What are we waiting for?

I am sure you have heard it.

Advent is a season of waiting.

And for that reason I find this liturgical season very meaningful, because I feel like a lot of my life involves waiting. Waiting for my students to show progress. Waiting for a friend to call. Waiting to see my family at Christmas. Waiting for the next step in my vocation.

What are you waiting for?

In 2010, Pope Benedict asked this question. I was still in college and waiting to discover what would come after. I had a vague idea about teaching, but I did not know that in a few short months I would be moving to Louisiana and beginning life as a first year English teacher. I did not know how hard it would be – or how much love I would receive and learn how to give. I was anxious to know what was going to come next.

The Pope said during the First Sunday of Advent that year:

One could say that man is alive as long as he waits, as long as hope is alive in his heart. And from his expectations man recognizes himself: our moral and spiritual “stature” can be measured by what we wait for, by what we hope for.

Every one of us, therefore, especially in this Season which prepares us for Christmas, can ask himself: What am I waiting for? What, at this moment of my life, does my heart long for?

(Source: Pope Bendict Angelus, First Sunday of Advent 2010 via Vatican.va)

The Pope is right when he says “man is alive as long as he waits.” The implication of course is that “when he no longer waits, man is no longer alive.”

The people of Israel know about waiting more than the rest of us. Theirs is a history of faithful waiting on the Lord, the mysterious God who speaks through their Law and their Prophets. These people still live waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises.

Christians, too, live in waiting – in the already-but-not-yet waiting for the coming of Christ.

And all of us – even if we are not believers – are waiting. Waiting for tomorrow. Waiting for the next good day. Waiting for the pay raise, or the job offer, or the family reunion.

And yet I have such little patience for waiting!

In fact, I had thought for a time that waiting was not a good thing. After all, you cannot just follow Freidrich’s advice in The Sound of Music and simply “wait for life to start” until the love of your life finally shows up.

giphy

As much as I love Julie Andrews, I’m not waiting for life to start, I assured myself – since it already started for me over a quarter century (!) ago now. Life keeps happening whether you realize it or not. And, in the wise words of Ferris Bueller:77166-life-moves-pretty-fast-meme-fe-5PdB

And the point behind carpe diem is, of course, not to wait. We are constantly afraid of missing out on life, so let’s seize it now before it gets away from us.

Advent, however, has a very different message. Yes, life has already started. But as Benedict says, really being alive means waiting.

He continues:

But no one would ever have imagined that the Messiah could be born of a humble girl like Mary, the betrothed of a righteous man, Joseph. Nor would she have ever thought of it, and yet in her heart the expectation of the Savior was so great, her faith and hope were so ardent, that he was able to find in her a worthy mother. Moreover, God himself had prepared her before time. There is a mysterious correspondence between the waiting of God and that of Mary, the creature “full of grace”, totally transparent to the loving plan of the Most High. Let us learn from her, the Woman of Advent, how to live our daily actions with a new spirit, with the feeling of profound expectation that only the coming of God can fulfil. (Ibid)

Waiting is difficult and painful, but it is not fruitless. It is the proper posture of man before life.

 

 

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Thanksgiving Thoughts

“[I]t all brings me to thanksgiving, the third thing to include in prayer. When I think of all I have to be thankful for I wonder that You don’t just kill me now because You’ve done so much for me already & I haven’t been particularly grateful.” (Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal)

She wrote that somewhere around 1946 when she was just 21 or 22 years old. Flannery’s Prayer Journal, which was never intended for publication and which I finally read only with great trepidation and shyness, has so much to say about thanksgiving, and grace, and vocation.

In the journal she is continually begging for the grace to be a writer. She is sure, at this early stage in her life, that this is her vocation – that this will be her way of giving herself to God.

Her cause for canonization should have been underway for years, in my opinion, but as far as I am aware it is not.

I’m sure, if she heard me say that, she would send me some incendiary remark in a wryly composed letter with lots of “innocent spellings”.

She continues, “My thanksgiving is never in the form of self-sacrifice — a few memorized prayers babbled once over lightly.”

Thanksgiving as self-sacrifice. Like the Eucharist.

They say the saints are more keenly aware than the rest of us of sin.

