Do you instruct those for whom you are responsible with the attention and the zeal God asks of you in so holy a work? By your good conduct, be worthy of this distinguished role. Act in such a way that your life may begin today to be holy, and edifying and continue to be such in the future.
– St. John Baptist de La Salle
One of the reasons that humanity has been able to thrive on the earth, according to those who study human progress, is our shared sense of curiosity, our interest in the new and the different, our exploratory dispositions. It is what caused early migratory movements across land masses, the constant pursuit of better ways of life – such as farming instead of hunting — and the development of comprehensive ways of making sense of the world through meaning-filled activities like folklore, rituals (religious and otherwise), and the arts. This sense of curiosity, this drive for knowledge and creativity, is what today causes us to enjoy wrapped packages, pick up a new book, scroll down beyond the screen, listen to gossip, and even simply get up in the morning to see what the day will bring. It all comes from an inborn, essential, and ever-living capacity for plumbing the deeper wells of the possible. It’s the motor for joie de vivre. It’s the poet’s instinct, the explorer’s drive, the lover’s persistence, and from a depth awareness / engagement perspective, it is the mystic’s contentment, exemplified in how John Baptist de La Salle came to gradually embrace his life’s journey and living in God’s loving presence, decision by decision over a long period of time.
The beginning of any new calendar year is now celebrated worldwide with parties, count-downs to midnight, fireworks, confetti, and jubilation. Isn’t this yet another expression of the possibilities for the future, to hope perhaps previously deferred and now extended once again? We revive our motivations in mutual support of yet another chance, yet another set of days to do what we know we want to do. The new year’s celebration invests the wisdom of the old into the hope of the young; the old man of 2019 stands next to the bright-eyed baby of 2020 . . . every single year. It is an annual ritual that, again and again, attests tthe deeply-rooted human dynamic of hope, of curiosity, of what is possible, of an innate hunger for the “something more” in our universe.
David Brooks concisely describes our pursuit of this “more” in life as the second mountain, “…the one people begin climbing once the goals of the first mountain—the goals of success, personal fulfillment and happiness—have been met and found wanting. ‘If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self,” he writes, “the second mountain is about shedding the ego and losing the self.’” All the new year’s resolutions in the world won’t equal that insight.
Such topsy-turvy insights into the less obvious aspects of the universe are regularly conveyed within most of the major religious traditions, most viscerally and profoundly by Jesus Christ in the New Testament. With the best of intentions, we ignore or explain them away as hopelessly (!) idealistic and unachievable. And society’s popular voice is as myopic as it is ubiquitous. What’s been problematic “. . . has been what he [David Brooks] believes is the secular news media’s tin ear on issues of faith. ‘They treat it like you have changed from being Republican to a Democrat,’ he says. “As if it’s that kind of choice. ‘I used to like French fries; now I like sweet potatoes.’ You feel like there’s something sacred and mysterious that is being handled with boxing gloves.”
What, then, of our students and staff, our Lasallian educational communities? When De La Salle and two Brothers went to the school in the parish of St. Sulpice in Paris in 1688, the place was a bit of a mess. De La Salle told the Brothers to concentrate on their own classrooms, on the things that they could do within their own area of responsibility. That strategy led to the transformation of the entire school in less than a year. By focusing on the possible, the impossible gradually recedes.
T.S. Elliot famously wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” The most worthwhile knowledge, the greatest journey, lies within. The more we can help our students and educational communities look deeper, beyond the obvious – in literature, science, history, sports, religion, etc. – the more they will be disposed (and trained) to do so in the future, to engage in their own exploring. “It is apostolic to awaken in students a serious attitude towards life and the conviction of the greatness of human destiny; it is apostolic to make it possible for them, with intellectual honesty and responsibility, to experience the autonomy of personal thought; it is apostolic to help the students to use their liberty to overcome their own prejudices, preconceived ideas, social pressures, as well as the pressures that come from disintegration within the human person; it is apostolic to dispose students to use their intelligence and their training in the service of others, to open them to others: to teach them how to listen and to try to understand, to trust and love; it is apostolic to instill in students a sense of trustworthiness, brotherhood, and justice.”
Teaching indeed is a holy work: the cultivation of curiosity, of hope, of the poet’s instinct, the explorer’s drive, the lover’s persistence, and the mystic’s contentment. Something sacred and mysterious is at work here. A sign in every classroom should read “No boxing gloves permitted.”