What to do in a fiery furnace

Fiery furnaces seem to abound in education – those circumstances beyond our control, places we get thrown into whether we like it or not, either perceived or real threats we experience if we aren’t in agreement with the current thinking, system or action. And then, just when one fiery furnace is cooled, another seems to take its place – out of the fiery furnace of job action, into the fiery furnace of 30 children with so many needs, curriculum that demands coverage and measurement, and so many dysfunctional relationships. Most intense of all is the fiery furnace beyond our circumstances, the furnace of our inner burning thoughts and ego that are best at leading us where we don’t really want to go – down paths of anger, frustration with ourselves and others, doubt, impatience, righteous indignation, self-satisfying demands, ingratitude… We are always being coerced into worshiping some kind of false idol and those who coerce seem all-powerful. We are taunted by the words of Nebuchadnezzar, “Then what God is there who will deliver you from my hands?” And all seems fearful and hopeless.

What to do?

The three young men say there is no need to answer for there is a God in the heavens, whom they serve and He is able to save them. They don’t take things into their own hands, they don’t even tell God what to do. Their silence speaks volumes.

The three young men treasure their faith, putting their hearts into nothing except God, walking in his commandments, seeking His face continuously, turning towards Him and away from the things that are lifeless. Their faith is precious, practiced, transformative; and, therefore, a source of strength in weakness. They are steadfast.

The three young men pray with their eyes open, solving their riddle (in the midst of the flame) with psalmody, ‘singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.’ (Ps. 49)

The three young men overcome all temptation to resentment with gratitude and worship. Their hymn in the midst of the furnace is remarkable, exhorting every created thing in heaven and on earth to bless the Lord, to see all things and all circumstances as communion with God.

The three young men are the blessed meek, handing over their bodies to be burned. They are like innocent Susanna who said it was better to fall into the hands of evil ones than to sin against God, but who still looked to the heavens because her ‘heart trusted in the Lord’.

And then…the three young men are not destroyed! They find life, they inherit the earth. A theophany occurs! God incarnate is with them! The Angel of the Lord makes the furnace “as though a dew-laden breeze were blowing through it.” And then others see that the Angel of the Lord is walking with them and realize that no other God can save in this way – sharing His abundant life in the midst of a fiery furnace, participating in their suffering and transforming it, removing even the smell of the fire on their clothes and replacing it with the fragrance of God.

When we wonder what to do in the midst of a fiery furnace, may we be like the three young men. May we see God walking with us and saving us the way no other God can – sharing His life of peace and righteousness in the midst of all of our fiery furnaces. And then…may others experience the healing presence and fragrance of God through us.

Daily acts of faith

I have been reading an inspiring book called, The Reed of God, by Carryl Houselander (2006).  I’ve just discovered her spiritual writings and I’ve been so encouraged by her contemplative and reverent approach to scripture and the Christian tradition.  She was both a writer and a carpenter – interesting pursuits for a single woman who lived in Britain during both World Wars.  Her writing often deals with issues of suffering and loss, and reveals an authentic personal struggle to have a heart that is firmly established in God and His church.  I hesitate to try to summarize any of her writing because it is difficult to remove even one word – each word is chosen so carefully and draws you more deeply into her meditations.  But I’m going to try in this post, with multiple direct quotes (in italics), because I am so intrigued with one aspect of this latest book – something she calls, ‘daily acts of faith.’  I am often in need of strengthened faith and I am hoping that practising these acts will help me and may also help my readers.  I also see these acts of faith as translating easily into the classroom and establishing a sacred space for relationships to flourish.

Houselander describes an ‘act of faith’ in the following way, “…believing something because God has told us that it is so…Faith is something immeasurably more than a sixth sense, more than intuition, more than feeling or knowledge.”  Mary is our example here through her hearing from God that Christ was being formed in her and her acceptance (fiat) of this truth.  Houselander goes on to say that Mary’s daily act of faith, believing that Christ was within her, was part of the nurturing of Christ’s growth within her.  She encourages us to perform the same daily act faith, to believe that Christ is in us – to say, “My God, I believe that you are within me.”  This is an act of faith because,  “It is quite incredible to think that God is really present in me.”   This first act of faith brings us peace, “…it silences the noise of distraction, the loud busyness of fear.  It is the stilling of waters.  It gathers our thoughts into a circle like a crown of flowers; it crowns us with peace…Christ our Lord is within us; there is no room for any other awareness; everything that we see and touch and taste and think must be related to this one fact…It not only enables us to believe in the miracles which throng our lives, but it makes our charity a thousand times more sensitiveAwareness of the presence of Christ in us draws us off from every distracting and destructive preoccupation, such as self-pity, anxiety, irritability with other people, the morbidity which leads us to dwell more upon our own sinfulness than up the beauty of God….In the wonder of the awareness we are able to accept the humiliation of being ourselves.”  It is ok to be me when Christ has entered even me.  

There is also a ‘second daily act of faith’believing that Christ is in others.  “Just as we cannot depend upon feelings to know that Christ is in ourselves, we cannot depend upon appearances to know that He is in others…”  She compares the faith we need to have that Christ is in others to the faith that we have that Christ is present in the Eucharist.  Those who have a sacramental understanding the Eucharist and come to the cup regularly, have no difficulty believing that Christ is present there – our practice has taught us this.  We can have that same reverent orientation to all persons, and we have exactly the same reason for believing in both: the word of Christ.  “Both are miracles of love which, like God’s peace, pass understanding.” Because faith isn’t about rational certainty or intuition or feelings, we are “… like blind people learning, through the touch of caressing fingers, the features of the face that we cannot see.  We discover the Face that we seek in every human face; and just because we must seek with a more sensitive medium than sight, we are not put off by the visible things:  the mutilation, bruises, sweat, dirt, and tears.  Beyond all this we discern the invisible beauty of the Man abiding in mankind...”