What’s so interesting, reading this journal, is looking at it with the perspective of the years of suffering Flannery was about to endure. She did not know, at this time, that she would contract the disease that killed her father and eventually die from it at only age 39.

And yet, when you read some of the prayers, it’s almost like God answered them by sending her lupus. And that she knew, even in her early twenties, that the life of holiness she so desired was only possible via suffering. And that her longing to be a good writer would never really have been fulfilled had she not suffered.

G. K. Chesterton also has some beautiful things to say about Thanksgiving. I saw this on the IgnatiusInsight page a couple of days ago, and immediately I thought how Flannery-O’Connor-like he sounds here:

A turkey is more occult and awful than all the angels and archangels. In so far as God has partly revealed to us an angelic world, he has partly told us what an angel means. But God has never told us what a turkey means. And if you go and stare at a live turkey for an hour or two, you will find by the end of it that the enigma has rather increased than diminished.

turkey

source: Ignatius Press facebook page

 

Flannery has similar things to say about peacocks.

The beautiful thing about giving thanks for things is that you really only begin to understand them when you notice how grateful you are for them. Like the turkey. You could pass by a turkey farm, but if you stopped, got out of your car, and gazed at a turkey like Chesterton suggests, the beauty and absurdity of this strange-looking animal might start to dawn on you. The longer you looked, the more mysterious this bird would seem. The fact that it has become the traditional sacrificial lamb of our yearly American holiday would only increase this sense of strangeness. And if you looked long enough, you would finally forget about yourself and you would just be totally given to the being in front of you.

The turkey’s goodness is very much tied to its death and consumption by us. It’s very humbling, because of course we do not deserve it.

Chesterton also says,

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.

I think that what Flannery and Chesterton are getting at is that the gesture of gratitude and thanks is actually the truest response toward life. No matter how little we may initially feel we have to be thankful for, and no matter how irritating cliches about ‘be thankful for what you have’ and ‘you don’t know what you have until it’s gone’ can be, if you stop and seriously look around you, at the couch you are sitting on, or the hum of the heater in your house, or the cup of coffee by your elbow, you may begin to see it.

It is an act of sacrifice to give thanks, because you have to give up your sense of discontent, your sense of wanting other things, of wanting some other life or some other place, and ultimately you have to give up even your sense of yourself. When you are really thankful, you are not thinking about yourself at all anymore, but the goodness of being.

Even babbled thanksgiving “once over lightly” is better than none at all, and I am going to really give it a try this year.

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UD and Richard Wilbur – Humility and Poetry

Katie Davern, senior at the University of Dallas, recently wrote an article about Richard Wilbur’s relationship with the school. She talked to several alums (including me!) who had studied Wilbur and written to him, and included our perspectives. She does such a great job.

I will always treasure the letter Richard Wilbur wrote in response to me.

Dr. Roper, one of my English professors, says of Wilbur: “What’s really wonderful is that the really warm, generous spirit you see in the poems is confirmed in the man” (Davern).

So true.

If you’re interested, go check out the article on the University News website!

“UDers enjoy a special connection to famous poet” by Katie Davern

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Richard Wilbur source: jackrichardsmith.com

 

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More on The Church

Cardinal Sean O’Malley gave quite the interview on 60 minutes.

Here is one of the most interesting parts:

In an interview with “60 Minutes” on CBS that producers said took more than a year for them to persuade him to do, O’Malley seemed troubled by reporter Norah O’Donnell’s question as to whether the exclusion of women from the Church hierarchy was “immoral.”

O’Malley paused, then said, “Christ would never ask us to do something immoral. It’s a matter of vocation and what God has given to us.”

“Not everyone needs to be ordained to have an important role in the life of the Church,” he said. “Women run Catholic charities, Catholic schools …. They have other very important roles. A priest can’t be a mother. The tradition in the Church is that we ordain men.

“If I were founding a church, I’d love to have women priests,” O’Malley said. “But Christ founded it, and what he has given us is something different.”

Source: The Deacon’s Bench

I think O’Malley’s words perfectly reflect what I was trying to express in my last post.

