One should not offer what one has, but what one is

The above title is a phrase from a book called, ‘The sacrament of love’, by Paul Evdokimov (1985, p. 62).  Paul Evdokimov is one of my favourite lay theologians.  He was a Russian immigrant to Paris after the revolution, a Professor of Moral theology at St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute and the author of several other books that are well worth reading.  I often turn to his writings when I want to be reminded about what it means to be a Christian human being, who we become when we are oriented towards Christ and gradually learn to participate in the life of God, and what we/can we offer our world, so broken and in need of healing?

Today, the words of this title were a timely reminder.  In fact, the words could easily be rephrased to say, “One cannot offer what one has, but only what one is.”  Parker Palmer said the same thing – that the “who of teaching” is the most important question educators should ask and continue to ask.  All acts of teaching are mediated through a person and offered to persons.  This mediation imparts a quality of spirit.  It is not possible to be disengaged in the act of teaching, because even when we are feeling disengaged ourselves,  our disengagement is an engagement.  Who we are being impacts our students and the content we teach.  Our being is revealed in the faces we turn towards our students.  St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “Humanity is composed of men with the face of angels and of men wearing the mask of the beast.”  We cannot separate what we have to offer from who we are.

It is good to think about the face you offer your students, your colleagues, your family.  You realize how important faces are when you say good-bye to a loved one straining  for a last glimpse as they walk through security at the airport, or when you sit for long minutes holding the gaze of a newborn child, or when a stranger smiles at you for no particular reason, or when you see the eyes of a beloved parent close for the last time.  You realize that all that matters to you is the ability to see their faces and to know they are seeing you.  Somehow you are saved by that one look and experience great loss when the gaze is absent.  I remember my son saying to me once after he knew that he had done something hurtful, “Mom, please, just look at me.”  He knew that somehow all would be restored if I would look at him with love, see him into being with love.

What is the face of an angel?  Angels are unceasing prayer, they are rejoicing and gladness, they are ‘criers of splendor’ as St. Gregory Nazianzus said.  They exist within a full awareness of eschatological fullness.  They are in communion.  They don’t need reasons to be good or loving, they create their own reasons – their adoration for God and all others.

It is Monday morning, it is dark, it is raining, I am already tired and a little overwhelmed by the week that lies ahead.   I can only offer what I am.  Lord, have mercy.

Speaking of serious things

I received an email recently from a good friend and mentor.  The email said that this person wanted to meet briefly with me about some practical details regarding an event we have been planning.  Because we sometimes talk about less ‘practical’ things, my friend made it clear in the email that we wouldn’t be talking about ‘serious things’ and only 15 minutes of my time was required.  I know my friend was trying to thoughtfully protect my time, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the signaled lack of opportunity to talk more deeply and for longer.  Some serious things were happening in my life and in the lives of those I love and I would have appreciated the opportunity to share these things with this person who so often helps me through wise and guiding conversations.

I think I was especially attuned to the phrase ‘serious things’ because I had been reading about the planet of the ‘serious man’ in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic,  The Little Prince.  I try to read this book at least once every year.  It is the kind of book that refreshes me and helps me gain perspective.  No matter how often I read it, I find it to be a well of new insights and life-giving words that make my soul sing and attend to ‘serious things’ – to weed out some of the nasty baobab trees that have grown in my heart.

When the little prince first describes the ‘serious man’ to the pilot, he is angry and upset because the pilot is too busy with something he thinks is ‘serious’ to attend to what he thinks are the less than ‘serious’ questions and concerns of the little prince.  The little prince accuses him of being like all grown-ups and a man he met on one of the planets he visited.  He says, “I know a planet inhabited by a red-faced gentleman.  He’s never smelled a flower.  He’s never looked at a star.  He’s never loved anyone.  He’s never done anything except add up numbers.  And all day long he says over and over, just like you, ‘I’m a serious man!  I’m a serious man!’ “ (p. 20)  The little prince then tries to explain to the pilot, with increasing urgency and emotion, why his questions are important – even more important than fixing an airplane that crash-landed in the middle of a desert with no water or help in sight.

As teachers we often have very serious things to attend to, so serious and consuming that we are unable to attend to the serious questions, concerns and needs of our students.  Like the red-face gentleman, we forget to look up, to look at, to enter into…  Sometimes we are just too busy to lift our heads and sometimes we are too lost in our own head.  Sometimes we are overwhelmed by our inability to answer questions, concerns and needs that are too big or too difficult or too heartbreaking.  This is where the pilot found himself when he finally realized that there was something more important than fixing his airplane.  He dropped his tools, his cares about his hammer, bolt, thirst and death and realized that the most serious thing he could do was to pay attention to a little prince who needed to be consoled.

“I took him in my arms.  I rocked him.  I told him…I didn’t know what to say.  How clumsy I felt!  I didn’t know how to reach him, where to find him….It’s so mysterious, the land of tears.” 

Christ was so good at speaking of ‘serious things’, the things in the heart of every person he encountered.  He is the one that finds us/reaches us in the land of our tears, because he is already there.  But, he also lets us participate in this loving work – for our salvation and for the salvation of those he has placed in our care. Sometimes in order to truly know Christ, we need to truly know the consolation and care of another.  Teachers can be that listening and consoling other for our students, even if we are overwhelmed by the mystery and by the many other serious things we do.

May God help us hear and respond in life-giving ways to the ‘serious things’ our students share with us.  Let’s not be like all grown-ups.

de Saint-Exupery, A. (1943).  The little prince.  New York: Harcourt.

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