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.

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.

The spiritual benefits of studying literature

Peter Schultz is completing his post degree B.Ed. program at Trinity Western University.  This contribution is his reflection on how early Christian thinkers understood the value of studying non-Christian literature. 

Since I plan to become an English teacher, I wanted to find out the view of non-Christian literature by the early Christians themselves.  I looked at one early saint, Basil the Great, who was trained in the Hellenistic classics.  What is particularly significant about St. Basil is that while in his doctrinal treatises he is adamantly set on his theological positions (see On the Holy Spirit), he sources the majority of “pagan” Greek writers for examples of virtue.  He does not create some sort of theological synthesis with Hellenistic philosophy that we see in the Thomistic tradition, but rather creates a clear and distinguished relationship between Christian writing and secular literature.

While there are numerous examples of quoting from pagan authors in St. Basil’s letters, I found his “Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature” to be most clear.

St. Basil argues that examples of virtue and wisdom can be derived from non-Christian literature.  Not only can this literature be useful, but it actually should be studied.  There is significant spiritual benefit in these studies: “We must be conversant with poets, with historians, with orators, indeed with all men who may further our soul’s salvation.”  The approach to truth and salvation here is far more holistic, in that studying non-Christian authors is not merely for becoming culturally or historically aware, but has actual benefits on the soul.  This also relates to the prescribed learning outcomes of the IRP’s, which emphasize reading texts from a multiplicity of viewpoints.  St. Basil is also advocating this by having students read a wide range of writers.

While examples of virtue are not as clear as in the Christian writings, they more easily relate to beginners on the path of virtue.  Examples like Moses and Daniel are given, who began with the wisdom of the Egyptians and Babylonians, and then moved to the deeper spiritual life.  So there is much to be gleaned from the wisdom traditions of the world.  St. Basil writes that “indeed must we also, if we would preserve indelible the idea of the true virtue, become first initiated in the pagan lore, then at length give special heed to the sacred and divine teachings, even as we first accustom ourselves to the sun’s reflection in the water, and then become able to turn our eyes upon the very sun itself.”   Since St. Basil recommends that pagan literature be studied for the preparation of divine studies, then the role of the Language Arts or English teacher is actually quite important, because we prepare the mind and heart to study higher truths later on.  Similarly, there need not be any pressure on Christian teachers to “evangelize” their students, but rather to teach students discernment of the wisdom in the texts that are studied.

St. Basil emphasizes training the mind to discern the true and the good, in that only good examples and wise sayings from pagan literature should be studied, while selections from writings that show or glorify evil should be avoided.  He is adamant that “familiarity with evil writings paves the way for evil deeds.”  Yet St. Basil does not at all advocate avoiding texts, but rather demands reading with discernment.  This could be challenging for teachers in a number of ways.  First of all, what is appropriate and not appropriate material?  Second of all, if texts have little virtue or wisdom in them, and they are prescribed by the school board or subject department, how does a teacher make the most of these texts?  The third issue is balance.  In much of modern, North American literature, we have many examples of what happens when lives are not living according to virtue, for instance chaos and immorality of the relationship between Daisy and Tom in The Great Gatsby, or the self-destructiveness of materialism in Death of a Salesman.  However, students probably need examples of virtue more than tragedy, which is sometimes lacking in the literary options that schools give.  Even the Shakespearian corpus typically lacks substantial examples of virtue.  But there are many options for teachers, if only these works could have wider distribution in the school system.  Books like Lord of the Rings, with its emphasis on determination and friendship, as well as George MacDonald’s Phantastes and Lilith, with their spiritual textures and otherworldly narratives, are ideal.  All of Wordsworth’s poetry, including his long work The Prelude, show a profound reverence for nature that is especially needed in today’s ecological reality.  Classics in translation should not be overlooked either.  There are innumerable works to choose from, two of the best literary forms being epics (for instance Aeneid and Beowulf) and philosophy (like Plato’s dialogues and the Tao Te Ching).

St. Basil’s essay can be found at: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/pearse/morefathers/files/basil_litterature01.htm

By Peter Schultz

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