Saturday, December 14, 2013

Christmas Poem

Let Advent seek, let mists descend,
Let all creation stare;
Let humble eyes a sight behold
That stirs a soul laid bare.

While shoppers run and sales abound,
While children's eyes are wide;
While money flows and gifts are wrapped,
Let stand the greedy tide.

Take care to keep from letting go,
From turning with the rest.
Take time to wait and time to know
The better from the best.

Look back and see through fog and veil
The site of love's release;
A land, a star, a shepherd's cave,
A blessed place of peace.

Inside, the dust and dirt fly all about;
The hay lies old and spent.
Yet rests the babe, with mother near,
In every way content.

The beasts are still, the light is faint,
The rags are small and worn.
And all can sense with quiet ease
The Savior who is born.

Now does he raise his tiny hand
And smile with simple joy; 
Love's gaze in faces all around
Supply his only toy.

No trains, no cars, no fancy games
Are given here this night.
But human comfort, care, and love
Provide his true delight.

For shepherd, sheep, and kings alike
'Tis plenty to behold;
This vision of our God enfleshed
In greater good than gold.

Creation's best, and some besides,
Dwells there for all to see.
The simple truths are quite at hand, 
Just waiting to go free.

A gift of self, a gift of time,
A love spread out as leaven,
Share in this truth, this mystery lived,
Of earth enjoined with heaven.

If Christ was borne that night to us,
And we as much do say,
Then should we not with eager heart
Bear him in mind today?

For this I know, a simple fact,
Yet charged with certainty:
That what we do with Christ this day
Does change eternity.

The gifts we have, the gifts we share,
Have never been our own.
They  have been borne by God for us;
They are the royal throne.

Stand still, dear friend, and look about,
While stars and night do sing
With brilliant light and mystic sound:
"All glory to the King!"

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Good Samaritan - A Reflection for Christmas

One of the more popular stories in the New Testament is the one of the merciful Samaritan. As we approach the time of Christmas, of goodness and God breaking into the universe of our largely myopic world, the story that Jesus shared is worth thinking about.

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:30-37)

Instead of commenting on it myself, allow me to share the commentary of someone else, as a small meditative gift for your Christmas time reflections.

“Today's Gospel in short, contains everything which is the way of the Christian. The first commandment is that we should love our God with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our strength, with all our being, and our neighbour as ourselves. To love means to prefer all that is dear to the beloved person, to what is dear to us. To love God means that we should live, and indeed be such that He could rejoice in what we are, that there should be nothing alien to Him in our lives.

"And here comes the second commandment, which the lawyer did not understand: that we should love our neighbour as ourselves. To love again our neighbour, forgetting ourselves. Very often we think that we are worthy Christians if we feel that we have in our hearts a warmth, that we love God. But this is not enough. The test of this love is to share God's own love for every one of our neighbours. I remember a sad moment in my own life, when my father asked me: what was the dream of my life? I was young then, and I said, 'To be with God alone.' And he looked sadly at me and said, 'You have not begun to be a Christian.' Because if we love God we must share with Him all His concerns for the whole world and for each person in this world.

"Let us, therefore, take this short event in the life of Christ and the parable as a rule. We will never be able to know how much we love God. It is difficult, because it is so easy to delude oneself. Even when we say that we love someone, a moment may come when selfishness, indifference, a quarrel may make an end, at least for a time, to our mutual friendship and closeness. But there is a criterion which is objective. How do you treat your neighbour? What does he mean to you? If he means nothing, if he is a passer-by, if he is only someone in your way, or if he is someone to whom you can pay attention when you are in the right mood, then we have not begun to love God and to love the world together with Him. Let us therefore think of it, ask ourselves pertinent questions, and redress our lives. Amen.” (Metropolitan Anthony of Souroh)

Friday, November 29, 2013

St. John of the Cross for Graduates

Students here graduate from school around this time. This was written for all of those who are graduating or moving on.

Very soon now, life will change for you, and it will keep on changing. Those who have been around this world a while longer than you will tell you that everyone gradually finds out that you must keep the important things important. How do you do that? One way to do that is to do something that you have already done for many years, diving deeply and regularly into the well of yourself, and listening closely to the wise words that have lasted through the ages. No one is an island. We are all supported, surrounded, and sustained by people, words, and events that continue to give us life.

Below are some wise words that provide a limitless horizon for personal reflection, where each phrase will gain new meaning as the years pass, and whereby you will be well guided in the years ahead. It’s not easy to come back to this again and again, but it’s good… and important.