There is a caution given in this second daily act of faith.  There is a particular spirit that true faith provides as we seek Christ in others.  “Faith simplifies the search.  We do not have to discover in which of several people Christ is to be found:  we must look for Him in them all.  And not in an experimental spirit, to discover whether He is in them or not, but with the absolute certainty that He is...If we look for Christ only in the saints, we shall miss Him.  If we look for Him only in those people who seem to have the sort of character we personally consider to be Christian, that which we call our ‘ideal,’ we shall miss the whole meaning of His abiding in us.  If we look for Him in ourselves, in what we imagine to be the good in us, we shall being in presumption and end in despair…Our search through faith and courage and love is a great going out into darkness, a reaching out to others in darkness, believing that Christ is there in each one; but not in the way we expect, not in the way that we think He should be, not in the way that we already understand, but in the way that He chooses to be, Who is Himself the Way.”  If we seek with faith, we shall find.  How wonderful to find Christ each day in each person – with charity a thousand times more sensitive!”

Two daily acts of faith – believing Christ is within you, helping Him to be formed in you, and believing Christ is in others and then naturally responding to that image in ways that recognize the suffering of Christ being borne in each person.  The seeing of Christ cannot help but motivate daily acts of kindness and compassion and forgiveness.  And then the love you give generates even more life in you because these daily acts of faith nourish one another.  We respond to Christ in others in the same way that St. John the Baptist responded to Christ in Mary.  It is an inner movement (and then outer).  It is a movement that brings us the same joy it brought Elizabeth and Mary….”a sudden rush of sweetness of life within us.”

Christ is in us, He is in every colleague, every students, every friend, every family member, every person.  We need acts of faith to find Him where we least expect Him, to see beyond appearances and behaviour and expectations, to see Him in the tears and mutilation and suffering, to see Him even in ourselves.  He is hidden, but never absent.  The eyes of our heart just need healing.  I think daily acts of faith can help us heal.  I also think it is interesting that she didn’t suggest that a daily act of faith would be to read more scripture or pray more or become more knowledgeable about doctrine.  I’m sure she wouldn’t suggest that the latter are unimportant or unhelpful, but she seems to be reorienting us – keeping us face to face with each other and Christ, helping us know Christ, helping us experience His presence.  What could encourage our faith more?

Back to school

Tomorrow is the day!

Please note the exclamation mark at the end of the previous statement.  I felt compelled to put it there because I am an educator and I am supposed to be excited about going ‘back to school’.  And I am excited and hopeful….but I have to confess that mixed in with that excitement and hope is a little fear and a struggle for peace.  I share these feelings here because I know I am not the only one feeling these things and it may comfort some to know that even very experienced teachers continue to have these feelings at the start of a new year or semester.  I am expecting some kind of classroom based nightmare tonight and when I meet my students for the first time tomorrow, I will have all of the nervous energy that any ‘performer’ would have.  The semester stretches before me and also rises above me like a mountain.  I know the hike will be hard and every peak I climb will lead to a new peak.

I think there is a healthy aspect to feelings of fear and a struggle for peace.   They can imply that you understand the nature of your work – that you are ‘turning souls’, that what you do is very complex and challenging, that even though you have many years of doing certain things ‘again and again’, every year is new because your students are new, that you understand peace is required to do the work well and truly, and that you understand peace requires a spiritual struggle.  To teach is to offer yourself wholeheartedly to others.  It is not wrong to think about who it is you are offering, or to wonder if you will have life to offer.  It is good to take Christ’s warning about teachers seriously.

There are also very unhealthy aspects to these feelings of fear and a lack of peace.   I know this from experience and from the wisdom of wise counsel.  These feelings can represent a false sense of pride – that everything that happens between me and my students is up to me.  This pride or “queen/king of the classroom syndrome” could be a symptom of my unwillingness to accept my smallness and weakness, which will, in turn, make it impossible for me to seek support from God and others and leave me locked in a mask of falseness pretending all is well.  I will then offer a false self to my students.  I may also seek security in being very certain or controlling, rather than open to the possible and seeing.  There is a significant tension here for all educators because it is hard to be small and weak and yet have SO much responsibility, SO many expectations.  However, I have learned that it is even harder to pretend you aren’t small and weak, and to have only yourself to rely on.  Admitting that I am small and weak opens me to a dialogue and interrupts the monologue of destructive thought patterns running through my head – thoughts from my false self, blinding me to my true self as a person eternally embraced by God through ongoing communion and participation in His life.  Knowing I am fearful and struggling for peace gives me the opportunity to reorient myself.

The phrase ‘back to school’ is a reflection of our cyclical understanding of time, but hope and excitement require us to have more than a cyclical understanding of time.  Cycles can lock us in, making us feel imprisoned or mechanical.  Like a clock’s hands, we are always moving but going nowhere.  Cycles make us feel like we undergo time rather than live it.  For me, hope and excitement arise when I reorient myself to the eternal present – trusting that each moment in time has the potential of opening up into another dimension, a dimension of salvation and grace and abundant life.  This is my prayer for all of us as teachers – many eternal moments and the eyes of faith to see those moments.

Again and again, in peace, let us pray to the Lord.  (and sweet dreams tonight!)

%d bloggers like this: