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.