Although some conservatives may be alarmed by his honesty – “I’d love to have women priests” – his view is actually a really beautiful example of faithfulness, and really expresses a view of the Church as a divine institution – not made or controlled by us.

We may like a lot of things to be different. And certainly there are many things we not only have the ability to change but the responsibility to change in the Church — starting, of course, with our own hearts.

But Cardinal O’Malley reminds us that the Church belongs to Christ. And we cannot manipulate what He has given us as revealed doctrine, even with the best of intentions.

A friend of mine, noting the rather somber tone at the end of my last post, reminded me of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s words at his final General Audience that seem particularly relevant to this discussion:

I have felt like St. Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: the Lord has given us many days of sunshine and gentle breeze, days in which the catch has been abundant; [then] there have been times when the seas were rough and the wind against us, as in the whole history of the Church it has ever been – and the Lord seemed to sleep. Nevertheless, I always knew that the Lord is in the barque, that the barque of the Church is not mine, not ours, but His – and He shall not let her sink. It is He, who steers her: to be sure, he does so also through men of His choosing, for He desired that it be so. This was and is a certainty that nothing can tarnish. It is for this reason, that today my heart is filled with gratitude to God, for never did He leave me or the Church without His consolation, His light, His love.

Source: Vatican News

I think Pope Benedict has it right.

I encourage you to read (or reread) the entire text of his last General Audience.

christ-asleep-in-his-boat-jules-joseph-meynier

“Christ Asleep in His Boat” by Jules Joseph Meynier source: fineartamerica.com

 

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The Church: Two Views

I’ve had a lot of interesting (and sometimes intense) conversations of late about the Synod, the Church’s teaching on moral (usually sexual) matters. Shouldn’t the Church allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion? When is the Church going to allow women to become priests? How can the Church say gay people can’t get married when we all know they cannot help who they are and how they feel? Isn’t Natural Family Planning really, at bottom, another form of contraception?

And it has become clear to me that the real issue, the real question, goes much deeper than many people suppose.

These questions of doctrine really, at the deepest level, boil down to a single question:

What is the Church?

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source: Boston.com

The more “liberal” (I’m sorry for the useful but loaded political term) people tend to believe that lots of Church teachings should change. They believe this because they believe these teachings are not only outdated, but also wrong. For them, the Church changing its teaching would be a sign that those old men in the Vatican were finally listening to the Holy Spirit. Doctrine changing would not be at all catastrophic to their view of what the Church is.

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source: usatoday.com

The more “conservative” people, on the other hand, believe that Church teaching should not change because it cannot be changed. It helps that many of them also happen to agree with a lot of these teachings anyway, and wouldn’t want to see them changed even if they *could* be. For them, the Church changing its teaching would be a sign that… well… the Church is not the Church. In other words, doctrine changing would be catastrophic to their view of what the Church is.

Liberal Catholics and Conservative Catholics continually talk past one another because they are operating under completely different definitions of the Church.

Liberal Catholics think of the Church as a huge group of people, followers of Christ, who are shepherded, taught and sometimes oppressed by the hierarchy. The hierarchy are men who can make mistakes – sometimes big mistakes, even about doctrine. History, culture, and sin can cloud human judgment. According to this view, changing Church teaching on marriage, communion, the priesthood, etc. would be a sign that the Holy Spirit is breathing new life into the Church. Welcoming as many people as possible into the group of Christ’s followers is kind of the idea. Doctrine changing is a big deal only in the sense that the Church would finally be catching up with the times.

Accordingly, many liberal theologians try to find instances in history in which Church teaching has changed in the past, in order to prove that since it has happened before, there is no good reason why it should not happen again. (Eg: They usually cite teachings like limbo, the infusion of the human soul after conception, the Assumption, etc. as examples of important teachings that have changed.)

Conservative Catholics, on the other hand, think of the Church as a divine institution. It consists of people – sinners and saints a like – but it also has a mysterious divine element – The Holy Spirit – which works through it in very specific ways. Doctrine is therefore something that cannot change because it is safeguarded by the Holy Spirit (and established by God). Human beings did not make up the doctrine, and therefore they have no power to change it.

