The Sacramental Approach, Part 1

I have written about trying to teach the sacramental approach before, when my Louisiana kids and I were tackling Flannery O’Connor stories:

I gave my students the example of the Eucharist. “What’s the Eucharist?”

“The body and blood of Jesus.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“So I can’t just pray and receive his body and blood in a symbolic or ‘spiritual’ way? I have to eat the bread and wine?”

“Yeah you have to eat it.”

“Okay. Well, O’Connor is saying it’s the same with stories. You can’t get the ‘meaning’ or ‘message’ of a story any other way. You have to read the story itself – you have to eat and drink it. That’s where the meaning is. You can’t just pull it out in some abstract way. That’s what O’Connor thinks, anyway.”

For the typical high school student, this is very hard to accept. Like most people these days, they are Gnostics, and they would prefer to separate body and soul, sign from sacrament, story from meaning. It’s easier that way.

“Sacramentality and the Short Story” April 2013

I’ve been weaving the sacramental approach into the way I try to encourage kids to embrace mystery in stories and other works–but until I taught Christian Authors for the first time last semester, I had never made it the title of a unit or an explicit part of the curriculum.

But this past summer when I was thinking about what were the essential things I wanted kids to learn in a Christian Authors course, this was the very first thing that came to mind. I learned about it myself through extensive reading, largely thanks to Flannery O’Connor, of course, but also through Dostoevsky and Greene and Marilynne Robinson and Emily Dickinson, all of whom engage this approach in very different but powerful ways.

I also learned about it from two professors in college: Dr. Lowery taught it to us explicitly while we were in Rome so that we could enter into that experience more deeply; Dr. Gregory taught it to us far more implicitly by the way she approached lyric poetry. She describes something very akin to the sacramental approach in her profound essay “Lyric and the Skill of Life”:

I would like for a moment to take seriously this sense that the discernment and preservation of “grace” within the world entails art: that is to say, a deliberately cultivated skill, an habitual focus of both mind and affection, a discipline of attention. The arts enacted by the poet are open to the reader willing to accept their difficult conditions. The steady and serious reader [Emily] Dickinson hopes for comes to share in the economy of grace – the ascetics of perception, feeling, and thought – that grounds her discipline.

The tough thing about the sacramental approach, however, is that the only way to really learn it is to discover it yourself–to gradually become aware of a common thread, a particular vision, weaving itself through the best art, the best books, even the best movies.

What is the sacramental approach, you ask?

That is the question my students are asking right now. I have not given them a definition, and I don’t plan on giving them one until they can already come up with a good account of it themselves. So, I’m not going to give you one right away either.

However, I have given them definitions and examples of some other approaches Christian Authors (and any authors, really) often use–so that by contrast they can see what the sacramental approach is not:

The Didactic approach – from the Greek didache meaning “teaching” – an approach that openly tries to teach or inform. Good examples of these are Church documents, many parts of St. Paul’s letters, large sections of the Gospels (esp. the Sermon on the Mount), theology texts… even The Chronicles of Narnia, which try to teach a younger audience what Jesus is really like. Even the parables of Christ are largely didactic–though, I would argue, not exclusively so.

The Apologetic approach – from the Greek apo “from” and logos “word, speech, account, reason” – an approach that tries to persuade using logic and evidence. C. S. Lewis’ Mere ChristianityMiraclesThe Problem of Pain and other works are examples of this. Chesterton also used the apologetic approach–even in many of his Father Brown mystery stories.

Propaganda – from the (relatively modern) Latin propagare “to propagate, to spread” – an approach that tries to spread ideas, often by biased means, often by manipulating emotions

Obviously, one would hope that Christian authors would not use propaganda. Yet even certain members of the Pro Life movement use it (and feel justified in doing so). And a lot of modern Christian music and movies really earn this somewhat dishonorable label–because the art they create (manufacture?) is bad, and it exists only in service of (or subjugation to) the message.

