Holding together as a way of knowing

For many us us, education has been a process of pulling apart concepts and reality…breaking things down into steps, pieces or manageable chunks, differentiating, analyzing, categorizing. We have come to believe at a deep level, despite some rhetoric to the contrary, that this is the best way to come to know and show you know – to own the facts, a piece of reality all figured out to the smallest particle, reality as real estate that can be traded for position and advantage or packaged in a tidy theoretical framework that can be used to explain other aspects of reality. To know is to know parts and structure and formulae. And of course this is part of knowing, an important part.

However, this way of knowing doesn’t always serve us well when it becomes the main focus of education. It tends to divorce us from the way we really experience reality – held together, whole, greater than the sum of its parts, and deludes us into thinking we actually can control and own reality rather than participate in it with wonder and the humility of absolute interdependence. Our focus on parts and steps and structures blinds us to the whole and even to other parts of the whole. We lose touch with mystery, respect, gratitude, care – responses only the whole or holding together parts with the whole can elicit.

What if, instead, our main job as learners was to learn to hold things together? What if our main job as teachers was to help learners learn to hold things together?  For example, can we hold together an analysis of a rock into its type with the way it feels in our hand and its intricate markings and the diversity of living things that surrounds where it was found and its story of coming to be on this beach and what it can speak to us about stability and fragility and change?

I wonder what would happen in education if teachers and school systems were all more intentional about holding together, about seeing learning as an encounter with the real rather than just a dissection of it.  After all, isn’t this what our best teachers do? They are the ones who know the holding together secrets – relationship, story, sensory experience, poetry, ritual, symbol (which means to throw together), metaphor and all of the arts.  And then there is stillness which also seems to naturally lead to a deep communion, every moment a chalice of holding together.

Maybe learners who have been taught to hold together would start to participate in the world in a more integral way. Maybe they would also learn how to hold together with inner strength, because much of growing spiritually is learning to hold together what seems impossible to hold together – sadness and joy, suffering and consolation, contrition and forgiveness, strength and weakness, life and death, hope and loss, fear and faith and love, the one with with many.  What we find in the inner life is that holding together is the only life giving way to come to know, in fact we cannot really know what is true any other way. To find the unity and to stay steadfast in the midst of that unity is our greatest haven against the distraction of our spiritual enemies who seek to pull apart and force us to turn away to the parts. Light is in the unity, reality is in the unity, peace is in the unity, the kingdom of God is within.

In holding together, we learn we are held.

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Do the good you know and the rest will be revealed to you

I don’t remember where I heard this wisdom, but it is advice that dropped into my heart once and stayed and continues to encourage me when I don’t know or can’t see clearly what is right or true, or when I am confused about the big picture. Life is complicated and messy. People are even more complicated and messier.

What is particularly wise about this saying is that it prioritizes doing the good before knowing with certainty, the hardest before the easiest. I would much rather be certain and right about something, than do the good I know. And I always do know a little good to do. There is always a little good that is written in my heart, a good that calls me beyond myself, a good that asks me to let go of my own needs or fears, and serve and be present with others with peace and joy. I’m just not always willing to obey that good.

There are many versions of this saying in Scripture. You can find it all over the wisdom writings, in the gospels and in the epistles. Wasn’t this the truth God spoke to Adam and Eve in the garden as well? Once you start looking, you see it everywhere. One of the latest places I found it was in the parable of the wise man and the foolish man building houses on rock or sand. I used to think of the rock as the Bible and my ability to believe everything in it, to “stand alone on the word of God”, “to stand on knowing what was right or wrong, black or white.” But Jesus says the wise person is anyone who hears his words and “puts them into practice“. The foolish person is the one who hears and “doesn’t put his words into practice” – the one who stands alone on the word of God, thinking belief is enough, that belief is wisdom, that belief is the solid foundation. But no, like Christ as a child, we get to grow and become strong through our virtue, our practice, and then God fills us with wisdom, and we might even have a little wisdom to share with others. He gives us a little good to do at a time, and then these little obediences open up into wider spaces so that we can learn to run in His commandments, our true freedom. One little good leads to another, because good always wants to create more good.

So now I try to remember to ask myself in times of confusion or uncertainty, what is the little good you know to do? Do it and see what happens. Pay attention. And then sometimes miracles happen because God is always the Father of the prodigal, looking down the road for those who are inclined to do the good, always there to help them grow in strength and wisdom.

But I have to start with the little good I know, and that’s the hard part, but also the hopeful part because, if I know a little good, that means God is already at work in me and more will be revealed.

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