“It is surprising that most Christians look upon decorum and politeness as merely human and worldly qualities and do not think of raising their minds to any higher views by considering them as virtues that have reference to God, to their neighbor, and to themselves.”
– St. John Baptist de La Salle  –
My parents moved the family to the U.S. when they were 41 and 40 – five kids, one a baby. My father died of cancer when he was 68. My mother had cared for him in his last years. Suddenly alone in a different country, with only my youngest brother at home, she felt adrift. But she knew she needed to do something to get things back in line. When I asked her later how she coped, she said, “I pulled weeds.” Each day, she went into the backyard, and on her hands and knees would pull weeds. That is what worked for her.
The lived details of what we do influence how we see things and how the world fits together, shaping the larger experienced reality of something, personally or collectively.
In the Lasallian world, such details are focused on schools, classrooms, and teaching. Three essential books by De La Salle, one with his teachers, were all “granular” in their level of detail: The Conduct of Christian Schools (How to start and run a Christian School), The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility (How students should be and act like a Christian person), and the Meditations (How to reflect and pray as a Christian teacher).
In The Conduct, the details of teaching methodology served the lesson’s purpose. One historian wrote, “De La Salle required the students to explain what they had read. … The teacher must have carefully read and studied in advance the material the students would be asked to read. … Above all he was to question the students to determine whether they could apply to themselves what they had read, something they could do only if they understood it.” In Christian Decorum, one’s behavior referenced God, neighbor, and oneself through the details of daily life. There is a whole chapter on yawning, spitting, and coughing, and sections on dressing and undressing, how to eat soup, and how to have conversations with others: “You need not refrain entirely from spitting. … It is necessary when you are … in places that are usually kept clean that you turn aside slightly and spit into your handkerchief. … After spitting into your handkerchief, fold it immediately without looking at it, and replace it in your pocket.” And at the end of each of the Meditations, it is directly applied to the teacher’s practical life and daily disposition: “Do not, then, be so foolish, so unreasonable, and so unchristian as to expect to have nothing to suffer from your Brothers, for this would be to ask for a most extraordinary and unheard-of miracle.”1 De La Salle was a fan of the practical. His regular question was, “Do the schools run well?”
There are implications of this approach today… especially today. What practical protocols do we share – either directly in our interactions with students or in terms of our modeling – about phone and technology use, for example? Pope Francis recently said that getting young people involved in the practical details of Christian life, to do works of mercy, helps them become grounded in “concreteness” and to “enter into a social relationship.” “It worries me that they communicate and live in the virtual world,” he said, noting that on a recent visit with youth, instead of extending their hands when they saw him, they “greeted” him with their phones held up, taking photos and selfies. “Their reality is that… not human contact. This is serious,” he continued. “We have to make young people ‘land’ in the real world. Touch reality, without destroying the good things the virtual world can have.2
Regularly touching the plain surface of reality applies to all of us because doing so tends to realign the other details of our lives. One Trappistine postulant – now an abbess – speaks of how she had sought distraction from monastic routine and boredom, which masked an escape from confronting the self. She asked a visiting monk for advice. “His advice to me was simple and concrete: and to this day it helps me to come back to the place where my life is called to bear fruit. He said, ‘Just get up and wash your socks.’ He did not say go and do your laundry! He just mentioned one small action to shake boredom, sadness, laziness, inertia, lassitude. One single action can cure all this.”3
What is that single action for you and your unique world? What is one thing that you do, or that you could do, to shake your attention awake in a simple, explicit way? It may change. It should change. But it should not be dismissed. God is present in the promiscuously eclectic encounters of daily life. None of them are worth missing. All of them carry the soft, silent whisper of a genuine, even intimate, encounter with that which transforms the rest.
And if things get difficult, perhaps we should go out and pull weeds, or wash our socks.