An example of Christian propaganda we looked at in class today:

I mean, all you have to do is look at the title of the movie to know the message. The atheist professor is the stereotypical meanie who has a painful past and lots of resentment and pride to boot. The young handsome Christian has to make lots of cliche choices and engage in a final showdown of some sort.

In these first few days of the semester, I am trying to help my kids come to their own understanding of the sacramental approach by giving them lots of experiences–both of what it is, and what it is not.

An example we looked at in class today is Richard Wilbur’s beautiful poem about the experience of waking up in the morning and that half moment of semi-consciousness between dreaming and waking, spirit and body: “Love Calls Us to Things of This World.” You will notice that it is neither didactic nor apologetic–and nor is it propaganda.

But it is surprising. There are lots of images and juxtapositions you wouldn’t expect–and I bet you can easily find the one line in it that rather shocked everybody.

Nor is this poem explicitly Christian. As one of my students pointed out, it mentions “nuns”, but not really in the most flattering way.

As I said to my students today, the sacramental approach is one of the hardest things to teach. To just give them my definition of it would miss the point–and would deprive them of the chance to discover this deeper vision, to enter into a new way of looking at the world, to start noticing it everywhere, to begin fumbling for their own words to give it voice.

More to come.

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“Well, I’m back.”

For some reason as I was considering returning to blogging and reflecting on the past few months and what I might say about them, I thought of Samwise Gamgee at the end of LOTR as he returns from the Grey Havens, having said goodbye to Frodo and Gandalf and the journey:

But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.

Tolkien, The Return of the King

There’s nothing like stating the obvious when you have a lot on your mind and don’t know quite what else to say, Sam.

Of course I haven’t been to the Grey Havens or Mordor or anything so dramatic–but I did go to World Youth Day in Poland this past summer as a chaperone for some of my students, and I began a new position at my school this fall as an instructional coach, in addition to teaching junior American Literature for the first time in years and tackling a brand new course: Christian Authors.

I’ll start with that last part, and maybe work in some reflections on the other developments in my teaching life if they seem like they would be helpful to other teachers to share.

One of my biggest challenges this past semester was developing the curriculum (that’s a fancy way of saying “making stuff up on the fly”) for a new course I had never taught before. It was a senior elective called “Christian Authors”, and I am teaching it again this semester to a new group of kids (some juniors and sophomores as well). Really what I had to go on was the title of the course and the sense I wanted to expose the kids to a blend of theology and literature that they would not be getting from their core classes.

Lots of people said to me as I was worrying about it this past summer, “But Maura, this course is perfect for you! You get to choose whatever books you want them to read! It’s a way for you, as an English teacher, to teach theology!”

Yet this lack of formal curriculum and the freedom “to choose whatever books I wanted” was the overwhelming part. And since so many of the authors we explored are very near and dear to my heart, I was a lot more emotionally invested in the student responses than I usually am. In the core classes, it does not particularly cut me to the quick if the kids don’t like essay writing or reading the Romantics.

But if they hate Flannery O’Connor, well….

The other complication is that although this course is an elective, many kids who sign up for it do not do so out of a desire for literature and theology–they take it because nothing else fits in their schedule due to our limited elective offerings this year. So you have kids with extremely varying interest and skill levels taking a course that, ideally, should demand a lot from them. And most of them are seniors. Many of whom have a strange idea that their senior year ought to be easier than the legendarily brutal junior year.

So I had to take all that into account when making up the course.

But there was a lot that went very well last semester–and I am planning on learning from my mistakes and making some significant changes for this semester.

I am keeping the general structure. I organized the course around three big ideas–or really, what I called “persistent concerns”–issues that most Christian authors of merit need to wrestle with in their works:

Unit 1: The Sacramental Approach to Reality

Unit 2: Metanoia and the Ladder of Love

Unit 3: The Problem of Pain

Then I tried to begin each unit with an enticing question that the kids had to wrestle with that tied into the big idea of the unit–and that they used the texts we read to help them answer. That approach worked particularly well in Unit 3.

