I read a few days ago that one of the most prominent failures of teachers is the failure to love and it was a quick jab to the stomach of my pride. Not to mention, it came from St. Augustine and isn’t so easy to dispel with excuses and circumstances.
But the psychological failures that Deogratias must most be on guard against is a failure in love. Deogratias must learn how to step outside of himself. He must learn to teach with joyful self-forgetfulness. The real difficulty lies not in questions of content, nor of technique, but in the teacher’s own heart. For when the teacher takes delight in what he says, that is, when he loves both his subject and his students, then students also will enjoy what he has to say.
“St. Augustine” by Ryan Topping, p. 60
And I walked back into my classroom with a conscious realization that while I may do many things well, Augustine was right. I fail to love. I love some but not enough. I love in instances but not in entirety. And I couldn’t help but think that this teaching gig is a true preparation for Heaven (or parenthood…whichever comes first).
This teacher’s heart is the reason for this blog. It needed a space to search and question and ache over what happened in the classroom. And while many things in life have changed (and many things haven’t), I still find a need for this continued call for conversion. I need to be reminded that this heart is incredibly important and not just for myself, but for the young souls entrusted to my care.
The Gospel for this Sunday focuses on a common image in the parables of Jesus. A little seed yields abundance and the kingdom of God that Jesus is proclaiming is like that.
Jesus said to the crowds: “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come.”
Mark 4: 26-29
What strikes me the most in this passage is how the silence and waiting bring about a harvest. A seed is scattered on the land, but unlike some parables, the focus isn’t on the soil. Rather, the emphasis is on the seed. Despite the sleeping and rising of the farmer, the seed flourishes and gives rise to a harvest for him to gather. Does the farmer understand it? The Gospel proclaims “he knows not how” the seed sprouts and grows.
The same is true in us. God’s work is slow and gradual and we know not how He does it. Like the child who plants a seed and then looks eagerly each day, expecting immediate growth, if we are fixated on seeing magical growth, we will be disappointed. The seed of God grows in us, slowly and almost imperceptibly. Weeks or months or years later, we have the joy of looking back and seeing how God moved and worked. In the particular moment, we don’t always see the movement or the purpose.
The work of God is silent. So much takes place beneath the surface before we even see any fruit. But the Lord loves to work in the quiet. An immense work is happening in wombs and Eucharistic holy hours and monastic life and a night’s sleep and the quiet of the early morning. We often want the Lord to be striking and bold. Sometimes He is. But sometimes He is thirty hidden years at Nazareth, cared for a father with no recorded words in Scripture and a mother who is so often pondering things in her heart. A hushed unfurling of God’s word in our hearts leads us into a love that is not showy or boisterous but rooted and deep.
In so many areas of my life, I want things to happen quickly. I don’t like the struggle of the waiting or the in between, the time of growth that is often painful as we develop roots to sustain us in later storms. The act of starting is so often delayed because I fear what happens once something is set in motion. Or sometimes it is the opposite fear: what won’t happen despite the steps taken. But if the kingdom of God is like this little seed, then the same could be applied to God’s kingdom dwelling within me. It grows, step by slow step, in the hidden hours, though I know not how.
Part of the way through the Easter Vigil Mass I realized something I had subconsciously believed even as I intellectually knew it wasn’t true. I realized that COVID-19 wasn’t confined to Lent. The absence of public Masses wasn’t just a wild Lenten penance. It was a reality that was going to endure for who-knows-how-long. In the midst of a time of penance and sacrifice, it was somewhat understandable to accept and embrace this unasked for restriction. Yet in the time of Easter joy, how did one continue to embrace this cross, even while gesturing toward the empty tomb?
Intellectually, I was fully aware that this was an enduring thing. Yet after passing into the Easter season, I have been pondering this odd cross-section of joy and sacrifice. Of course, it is possible to be joyful in the midst of sacrifice. Love, nearly by definition, involves sacrificing ourselves for the good of the beloved. Yet long, protracted sacrifice in the middle of a liturgical season set aside for rejoicing, feasting, and innumerable alleluias being uttered? How does one do that?
I don’t exactly know, but I am trying.
It helps that I try to often remind my students that we are in the Easter season and should do something special to celebrate this time. At times, I find myself recording videos for them and thinking I need to do this, too.
It has surprised me how I can sometimes enter into prayer when I am praying “remotely.” Like when Pope Francis had some time of adoration during the Urbi et Orbi blessing a few weeks ago. Sitting on my couch in front of my computer and adoring Jesus in Rome seemed kind of silly. Yet as I prayed alone yet communally, I found that I was able to enter into prayer. It wasn’t a perfect scenario, but it worked in that moment. This was a moment of joy, to find myself with Jesus even as I was separated from His Eucharistic presence.