By St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)
Desire its possession in nothing,
To come to the knowledge of all
Desire the knowledge of nothing.
To come to possess all
Desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all Desire to be nothing.
To come to the pleasure you have not
You must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
You must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not
You must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not
You must go by a way in which you are not.
When you turn toward something
You cease to cast yourself upon the all,
For to go from the all to the all
You must possess it without wanting anything.
In this nakedness the spirit finds its rest,
for when it covets nothing
Nothing raises it up and nothing weighs it down,
because it stands in the centre of its humility.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Friday, November 22, 1963

Fifty years ago today, I was eleven years old and living in Napa, California. Our family of seven (2 older sisters, 2 younger brothers) had just arrived 8 months earlier from Holland, full of hope and angst. Only my father knew English, but the rest of us were well on the way to picking it up, immersed in our classes at a local parochial school, taught by Sisters of Mercy from Ireland, all heavily dressed in black robes but always carrying a sparkle in their eyes and a keen sense of humour, which gave humanity to their no-nonsense teaching style.

In my own case, Sr. Mary Ligouri had placed me in the back of the 5th grade classroom and assigned one of the brighter boys to help “tutor” me, giving us an early grade spelling / writing book as our only resource. It was full of pictures, and in the way that kids have, we were able to communicate despite the fact that there was no shared language. When I’d finished one book, the next grade’s version would appear. Gradually, immersion did the trick and English became my dominant language – although I won’t tell you what my first learned words were.

Life might have been hard for my father and mother, uprooting themselves from all that they had known and loved, relatives and friends included, but there was a general tone of optimism through it all. We had done what my father had wanted to do twenty years earlier, and here we were in the land of opportunity, with a young President, beautiful vistas, and roads that went on forever. Where in Holland you would make serious plans if you were visiting relatives in a town 15-20 miles away, here that would simply be a nice afternoon drive to go shopping.

In some ways it was quite an idyllic time. I had a newspaper delivery route on early mornings, served Mass at 6:30 am during my shift at the local parish, bicycling there in the semi-darkness, and enjoyed making new friends among a group of classmates that were much more multi-cultural than the society from which we had come.

As you may have guessed, I’m trying to set the scene for the news that Sr. Mary Ligouri shared with us just before lunch on November 22, 1963, with tears in her eyes and a constricted voice. An old TV was found and rolled out. Lessons stopped. The news on the small black and white television became our most important teacher. And the idyllic dreams for the future became a bit less idyllic for a while. For three days, the world watched as the nation went through its mourning rituals, with the television as our 1960’s version of the internet, communicating what it could and providing a national support network for us all. It was an amazing experience.

Today, when I reflect back, I can appreciate the sense of tragedy, injustice, and mild national depression that ensued. But I also recall the palpable and growing national conviction that even this would not undermine the country’s aspirations and hopes. If anything, it made them all the more important, focused, and worthwhile. Difficulties and suffering can bring goodness to light, although it requires a change in perspective. “The dark takes form in the heart of the white, and reveals it.” (Rabindranath Tagore) Finally, with grace and experience, hope prevails.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Internal School Dynamic

A few days ago, one of the students at the school sent me a series of questions as part of a project that he is doing about the students and staff at SJI International. The questions were perceptive, and they made me wonder how others at the school might answer them. Allow me to share three of the questions along with my answers, which I have slightly expanded on here, and invite you to reflect on how you might answer these questions yourself, even if you are not a teacher at the school.

1) Do you think that the students in this school are better-behaved than in the other schools that you taught in? Generally, I find that the students at this school behave according to standards that I have found in many other Lasallian schools. It comes from two things. First, there is a growing understanding and respect that students have for themselves and others, and this is something that is generated by the kinds of interaction that are encouraged and supported by the staff. Second, students grow to appreciate, and become involved in, a community of persons that includes not only their friends, but also all those who are associated with the school in various ways (support people, parents, coaches, invited guests, etc.). The only difference that I would say I have found at SJI International is that here most students have a disposition and background that makes them particularly open to these kinds of developments. Their experience in an internationally-based culture, manifested both at home and in the larger Singaporean society, makes them more open to the rapid development of these appreciation factors in themselves and in others. There’s a great social work ethic at play here.

2) Do you think that the staff members in this school treat one other fairly? From all that I have seen, the staff members treat one another very fairly, and they are generous with their time and talents in supporting the efforts of other staff members. In a recently introduced process for complimenting fellow staff members at our staff briefings, this continues to be confirmed. The shape of the larger school community is significantly impacted by the community that is shaped among school staff, and in that respect we have been, and continue to be, blessed.

3) What do you think about the students in this school? I think that the students at our school have high standards for themselves, and there are high standards that are imposed on them from the outside. As they move through the learning process, and as they are guided by good teachers and other role models, they come to discover that there is more to learning than recalling facts or toning intellectual skills, and that there is more to themselves than their brains. The central role of personal development - intellectually, emotionally, spirituality, relationally, etc. - comes to life during these formative years, guided by friendships, struggles, challenges, joys, and all those things that happen during this key personal development period. As a result, people begin to blossom into who they were ready to be, and students begin to see in others the same sorts of things that they are discovering in themselves. In all, it makes for a vibrant and rather busy school community.

Friday, November 1, 2013

On November 1st, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of All Saints, when all those men and women through the ages who have led holy lives, known and unknown, are celebrated and remembered. Another term for "All Saints" is "All Hallows." The evening before was once known as All Hallows' Evening, or Hallowe'en for short. Depending on which wikipedia or internet resource you read, various popular traditions through the ages have coalesced into the evening's death-and-candy version in the American cultural tradition, aided by costume-makers, candy manufacturers, and all the other industries (perhaps even dentists?) that make this a rather lucrative time of year. But the kids aren't complaining.

In the final analysis, but without as much popularity, we might do better to focus on those on the other end of the scary spectrum. Ghosts and goblins, death and fear, witches and warlocks may stretch our virtual experience of life's mysterious dimension. But I would suggest that saints and sinners (redeemed), life and genuine faith (trust), people of charity and those of anonymous generosity stretch our real experience of life's mysterious dimension. They certainly scare me more effectively than the first set, in the sense that they shock me out of complacency and cause me to examine my own daily decision-making options and opportunities.

There are the saints who are the usual suspects when it comes to heroic, sacrificial, and  generous lives. These include St. Francis, Mother Teresa, Oscar Romero, John Paul II and the like. Their popularity in various parts of the world makes them attractive, but most people would say that they could never be like them, and therefore they won't try. However, perhaps the more challenging folks are the people you know - and I'm sure that you do know them and could even name them if you had to - who quietly exhibit positive, generous, and even "holy" qualities that you very well know that you could do yourself, if only the decision were made and you followed through with it. The problem is not that we don't know how to recognize the saints in our midst, or the saint-like things that we could do ourselves. The problem is that we seem to have some sort of natural resistance to doing so on a regular basis. That certainly is my own experience, and the Church has traditionally described this as an aspect of "original sin" in our lives; i.e., that tendency to lean to the less good and failure to consistently pursue the more good.

What the saints - both known and unknown - teach us is that anyone of us can change the course of our lives in this respect. Virtues such as patience, humility, and kindness throw invitations at our feet on a very regular basis. Little choices turn into larger choices, piece by piece, and actions tend to follow our choices, so that eventually, like steps up a mountain or brush-strokes on a canvas, a new vista is attained or a fresh perspective is achieved. Only then may the journey be fully understood in a new light.

It seems to me that much of this has to do with the cultivation of specific habits, a disposition and equal will that gradually bend the soul towards the good, the true, and the beautiful. Saints are those who become so by growing intensity, who would be surprised (and deny it) if others identified them as such. It's simply who they are. No wonder they pray so much.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The "However" Part of Education

I’m in the middle of preparing a talk on the wider dimensions of education, especially those aspects of whatever it is in “education” that is related to the development of an ethical compass. In some ways, these “other bits” of the educational enterprise are obvious and self-evident, known well to any parent who is raising a child (an interesting use of that verb, by the way). But in other ways, non-traditionally recognized aspects of what really happens in education are largely neglected, and they are usually not intentionally pursued in schools. Thankfully, they are the daily substance of how genuine teachers live out their vocation.

W.B. Yeats famously said that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” There is a powerful spark within each of us, just waiting to be turned into a flame. Yes, part of the educational journey requires the acquisition of information and the processing of that information in ways that make sense. There is indeed something to be “filled” through the process of education. However, this emptiness, openness, desire for knowledge, capacity for learning, is something that has more to do with the power and potential of fire, with all of its risky and quietly fierce potential, than it has to do with a simple container waiting to be patiently filled with liquid knowledge.

We should also take note of fact that fire cannot live without fuel from below and oxygen from above. Learning is empowered by those who, and that which, feeds the mind and the soul, giving life to the potential spark within each soul. And learning is enabled and shaped by the surroundings, context, community, friends and family, society, and world within it is bound to live, or brought to live. Both bring substance and definition to how that fire will come to be, for good or ill.

The formation of character has more to do with surroundings than with acquired knowledge, although both may be considered. Many success stories by individuals often revolve about a particular group or person who made a key difference in the direction of their lives. Recently, I heard a very successful business man speak about how his principal in grade school found out that he had fainted on the school grounds, determined that it was due to a lack of proper nourishment, and for a long time afterwards made him come to his office each day at break time in order to drink a small container of milk, not allowing him to leave until he had done so. To this day, the man remembers that story and the impact that it had on him. Something more than filling an empty stomach was going on here, and that’s “more” piece made a real difference in his true education.

What this is about is the formation of character, the shaping of the attitudes, priorities, convictions, and dispositions that define how an individual will live in the world, whether observed or not. Character is who you are when no one is watching.

