“The dignity of being causes”

I wrote another piece for America Magazine (with the help of my friend St. Thomas Aquinas). Check it out below!

“”In these ambiguous cases, we often feel paralyzed because, though we know we are not consciously choosing something sinful, we nevertheless see the range of possibilities and wonder whether there is a perfect option that we could be missing. But I have come to realize that the idea of the perfect is a deception from ‘the evil spirit,’ as St. Ignatius would say, trying to hinder us from choosing at all.”

Read it all here

The “Dignity and Vocation of Women” in the Life of Saint Edith Stein, Part One

A post I wrote some years ago on St. Edith Stein. Reposting in honor of her feast day, August 9th.

Also published in Catholic News Agency: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/cw/post.php?id=715

Mysteries and Manners

In this series of posts during Holy Week, I want to share how much I love St. Edith Stein– or St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. These posts are adopted from a paper I wrote my senior year at UD while taking an amazing class on the theology of spirituality with Father Roch Kereszty, O. Cist.

edithstein

The “Dignity and Vocation of Woman” in the Life of Saint Edith Stein

A great responsibility is being laid upon us by both sides. We are being obliged to consider the significance of woman and her existence as a problem. We cannot evade the question as to what we are and what we should be… We are trying to attain insight into the innermost recesses of our being… Our being, our becoming does not remain enclosed within its own confines; but rather in extending itself, fulfills itself. However, all of our being and…

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An education in letters: the friendship of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon

We sometimes think of our literary heroes as springing fully formed onto the landscape, miraculously endowed with talent and genius and grace. But they, like us, were on a journey and often relied on the help of others in the unfolding of their vocations. It was a surprise to me to discover that much of O’Connor’s thought on the nature of fiction and how to write it was in turn shaped by another, rather more obscure literary figure: Caroline Gordon.

In The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon, the editor Christine Flanagan gathers an admirable collection that traces the fascinating relationship between two women committed to both their Catholic faith and the craft of fiction. Yet unlike much of O’Connor’s correspondence with others, this one stands out as a kind of student-teacher relationship in which O’Connor, at least in the beginning, is the gifted student and Gordon the seasoned, exacting teacher.

Read my recent article at America Magazine.

“The Spirit’s Right Oasis”

Here’s a post I wrote a while back on one of my favorite poems to sit with during Advent.

Mysteries and Manners

A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness

Richard Wilbur

The tall camels of the spirit
Steer for their deserts, passing the last groves loud
With the sawmill shrill of the locust, to the whole honey of the arid
Sun. They are slow, proud,

And move with a stilted stride
To the land of sheer horizon, hunting Traherne’s
Sensible emptiness, there where the brain’s lantern-slide
Revels in vast returns.

O connoisseurs of thirst,
Beasts of my soul who long to learn to drink
Of pure mirage, those prosperous islands are accurst
That shimmer on the brink

Of absence; auras, lustres,
And all shinings need to be shaped and borne.
Think of those painted saints, capped by the early masters
With bright, jauntily-worn

Aureate plates, or even
Merry-go-round rings. Turn, O turn
From the fine sleights of the sand, from the long empty oven
Where flames in flamings burn

Back…

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By Words and the Defeat of Words

Reposting, for the anniversary of Richard Wilbur’s death.

Mysteries and Manners

Nine years ago, I stood on the steps in front St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, looking east down the Via della Conciliazione in the twilight, and I saw something very much like this:

I was mesmerized.

I remember gazing and gazing, drinking in the strange juxtaposition of that wild, restless image with the stately columns of Bernini’s colonnade–the whole scene washed in that special golden light that settles on Rome in the autumn evenings. I remember trying to describe what I had seen to my friends who were back on campus south of Rome, to my parents back in Boston, to my journal, to God. “That’s neat,” they said. Or, “Wow, I’ll look out for that next time I’m in the city.” Or, “Beautiful, honey.” And, of course, God didn’t need me to explain it to Him.

