Monday, August 05, 2019

Teaching and Contemplation

It seems like the theme for this summer is reflecting on what has changed in my life in the thirteen years that this blog has existed. So, it makes sense to think about how my teaching has evolved since 200. The exterior circumstances hasn't changed very much. I am still a Latin and Classical Studies teacher and have been in the same school for coming up to fourteen years now. It has been a good fourteen years, really. I like my students and the subjects I teach. Despite the added stress, I enjoy the extracurricular activities I do- an annual Classics Conference and a tri-annual international field trip. I added the international field trips in 2011, but most of the rest haven't changed much.

What I want to consider today, however, is not what I've done or accomplished, but rather what I've learned. I'm sure this would sound odd to my students because they assume, on a good day, that their teachers know  and they, as students, have to learn what that is. Yet, a teacher, to be effective, has to be ready to learn and, if they don't, they stagnate and become less effective. That learning needs to be practical, so what I want to consider today are three practices which I think have been helpful for me. What these three things have in common is that they are intended to dig just a bit deeper than the superficial skating across the curriculum that often characterizes modern education. In a world to busy to think, they invite, I believe, contemplation and some pause and deliberation about what is good in our classrooms and schools.

So, the first practice I've learned is simple- listen. Or, as my beloved St. Benedict says it in the first sentence of his Rule, "Listen with the ear of your heart". What that means is that taking time to listen- to my students or colleagues or parents- is essential and will, usually, tell me something I need to know, if I listen intently and patiently enough. In edu-speak, we would call this 'Student Voice', but, central to the practice, is the assumption that I am not a lone ranger, expounding my wisdom to a passive, but receptive audience. It assumes that all those involved in the classroom have something important to contribute, so listening is a necessity. Sometimes, the listening is just taking a minute or two to listen to a story or a question or comment, which may or may not have much to do with the class, but lets me know about that person in front of me. Sometimes, it is looking at a class and admitting that I think the assignment that I had just written up for them wasn't working, and asking for suggestions about how we can fix it. This is a listening that isn't looking for a vulnerability to exploit or an argument to counter or information to download. It is a listening to hear another person into being. What I've learned is both how incredibly powerful that listening is and how incredibly difficult it is to do with any consistency. I try and I fail. I try and I fail. I try and I fail, everyday. But it is so worth doing.

A second practice is hospitality. That sounds confusing, especially if one assumes the superficial sense of hospitality which sees it as giving food and board. However,  what I'm talking about is something I learned first from Henri Nouwen- welcoming my students into a space which allows them to grow into the person they really are. It starts for me, as it does for St. Benedict, as welcoming a visitor as Christ himself, as a stranger who we welcome hospitably.  In a classroom, that sounds easy, especially on the first day, but keeping that welcome going becomes difficult when the less attractive qualities of our students begin to arise, when that 'Christ' is a bit difficult to keep welcoming, when I'd like to give up looking for the good in the face of, perhaps, not great behavior. Yet, I know that creating a safe and welcoming space is essential for anything I'm going to accomplish in the classroom or with any of my extra-curricular groups. It is that creation of community which gives a home to someone who needs it, if only for seventy minutes, that allows learning, both intellectually and in a social-emotional sense. Teenagers are incredibly vulnerable people and what they really need is a safe space, so they can learn to experiment and, hopefully, to flourish in this world they have inherited. Hospitality establishes that place.

The last practice today picks up a paradox that I've borrowed from St. Bernard of Clairveux (via Kathleen Norris)- 'serious play'. While St. Bernard used that term for liturgy, I've come to believe that 'serious play' is also applicable to learning as well. I say that because play, good creative play, is how small children learn to understand themselves and the world around them. This could just be playing with friends, which helps children to learn how to interact with people. It could be playing with Lego (as my kids do) to learn how structures work. Or it could be something like the time when my son processed the aftermath of a police chase he and his mom saw on the way to daycare one day by playing a verbal game involving some bad bears who crashed a truck. What I mean by 'serious play' is practice in which we learn as creative play- finding joy in the strangeness of Latin grammar, creating strange stick animals to remember parts of speech, taking chances like making a two thousand year old Roman recipe as part of an assignment. The seriousness comes when we begin to learn something about ourselves or the world around us or when we learn something or how to do something which is somehow useful in our broader lives. Obviously, we don't go to school just to play. We are there to learn things which we can apply to our lives. Yet, that attitude of 'play', I suggest, shouldn't be too far away. That is, if we want to encourage our students to be, to use another edu-speak term, 'life-long learners'