What do you value from your education? Dribs and drabs of knowledge may rise to the surface, but true memories revolve around people, situations, dilemmas, decisions about what to do and what not to do, mistaken made, friends hurt, relationship repaired, services rendered, and so on. True education – the kind that really takes place – is found among the relationships and dynamics that others may see as “only” the context for education. 

Exams are okay and necessary. Knowledge feeds the mind and gives substance to our conscious life. Learning is happening all of the time, with books, with people, with situations, with the universe within which we live. All of that makes sense and should be applauded. There is a “however,” however. What dwells in that “however” will, I think, turn out to be much more important in one’s life than may be anticipated or fully appreciated.

Friday, September 27, 2013

What Lazarus Teaches Us

It’s always a fascinating thing to look at the Gospel when you don’t have to. Many people in church on a Sunday – am I giving something away here? – come to the end of the reading of the Gospel at Mass, dutifully standing up, and sit down for the homily realizing that they hadn’t really heard a thing. Instead, they had noticed the way that wall seemed to lean a little bit or the kid squirrelling around in his seat, or they had been thinking about sports, or people in their lives, or what they would do this afternoon. Now of course you are not one of those people. But you may be able to imagine them.

Therefore, I’ll give you a heads-up about the Gospel for this coming Sunday. It’s about the rich man who had a poor man named Lazarus begging at the gate, longing for some scraps. And when they both died, Hollywood couldn’t have come up with a better story of what happens. See Luke 16:19-31 if you’re curious.

The interesting part of the story for me is that the rich man ends up asking if the poor man could do him a favour. It’s as if he knew that Lazarus would be better disposed towards someone in suffering. Only when he was himself suffering did the rich man learn the reality and value of compassion. But it was a bit too late, and he couldn’t even share this newfound knowledge with others, let alone act on it. Time had run out.

The text has Abraham describing a “great chasm” between the world of the rich man and the world of the poor man. This was certainly true during their lives, and it became even more true in death. In life, the poor man literally sat at the rich man’s gate, begging, and in death the rich man also sat at the poor man’s “gate,” begging, but the chasm was much larger and could not be breached. It wouldn’t take much effort to think of similar situations in our own lives, where personal and social chasms bring about even deeper ones, and we can only sit at the gate and beg for mercy.

In all things, where we end up depends on where we have been heading. Chasms are crossed or created according what we grow within us and what we promote with those around us. If you cultivate peace, you find peace and share it without thinking much about it. If you harbour resentment, you find resentment and share it without thinking much about it. What we seek, desire, look for, and work for, we find in one way or another.

The story that Jesus relates in the Gospel – the Good News – is a poignant reminder of our capacity for good or ill. There are and shall be consequences. It’s best to be attentive, both in hearing the Gospel when it is read and in letting those words penetrate the gate of our conscience.

We may even find that our lives are transformed in ways that only Lazarus could fully appreciate.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Relationship Equation

“It is only by a definite and even deliberate narrowing of the mind that we can keep religion out of education.” (G.K. Chesterton)

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been giving a lot of thought to religious education or religious formation, including its place in a school’s curriculum. This is always a topic about which parents (and students) are either blasé, unimpressed, resigned, marginally interested, curious, concerned, or unambiguously strong-minded. Why is it that this should be the case for RE or faith topics, and the same wide range of reactions is not universally found about topics such as food, cars, exercise, children, relationships, savings plans, college studies, or the latest phone apps?

The closest equivalent might be found in the topic of politics. Hence the oft-stated advice to stay away from religion and politics in polite conversation. Religion deals with the deeply personal as related to all that is not personal, and politics deals with all that is not personal as related to the deeply personal. They are two directional perspectives of a personal stance towards the “other” – all that is not you – as if one were looking either through a microscope (politics) or a telescope (religion). Both are lived out through relationships and are based on personal history and developed attitudes, priorities, hopes and dreams. Neither topic can be easily dismissed during the course of life. At some point, or rather at all points, decisions will need to be made.

In any school, the decision currency at work revolves around relationships. The numbers involved in this currency breaks the bank in a school context. For example, the number of possible relationships in a group is determined by the formula [N x (N-1)/2] where N is the number of people in the group. For SJI International, this means that there are roughly 405,000 relationships possible in the High School and 230,000 relationships possible in the Elementary School. Counting all students and teachers on the property, there are about 1,250,000 relationships possible and “in play” on any given school day. That’s rather daunting to think about.

