famously said, “In the end, the world will be saved by beauty.”
I thought about this in the context of my own world–my students. They are, as I am, products of a “skeptical age” that has lost the ability to reason. Our generation does not have the patience careful argument requires. Just watch the Presidential debates. We prefer slogans, soundbites, tweets, and hashtags.
I’ve noticed this countless times when I try to teach essay writing at the beginning of the year. Especially this year, I have been bewildered and discouraged by my student’s intellectual poverty–their struggle to form coherent thoughts, never mind reasoned arguments. Many of them still have a hard time wrapping their minds around what an “arguable thesis” even is. They can parrot back cliches and soundbites, but they cannot prove a basic claim.
It is my responsibility to try to teach them how to do this.
And yet, Dr. Reyes’ talk gave me pause. Maybe I am starting in the wrong place. Maybe I shouldn’t start off the school year with essay writing– essentially, teaching kids how to think and prove a point.
Maybe I need to start off the year with beauty.
Maybe they would be more open and eager to learn how to think, how to write, how to formulate a thesis and use evidence to support it, if they were at first struck by something beautiful.
I’m still not sure what that would look like. But I’m going to give it some thought.
I am writing you this letter to let you know that we are on the same team. It may not always feel like it, but we are. We both want your child to succeed in English class this year, to learn a lot, to improve in writing and reading and grammar usage. We also want your child to be responsible, kind to others, and hard working. Above all, we both want your child to be happy and to be close to God.
You should know that I love all of my students, including your child.
I hope you know it would be much easier for me, as a teacher, to just give everyone a “good” grade. I would avoid a lot of angry emails from you that way and a lot of hurt feelings and a lot of heartache.
But what is easy isn’t always right.
I hope you know that when I give your child a grade, I am not grading your child at all. I am assessing his work. I am trying to give him as accurate feedback as possible on what he has demonstrated he has learned, and what he has demonstrated he hasn’t learned yet. Your child’s grade in my class is a grade he has earned.
So when you say to me, “My child is not a D student!”– I completely agree. She might have a D in my class right now, but she is not a “D student.” There is no such thing as a D student–or, I might add, a “B student” or “A student.” Because, whether or not he or she is doing well in my class, your son or daughter cannot be defined by a mere letter grade.
The grade merely attempts, as accurately as possible (but certainly not perfectly) to reflect the learning your child has demonstrated so far.
I am on your team. I love your son or daughter and I hold them to high expectations not in spite of, but because of that love.
I promise to give them help, support, encouragement, and guidance. I promise to show my own love of learning and of English literature.
Anything you can do to support that effort is greatly appreciated. You are the primary educator of your son or daughter and I very much honor and respect that huge responsibility. I honor the fact that you are making many sacrifices to send your child to a Catholic school. I thank you for entrusting your child to me. I can only imagine how challenging it is to be the parent of a teenager, and I know you are doing your best. You have your own crosses to carry every day that I know nothing about.
I ask you to believe that I, too, am doing my best. I ask you to respect my professional background, my dedication, my experience, and my dignity during parent-teacher conferences this week.
I’ve been having a lot of good–but difficult–conversations with teachers about the state of Catholic education in the United States.
And as I was talking to one of my former ACE roommates about all the struggles I’m having this year with my kids, I realized something that maybe I had only been aware of before on a subconscious level.
Education can’t fix the problems it faces.
That sounds pessimistic. But it’s true.
And maybe also a little bit liberating.
I was frustrated a few days ago with a kid who did not come to finish an essay we had written in class. I was offering her support and extra help, and she did not come after school even after I had reminded her. And then I reminded her the next day and she did not come. And I had made myself available during lunch this time even though originally I had planned on trying to keep my lunchtimes this year. I was upset. Why oh why won’t you come when I am bending over backwards trying to help you?
And suddenly, later, on the phone with my ACE friend, I realized — this kid doesn’t really give a damn about my essay. And that’s kind of reasonable. From the little I know about her situation, she has so much going on at home that if I were her I wouldn’t give a damn about some essay either. She has bigger battles she’s fighting.
I mean, she still has to write that thing and I reminded her again today and she did come, thank goodness.
But sometimes as a teacher I get so caught up in my goals for my kids– or the curriculum standards — that I lose some perspective.
And I starting feeling like it’s my job to “save” them, when of course that’s God’s job.
But I think all educators–not just Catholic ones– are suffering from an identity crisis. We think that education can save these kids from their apparently grim destinies. But although a good education can make a big difference, it is not the only thing.
We get kids with learning disabilities. We get kids from broken homes. We get kids who have never met their dads. We get kids whose parents are struggling to pay the bills. Many of these parents — for all of our Catholic talk of “primary educators”– do not have the time or resources to read to their kids or get them books or help them with homework. Some of them may not know how to read well or at all. Indeed these parents are the primary educators, but many of them do not have the ability to educate. And no matter how good a school is, a school cannot fill the role of a parent.
Education isn’t just trying to overcome ignorance– its trying to overcome material poverty and broken families and cultural decay and entitlement and prejudice and despair.
But really all educators can do is try to teach kids who may be unwilling or exhausted or distracted by bigger problems.
Even the best charter school networks with all the money and resources and professional development and “best practices” in the world cannot quite make up for those things.
All we can do is help. All we can do is love our students and hold them to high expectations and give them the support they need to meet those expectations. And some of them will get there, and some of them won’t.
As Mother Teresa says, “We are not called upon to be successful, but to be faithful.”
Let’s be faithful to our students and leave the success part to God.