Monday, August 31, 2015

Nothing Harsh, Nothing Burdensome

"nihil asperum, nihil grave, nos constituturos speramus" Preface, Rule of St. Benedict

That time has come, of course-the end of the summer. Pretty soon, schools will re-open, work will start and the standard routine of class prep, extra-curriculars and marking will take over the lives of teachers, parents and students alike. And, that is okay. There is an excitement around back-to-school and hope as well, because everything is, at least, a little new during Back To School.

For me, the lead-up to school entails a few things. First, there are the standard administrative tasks like revising course profiles and other administrative documents. Then, there is whatever class prep I can squeeze around the last summer activities of the year. It is also the time that the reality hits that I won't finish the gazillion projects I thought I'd like to do at the beginning of the summer. And it also the time for my annual reading of the Rule of St. Benedict.

I'm always a bit defensive about this annual reading because I recognize reading the Rule at any time may strike my readers as an odd practice for anyone who isn't a monk.  After all, what does a sixth-century AD monk have to say to a twenty-first century public school teacher. Plenty, it turns out. While there's no call for planning psalm readings or the Liturgy of the Hours in the life of a a teacher in the  secular school system, Benedict's Rule has much to say about the creation and maintenance of a community of teacher and students which I do think is essential for good teaching.  The guidance that St. Benedict gives is rooted in the fact that he firmly believed that people needed to be received as they were and they should be nurtured in a community which gives them a chance to learn and grow. That is, I suggest, what monasteries and schools have in common- communities in which people are welcomed, encouraged to discern their gifts and to develop them in a supportive environment. Benedictine wisdom about hospitality and community has become central to how I've learned to nurture the the community of students, who come to sit with me to explore Latin in my classroom each year. Besides, didn't Benedict characterize his community as a school, albeit for for the Lord's service?

So, one of the phrases in the Rule which stays with me as I consider this sense of community is the programmatic statement of 'nothing harsh, nothing burdensome'. This is a general statement of how a Benedictine community is supposed to run. Out of context, perhaps, this statement might be worrying because it suggests laxity, but, if one continues just one sentence, Benedict makes it clear that, that that aim may have to be adjusted to correct the conduct of community members and promote fairness (actually, correct sin and foster charity). Indeed, there are times in the Rule that St. Benedict seems pretty harsh, especially in his use of corporal punishment for children and 'simple' adults. That is, of course, to our eyes. By the standard of his much harsher and more violent time, he wasn't extreme in any of these punishments.

What St. Benedict does in his Rule is to steer a middle course between the excessive harshness of other monastic rules like the Rule of the Master and the laxity of some monastic communities like the much maligned Sarabaites in his age. Benedict realizes that neither extreme works in learning. Laxity doesn't push people to learn or grow. It just gives them permission to stay as they are. Harshness doesn't help much either  because, while it might breed outwardly obedient monks, it, also, fosters the kind of fear and anger which destroys not only communities, but also the chance to teach what is good. Benedict should know all about that because, in his first community, he was almost poisoned  by some lax monks who found his way of life rather too harsh for their taste (to be fair, he did warn them). That particular community, understandably, didn't survive.

Mind you, I don't expect to be poisoned by my students because of my teaching style, even if I give them the opportunity in my Roman food project each year. However, what the phrase 'nothing harsh, nothing burdensome' tells me is to avoid the extremes of harshness and laxity in my own conduct in the classroom. I know from my ten plus years of teaching that no student can function at their best  in a classroom where the rules are harsh and the work excessively burdensome. Sooner or later, anxiety and anger rob the student of the chance to learn and teacher of the ability to teach. Yet, having no standards creates a chaos in the classroom and an instructional void in which nothing nothing gets done and there is no learning. A functioning classroom needs its rules and it needs flexibility about how those rules are applied. That sometimes means negotiating with students about whether expectations are unreasonable in an assignment and that sometimes being firm with them when they want to take advantage of what they may see, early on, as laxity.  What that looks like changes from year to year and situation to situation, so I can't say that I'm perfect in keeping that balance, but St. Benedict's dictum reminds me to keep balancing firmness and fairness because that is one of the secrets of a truly effective teacher.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Inviting Temptation for Tea

There is a sense in which this post is long overdue. After all, the video that I'm writing about is from Lent and it is high summer now. That is true and all, but this is also the kind of meditation which, even now in the midst of Ordinary time, isn't just a Lent thing, but an every day thing. That is because dealing with temptations are very much part of being human. We can try to run from them, but we never get far because they go so deep that they are difficult to distinguish from our virtues or, sometimes, even our true selves.