This simple fact and real potential may also provide some context for understanding why the two topics of religion and politics bear such careful consideration when brought to the light of public display. Every single person who has developed an appreciation of the value of relationships – and who hasn’t? – and who has begun to wonder why things are one way and not another way – and who hasn’t? – is in a position to have formed a perspective about things in their immediate world of experience. This real, daily, deeply personal world is vastly different for a 5-year-old, a 15-year-old, a 25-year-old, and so on. Decisions have to be made. Attention must be paid. And once a personal perspective emerges and takes root, you’ve landed in the world of religion and politics, where choices abound and each choice makes a difference. They lead to further or deeper relationships, further or deeper experiences, further or deeper perspectives. Decisions become rings on the trunk of personal development. Gradually, a life is shaped and directions are set, whether they be along ruts or super-highways. Every day, you also shape other lives, whether acknowledged or not. Eventually, the ship of soul drifts more towards politics or religion as one’s preferred universe of engagement, with sensitivity and excitement levels to match. People become appreciative, generally happy, hopeful, and wholesome inside, or they become critical, generally unhappy, discouraged, and unpleasant inside. We reap what we sow. We harvest from what we decide.

You may have noticed that I’ve said nothing explicitly about religious education or religious formation, including its place in a school’s curriculum. This is because polite conversation must persist as much as the religious dimension of educational pursuits.

P.S. For the whole article by Chesterton, go to

Friday, September 6, 2013

Teacher as Shepherd

Do you know anyone who is a shepherd – a real, live shepherd with a bunch of sheep to manage? I recently read an article about the shepherds in Switzerland who are losing many sheep because of the growing wolf population, which is a protected species there. The wolves are having a feast. Imagine being a shepherd in that situation. It’s not easy, but they’re doing the best they can in this centuries-old profession. The same could also be said of teachers today. It’s not easy, but they’re doing the best they can in this centuries-old profession.

When Jesus in the Gospel of John (10:10-16) talks about shepherds, it sounds as if he knows what he’s talking about, comparing the good shepherd against a hired man who doesn’t really care about the sheep, running away at the first sign of a wolf. The good shepherd, on the other hand, knows his sheep and cares for them, even to the point of being willing to lay down his own life for them. That’s a very dramatic statement! I doubt if the sheep really appreciate how much they are cared for by the shepherd, and what the shepherd does to protect them, to lead them, and to care for them. But the shepherd doesn’t mind. He is happy to be a shepherd, and all he wants is to be a good shepherd.

De La Salle, in one of his Meditations, compares the teacher to such a shepherd, somebody who understands students individually and also knows exactly how to best guide each one, treating students with great tenderness, and adapting instructions to what the student is able to understand. I think that we all know of, or remember, a teacher who did something like that for us. This was the teacher who looked at us as a “somebody,” a person who was distinctive and had unique gifts and talents and interests and motivations. This was the teacher who quite obviously cared about us, although he or she didn’t make a big fuss about it. They just showed their care by how they treated us and what they did to help us along the way.

Many successful people, when they are interviewed and are asked how they became so successful, often begin with the phrase “Well, there was this teacher…” The thing that made a real difference in their life was one specific person who was able to touch something inside of them, something that made them want to learn, something that opened up their capacity for wonder, for exploration, for knowing and doing more than they had thought possible before. Such teachers were teachers in the way that Jesus and De La Salle talk about. They were shepherds of the souls of their students. For most students, I doubt if they really appreciate how much they are cared for by the teacher, and what the teacher does to protect them, to lead them, and to care for them. But the teacher doesn’t mind. He or she is happy to be a teacher, and all they want is to be a good teacher.

All this is worth thinking about. Teachers are called to be shepherds of souls. Especially in a Catholic school, they bring Jesus and the Gospel alive for their students. For some, they may be the only Gospel that their students will ever read.

Teachers don’t look for thank-you cards. That’s not why they became teachers. But it’s really nice when students do thank them, even if it is a bit awkward and different, and even if it doesn’t happen often or right away. The point is to be grateful.  When a student – present or past – does express gratitude, teachers are genuinely touched and remember it for a long time afterwards. And I think that students remember also. Teaching blossoms in mutual gratitude.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Keys to Learning Well

In the school’s mission statement is the phrase “Enabling youth to learn how to learn …” What does that mean? And how do you know when it happens?

Mission statements are notoriously imprecise and aspirational. But that is on purpose. The nature of a mission statement is to draw us forward, set us on a path, provide a fixed direction, point out the mountain we would like to reach. Some companies even have two mission statements, the official one and the unofficial one. For example, this is the case for Google. Their official mission statement is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." The unofficial one, officially recorded in its 2004 IPO prospectus, is “Don’t Be Evil.” The first statement is predictable and rather dull. But the second is quite interesting, because it causes the reader to think about what that phrase could mean in an organization.

Our own school’s mission statement has aspects of both in it. Schools are about youth and about learning. That much is fairly obvious. What is less obvious, but all the more important and perhaps worthy of reflection, is the fact that one part of our mission is to enable youth to learn how to learn. The focus of the learning is on learning. This focus is part of the educational environment, whereby not only are facts, figures, rules, systems, insights, relationships, etc. learned outright. But within that process there is an intentional effort to enable students to discover the ways that they are involved in the process of learning itself, are agents in the skill of learning, and thereby may become more deliberate about the learning that they want to accomplish.

