Friday, November 30, 2018

Lasallian Reflection - The Gift of Silence

Luc Olivier Merson (French, 1846-1920)  Rest on the Flight into Egypt – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Have you ever been in a place where it is so quiet that the absence of sound begets a unique richness and palpable substance? The anticipated “nothing” turns inside out, and a very much kind of “something” emerges. What comes to mind is my nighttime visit to a mountaintop near Sonoma, CA, where amateur astronomers quietly gather to share their passion under star-filled skies, waving about red night-vision-preserving flashlights and beckoning visitors stumbling around in the dark to come and squint through their telescopes to see this or that galaxy or star cluster millions of light-years away. A similar sense of silence is found by others in the quiet company of loved ones, or in a walk in the woods – perhaps with their dog, or in driving a car with the radio turned off and comfortably settled into a semi-automatic mode, or idly watching children play in a public park. The “something” seems to consist of an inner settledness, an unanticipated resonance with the disposition of redwood trees and evening high-Sierra lakes. Each instance carries a hint of eternity and of grace; this is a “something” that strikes us as timeless and good and simply for us. It’s the kind of experience that allows the word “blessed” to make sense.

“A human being is dust called to glory. … The call directed to us … is to raise our soul’s eyes to glimpse the other side; then, to realize that, in Christ, a passage exists. The ladder of humility, laid flat, carries across. To own that I am dust is an act of daring. By that admission, I make peace with my poverty. I resolve to dwell within it. … I am taught to let glory, by grace, lay claim to my being even now, to make it resonant with music of eternity. I learn to look towards eternity as home.”[1] Such sentiments may be easier to reach towards, or even touch, in a monastery or on top of a mountain late at night than in an airport, a shopping mall, or a busy family or school community. Yet the fact that it is possible is itself an invitation to do so. In that sense, and probably for that reason, Advent speaks of the reaching, and Christmas proclaims the invitation.

St. John Baptist de La Salle knew the value of example, the influence of what is experienced, and the learning potential of what is observed: “Do you wish your disciples to do what is right? Do it yourself. You will persuade them much more readily through your example of wise and prudent behavior than through all the words you could speak to them. Do you want them to keep silence? Keep it yourself.” (Med 33.2) The deep-down silence that is the condition for being open to God’s presence in our lives is also the substance of how God “teaches” us. “We learn to speak to God only by listening to him; for to know how to speak to God and to converse with him can only come from God.” (Med 64.2) Does this mean that we should hide in a cave in order to find God? We could, and people do, but thankfully God is more egalitarian than that. Think of the parable of the prodigal son, or the shepherd and his one lost sheep. If anything, God seems to be more readily found by way of forgiveness and mercy, through the cracks of life, than through any direct, stable, predictable, and definitive path.[2]

Such cracks appear to be much more prevalent in contemporary society, contributing to the age of the “Nones,” and yet today's society leaves people bereft of ways to fill them. David Brooks writes, “Sometimes I look at the rising suicide and depression rates, the rising fragility and distrust, and I think it all flows from the fact that we’ve made our culture a spiritual void. When you privatize morality and denude the public square of spiritual content, you’ve robbed people of the community resources they need to process moral pain together.”[3] So while Santa Claus and Black Friday are hugely successful, their benefits fall through the cracks, as it were, and the substance of things hoped for remains as hidden and ignored by most people as are the stars above. We have lost virtually all of our night vision, and even the tiny clusters of light seem out of reach. 

What to do? Wave about red night-vision-preserving flashlights of mercy to help show the way of forgiveness, and beckon visitors stumbling around in the dark to come and squint at what we have been able to see, however far away and indistinct. Because at some point they will step back, take in the whole of it, and be touched by a tiny, silent whisper of presence and love[4] that transforms absence into presence, nothing into something, and Christmas into Christ. And then we can truly say with Tiny Tim, “God bless us, every one!"

[1] Varden, Eric. Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance. London: Bloomsbury, 2018. Pg. 21, 32.
[2] Cf. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “There is a crack in every thing God has made.” (1841), Hemingway’s “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places” (1929), and Leonard Cohen’s now-famous “There is a crack, a crack, in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” (1992)
[3] Brooks, David. Fighting the Spiritual Void. New York Times, Nov. 19, 2018.
[4] God said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind… but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. - 1 Kings 19:12  (NRSV)

Monday, November 5, 2018

Lasallian Reflection - The Joy of Gratitude

“Gratefulness is the inner gesture of giving meaning to our life by receiving life as gift. The deepest meaning of any given moment lies in the fact that it is given. Gratefulness recognizes, acknowledges, and celebrates this meaning.”[1] This quotation is by Br. David Steind-Rast, OSB, one of the most articulate evangelists for gratitude, gratefulness, thanksgiving, and all those words that convey a reaching out into the world with arms wide open.