So here we are, fully into the Easter season, steadily working our way through the Easter Octave, filled with joy and yet still experiencing sacrifice. But I guess that makes it a bit like that first Easter Sunday when St. Mary Magdalene encountered Christ at the tomb. In her desire to keep him near, we see Jesus saying to not hold onto Him. Wasn’t this miraculous triumph over death the fullness of joy?
Seeing a list of my strengths is a vastly different experience than seeing a list of my weaknesses. That being said, I am incredibly aware that I have a great many flaws. There are probably areas I overlook, but as a melancholic, I am pretty introspective alongside possessing a generally critical nature.
I had my seniors take a temperament quiz at the beginning of the semester, partly for fun and partly so I can get to know them better. As they read through the descriptions they gave for their temperament, I was surprised to hear many of the lamenting the list of weaknesses for their particular temperament. Some commented that they were pretty harsh in the assessment of weaknesses and others were a bit more defensive as they said they didn’t have a bad temperament or were a bad person. Nobody, however, complained that they had an excessive list of strengths.
It made me wonder why they were so bothered by an impersonal test telling them which weaknesses they might possess. I wasn’t bothered by it. It was easy enough to read through the list and admit that I lacked in that area or recognize that I didn’t struggle with that particular flaw. Had they never considered what weaknesses they had? Were they bothered even considering that they might have weaknesses? What moved them to pull back as though someone had specifically told them where they fell short?
I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. I’m not sure if the weaknesses rang a little too true or if they all felt wrong based on the person they knew. It seemed, however, that they needed to be reminded that we all have areas to work on, things that are just a little more difficult for us based on our personality. And so, having never made this connection before, I connected their temperament to the faculties of the human soul, to our intellect and our will.
It seems keeping the heart one of flesh, instead of being one of stone, is the continual work of a lifetime. Softening, rather than hardening, requires a strength and intentionality that doesn’t come naturally to me. In the wake of my defensiveness and desire for self-preservation, I repeatedly need to engage in the work of letting my heart be real. The simple act of believing in the goodness of others (and living in that truth) is one that requires me to be soft-hearted over and over again.
As I’ve gone into the prison, I have grown in seeing the goodness in people who have made many mistakes. Many of the men I interact with are easy to find goodness in because they are seeking the Lord, too. Their zeal for the Lord or their desire to love Him or find Him invites me to see how God is moving in their hearts. Others are a little more difficult since they make me feel uncomfortable or continually lie to me. But as a whole, I am able to look at men who have raped, murdered, and committed all sorts of crimes and proclaim their inherent goodness.
For whatever reason, we often look up what crimes the men are in for and how long of a sentence they received. At times, it helps to understand their position: are they in for life or a few years or simply back after breaking parole? We decided to look up one man I’ve talked with several times and see his crime. It was surprising because the kindness and gentleness I’ve experienced from him ran contrary to the crime he was sentenced to serve. Yet, despite the surprise, it didn’t really change how I felt toward him. The goodness and kindness I’ve experienced are real and he is far more than the crimes of his past.
During “contemplative time” last week, I had my students reflect on the Resurrection account from John’s Gospel. Fresh from my own ponderings, we discussed the whole “John as the one whom Jesus loved” bit.
“Doesn’t Jesus love everyone?”
Yes, of course.
“Why does John even bring it up?”
I mentioned that perhaps it was because John had encountered the particularity of Christ’s love for him.
And they brought up something that is ingrained in us from our earliest years: the sense of things being equal or the same.
“Doesn’t Jesus love us all the same, though?”
No, He actually doesn’t. They seemed skeptical, perhaps because we automatically begin to assume that Jesus might love me less if He doesn’t love us all the same.
For this last stretch of Lent, I’ve been trying to grow in patience in a few small key ways.
I started to limit tracking things.
I noticed that I would unnecessarily follow things and that my time and mental energy could be better spent elsewhere. For example, when ordering packages online, I like to daily track their progress so I can see when they ship and when they should arrive at my house. That is entirely unwarranted–seeing where they are doesn’t make them arrive any faster and it isn’t crucial to see how long it took to transfer from one shipping carrier to another.
Or blog stats. When I post a blog, I like to monitor it to see how many views it gets and when they come in. Which countries are viewing my blog? What website leads them to my blog? All of which is unnecessary to follow so diligently. Occasionally looking at it is one thing, but semi-obsessively checking it in the first few hours or day after posting isn’t helpful.
I even noticed that I will habitually check my tire pressure, percentage of oil remaining, and battery life as I drive between work and home. Sometimes I do it so absentmindedly that I have to check it again because the numbers didn’t sink in as I reflexively scrolled through the stats. Over the past few days, I have found my left hand nearly twitching to see the various car facts appear on the display screen.
In a month-by-month planner from over a year ago, I found the following quote scrawled in the open boxes at the bottom of a page.
The future will be what we make it; let us reflect on this thought so that it may motivate us to act. Especially, let us realize that all collective reform must first be individual reform. Let us work at transforming ourselves and our lives. Let us influence those around us, not by useless preaching, but by the irresistible power of our spirituality and the example of our lives.