The more we know about our own learning process, the better learners we become.  For example, I know that I need a quiet environment in order to learn well, and that I need to “ramp up” my learning process so that I can get to a level of engagement that puts things into a higher gear. The simplest example is from many years ago, when I delayed writing my PhD dissertation (as most candidates do at some point in the process) until deadlines loomed and something radical was needed. After thinking about my best learning process, the solution appeared. For six weeks, I put myself into a Trappist monastery in California, pictured above, where for five weeks (the first week was for ramping up) I worked calmly but intensely for many hours of the day in a profound, natural silence punctuated only by prayers and meals. At the end of that time, 80% of the dissertation was done, basically due to zero radio or TV, simple vegetarian food, a peaceful setting, and an inescapable personal regimen – no distractions possible – punctuated by good prayer and liturgy.

That’s only one example, and it may only apply to me. Your way of learning best is likely to be quite unique. But when you identify it, the more you may pursue it, and the better you will learn. A friend of mine who became the CEO of a large company showed me a room next to his third-story office that was empty except for a window overlooking the outside and two rows of airplane seats. He told me that he thinks best on airplanes, and so he had this little room built for his private thinking and planning time. He, in fact, had learned how he learned best.

When you learn how you learn, you will learn more quickly, deeply, and intensely. Each new insight about your own learning will add to your personal set of learning tools, ready to go into action when needed. How to start? Take a short but serious inventory after you have learned something really well. What allowed that to happen? Push, push, push for the reasons. Those results, in the long run, will be more valuable than whatever it was that you learned really well. Like a coach who is able to reflect back the small movements or behaviours that will lead to greater performance, by being your own “learning” coach, you will identify your own best behaviours for learning.

If someone told us that we could take a pill to help us learn better, as in the movie Limitless (2011), we would probably buy a year’s supply. Actually, we have those pills already inside of us. They just need to be identified and brought into the light of day. After that, it’s mostly “Take as needed.”

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Getting People to Learn

“There is no system in the world, or any school in the country, that’s better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools. But teaching is a creative profession. Teaching, properly conceived, is not a delivery system. … What great teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage. In the end, education is about learning. If there's no learning going on, there's no education going on. The whole point of education is to get people to learn....” (Ken Robinson, TED talk “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley.”

All of us have been both teachers and students. Most of us have been professional students for a good part of our lives. We have gone to school longer than most people have held their jobs. We know how to be a student. And so we also have a pretty fair grasp of what it means to be educated, a notion and reality that is likely to grow with age and wisdom, although not without some sense of irony.  "Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously." (G K Chesterton)

The idea that teachers are key to any school is something that is too obvious to be noticed. Like the advantage of having an opposable thumb, or the fact that our eyes work so well with our brain, or the reality that things like faith, hope, and love are part of being human, it’s one of those facts of our existence that is as comfortably taken for granted as the clothing we wear. The founder of the Brothers, however, started this entire Lasallian movement by not taking teaching for granted, but rather building his schools on the trust, community, spirit, enthusiasm, talents, and aspirations of those young men in 17th Century France who believed that education could transform lives. Ever since, every school that claims John Baptist de La Salle as its inspiration and guide has discovered the truth and power of the key insight that good teachers bring learning to life in young people.

Ken Robinson in his talk also shares contemporary insights that De La Salle would recognize. For example, Sir Robinson says that high-performance school systems “individualize teaching and learning. They recognize that it’s students who are learning and the system has to engage them, their curiosity, their individuality and their creativity.” De La Salle said 300 years ago that teaching involves “knowing each individually and discerning the right way to guide them.” He advocated the use of visual instruction, the incorporation of skits, dialogues, or songs to help children capture moral lessons, and included training in practical arts such as needlework, keeping accounts, and life skills. Good manners were also instilled as a necessary part to Christian upbringing.

Sir Robinson states that high-performance schools “attribute a very high statue to the teaching profession. They recognize that you can't improve education if you don't pick great people to teach and if you don't keep giving them constant support and professional development.” De La Salle believed the same, telling his teachers that they followed in the footsteps of the apostles, given the gift of instruction, exhortation, and teaching. (M 78.2, 145.3, 193.2) Such "great graces from God" entail a grave responsibility. "It is God himself who has led them to you; it is God who makes you responsible for their salvation [Heb.13: 17].” Professional development in the ministry of teaching was equated with personal development in the journey of following God. De La Salle and the early Brothers are credited with initiating the movement for “normal schools” that trained teachers, having done so for non-Brothers and Brothers alike during his lifetime and far beyond.

The point is simple: Great learning depends on great teachers, and this has always been the case, whether in the 17th century or in the 21st century. The deeper realities persist about teaching and learning. Through great teachers, students have the opportunity to discover glimpses of the Promised Land and to be drawn in by the numinous mystery of God’s presence within themselves and within the people and the worlds that they encounter.