That would be grim observation, if we took the reality of temptation as a way to beat ourselves over the head and as a prompting to pervasive shame. If we are constantly tempted, then, surely, we'll fail and Hell is the natural result, right? Certainly, there have been Christians who have believed something like that and come to utter despair, if they didn't also have a strong eschatological sense in which Jesus will snatch them up at the last second from Hell's torment. This is the subject matter of a 'fire and brimstone' sermon, but not this video.

What this video suggests is a different way to look at temptation then, perhaps we're used to. We know about the total depravity concept of humanity suggested in the previous paragraph. And, I'm sure, we've all heard the opposite reaction: "I'm a good person, so don't talk to me about sin". This second aspect is something that we Anglicans, in particular, are prone to, As Stanley Hauerwas has suggested, tongue in cheek, I'm sure, Anglicans probably should stop using the theological term 'incarnation' because they often really mean that God became man and said, "Hey, this is pretty good". This view understands that God has created this world and that it remains good, but it forgets that our relationships to ourselves, to others and the world around us has been warped by our habits of sin, so this view can validate the injustices and deformations of this world uncritically.

Instead of these two extremes, what we get in this video is a way of thinking about sin and temptation which recognizes the wrong path that temptation represents, but seeks to probe back and see why it is happening in the first place. Inspired by the Desert Fathers, it sees temptation to sin as a natural part of the spiritual life- thoughts which should be resisted, of course, but  also which teach us about our own faults, making spiritual progress possible. Quoting Abba Evagrius, "without temptation, no one would be saved". We need saving and it is temptation which highlights just where spiritual healing needs to occurThe point of the incarnation (if I can still use that term) is that God became human to deal with the deformations that human sin has created, not to serve out an antidote to a virus, but to show the way we relate to the world. Jesus, as the video also points out, was tempted. He didn't fall into it and sin, but he was tempted. And, if Jesus- God and human, was tempted, who are we to think we're going to be immune?

Yet, the most beneficial thing in this video for me is the suggestion to hear temptation out, without falling into it. Inviting it to tea, but no more, as this video suggests, means that temptation has a wisdom all its own and can teach us where we need to grow. Temptation warns us something is wrong spiritually, so we would do well to listen and, with God's help, try to work out what it is. That is, if you think about it, what Jesus did in the desert temptations at the beginning of his ministry. Jesus listens to the tempter's suggestions, pinpoints the nature of the temptation and counters it. The temptation to turn stone into bread isn't about food, it is about trusting the Lord. The temptation to gain power isn't about power, but about worshiping only God. The temptation to throw oneself from the Temple isn't about Jesus' special status, but about not doubting God's goodness. Jesus faces down each of the temptations because he has the discernment to see what the real issue is.

What resonates with me about this realization about the wisdom of temptation isn't necessarily that it is such a new thing, but rather that it counteracts a tendency that I have to just trying to shove the temptation aside without, necessarily, dealing with what it is trying to tell me. All to often, I try to let go of a temptation too early in the hopes that it will just go off and peddle its papers somewhere else, leaving me alone. Life doesn't work that way because temptation just comes back, tugging at my coat-tails and telling me to listen for God's sake. The only way to disperse it, I'm learning, is to stop, listen and throw the fault to which temptation is pointing back to God for healing. That means the uncomfortable work of self-reflection and confession to God, but that is the only thing that begins to heal me from my defects of character. That is the only way that I can grow as a person and as a Christian.

So, I keep coming back to this video, even after Lent, as a reminder to reflect on and confess my faults. Temptation remains in its multitudinous forms. It remains because I remain human. The important thing is to hear what I need to hear about myself and throw myself open for God's healing.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


It's Advent. Finally. I often have that sentiment as I trudge through the last weeks of that long Ordinary time which stretches from Pentecost to the 1st Sunday of Advent. Ordinary time is so unchanging and fathomless that it sometimes easy to fall into abstractions and stale routine. This particular last few weeks has been tumultuous, stressful and an excellent arena to show off my many, many character defects. All through this chaos, I kept thinking- just make it to Advent- slow down. I was, in a sense, waiting for Advent; waiting for the time when we wait on the Lord.

I'm aware that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. If it helps any, it doesn't make a lot of sense to me either. Yet, amid the busyness and stress and general loopiness of the last few weeks, not a lot has been making sense to me.