The spontaneous joy of engaging life’s nature as pure gift reminds me of the young two-year-old son of some very good friends of mine, who–years ago now–unselfconsciously brimmed over with life and mischief, climbing onto furniture and ledges with way-too-risky abandon, a smile on his face and giggles as companions, hugging people and things with the kind of joy that only children seem to be able to display with unvarnished transparency. Every moment was precious, was now, was embraced with love and palpable, infectious joy. Jesus’ words, “Let the children come to me . . .” suddenly made lots of sense. Children live with raw gratitude even while being significant recipients of the generosity of others. Both are very much alive.

Gratitude seems to me to be the flip side of generosity. With generosity, we express actions and intentions of unconditional love; with gratitude we receive actions and intentions of unconditional love. The best kinds of generosity are given unasked, unexpected, and previously unknown. The best kinds of gratefulness are received unasked, unexpected, and previously unknown. The most generous people tend to be the most grateful, and vice versa. Generosity and gratefulness appear to be two vectors of love’s living dynamic.

These same vectors are found in education and teachers. St. John Baptist de La Salle tells his teachers: “Thank God for the grace he has given you . . . and calling you to such a holy work of instructing children and leading them to piety.”[2] And “Thank God, who has had the goodness to employ you to procure such an important advantage for children.”[3] But this invitation to teachers to be grateful is a notion that is actually quite challenging. Our internal perspective may at timesamong other people, of course; not ourselvesrun more along the lines of “These kids should be grateful that they have me as a teacher . . . they don’t appreciate all the work that I do for them, how much time I put into the classes, and what I’ve given up to do this job well . . . they really don’t have a clue.” Such thoughts are based on a transactional approach to teaching; I do this for them, and they should do that for me. The vectors finally point inward.

Of course, most veteran teachers, although unfortunately not all, sloughed off that old cloak years ago and listen to such sentiments with a wry grin on their faces. They walk into most classes with genuine and daily gratitude, because by virtue of their years of experience they have been drawn into the deep generosity of teaching with all of its concomitant joys and blessings. They know that they plant seeds and that the growth comes from elsewhere. (Cf. 1 Cor. 3:6) Most students are never seen again, and so they will never know if those seeds had ever taken root. And if my experience is any indication of the experience of others, the things that did take root may not even have been the most obvious seeds. (I still wash and dry my hands like my 3rd grade teacher did in the corner of the classroom every morning.) Diving into the kind of arms-wide-open generosity that genuine teaching calls for cannot but coat one’s life with the cumulative gratitude that only steady or great love can bring, whether received or given.

Finally, teachers must step out of the way, trusting the generosity of God’s movement in the lives of their students. And that is something deserving our gratitude as well. It’s not all up to us. "Teaching is cooperative art similar to the nurturing that defines farming; involving watering, pruning where necessary, etc. It consists in developing a respect for mystery, a capacity for trust, and a skill in serious reflection. Through revelations and challenges, experiences and analyses, insights and application, others are led to develop habits of perception; to grind their lenses, as it were, so that the reality of God might be seen in focus and encountered in the full light of truth. Once a path for God is cleared and opened, the teacher steps aside and lets the mystery commence."[4] Stepping aside is a most generous thing, and gratitude for that particular thing may be the last seed dropped into students’ lives.

For a gratitude kick start, watch the Louis Schwartzberg video “Gratitude Revealed”[5] and listen to Br. David Steindl-Rast’s narration. There is no better invitation to the joy of gratefulness.

[1] Steind-Rast, David, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, Paulist Press. 1984. Pg. 207
[2] De La Salle, John Baptist. Meditations by St. John Baptist de La Salle. Landover, MD: Christian Brothers Conference, 1994. (MED 99.1) Pg. 183.
[3] Ibid. (MED 193.1) Pg. 435.
[4] Nouwen, Henri J.M. Creative Ministry. New York, N.Y. Doubleday, 1971. Pg. 11.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Lasallian Reflection - A Few Daring Plunges

The vibrancy and noise of online social connections—today’s virtual bacchanal for eager minds and silent eyes—reflects a deep human need for, and appreciation of, connection and belonging. But we know, or should know, that such thin connections are no substitute for the unpredictable richness of even the most fleeting of real human encounters. And without realizing the difference between the two, device-based habits may easily turn into an accepted but impoverished normality. David Brooks writes that with today’s social media “You can have a day of happy touch points without any of the scary revelations, or the boring, awkward or uncontrollable moments that constitute actual intimacy. ... Being online isn’t just something we do. It has become who we are, transforming the very nature of the self.”[1]

Are authentic connections becoming passé? Dr. Jean Twenge in her book iGen makes a strong case that authentic connections are no longer the norm for adolescents today. “Born after 1995, iGen is the first generation to spend their entire adolescence in the age of the smartphone. With social media and texting replacing other activities, iGen spends less time with their friends in person—perhaps why they are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.” The full title of her book is iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy - and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood - and What That Means for the Rest of Us. Anyone who works with young people today should read it, not only because of the solid research, but also because it will make you think about what is best for those entrusted to your care. “This ought to be one of the main concerns of those who instruct others: to be able to understand their students and to discern the right way to guide them.” (DLS, Med 33.1) This book looks at why, for example, with so many virtual contacts, young people are more lonely than in the past.