Of course, all of these practices are, in very great measure, aspirational. I have boring, frustrating classes at around the same proportion as my colleagues. I fail to listen or welcome some days. I forget to play in the drive to get the curriculum done in the 110 some odd hours I have to teach my courses. Yet, what all of these practices have in common is the desire, at least, to slow down, listen and contemplate both the students in front of me and the subjects that are teaching us about the world around us. In a world which is racing towards career or achievement, they call for slowing down and digging just a little bit deeper. Anything that I can do to further that call, I think, is worth the time it takes.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Contemplation and Action

The last week or so, I've been casting around for another subject, partly because the previous entry was a bit of an act to follow. While I'm grateful that it was received so well, it was a bit of an exhausting entry, so it's taken a couple false starts to settle on a new entry.

What I decided to write about is something else which represents a change for my spiritual life in the last ten or so years- the interlocked combination of contemplation and action. That will, inevitably, strike some of my readers as a contradiction in terms. 'How could sitting and thinking about God be compatible with getting out and doing things? Isn't contemplation just another word for navel-gazing? Get up and do something useful!'

At the root of that objection is an assumption that contemplation and action are mutually exclusive- that one can't do one and the other. Yet, I think that is mistaken. After all, when Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment in the Law, he answered :   

                                “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all
                                  your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the first
                                  and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it:
                                  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the
                                  Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22, 36-40)

You see what Jesus did here. In answer to the question about the greatest (i.e. one, greatest) commandment, he gave two. One, "Love the Lord your God..." calls forth the contemplation of God with all our faculties- emotionally, spiritually, intellectually. Two, he calls us to "Love your neighbour as yourself"which calls one out and into action. That is, he calls us inward into contemplation of God, but, then, outward to our neighbour which involves action. Then, He anchors it with the last statement which makes "All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments". That is, all that God has taught us in the Bible hangs on the love of God and love of neighbour. Just as the two cannot be separated, so contemplation and action can't be separated.

You can see that combination in the lives of so many heroes of the faith in our and previous generations. Thomas Merton combined a commitment to monastic contemplation with a burning desire for peace-making. Henri Nouwen felt the pull to contemplative prayer, but also remained committed to serving his neighbour in his spiritual writings, but, perhaps, more importantly, in his work at L'Arche in the last years of his life. Nor are Christians the only ones who do this. Gandhi had a rigorous ascetical prayer life amid all his efforts to serve his people. I could go on, but you get the picture. All of these figures found that a vigourous prayer life was necessarily for them to do the good that they did in the world. And, conversely, the actions they did in the world were essential for their understanding of what God was asking them to do in their prayer lives. Contemplation and action didn't just co-exist for them. They complemented each other.


Here is the point where I have to admit that my attention-span for contemplative prayer would fill a tea-spoon. I can manage about ten minutes, maybe, fifteen, in prayer before my thoughts spin completely out of control. And that is on a good day. Of course, I know that is common and that it is part of the process of learning contemplative prayer. The desert monastics in the 4th century talk about warring against the logismoi- the chains of obsessional thinking which get in the way of our prayer to God- as a necessary element to getting to contemplation. My difficulties with concentration just mark me as a beginner and I can live with that.


Yet, even in the modest nature of my prayer-life, I have seen that link between contemplation and action enrich how I do things. Compassion and openness to others comes easier when I pray. Listening to God, even a little bit, makes it easier to listen to people. And it is listening and compassion which allow me to build community in both my classes and extra-curricular clubs- communities were students can feel safe enough to risk, whether that risk in intellectual or mental or emotional. Listening also helps me hear the pain and experience of others and impels me to action to find a space for that too in my teaching. When prayer (contempation) and action coincide, good things happen.