It wasn’t until a year later, however, back in Dallas, that I discovered…

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Looking forward to learning from this teacher…

I have a friend who is blogging about teaching in a Catholic school. I’m looking forward to learning from him!

The origin of Catholic education was not college preparation for the social elite. If we look at the history of Catholic education, we find that it is rooted in the dream that especially the poorest and most oppressed members of the human race need a sense of Hope that they are more than what the rest of their society may tell them they are. It is a Hope rooted, not in mastery of academic sciences or arts, but in relationship with One who Loves perfectly and without exception.

Theology of Catholic Pedagogical Theory

“Well, I’m back.”

For some reason as I was considering returning to blogging and reflecting on the past few months and what I might say about them, I thought of Samwise Gamgee at the end of LOTR as he returns from the Grey Havens, having said goodbye to Frodo and Gandalf and the journey:

But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.

Tolkien, The Return of the King

There’s nothing like stating the obvious when you have a lot on your mind and don’t know quite what else to say, Sam.

Of course I haven’t been to the Grey Havens or Mordor or anything so dramatic–but I did go to World Youth Day in Poland this past summer as a chaperone for some of my students, and I began a new position at my school this fall as an instructional coach, in addition to teaching junior American Literature for the first time in years and tackling a brand new course: Christian Authors.

I’ll start with that last part, and maybe work in some reflections on the other developments in my teaching life if they seem like they would be helpful to other teachers to share.

One of my biggest challenges this past semester was developing the curriculum (that’s a fancy way of saying “making stuff up on the fly”) for a new course I had never taught before. It was a senior elective called “Christian Authors”, and I am teaching it again this semester to a new group of kids (some juniors and sophomores as well). Really what I had to go on was the title of the course and the sense I wanted to expose the kids to a blend of theology and literature that they would not be getting from their core classes.

Lots of people said to me as I was worrying about it this past summer, “But Maura, this course is perfect for you! You get to choose whatever books you want them to read! It’s a way for you, as an English teacher, to teach theology!”

Yet this lack of formal curriculum and the freedom “to choose whatever books I wanted” was the overwhelming part. And since so many of the authors we explored are very near and dear to my heart, I was a lot more emotionally invested in the student responses than I usually am. In the core classes, it does not particularly cut me to the quick if the kids don’t like essay writing or reading the Romantics.

But if they hate Flannery O’Connor, well….

The other complication is that although this course is an elective, many kids who sign up for it do not do so out of a desire for literature and theology–they take it because nothing else fits in their schedule due to our limited elective offerings this year. So you have kids with extremely varying interest and skill levels taking a course that, ideally, should demand a lot from them. And most of them are seniors. Many of whom have a strange idea that their senior year ought to be easier than the legendarily brutal junior year.

So I had to take all that into account when making up the course.

But there was a lot that went very well last semester–and I am planning on learning from my mistakes and making some significant changes for this semester.

I am keeping the general structure. I organized the course around three big ideas–or really, what I called “persistent concerns”–issues that most Christian authors of merit need to wrestle with in their works:

Unit 1: The Sacramental Approach to Reality

Unit 2: Metanoia and the Ladder of Love

Unit 3: The Problem of Pain

Then I tried to begin each unit with an enticing question that the kids had to wrestle with that tied into the big idea of the unit–and that they used the texts we read to help them answer. That approach worked particularly well in Unit 3.

My next few posts will be unpacking those units and how they went–and how I plan to improve them for this next group.

Christian Authors round 2 begins on Monday. Stay tuned!

Dissecting the Frog

Very much on the mind and heart again.

Mysteries and Manners

Found this wonderful reflection at the Circe Institute from another English teacher like me. I can really relate to Mr. Kern describes here:

I’m torn between opposing approaches: 1) to break the work down so that they see the structures and the devices and all the things that we English majors find so fascinating but most students find so mind-numbingly similar to biology, and 2) to simply let the stories be, to them do the work themselves and to simply be a facilitator. The first option is practical and concrete and I can quantify my student’s knowledge and assess his understanding. The second functions within the realm of mystery and is less easily quantified. On the one hand I can dissect the work, on the other I can observe.