So, we're here- at Advent. The 1st Sunday of Advent, no less. What have I found? Hope. Not that, in the last few weeks or days, I've given up hope or anything. But, I've not been looking as hard for it. And, as I was reminded today, hope is the necessary precondition to faith. It is, one might say, its handmaid. So, I, actually had a look around and found hope sitting right next to me- a little battered, a little neglected, but still there.

Hope is a like a switch which reverses the polarity of my life. I go from trying to maintain an artificial sense of control and self-will which will ultimately collapse to remembering that hope tells me that God has it and I don't have to. Hope points me to a much, better world than I can sometimes conceive and places what I do now in that context. Hope points me me to a future instead of holding me in an awkward stasis.  Hope is where I need to stay as we settle into our long, silent wait over the next few weeks.

Happy Advent!

Sunday, September 28, 2014


"It is fear--in the old sense of awe--that allows us to recognize the holy in our midst, fear that gives us courage to listen, and to let God awaken in us capacities and responsibilities we have been afraid to contemplate" Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace

I re-read this sentence this week at a time when I was feeling quite anxious and quite overwhelmed about the demands of this year. For most of the year, my stress and anxiety levels have been quite high as I'm taking on some new projects which I've never tried before and because of what I've felt to be an awkward start to the year for reasons not really in my control. My sleep has been a disrupted and that doesn't exactly help things either. I was feeling out of control and I didn't like it.

What this quote did for me was to remind me that fear and anxiety are rarely gratuitous; that what I was feeling was an indication that something was out of whack, likely related to trying to control some part of my life which I didn't have control over. It was a remind to stop spinning around in circles and listen to see what it was I was supposed to be paying attention to. What I heard wasn't a booming voice from God or even a little whisper on the wind. What came to me was a reminder that I was being stretched in ways that I wasn't used to and that I needed to remember that growth comes with awkward starts and stumbles. And that was fine as long as I learned (again) that perfection isn't in the cards for me and that a recognition of my imperfections is the necessary component of learning what I am capable of. It is that recognition of imperfection which opens me up to growth as long as I'm willing to drop my ego and listen. I'd sooner do everything perfectly straight off (like anyone else), but that is an egocentric dream of infallibility. Looking around, I know that all this fear and anxiety keeps reminding me of that central truth: fear and anxiety are just markers for the growth I'd, otherwise, wouldn't know I needed. It is a reminder to stop trying to control people and events and simply pay attention to just what is it that God is trying to awaken. If I can trust that God has all this in hand, I can take that stretching and those stumbles more in stride.

Now, if I can just keep remembering that, the busy year ahead will be much more serene.

Monday, August 25, 2014

End of Summer Preparations

This is around the time of year for my annual reading of the Rule of St. Benedict. The summer is ending; the start of a new school year is only a week and a bit away. My preparations for the new year are stepping into high gear and I'm honestly looking forward to seeing my students- both my returning veterans and my newbies. I can feel a mild anticipatory buzz in the air as I start thinking about school, although I have to confess that buzz has taken longer to gain my attention this year than usual. Still, the new year beckons and that means so is St. Benedict.

I acknowledge the oddity of this attachment to St. Benedict. I am not a monk nor am I intending to open a monastery in the middle of the public high school in which I teach. For that matter, while I know a monk or two, I haven't darkened the door of a monastery in my life. I come by my appreciation of St. Benedict through books: Kathleen Norris, above all the rest, but also Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton and many others. That I confess I find incongruous because, if there is one thing that Benedictines are known for, it is community, so it seems odd to me to come by Benedictine values outside a community which espouses those values. Yet, here I am with a copy of the Rule next to me, waiting to be re-read. What is which brings be back to Benedict at this time of year?

What St. Benedict has done for me is to suggest a life where one's Christian faith is central to all that I do and that comes out in the little things that I do from day to day. He incorporates prayer, work and study in such a way as to keep a nurturing balance between them. This isn't a question of praying the seven monastic hours or follow a full, rigid  monastery schedule of so many minutes to sacred reading, so many for work, so many for prayer: that just doesn't work in the everyday, hectic life of a high school teacher. The insight St. Benedict gives is the principle that all three, prayer, work and study, are important and, more significantly, that God is found in all three. Obviously, it is easier to accept that prayer and even study (especially if it is of Scripture) include God, but Benedictine wisdom has found ways to find God in the everyday work that we do.