Accordingly, many conservative theologians go to great lengths to prove that although doctrine has developed (Newman) it has not changed – the apple tree grows stronger and taller and wider and more fruitful, but it doesn’t decide one day to turn into an oak tree instead. They emphasize the distinction between a discipline (a practice that can be changed with no theological catastrophe – e.g.: married priests) and a doctrine (a divine teaching that, if it were changed, would call the whole nature of the Church into question – e.g.: women priests).

At bottom, that’s why lots of people have been freaking out about the Synod.

Some liberals are hoping Church teaching might finally change under Pope Francis. They see this as a step toward justice and a movement of the Spirit. Finally, the Church they belong to will no longer be so embarrassingly judgmental. The Church will catch up with the times.

Some conservatives are afraid Church teaching just might change under Pope Francis. And if so, what then? “To whom shall we go?” The gates of hell will have prevailed, despite what Christ said. And then we shall know that the Holy Spirit, despite what we had hoped, had never really been guiding the Church to begin with.

Other conservatives are afraid that although Church teaching will not change because “the gates of hell cannot prevail against it”, that there still may be catastrophic schism in the Church because bishops will fall into teaching heresy. That has certainly happened before. The Arian heresy involved all sorts of confusion, and at one point a huge number of bishops taught it as doctrine. You think the Church is divided now? Just wait, they say.

So when Catholics argue about moral teachings of the Church, what’s really going on is a battle over the nature of the Church itself. Can her teaching change, or can it not?

And if it does, is the Church what she claims to be at all?

 

Further reading:

On Heretical Popes by Father James Schall

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Thoughts While Drowning

While I am drowning under piles of paper, I’d like to direct you to an article our principal emailed to us today.

Here is the link:

http://www.naesp.org/resources-principal-marchapril-2012/ten-teen-eliminating-d-2

And the citation:

“Eliminating the D” by Tracey Severns in Principal, March/April 2012 (Vol. 91, #4, p. 44-45), http://www.naesp.org

Now our principal has not fully endorsed the ideas expressed in this article, but he thought they would give us all some things to think about.

I think he is right, and I am very glad he sent it. In fact, although I support most of what the article is claiming, I am now re-thinking some ideas I had previously taken for granted.

But since, while drowning, one has little time to come up with more than desperate fleeting thoughts, I’ll give you my unformed impressions of key parts of the article:

I LOVED this:

My first challenge was to dispel the notion that students had the “right to fail.” Previously, teachers believed that it was their job to teach and the students’ responsibility to learn. This belief needed to be replaced by an uncompromising commitment to student success. (Sevens)

I could relate to this. Any teacher can:

My research suggested that students seemed to fail due to one or a combination of three factors— attitude (students who were able but not willing), ability (students who were willing but unable), and attendance (students who didn’t come to school). We created a plan specifically designed to address each contributing factor and communicated it to parents, students, and teachers by posting it on the website and distributing it to all constituencies. (Ibid)

I wasn’t so sure about this one:

[…] all students have an opportunity to submit missed homework assignments the next day for partial credit and receive up to three days to retake a failed assessment for a maximum score of 70 percent. Teachers initially did not like this idea, but they came to see the benefit of providing students with multiple opportunities to learn and to demonstrate their achievement. They accepted the philosophy that because we want students to learn and the assignments are worthy, then we shouldn’t accept zeros or walk away from students who didn’t learn. (Ibid, emphasis added)

So you have to create even more assessments than usual? Like, at least twice as many so that the kids who fail the first one can take the second one?

Because taking the SAME English test after failing it the first time would not really demonstrate any real learning. It would only demonstrate that the kid is smart enough to ask his friend for the answers.

Moreover, it’s unclear to me whether or not the article is advocating that “zeros” be never given (read: earned) on an assignment that is not an assessment. What does it mean that “we never accept zeros”? Surely, they ought not to be ‘acceptable’ to the students or the teacher in the ethical sense, but sometimes students really do earn them. As in, that is the only just grade to give.

So, at this school, do students have until the end of the semester? So teachers have to accept work that was due back in August in November and December and grade it then? Uh… no way.

Recently, a parent of one of my students became enraged when she realized that her son had earned a zero because I do not accept late minor homework assignments (like, the little 10 point ones I give almost every day). “My son is not a zero!”