A recent CIGNA study showed that over half of Americans view themselves as lonely, and the survey “found that actually the younger generation was lonelier than the older generations.”[2] The least lonely were those of The Greatest Generation - 72 years old and above. Why is this not such a big surprise to some of us who are older? Perhaps we discovered by long experience that achieving a skill or a goal requires actual time, effort, conversation, and engagement - most of which may be facilitated by devices, but none of which may be substituted for them. Even going to a deli requires time, effort, conversation, and engagement. Silently ordering online  - scan menu, make choices, fill in address, pay with card - makes opening the door for the delivery person - brief eye-contact, minimal talk - the most profound human encounter of the whole interaction. And drone-delivery will eventually make even that unnecessary. Is it any wonder that chronic loneliness, serious hole-in-the-soul loneliness, is on the rise?

How then might we as educators make a positive difference and guide young people into a different kind of Promised Land? Lots of ways; but here is a simple one. Find a place on the school property where there is student traffic, and stand or sit or wander there every day, making eye contact with as many students as possible. Say hello, smile, whatever; but engage! You will quickly find that it becomes deeply rewarding, and also perhaps challenging (to keep doing). Human nature itself guarantees that even minimal effort in addressing the deepest of longings of people bears a vastly disproportionate, cumulatively positive reward for everyone. Eye contact is the invitation, and then “a smile is a flower is a smile of the heart.” (Pope Francis) How hard can it be? And if it is hard, then more time, effort, conversation, and engagement are needed. The more we enter into something new, the greater our capacity becomes for doing it.

Heroic endeavors are called for today, because social media generally “flattens the range of emotional experiences. . . [E]very moment is fun and diverting, but the whole thing is profoundly unsatisfying. I guess a modern version of heroism is ... regaining control of social impulses, saying no to a thousand shallow contacts for the sake of a few daring plunges.”[3]

Teachers are at the forefront of what Br. Leon Lauraire calls our uniquely Lasallian “pedagogy of fraternity.” Daring plunges, even brief ones, are the happy requirement for its realization.

[1] Brooks, D. (2016, October 7). Intimacy for the Avoidant. The New York Times. Retrieved from
[3] Brooks, D., op. cit.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Lasallian Reflection - Soul for Soul

As the school year commences, we might do well to recollect – bring back to our attention – what we are about simply as educators, let alone as Lasallian educators. Our purpose dwells more in the realm of virtue and its emergence than in the realm of utility and its application. Our context is more a web of relationships than an org chart of job descriptions. Our daily world includes both sets of realities perhaps, but our intentional focus habitually differs from that of most organizations. This is as it should be, because we are about the shaping of souls.

De La Salle writes: “You have committed yourselves to God in the place of those whom you instruct. By taking upon yourselves the responsibility for their souls, you have, so to speak, offered to him soul for soul. [Ex. 21:23]” (M 137.3) This is a religiously intimate responsibility. It is one “that requires you to touch hearts, but this you cannot do except by the Spirit of God." (M 43.3) "You must... imitate God to some extent, for he... loved the souls he created." (M 100.3) The imitation of God becomes incarnated in the teacher's daily relationship with students. "Every day you have poor children to instruct. Love them tenderly... following in this the example of Jesus Christ." (M 166.2) Through such brotherly/sisterly devotion and deep attachment to the good of their students, teachers are able to draw down God's graces upon those entrusted to their care. This is a foundational perspective within our Christian tradition, as expressed through our own Lasallian Catholic lens of over three centuries, and it persists.

Such a foundational perspective on education has been at work throughout human history, lying at the root of multiple valued traditions. It is well described by C.S. Lewis in the little book, The Abolition of Man. He says that it is a basic human conviction that truths lie embedded in particular things themselves. Education is an introduction, an initiation, into the engagement with those truths; i.e., it is the cultivation of genuine virtue. Aristotle held that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what s/he should. Common to Greek philosophy, the Hindu Rta, the Oriental Tao, the Confucian Analects, the Jewish Law, etc. “is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of things the universe is and the kind of things we are.” According to Augustine, virtue is “ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it.” In Lewis’ words, “the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of [hu]man consists.”

What does this mean for us? “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” Perhaps one of the sad consequences of today’s pervasive paradigm of scientific materialism is an absence of the capacity to see and develop genuine virtue, much less value its often difficult pursuit. Our mission, if we decide to accept it, involves the training of those attitudes, perspectives, and relational experiences by which “emotions [are] organized by trained habit into stable sentiments” so that our students are guided and accompanied into their best and surely most demanding selves, precisely according to how that “best” has been experienced, described, and known throughout the greater part of human history.

This is what the shaping of souls is about, both theirs and ours.