Elisabeth Leseur: Selected Writings, pg. 135
Re-finding this quote was a great gift in that moment. I was looking through stacks of papers, discarding what I didn’t need so that I wouldn’t move unnecessary papers to a new home. The old planner brought back some nostalgia as I saw different meetings I had, random notes I had made, and, most importantly, saint quotes I had added to the large monthly planner to motivate me onward.
Servant of God Elisabeth Leseur spoke of personal reform and how only by growing individually can we hope to influence the world. She knew what she was talking about. Through her gentle, persistent witness (and an inspiring journal), her husband was transformed from an atheist to being ordained a priest after her death. It wasn’t because of her intellectual arguments, but rather her living testimony that brought a change into her husband’s heart.
What I have been led to consider frequently is this question: how would it impact my students if I embraced my faith with the radical zeal of a saint? (Replace “students” with “children” or “husband/wife” or “friends” or “siblings” or “co-workers” or whatever makes sense in your life.) Too often I think I can fake it or that my lack of discipline or fervor will go unnoticed by others. Perhaps it sometimes does. Maybe I do fake it and others are unaware. But the most important changes and transformations might be untraceable to me yet rely on my own personal holiness. Continue reading ““All collective reform must first be individual reform””→
In general, teaching can be a bit tiring. However, the first week always feels more exhausting. By the end of the day, I must fight to keep my eyes open and most days this week I’ve surrendered to a nap, at least for a little while.
The swirl of names and faces to remember can be fatigue inducing, but I am glad to be back. I am most looking forward to knowing my students. Getting to know them is nice, but having a relationship built is, in my opinion, better.
A couple of students from last year stopped by earlier in the week. It was refreshing to see familiar faces, to know how to joke with them, and to know a bit about them already. I enjoy seeing them in the hallway as they pass by, recalling random moments from last year as they walk into somebody else’s classroom. Building relationships takes work and time and while I know it is always worth it, I enjoy basking in the beauty of already formed relationships. (A while ago, I wrote about the beauty of “not-new” friends, and I think the mentality applies here, too.)
I am looking forward to seeing what these classes will become, how friendships will unfold, and how we will grow together as we experience things this year. Will the class that worries me be the one that proves the most difficult? Or will another surpass them in ridiculousness? Will we share joys and tragedies together? Will there be good and authentic classroom discussion? Will they trust me and will I trust them? Will we become saints together? Continue reading “Year Seven, Week One, Day Three, Tired”→
Ben Rector came out with a song called “Old Friends” and it became a brief topic of conversation with a friend this summer. The song is catchy and provokes an immediate nostalgia within me. However, as I spoke with this friend, we talked about how we don’t have “old friends” and, as Ben Rector spends over four minutes articulating, you can’t make them now.
Granted, I have friends that I went to elementary, middle, and high school with, spending about twelve years in the same classrooms in my small rural public school in South Dakota. A few of them I even catch up with on occasion, but none of them know me through and through. I grew up out of town and my parents were careful not to play the chauffeur for my siblings and me. So I would see them at school, after school activities, and church if they were Catholic.
But we weren’t riding our bikes around town together in the summer or spending every waking minute swimming at the pool. For me, summers were spent at my parents’ farm, isolated from the rest of the town about five miles away. After school, I rode the bus home, preventing me from meeting someone up town at the popular hangout that served fried appetizers. Even when I did drive, I had a younger sister to provide transportation for and it was also generally assumed that I would head directly home after my extracurricular events concluded.
These aren’t bad things, per se, I just offer them to point to the fact that much of what Ben Rector sings about felt impossible for me to have experienced based on my situation. Most of my youthful memories are filled with my siblings. The past couple weeks were filled with pretty intense and intentional family togetherness time and when it ended, it caused me to feel that wave of nostalgia that reminded me of “Old Friends.”
My two older sisters are in religious life and the older one has an annual home visit for two weeks. As far as religious communities go, that is a generous amount of time yet it also constitutes the bulk of what our relationship looks like for the year. Short occasional phone calls and letters (which were non-existent on my part this year) aren’t the best ways to sustain a vibrant relationship. My other sister is a cloistered nun, meaning that she has answered God’s call to live as a hermit within community, essentially. My family visits her annually on a weekend when my other sister returns from the convent. While it varies year-to-year, this year I was able to have two hours alone with her to visit. As with the other sister, the bulk of my relationship is found in those brief moments.
After we had left the cloistered monastery and my other sister was dropped off at the airport, I felt a nostalgia for the past closeness of my youth. Naturally, as time passes, the family changes through new additions, losses, moves, and the like. When my brother married, his wife became an integral part of the family and my nephews and niece also changed the family dynamic. The vocation my older sisters have to religious life likewise shifts the family dynamic. While I am thankful for their vocations and the joy accompanying them, I still miss what could have been. Continue reading “Nostalgia”→