No, but a late minor homework assignment is, as I made abundantly clear in the beginning of the year on page two of the syllabus.

Well, anyway. Please read the whole article and tell me what you think. I’m running out of air and I need to save it for grading papers.

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The Matthean Effect

At the very end of the parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30), Jesus gives a very enigmatic explanation:

“For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance; but to him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Matthew 25:29)

This has always bothered me.

It hardly seems fair.

Don’t we want Jesus to say — and doesn’t He usually say — something like “For to everyone who has, what he has will be shared with others; and as for him who has not, he will be given even more“?

I mean, isn’t that the sort of thing “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and the other Beatitudes illustrate? And isn’t Jesus always telling us to help the poor (the  ones who “have not”)?

Turns out, Jesus’ words perfectly describe high school students and how they learn. To those who have, more will be given. But for those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.

I just finished grading a whole pile of reading quizzes. Over the weekend, I had my kids read this great article by Dr. Mark Lowery (from UD!) entitled “Myth Become Fact” as a way to help them with the answer that exceeds the question.

This article simplifies C. S. Lewis’ more complex essay, which shows how Christianity is BOTH mythological AND true. Basicially, the thesis is this:

Myth and Christianity are not, therefore, antagonistic to each other. Various myths exist either as anticipations of Christianity or as echoes of Christianity. (Lowery)

We have been learning about reading strategies, annotating, etc. I thought this article wouldn’t be too hard for them.

But, alas.

An alarming number of them couldn’t even pick out the main idea.

I mean, some of them definitely did. There were several perfect scores on the quiz.

However, some of the kids did not read the article at all. My village atheist may have read it, but if he did, he did it with such a closed mind that he was able to honestly claim “Having Christianity be a foreshadow in myths in ridiculously insane. […] I chose to ignore answer b [the quote above] because it is a stupid thought – everything and anything can have something wrong” (Student A, “Reading Quiz”).

Sigh.

But even worse, some of the kids clearly tried to read the article but still had no clue what it was saying. Some of them thought Dr. Lowery is an atheist. Others believed he was showing that all religions are equally true. There was even one girl who thought the article was talking about how Joel Olsteen converted to Christianity.

I’m serious.

And I know that when I give back these quizzes, some of the kids will be confirmed in their view that English class is too hard, or the article was far beyond their reading level, or what’s the point in trying anyway, or that they are always going to fail.

It’s the Matthean effect.

To my kids who read, who try, who want to learn — in other words, who “have” something already — they can get something more out of my class. They get excited by these ideas. They push themselves harder. They learn.

To my kids who don’t read, don’t try (or don’t know how to try), who don’t want to learn – in other words, who “have not” — they seem to lose, and keep losing. They get discouraged, then bored. They blame the article. They blame me. They blame school. They give up. Because who cares, anyway. Mythology is stupid. And so is reading.

I want to help them. But I don’t know how.

I am baffled sometimes by their ignorance. I’m not trying to say that in a judgmental way. I’m trying to describe this sense of bewilderment I feel when I read what some of them write on these reading quizzes.

And I do know that in the end, a large part of all this lies within the mysterious realm of their freedom. My students can come and ask for extra help – or not. They can do the reading – or not. They can develop a growth mindset – or not.

Luigi Guissani, in a different context, has words that seem to nevertheless apply. He even quotes the passage of the Gospel which describes “the Matthean effect”:

For God tends to give value to the position our freedom has already assumed. God seconds a decision our freedom has already made and forces it to reveal more clearly what it is willing to do. When one’s freedom is disinclined, when it adopts a closed attitude, everything that happens encourages it to close itself even more and vice-versa. ‘For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance; but to him who has not, even what he has will be taken away’ (Matthew 25:29).” (Guissani, At the Origin of the Christian Claim 71)

Thoughts?

Have other teachers experienced this? What do you do?

CaravaggioContarelli

I originally discovered “the Matthean effect” idea in my Childhood Development class at Notre Dame. I think the following article coins the term (APA citation format):

Sameroff, A. (2010) A unified theory of development: A dialectic integration of nature and nurture. Child Development, 81, 6-28.

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