My instincts tell me to go with the second option but the strangest thing has been happening when I do: the kids…

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Tell Them You Care

I think one of the hardest things about being a teacher is that moment you realize that you care WAY more than your students do.

The kid you have been pulling aside all year long, who doesn’t know how to study, and who you beg to come in for extra help? You care more than he does.

The girl who rarely comes to school and always comes to your class late, who misses so many lessons and therefore fails almost every assessment? You care more than she does.

The kid who always wants to put his head down, who always wants to go to the bathroom, who wants to do anything to avoid interacting with you or the other students? You care more than he does.

At least, you think you do.

That’s what it feels like when you are a teacher.

And yes, you get it. There are all sorts of reasons – valid reasons! – why a lot of kids don’t care about school.

But after a while you want to throw in the towel. Why should I care about Jake failing more than he does? Why should I spend all this time making retakes and practice assignments when half of those kids never show up for extra help anyway? Why should I even bother trying to make my lessons engaging? Why should I assign this essay or write this sample? Why should I put all this effort in?

I’ve been feeling this way a lot (as I often do at the end of the year). It’s a hard time for everybody.

Today I passed back yet another test which an alarming number of students failed. I showed them the study guide side by side with the test–the study guide I had assigned for homework before the test that many of them decided not to do. There were murmurs of surprise when they saw how similar the study guide was to the test, and how the homework was clearly aligned to the assessment and was clearly meant to help them.

And I felt like saying (loudly), “SEE? SEE THE CONNECTION BETWEEN DOING THE HOMEWORK AND DOING BETTER ON THE TEST? DO YOU SEE IT NOW? WILL YOU ACTUALLY TRY DOING THE STUDY GUIDE NEXT TIME?”

But instead, I just said to them, “Some of you did a great job on this test, and you have been working hard all year, and I see you and I am so proud of you. Some of you really struggled on this test. Maybe it was because you are not giving yourself enough practice outside of class. Maybe it’s because you’re confused and you needed to ask for some help.

“But here’s what you really need to know: I gave you this study guide because I care about you. I offer retakes on every assessment because I care about you. I stay up late and plan lessons every day, even though I’d rather go to bed or do a million other things, because I care about you. I do everything I can to help you be successful because I care about you. I push you and challenge you because I care about you.

“It’s not too late to learn and grow. It’s not too late to walk out of the dark woods and ask Virgil to help you. It might feel like Virgil is leading you through hell, but you have to do the hard and scary stuff in order to make progress.” (We’re reading Dante’s Inferno right now, so they get the allusion.)

“I care about you and I want you to succeed. That’s my job. Let me know how I can help.”

And I saw on their faces that some of them were moved  to hear that.

And I realized, I need to say that phrase – “I care about you” – a lot more often. Because sometimes they don’t hear that phrase as often as they should. And sometimes they can’t make the connection between what you do for them and how you really feel for them.

As with everything else in good teaching, you need to be clear. You need to say what you mean. Of course it seems obvious to us, as teachers, that we care. But it may not be obvious to your kids.

So, if you’re a teacher, insert “because I care about you” into your correction of a misbehavior.

Insert “because I care about you” into the consequence you give.

Insert “because I care about you” after you give some tough feedback on an assignment.

And see what happens.

They need to hear that phrase. All the time. And maybe if they do hear it all the time, over and over again, in big ways and small ways, verbally and silently, through actions and words, the message will hit home.

Persuasion and the 8th commandment

The Archdiocese of Denver’s language arts curriculum for the 9th and 10th grade includes a seemingly simple standard:

“Analyze the truth of an argument in light of Catholic doctrine” (RI 2).

Okay, we’re at a Catholic school, so of course we should look at the explicit and implicit arguments we read in all sorts of texts “in light of” Church teaching. Would the Church like this idea? No. Okay, why? Would the Church like that idea? Sure. Okay, why? Etc.

But if you think about it, in order to get kids to read a text “in light of” anything, you need to enlighten the kids. They need to know what the “light” is in order to learn how to see by it.