Of course, the opposite is true for me. All too often, I lose track of prayer in the course of the day. Fear, resentment, selfishness drive me in ways that I'd prefer not to admit. I make mistakes. I fail to listen. I lose my temper. But, as a desert monastic story goes, when asked what people did in that monastery, an elder said that they fell, and got up, fell and got up, fell and got up". Perhaps it is in my failures that growth comes, usually in the form of remembering to pray. And it is that prayer that leads me to find a way to make amends.

I am, as I say, a beginner and, as a result, I make the mistakes of a beginner. I don't understand everything about contemplation. I doubt if anyone really does. That might be the point- getting to know God is a lifelong endeavor which really doesn't end in our life times (or, at least, shouldn't). But that contemplation, that prayer, doesn't stop when I say 'Amen' and head out to the rest of my life. That prayer should be part of the process of becoming the person that God has made me and, then, translating that into what work God has for me today. And it is that work which leads me back to contemplating who sent me. so I can learn better what I need to do. It all interelates. It is all connected.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Change of Heart

Over the last few weeks, I've been looking over my earliest entries on this blog. There is a lot of fodder for reflection, but,  today, I've decided that it is time to return to a theme which dominated the first few months of this blog- the issue of same-sex blessings/marriage. I admit that I'm nervous about returning to this subject because I know how much heat and how little light has emerged out of these debates. That was part of the reason why, in October of 2006, I shifted the focus of this blog from Anglican world polemics on THE issue to a more sedate focus on patristics (Enough With Schism).  I was conscious that the angry adrenaline of this debate was doing me no good spiritually, so I needed to take a break. That break proved one of the best spiritual decisions I could make because it has opened up the space for me to pray and to listen more on this issue, as well as in so many other parts of my life. It is that praying and listening which have helped me, over the last thirteen years, to deepen my faith and commitment to living a Christian life everyday. It has also caused me, almost as a side-effect, to reconsider my position on same-sex marriage, and to affirm the faith and committed relationships of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

To understand how big a shift that last sentence is, I have to explain where I was in 2006. In 2006, I was a moderate conservative, pretty convinced by the standard Biblical arguments (Genesis 1:27, Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22, Deuteronomy 23:17-18, Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10) and upset at what I saw as the hasty and disorderly actions of the Episcopal Church in the US and the Diocese of New Westminster in conducting same-sex blessings when substantial parts of the Anglican Communion were opposed to them. By 2006, my wife and I were still in some doubt about whether we could stay in a church which was moving this way. However, we were held back by a strong commitment to the unity of the church and did not want to break into a schism which we felt could not fail to be a product of sinful refusal of both sides to work out our disagreements in a Christian spirit. At the very least, we felt we needed to earn our way out - to talk about our disagreement and see if there remained space for us in the Anglican Church of Canada. As it turned out, there was, and that space was in our parish church, which gave us the space to work out our issues and concerns without being judged. I'm deeply grateful for that space because it gave us a chance to sit with our concerns instead of storming out in anger.

What is most striking to me about those entries on same-sex blessings  in 2006 is just how little I was talking about the actual issue itself - whether homosexuality was sinful or not. Now, don't me wrong, I thought that and had my share of arguments about that view with people on various Internet chat boards. On the blog, however, my main concern was the damage to the unity of the church caused by both liberal (largely unilateral) initiatives to support same-sex blessings and conservative (definitely unilateral) decisions to create an alternative Anglican denomination. In fact, in the first few months, I was pretty exercised about both of those issues and was committed to what I had thought would be a good solution - the ill-fated Windsor Report. If only the extremists on both sides would listen....

Yet, what strikes me now about these posts is that, while they were not necessarily wrong, at least, about the ecclesiological issues, they were incomplete. That is, I was focused on how conservatives like me can stay, but it just wasn't on my radar that the same questions were being asked by LGBTQ Anglicans. I entirely missed the other side of the story - a story characterized by rejection and condemnation by the church that they also love. While I was sure I was right about homosexuality, LGBTQ Anglicans were, at best, deluded, so I could (and did) dismiss their stories and stick to the abstract principles that I felt I needed to defend. Never mind that many of those stories, when I encountered them, very often revealed a truly vibrant faith. There was the faith of a conversation partner on a Internet bulletin board, whose partner was nursing him through a chronic illness with the same kind of love and grace that one would expect to see in the most self-sacrificing marriage. That made me uncomfortable with my abstractions. And rightly so.