It comes out in the reverence for the things and people around us, recognizing them as part of God's world and, thus, precious. At the beginning of the year, I look out over each of my classes and wonder just what is God doing in bringing us all together. Where I am going to find Him sitting, sometimes in deep disguise, in the lives of my students? And how am I supposed to respond to that disguise?

For that matter, how do I make good decisions about my teaching? Where is God in the decision to use a certain technology? What is the care I need to use in taking care of the tools entrusted to me? How do I decide what is a success and failure? How do I move past mere numbers and marks, so I can see the child of God before me? The more I teach, the more I know that I don't always listen to God attentively day to day, hour to hour and minute to minute, but St. Benedict's wisdom calls me to try, directing my attention to the daily routine and asking me to find where God is residing right now, in this moment. I know He's there, but it sometimes takes me a long time to notice.

All of those questions demand reflection and rigourous honesty, but they are, because of that, extremely important. They are important because I've seen what can happen when I listen to where God is leading and create that safe, reverent place for others to learn and to grow. I once confused an administrator one year when I answered her question on the value that was most important for me as a teacher. I answered 'hospitality'. What I meant by that is that one of the most important values for my teaching is the creation of that open space which allows my students to be themselves and, thus, to grow. That value is at the centre of the little community which has grown out of the Latin program at my school and it is at the centre of how I try to run my classroom. It is an ideal and I know too well when I fail to pay sufficient heed to it. Yet, at the centre of the hospitality I offer my students for as long as they are with me is that reverence for what is before me that St. Benedict teaches. The real challenge to live out that reverence every day, every class and in all that I do.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Summer Plans

As of Friday, the 2013-2014 school year is over. The marks are in. The clean-up from the last frenzy of assignments, exams and marking marathons is done. The obligatory staff meetings with their celebrations of our successes and reflections on our performance are all done. What is left is two months of summer in which to recharge our batteries and, if you are anything like me, start planning for next year. At this point in the summer, I have a long list of things that I want to do over the holiday. I probably even do some it. Just not as much as I think I will now.

Still, despite those plans, I have to admit that I never entirely know what do with my summers. Part of that, of course, is the challenge of summers with the kids home (at least my oldest, my youngest is still at daycare because we have to hold the spot). Yet, a certain sense of unease that two months of open time gives me predates kids and, indeed, even teaching. As a student, I made it a point to spend the summer reading background material. In fact, one year, I was so uneasy about the long four months break I had from university that I decided to write a twenty page paper on the decline of Byzantine power in the 14th century. All that summer, I worked forty plus hours at my summer job and massively over-researched this paper, despite the fact that there was pretty much no reason for doing it. It wasn't course work. It wasn't a thesis. I was simply doing it 'cause. You can imagine the odd looks I'd get when I explained what I was doing.

Yet, I suspect that the real reason for writing that paper (and, I suspect, for my extensive plans for 'getting ahead on lesson prep for next year) was probably I'm not entirely sure about what to do with myself when not busy. Busyness for me is a way to to fill up the empty spaces in my life in a reasonably socially acceptable way. Busyness allows me to cover over my desire to to retreat from the social realm because it is just easier to be busy than engaged. It provides an ego reinforcement that I'm valuable because I accomplish so much. It provides a way to avoid myself and the reflection that, perhaps, I'm just not as great as I'd like to think I am. Busyness can be compulsive for me which is a tendency which I have to keep aware of.

Of course, I'm aware this compulsive busyness isn't a good thing, really. I do need to rest. I do need to recharge. Certainly, the experiences I had this year with the quiet time I had at the Royal Botanical Gardens and on my Greece trip show how much I need those moments of silence and meditation in order to centre myself for the challenges of my legitimately busy times. In addition, I also know very well that busyness often gets in the way of my other firm belief that, as Henry Nouwen reminds us, the point of one's work is often in the interruptions of one's work and I want to remain open to those interruptions. If I am so busy that I don't have time for people, then I probably have failed in my true vocation as a Christian; that of, seeking to live out God's kingdom here and now. After all, God has an awful lot of things going on at any given point, but He has time for me when I mediate and prayer. How, then, can I not have time for others?