What a wonderful responsibility, mysterious adventure, and great vocation!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Built for the Infinite

“We are built for the infinite, Grand Canyons without a bottom. Because of that we will, this side of eternity, always be lonely, restless, incomplete, still a virgin – living in the torment of insufficiency of everything attainable.” (Rolheiser, The Holy Longing, Pg. 157)

This is one of those quotations that starts off really well and ends somewhere else. Both sentences appear to be true, but where one is rather noble and grand, the other is rather depressing. It’s nice to think that we are built for the infinite. But if that means that we will be “living in the torment of insufficiency,” the whole thing doesn’t sound so desirable.

Of course it’s not a new notion in the world of serious, honest, and sincere reflection. For example, Saint Augustine said “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Bhuddha used poignant images: “If you sleep, desire grows in you like a vine in the forest. Like a monkey in the forest, you jump from tree to tree, never finding the fruit – from life to life, never finding peace.” The Bagavad Gita says “The mind is restless and difficult to restrain, but it is subdued by practice. … The peace of God is with them whose mind and soul are in harmony, who are free from desire and wrath, who know their own soul.”

We are all conscious of a certain restlessness that is part of who we are as human beings. It’s the thing that gets us to start new projects, go on vacations, check out restaurants, seek the latest gadgets, explore the neighbourhood, play games, and even gamble. All of those things are outside of ourselves and bring some vestige of satisfaction. The activity of pursuing them provides ongoing assurance that there must be “something” that will bring completeness and full contentment. It’s not true.

Anything finally worthwhile and truly fulfilling comes from the inside rather than from the outside. Nothing new here either, except perhaps for the curious fact that we hear this again and again, and it’s something we generally agree with, but it’s also something we don’t actively pursue, generally speaking, as much as we pursue those toys of contentment. Young children know about what’s important intuitively and older people simply after long years of experience. The important things are all about what happens inside of ourselves. This is what defines our relationship with the world around us and other people. It’s also the great adventure of life, that inner journey of discovery, informed by our experiences, circumstances, and community of life.

Every once in a while, I visit a large and impressive forest or Redwood grove. Standing there, surrounded by these massive living plants that are hundreds or thousands of years old, I’m silenced and awed by their sheer presence, fully alive and yet totally immovable, rooted for centuries and yet connected to the vibrant web of life in which they dwell, intimately vested in nature’s cycle and yet bearing a solid independence that is inarguable.  It makes you think about the ground of our own being during our brief time of life. It reminds me to worry more about the important stuff than less about the unimportant stuff. It might even make me stop checking my email as often as I do, or surf the internet in a sort of technological equivalent of restless insuffiency.

The solution is not easy, but it is close at hand. Very few of us genuinely do no know the better way. We just have to start with a trickle of good habits. Even the Grand Canyon started out as a small trickle of water, and look at what became of that.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Finding Your Precious Bowl

There is a story about a young Buddhist monk and an old Buddhist monk who were walking along the countryside, carrying their begging bowls. They came to a stream and began to cross it, stirring up the sediment on the bottom as they made their way across. In the middle of the stream, with the water now up to their waist, the young monk suddenly stumbled, losing the grip on his begging bowl, which promptly sank and disappeared into the murky current. He lurched to save it, but all he came back with was dirty water and empty hands. The old monk quickly came over, and together they probed the bottom with their feet, trying find that begging bowl. After a fruitless ten minutes of searching, shuffling along a whole stretch of the stream, the young monk grew frustrated. “What will I do now? That bowl was my most precious possession? What a stupid thing to lose it. I’ll never find it again!”
    The old monk calmly looked at him and said, “Settle down. Don’t get all excited. The bowl is still there. You just can’t see it right now. But I have a suggestion for how you can find it. Do you see that large tree on the other side of the stream?”
    The young monk said, “You mean that really big one by the edge? Yes, I see it.”
    “I want you to go over to that tree,” said the old monk, “sit down on the ground beneath it, close your eyes, and meditate quietly for 30 minutes.”
    “What good will that do?” said the young monk. “My begging bowl is somewhere in this stream, not under that tree.”
    “Just do as I say,” replied the old monk. “I will go ahead of you, and you can catch up with me later on. Just go sit beneath that tree and meditate. You will find that all things will become clear.”
    The young monk did as the old monk had told him. He walked out of the stream, sat down beneath the tree, and meditated for a full 30 minutes. The old man walked off and disappeared over the hill. After 30 minutes, indeed the young monk had calmed down. His spirit had settled, and his mind had begun to clear. The frustration was gone, and now he was just a little sad about losing his bowl.
     But when he opened his eyes, he found out that the stream had cleared up as well. All the sediment that they had stirred up had settled down to the bottom, and now the water was crystal clear, with the sun dancing on the surface of the rippling current. He was able to see to the bottom of the stream in all directions, and straightaway he saw where his begging bowl had landed, gleaming in the reflected sunlight.
     He stood up, walking into the stream, reached down, and picked up the bowl. Then he rushed to catch up with the wise old monk who had known how to find clarity. His most precious possession was all the more precious for having been found.