The turning point for me happened back in 2012, when I was having a discussion with a former student on Facebook (via private message) about the Christian view on homosexuality. We talked about the standard passages (see above) and the attitudes of the Anglican and United Churches on how to interpret them. As we ended the conversation, I was reflecting on how difficult it was to discuss these issues and threw out this comment:  "What I've learned is that I am averse to treating people as abstractions, that the very real pain of gay people means I can't treat this issue as a theological debating point". I remember that I surprised myself with this comment, possibly because it was a codification of much of the discomfort I was already feeling about this issue. I had, I realized, spoken more wisely that I actually knew. So, that comment of mine stuck with me and became a bit of a mantra, as I reminded myself that I had just made a commitment not to treat gay people as theological abstractions. And what that meant was I needed to listen more to the experiences of LGBTQ Christians, not in order to prepare a rebuttal, but with an ear for empathy and the grace notes of their faith. It is in that listening that allowed me to ask the question whether their faith is any different from mine, and, if it isn't, why were they being rejected?

So, what about the Bible? That was my biggest obstacle because those standard passages are in there and, if I was to take the Bible seriously, I really needed to consider them carefully. I know, in my conservative days, I was most convinced by the New Testament passages. In fact, back in grad school, I had made a word study on the key words, especially arsenokoites and malakoi. What I said at the time was that their meaning was pretty clear, but what I didn't admit to was some discomfort about how decisive I was saying these words were. The fact is that I confess that conviction wasn't as definite as I let on. Paul is remarkably coy in his terminology in these passages. Both of those words seem to be euphemisms and, like many euphemisms, are deliberately imprecise (believe me, if Paul wanted to be clear, there was Greek vocabulary for it). It is clear they are talking about sexuality and, likely, about some aspect of same-sex behavior. What wasn't clear was whether he could even conceive of the kind of monogamous, self-sacrificing relationships that advocates of same-sex marriage argue for. Instead, it is more likely that he was reacting to other practices such as temple prostitution or pederasty; both of which I think would cause most people, Christians or not, legitimate concern.

I'm conscious of the irony that I would have dismissed this kind of argument in my conservative days as an attempt to re-write the Bible. Yet, I would defend it by pointing out that we use historical criticism all the time, on controversial topics or not-so controversial topics. I doubt if this argument will convince anyone truly committed to a conservative view, but it fits what I understand about the history and the language of these passages.

If I am right about how to interpret these passages, then, what Paul is condemning is different from what we are seeing in same-sex marriages. If that is true, we have to ask entirely different questions. Do these relationships allow for the kind of self-giving love and commitment that we expect in Christian marriage? Can we see these relationships as a reflection of divine love through the everyday living out of this commitment? I think the answers to those questions are yes, we can. Or are these relationships, in fact, any different from their heterosexual counterparts? I think the answer here is, no, I don't think they are. And, if that is true, I really can't see how we can, in any justice, stand in the way of blessing these relationships in the same way that mine was blessed just over eighteen years ago.

I wish that I could stop here, pat myself on the back for being more affirming and press the publish button, but I don't think I can. I can't because I can't forget how much I wrote on the subject in multiple Internet venues as well as sometimes even in conversations and how easy it was for my words to wound, even when I was trying to be irenic. How easy it has been to be a part of the rejections that my LGBTQ brothers and sisters have suffered over the years. I have seen the effect of that rejection, as a teacher, in the lives of my students, even seeing a student forced to move out their house for being trans. Or hearing a brilliant former student fearing the reaction of their religious parents for coming out. I have seen it as a person of faith, who have seen LGBTQ Christians - lay people, priests, even bishops - rejected, not for the quality of their faith, but for how they express their sexuality. Yet, their faith remains tenacious and firm. I am in awe of that faith, but I am conscious of being a part of that rejection. If there can be any amends for my role in all that, I hope this entry can be a beginning.