I can't say I won't do any work over the summer break. I have my plans and my projects, like every year. However, I find myself noticing my need to slow down, connect with God and with the people in my life. The long summer stretches out ahead of me and that is, probably, a good thing.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Pride, Anger and Thwarted Lust

Over the last week, I've been reflecting on the Islas Vista shootings, along with, I'm sure, a lot of other people. That is, of course, a natural reaction to this kind of incident because it is disturbing to see open violence breaking out in our seemingly peaceful streets. What makes this all the worse is that the now dead shooter left behind a video and manifesto in which he declares himself perfect and, coldly and calmly, outlines his plans for retribution on his fellow students and the world. Watching normal human compassion and love shrivel in the face of an all-consuming rage is a terrible thing. To reach the pitch that one can declare oneself perfect and akin to a god, who can hunt down his fellow students like animals is something that should repel us. It also should cause us to wonder what is it about our culture which breeds this kind of hate-filled (usually) young men, whose only outlet for their feelings is violence and murder. How does this happen in a society which is supposedly at peace? And, if we are at peace, why are we not peaceful? Why do some young men, albeit a very small number, find the only solution to their everyday frustrations in a blaze of destructive violence?

 I don't know the answers to those questions. Of course, many explanations have been offered  for this and other shootings- mental illness, video game culture, gun culture, a crisis in masculinity or rampant misogyny. Indeed, it is more than likely that there is not any one simple answer. Certainly, all these reasons and more have been seen in the recent #notallmen and #Yesallwomen.  I admit that I haven't really followed this debate closely because I find what I've seen all too familiar. I recall vividly the same debate in the aftermath of the L'Ecole Polytechnique shootings in 1989. I can understand the temptation implicit in the #notallmen position because almost no man wants to be tarred with the same brush as an Elliot Rodger. That attitude reflects a repugnance for both the actions and attitudes of this person which is a good thing as far as it goes. We would be a lot worse position, if men didn't want to disassociate themselves from such an act.

Yet, it is also probably right to say that the #notallmen position sets rather a low bar for male behavior, if this disassociation is all that is needed. I am uncomfortably aware that the same attitudes of entitlement to sex, seeing women as collections of albeit desirable parts or as prizes to be won, have been a part of my own thinking and behavior. Certainly, my penchant for the Unrequited Love Olympics in my twenties and thirties reflected this because I was really more interested in keeping the image of the particular object of my affections on the pedestal I made for her or working out how I could win the prize she represented than in the real, breathing person behind the image. That this focus was an inherently de-humanizing and objectifying one is only something that I came to realize after I got married and lived with a woman in a way that forced me to see both the good and bad in her and loving her for who she really is, not as I want her to be. Even with that lived experience, I still have to monitor my thinking and my relationships with women to make sure that I'm seeing them as the people they are, not as extras in the (self-centred) drama of my life or, worse, as mere objects.

The challenge of Elliot Rodger, I think, is not to explain why he is different, but, rather, to identify those parts of one's own heart which are similar to his. About a week ago, when I watched the video he left behind before his rampage, what came to my head immediately was that the Desert Fathers were so right about the importance of what we think. These monks considered that they would make no spiritual progress, if they didn't confront the 'bad thoughts' which accosted them daily. These thoughts have been translated into the Western moral tradition as vices, but they are better understood not so much as actions as dangerous thinking patterns which leads the soul into a willful decision to pursue the objects of that thinking in the place of God. So, lust takes the desire to connect with another person to the point of wanting to possess that person as an object. Anger takes the desire for justice to the point of imposing one's will on another. Pride takes the recognition of one's preciousness in the sight of God to the point of displacing God and feeling one can be God in one's own life. Despite an alarming tendency of many Desert Fathers, like so many of their contemporaries, to find an infinite variety of demons in one's soup, these early monks seem to have understood something that we have problems seeing. They understood that one's thoughts makes one vulnerable to self-will and, from there, to displacing God from one's own life. That is why they gave so much attention on how to pray and how to deal with these distracting 'bad thoughts'.

I don't know what happened to Elliot Rodger to led him to think and act as he did. There is reason that those factors were amplified by mental illness. And, the way this mental illness manifested itself was, also, shaped by the misogyny of 'rape culture' which pervades much of pop culture and many sub-cultures in our society. What I see is the results of 'bad thoughts' running rampant through ones life. Ultimately, it was anger, pride and thwarted lust which led drove out justice, humanity and love out the heart of this young man. That a tragic thing but a tragedy further compounded by the murders that this young man perpetrated on his fellow university students. I don't know how else to react to this tragedy, but to mourn those who died, identify the lies I hear from society and keep a watch on my thoughts. That's not enough, but it's all I have right now.