The end of a school term and the beginning of a vacation is a time of excitement and thoughts of precious things yet to be. Plans and packing lead to unanticipated experiences, probing ventures or adventures, and the occasional stumble. Perhaps there will even be a time when it appears that a precious thing was dropped or lost – through the unkind word, the forgotten gesture, the genuine mistake. In the turbulence of the situation, the effect may easily become greater than the cause, and suddenly a small thing has become a large one, the mouse has transmogrified into a monster. For reasons quite unclear, some precious object (friendship, love, forgiveness, kindness, tolerance, peace, etc.) appears to be irretrievably lost.

This is the time to allow the point of a vacation or break to come forward. Find a quite place. Be still. Let things settle, both inside and outside. At the appropriate time, open your eyes and observe the clarity of genuine reality, unfettered by swirling sediment, as clear as a sparkling stream. Find where that precious thing has landed. Heave a sigh of relief, and then walk over – please do walk over – and pick it up from below the surface. Then be on your way with new appreciation and a firmer grip on the thing that once was lost and now is found.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Fascination & Fear - The Crucifix

“In the crucifix you see, in the most vivid, convincing way, 
God speaking to us about his great love.”
- Cardinal Basil Hume, OSB -

The crucifix, which is a cross with the body of Jesus displayed on it, is such a strange religious image. For those who are not familiar with the mystery that it conveys, the image of a half-naked man nailed to a cross is crass and almost grossly graphic. Why not a nicer image, such as the resurrected Christ in glorified robes and a crown, against a plain cross in the background, with perhaps a sunrise as well? Some cultures even accentuate the negative effect, with the figure of Christ bleeding profusely, displaying sad eyes and a suffering expression. Why would we want to look at that? It both attracts and repels us. Why is that? What attracts us to it, and what are we afraid of?

     Both fascination and fear are bound up with the crucifix. The image fascinates because it is strangely compelling and it elicits fear because there is pain involved. Frank Sheed used to say that after all his studies and reflection and prayer, the only real thing that he could say about the mystery of redemption is that only God could do it, and it hurt. The fact that God is the main character is fascinating, but the fact that it hurt and may hurt us if we take it all seriously is cause for fear. Even when love is part of the picture, perhaps especially so, fascination and fear kick in big time.

     This combination of fascination and fear is not a new one. There was the classic description by Rudolf Otto of the “numinous” reality of divine presence and power as  “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” in the 1923 publication The Idea of the Holy (Oxford University Press). Subsequently, this description struck a chord with people, and authors as diverse as Carl Jung, CS Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Carl Sagan, and Richard Dawkins have built on Rudolf Otto’s work.  A quotation from Huxley gives a good notion of what is meant: “The literature of religious experience abounds in references to the pains and terrors overwhelming those who have come, too suddenly, face to face with some manifestation of the mysterium tremendum. In theological language, this fear is due to the incompatibility between man's egotism and the divine purity, between man's self-aggravated separateness and the infinity of God.”

     Our own human experience provides plenty of examples of the same sort of encounter. There is the range of vicarious, fascinating/fearful enjoyments, such as the tragedies of Shakespeare, the popularity of UFO’s and horror movies, or the attraction of Halloween. There are the Xtreme games (online or not) and TV shows, car-racing and encounters with bears. There is the more personal sort of version, which includes learning a new language, dating and friendship, keeping a pet or a garden, and figuring out what to do with your life. All of life’s pieces have both a fascinating and fearful aspect to them, according to one’s history, approach, perspective, and follow through.

     When a crucifix is seen as a focused, fascinating, yet fearful symbol of how life is and/or may be, then the key dimension of love jumps to the fore. Parker Palmer once wrote that we must "...allow love to inform the relations that our knowledge creates." We have to work to allow love to happen. God’s love, however, is a constant reality, available to us through the mystery of Jesus Christ, and available to others through us. In Anthony Bloom’s words, “At times one can give one's own life more easily than offer unto death the person whom one loves beyond all; and this is what God, our Father has done. But it does not make less the sacrifice of Him who is sent unto death for the salvation of one person or of the whole world. … We will never be able to experience what it meant for Him to die upon the Cross, even our own death cannot disclose to us what His death was: how can Immortality die? But what we can learn, what we can discover by communing ever more deeply, ever more perfectly through a daring, wholehearted endeavour with the life, and the teaching, and the ways of Christ - what we can learn is to love in a way that approximates more and more to that love divine, and discover in this love the quality which unites death as forgetfulness of self, ultimate and perfect, with the victory of love, Resurrection and eternal life.