Integrity and orientation

My students and I began an interesting conversation yesterday.  We were talking about curriculum orientations and how they can and can’t help us educate with integrity.  We talked about how integrity is usually understood as clearly articulating our beliefs, values, and aims, and then matching our practice to what we have articulated, and then continually reflecting on whether or not this match continues.  We talked about the difficulty of being so completely self-transparent.  Can we really reflect accurately on the underlying motivations and overarching intentions of every aspect of our practice?  Do we really think about those things in the moment to moment decisions we make as educators?  Scripture tells us that our hearts are a mystery, only known fully by God, and that our actions flow from our hearts (the wellspring of life).  James Smith ( 2009) says we don’t move through the world with our worldviews, we move feeling our way with arms outstretched, “…we lead out with our heart and hands.” (p 47)  It takes a lifetime and more to come to know ourselves as we were intended to be, so it may be presumptuous to think we can know ourselves so quickly and transparently as teachers.  It seems that the integrity project, when conceived as a matching project, is closely related to the worldview project we discussed in a recent post.  I left the conversation with my students, prompted to think further about what it would mean to have integrity if one was oriented towards God.

Orientation is embodied and personal – life lived face to face with God and others, therefore integrity has to be about more than my individual efforts to match my practice to my inner thoughts and determinations about teaching or any other practice.  Integrity has to be about a bodily gesture that arises from a unified heart and mind that is intentionally responding to the other/Other.  What do I mean by a unified heart and mind?  I mean a mind that is stilled by a heart that is at peace – so at peace that Christ can be found there and righteousness is possible.  I mean a mind that isn’t distracted by discursive reasoning processes or the demands of a noisy ego or a busy day, but is listening deeply to the Other/other or others with them.  I mean a mind that is “mindful” of or “attentive” to the sacred space that opens where two or three are gathered, and authentically responsive.   Truly loving and fruitful teaching gestures can arise under those conditions.  Christos Yannaras (1984) writes about each person saving within themselves the universal possibilities of life-giving gestures.  I like to think about teachers saving within themselves the universal possibilities of the teaching act – treasures within them that can be offered at the right moment to the right students in the right manner.  It is good to know a great deal about teaching, to store up those treasures, to even articulate what your best understanding about educational practice is at this particular time and place, but integrity comes when you do what St. Basil the Great says, “…return to your cell,”  your heart, and allow the Holy Spirit to teach your mind to be at peace and to be ready to be fruitful.  Every teaching gesture can then be infused by the wisdom and love from above.  Integrity, when we are oriented, is a unified, unconditional offering of self to God and others.  It is a moment when we are both gathered and offered.  A lack of integrity would be a teaching gesture or offering that is fragmented, without presence, without peace, without intention for a particular person or persons, without anything from heaven to bring it to earth.

To think of integrity as matching practice to ideals is to fall into the trap of answering complexity with certainty and to believe that ideals, on their own, are life-giving.   Simone Weil calls ideals notions and says, those notions do not dwell in heaven; they hang in the middle air and for this very reason they cannot root themselves in earth…It is only what comes from heaven that can make a real impress on earth.”  Trying to address complexity with certainty can result in a ‘regime of truth’ that becomes easy to impose on others, as well as, yourself.  These ‘regimes of truth’ can result in self-justification or blaming when things aren’t matching.  We blame our students for not learning or our institutions for not providing us the right conditions for our ideals to flourish.  To think of integrity this way is also a swift road to despair because, in my experience, I’ve never been able to match my practice to my ideals.  And I’ve tried….hard…

What about this working understanding of integrity?  From the possibility of self-conscious transparency to the possibility, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, of offering person oriented, loving, life-giving teaching gestures in a multitude of moments.  This understanding gives me hope, hope in possible moments of integrity – even if those moments are few and far between.  I am just a beginner at unifying my mind and heart, of being gathered and offered.  This understanding also gives me a place to start – “return to my cell.” 

“Like a swan you swim across the quiet of my heart and make it fruitful.”   St. John Climacus

Smith, J.K.A. (2009).  Desiring the kingdom: worship, worldview, and cultural formation.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic.

Yannaras, C. (1984).  The freedom of morality.  Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

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.

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