So  I try to end almost all of my units using this standard. We step back at the end of a novel or series of poems or a play and see what the Gospel has to say about it all.

We’re (finally) finishing up Julius Caesar this week. The unit was about the art of persuasion, since persuasion is at the heart of this tragedy; Cassius manipulating Brutus and convincing him to join the conspirators who assassinate Caesar is only one of many examples of persuasion in this play. And most of these acts of persuasion, though effective, are bad. They are either riddled with logical fallacies or stocked with deceitful uses of pathos, logos and ethos.

See, for example, this masterful performance of Antony’s speech to the Roman rabble. He has to convince them that their beloved Brutus is a criminal. And he does:

He uses mostly pathos — playing upon the crowd’s hopes and fears. He establishes his credibility with ethos and pretends to be on the side of Brutus and the others. He repeats the phrase “honorable men” — at first with reverence, then with doubt, and eventually with increasing sarcasm so that the crowd begins to wonder why it ever considered Brutus honorable at all.

The whole play is largely about how people manipulate the truth in order to convince others to do and think what they want.

#Americanpolitics

So I teach my kids about what the Church says about the truth and the 8th commandment — the rule that God gave us to safeguard the truth: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

6.5 SWBAT apply Church teaching on the 8th commandment to persuasive arguments.

That way, maybe my students will not be so easily manipulated. And maybe they will think about their own reverence (or lack thereof) for truth.

So we look Christ’s intriguing conversation with Pilate:

So Pilate went back into the praetorium and summoned Jesus and said to him, “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.”

Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

When he had said this, he again went out to the Jews and said to them, “I find no guilt in him.”

(John 18:33-38)

We discuss how since Jesus’ primary language was Aramaic, and Pilate’s was Latin, that they were both probably speaking Greek to one another (the universal language of commerce in the ancient world) and that therefore the word Pilate used when he asked that fascinating question “What is truth?” was probably ἀλήθεια (aleteia).

At any rate, ἀλήθεια is the word John’s Gospel uses, as John wrote his gospel in Greek.

The Greek word for truth has a literal meaning akin to “unveiling” or “disclosed-ness”. Truth, then, has many philosophers have discussed, is the “unveiling of being” or the “disclosure of reality.”

Yeah – I guess that’s pretty intense for 10th graders.

But it is very beautiful, too. Going to a Catholic school that talks about “Truth, Goodness and Beauty” a lot might have given them the impression that “Truth” is some sort of abstract object in the sky they ought to adhere to or else.

But thinking of truth as the uncovering of reality, the unveiling of being, gives my kids a fresh look at their own relationship with the truth. How do they try to uncover the truth about themselves and others? What is the right way to approach the truth? What is the right way to unveil ourselves or to unveil truths to other people?

When you try to persuade someone, hopefully you are trying to persuade that person toward the truth about something. But so often we merely use the truth – or facts, perhaps – to manipulate and to control others, as Antony does in his speech to the gullible Romans and [insert politician’s name here] does to the gullible Americans.

We then talk about the 8th commandment and what the Catechism says — how the 8th commandment is about much more than simply not lying, but that it also forbids gossip and detraction and calumny.

The kids are pretty floored that you can say something 100% true about someone else, and yet still break the 8th commandment.

I even give them a little Hans Urs von Balthasar to consider:

“Even though man is predisposed to communication in general, he is not compelled by nature to any one conscious communication in particular. He does not have to say what he knows. He has the command of his treasury of knowledge, so that he can make a free gift of every particular disclosure. No one can wring his truth from him or manipulate it without his knowledge and consent. Truth as self-unveiling is, in the case of man, a free, hence responsible, ethically consequential act.”

Theo-Logic: Truth of the World

Every act of self-disclosure is “a free” and “ethically consequential act.” How beautiful, and how humbling.

Basically, this seeing things “in light of Catholic doctrine” part of every unit is my way to be a theology teacher and an English teacher at the same time.

Happily, at a Catholic school, those two things are not mutually exclusive.