I am writing this reflection at a crucial time for the Anglican Church of Canada. In around two weeks, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada will meet in Vancouver to discuss national issues. A prominent vote will be this one in the form of the final acceptance of changes to the marriage canons which would permit same-sex marriages. I am neither a bishop nor a priest nor even a lay delegate to the General Synod. I am merely a lay person, who has thought about these issues, considered them, sometimes agonized over them, and has come to a different understanding of them from when I started. I offer these reflections for whatever they are worth, hopeful that they may offer a way forward, modest though it is, what feels very much to be a intractable deadlock.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

History as Spiritual Discipline

The last week or two, I've been reflecting on a phrase that Rowan Williams uses in his Why Study the Past? where he identifies his discussion of the Christian past with other spiritual disciplines. He doesn't spend a lot of time on the idea, but what he means by 'spiritual disciplines is that they are 'decentring'- that is, designed to challenge the assumption that I am at the centre of meaning in the universe. Practices like, silence, fasting, receiving the sacraments all push us to realize that our tendency to think we are the centre of the universe, ultimately to remind us to look for the real action of God in the world.

What intrigues me is how this idea plays out in a study of history. To some degree, I think that any historian worth his salt will recognize history is a 'decentring' exercise. After all, it doesn't take a long time researching to discover the 'otherness' of the people or civilizations we study. The foreignness, the strangeness of people in the past cannot help come through as we discover that our assumptions about the world are not universal and that people in the past had very different assumptions about the world, the universe and, yes, even God. Thus, what seems to be extremely irrational, perhaps even crazy behavior to us, actually, makes sense when one takes the time to figure out what is it that people in a time period believed.

A case and point is St. Martin of Tours, a fourth century monk/bishop about whom I've been reading about for some fifteen years in a, perhaps, over-ambitious attempt to translation the writings about him. He first came to my attention because I have attended two churches bearing his name (one in London, Ontario and one in Toronto), so I became familiar with the popular stories about him. The two best known of these is his decision to cut his military cloak into two to clothe a beggar (who turned to be Christ) and his defiant refusal to fight in battle for the Emperor Julian because Martin was trying to live out his Christian faith out and so couldn't kill. Those are the easy to understand stories, but, when one delves deeper, one finds more disconcerting stories like his campaigns against pagan religious sites in his diocese, his regular encounters with demons and his miracles stories which looks so improbable that they defy belief. Indeed, even contemporaries weren't sure about him. His successor as Bishop of Tours, St. Brice, openly questioned Martin's sanity on, at least, two occasions, because the old man (by then) seemed to see demons everywhere.

Yet, when one realizes that his biographer's main concern in his Life and other writings was to defend Martin's status as a holy man of God, very much in the tradition of St. Anthony and the other monks of the Egyptian and Syrian deserts. All this talk of miracles and demons may still strike us as uncomfortably strange because we moderns usually tend to assume that demons are either the preserve of horror movies or the delusions of a mentally disturbed mind. Yet, the belief in supernatural beings, who could be benevolent or malevolent, was obvious in the minds of generations of humans in the late Roman and mediaeval periods as was the role of the holy man in banishing them.  We moderns don't really know what to do with these stories because we don't see the world this way- teaming with supernatural beings, benevolent or not. Yet, historians can't deny the influence of these beliefs on the actions of people. That this belief was so strong may be unsettling to us, but, perhaps, it is a good reminder that, instead of coming to history assuming we know best, we need to listen to what the past tells us before we try to interpret it. We might not believe what Martin's biographer, Sulpicius Severus, is telling us, but we would be wrong to forget that generations of people did.

I think that is what Dr. Williams is trying to get us to see with this image of history as a 'de-centring'spiritual discipline. Certainly, for me, it is my reading of history which taught me, and never fails to remind me, that even my most cherished ideas and assumptions are not obviously true and that I cannot assume that anyone is going to act the way that I expect. And, if my fellow human being from the past, with whom I share a common humanity, is so exceedingly strange to me, then, how can I expect God, who is another level of 'otherness' to us, will act in ways that I can predict or, even, understand. It reminds me that the world, and God, is a whole lot bigger than what I know and what I think I want. And that, given my limited vision and imagination, is probably a good thing.
 


Sunday, June 16, 2019

"Blog? Me?" Redux

The last few weeks, I've been thinking about returning to blogging. I'm not sure for how long. I'm not sure to what end, but I miss the processing that writing does for me, so here we are. Since I'm hanging out with my youngest son (who isn't feeling well) this Sunday morning, this seems as good a time as any to start.

So, as part of the process of restarting, I thought I'd have a look at my first post on this now thirteen year old blog and see what might have changed. The full post is here, but I'll be excerpting it to see what has changed. The 2006 version is in bold. My updates follow.

I admit it. I resisted blogging. Oh, I've been interested, but I couldn't figure out what I'd be doing it for. I'm not sure that I know what I'm trying to do now, but this is an evolving project. For now, I'll speak into a vacuum and declare myself..

This is still an evolving project and I have no idea where I'm likely to go. See below for any ideas that I have.

Who am I?

I'm happily married.
I'm a high school teacher of Latin and Classical Studies.
I'm interested in patristics, theology and church history. And ancient Greece and Rome, of course.
I'm an Anglican of a moderately conservative variety. Perhaps I'm best described as a catholic evangelical Anglican.
I enjoy the give and take of debate on such bulletin boards as Episcopal Voices, the Orthodox Episcopal Board, and Ship of Fools Purgatory (my board name is Canadian Phil...long story)
I like to cook.
I am, in the last analysis, a geek. A proud geek, but a geek nonetheless

Well, I'm still happily married and a high school teacher of Latin and Classical Studies (and sometimes World History). I have two kids now (both boys 8 and 12).

I'm still interested in ancient Greece and Rome, but also patristics, church history and theology. My interests have shifted more towards monasticism, especially Benedictine monasticism. That isn't so much an academic interest, so much as a fascination with the application of the Rule of Benedict to the everyday life of a lay person whose call is very much in the world. I'm not an oblate of a particular monastery, but I read part of the Rule everyday and try to practice, at least, Morning and Evening prayer. I keep trying lectio divina too, as well as mediation.All this has really enriched my spiritual life and formed how I approach most aspects of my life. I suspect I'll have much more to say about all this Benedictine stuff in the next few weeks.

I'm still an Anglican, but not so conservative. I'm still a moderate, but I'd say a moderate progressive. I'm much more Anglo-Catholic than I was in 2006 and rather less evangelical. There are implications in all this, but not ones I'm going to trace out just now. Stay tuned.

I still debate from time to time on Facebook, but really this has fallen away with the falling away of the bulletin board format in the early 2010s. Besides, political and theological discussions online very often turn into steadfast un-listening more than listening. And it is that kind of debate that turns me off.

I still like to cook though. And with a busy family, I get lots of chance to do it. So, that is good.

And, yes, I'm still a proud geek.

Why hyperekperisou?

This is a sneaky reference to Ephesians 3, 21 and used commonly as a doxology at the end of Communion: "Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or image..." (Book of Alternative Services=BAS). The bits in italics are the part which express hyperekperisou (hard working word, isn't it?). I wanted it as a title partly because it is an expression of God's abounding grace offered to the world through Jesus Christ, but also because this verse has always had special meaning to my wife and I because we have both seen it in our own lives. In fact, we saw it as so important that we inscribed it on our wedding bands

This part has obviously not changed. I will note that my original wedding band is at the bottom of a lake in Quebec, waiting for Gollum to find it. My precious. (And, yes, we did buy a new band when we got back to Toronto).

What do I intend to do here?

My intention here is to reflect on my life as a Christian and as an Anglican. I have no intention to transform this blog into another angry conservative screed, but I hope it serves as a bridge between Anglicans and Christians of differing opinions. Perhaps understanding won't solve the problems that we as Anglicans and Christians face in living with each other, but perhaps we can start seeing each other as people, not as positions to refute.


I don't think my aim has shifted much. I'm not really a conservative, but I still don't intend to write any screeds, so not real change there.

 I also firmly agree with the last sentence. If anything the last thirteen years have taught me is how important it is to look for the people with whom I converse, not the abstraction (theological or otherwise) that I have made of them to make it easier to dismiss. That is no easier than it was in 2006. If anything, in our current polarized age, it is harder. I still stand by intention to see my conversation partners as people to listen to, not as ideologies to eliminate.

So, what is the plan? I'm just going to try to write once a week and see where this goes. I'm not guaranteeing anything, but let's see where this evolves. I'll also be refreshing the look of his blog over the next few weeks. I'm leaving the approval of comments as a setting, so I don't get spammed to death, so don't worry if you don't see your comment right away. I'll have a look and approve it as soon as I can.

I'm also leaving the archive from the last thirteen years accessible, although I caution that there are liable to posts that I no longer agree with myself. If you have questions about that, let me know.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Nicodemus

This last week, I've been thinking about Nicodemus. That is, I've been reflecting on that passage from where Nicodemus slips out and meets with Jesus at night, is told he must be born again and where he finds all this very confusing (John 3 1-15 Bible Gateway (NRSV))

It has always been easy for me to be a little dismissive of Nicodemus because he, for a long time, seemed little remote to me. As someone who grew up outside of a church and who came to faith in his mid-20s, Nicodemus was a bit hard to relate to because, as a convert, Nicodemus seem so much of what I was not. He was sufficiently invested in the religious establishment that he had strong enough convictions to align himself to a faction. He clearly was afraid of being seen to be too closely related to someone like Jesus in daylight hours, but, clearly, found him so compelling that he couldn't resist meeting him. However, when he did meet him, he really couldn't take in what Jesus was on about because he was so stuck in being seen to be pious. So, I didn't really have the best opinion of poor Nicodemus, but, then, I doubt if I thought much about him from one year to the next.
 
Yet, what I found myself reflecting on Nicodemus this week, I started, twenty two some odd years after becoming a Christian, to identify a bit with Nicodemus. I am starting to see the subtle temptation of spending a long time with specific 'religious' practices- those practices which are intended to structure and contextualize spirituality, but which can seem to take its place because doing is sometimes easier to do than being. I'm fairly good at getting out to church once a week, volunteering for various tasks at church, praying in the morning and at night and, even, with trying to 'think' Christianly in my daily life. So, in the twenty-two some odd years since becoming a Christian, the 'religious' aspects of my faith are part of my life and that is, by and large, a good thing. It is a good structure and it gives a particular tone to my spirituality which gives meaning to how I understand, God, the world around me and my duty to my neighbour.

For Nicodemus, if we can judge by his decision to approach Jesus, that good practices along wasn't quite enough. There was something else missing. Nor should it be for me either. I can go through the motions, doing all the things that I do to keep connected, but the real work is to relate to a God, whose answers, when they come, are quiet and hard to discern, at best, but transform my reality in ways that I might not always anticipate or, even, sometimes, appreciate. As a convert, perhaps, I know a thing or two about rebirths, but what I know for certain is that the rebirth is nothing compared to the growing into faith that, naturally, follows that rebirth. That growth is slow and painful, but infinitely better than what stood before. That is, of course, why rebirth is a good thing, but not an easy thing. Usually, it is found by slowing down and shutting up in order to,connect with God and meditate with gratitude to the gifts I'm given as well as where I'm being called to. Then, and only then, will I find the courage to continue to grow in my relationship with God and to learn to become that person who God made me to be.

The simple fact that makes Nicodemus so compelling to me is that Nicodemus seemed stuck somehow and he had the courage not to accept staying stuck. Being stuck and the spiritual dryness which accompanies it happens. It happens because we are humans and our attention, sadly, wavers. Other thoughts come into our heads- anger or desire or any number of other distractions which fill our head in this distracted age (just like, I suspect, all the other distracted ages). Getting stuck is easy, but seeking the renewal which gets us moving again is harder, if only because we can get accustomed to our rut. By seeking out Jesus, Nicodemus was probably getting more than he had counted on when he went, but, at least, he moved out of his rut and sought out a better way. If I can do half as well most days, that would be plenty.

Ultimately, we don't know what happened to Nicodemus. We know that he had the courage to challenge the hatred of the religious leaders in Jerusalem against Jesus (John 7, 50-51), even if he was threatened back into silence. We know he helped prepare Jesus' body after His death rather lavishly. We know that he is considered a saint in both the Eastern and Western Churches. Sitting with Nicodemus this week has been good for me because he has helped me understand both the value of practicing the disciplines of faith and the necessity to go beyond them to deepen my relationship with Jesus. And those are good things on which to reflect.

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.