My next few posts will be unpacking those units and how they went–and how I plan to improve them for this next group.

Christian Authors round 2 begins on Monday. Stay tuned!

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Dissecting the Frog

Very much on the mind and heart again.

Mysteries and Manners

Found this wonderful reflection at the Circe Institute from another English teacher like me. I can really relate to Mr. Kern describes here:

I’m torn between opposing approaches: 1) to break the work down so that they see the structures and the devices and all the things that we English majors find so fascinating but most students find so mind-numbingly similar to biology, and 2) to simply let the stories be, to them do the work themselves and to simply be a facilitator. The first option is practical and concrete and I can quantify my student’s knowledge and assess his understanding. The second functions within the realm of mystery and is less easily quantified. On the one hand I can dissect the work, on the other I can observe.

My instincts tell me to go with the second option but the strangest thing has been happening when I do: the kids…

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“Any but the greatest”

It’s been too long since I’ve written about Flannery, but as usual her voice is on my mind and ever-ready to set me straight.

There have been a lot of difficult changes going on around me recently #beingateacher #catholicschool, and today this quote by Flannery came to mind:

Naw, I don’t think life is a tragedy. Tragedy is something that can be explained by the professors. Life is the will of God and this cannot be explained by the professors; for which all thanksgiving. I think it is impossible to live and not to grieve but I am always suspicious of my own grief lest it be self-pity in sheeps [sic] clothing. And the worst thing is to grieve for the wrong reason, for the wrong loss. Altogether it is better to pray than to grieve; and it is better to be joyful than to grieve. But it takes more grace to be joyful than any but the greatest have. (Collected Works, via Flannery O’Connor in the Age of Terrorism: Essays on Violence and Grace)

That quote is worth rereading a few times.

I remember seven and a half (!) years ago while I was studying abroad in Rome, our Literature professor Dr. Roper framed our Lit Trad III course around the question “Is life ultimately a tragedy or a comedy?” We read Aeschylus and Sophocles and Aristophanes and Shakespeare and others that semester. Dr. Roper gave us that question again on the final exam.

These words by Flannery helped me, during that challenging semester and during the years afterward, to confront that question.

Dante (whom I always read with my kids this time of year) named his work the Commedia and gave us the traditional Christian response: life is ultimately comic (in the literary sense of the word) because Christ’s love redeems humanity.

But unless you yourself get a vision of hell, purgatory and heaven, it is much harder to see Dante’s vision of things except by faith. The ancient Greeks seemed convinced that life was ultimately tragic, and had a lot of good reasons for thinking so. Indeed their greatest works reflect the view that human beings are subject to fate or the whims of the gods and can only learn wisdom by accepting their humble (and tragic) state #Oedipus.

As an English teacher with a melancholic disposition, I tend to see my life, my work and my students very dramatically. This tendency can be good because it means I take everything seriously but it can also be bad because I take everything seriously.

I like that Flannery O’Connor, in the quote above, acknowledges but then pushes aside the question of whether or not life is ultimately tragic (note her friendly “Naw”, but not a firm “no”). If you read her stories, you might get the impression that she thinks life very tragic indeed. However, she pushes past the tragedy question and gets right to the heart of the matter, as she always does: “life is the will of God and this cannot be explained by the professors; for which all thanksgiving.”

Her tone is lighthearted here and characteristically critical of intellectuals, but it is not disingenuous nor dismissive. She is suspicious of her own grief lest it be “self-pity in sheeps [sic] clothing”, but as is usual in her letters you can hear her own experience of loss in the background as she wrestles with what faith demands: “The worst thing is to grieve for the wrong reason; for the wrong loss. Altogether it is better to pray than to grieve.”

Ultimately, she concludes, it is “better” also to be joyful than to dwell in grief, as perhaps Dante teaches us. Pope Francis, too, is always urging Christians to be joyful, going so far as to say that “without joy [a] person is not a true believer” (via Breitbart.com).

But I like that Flannery O’Connor openly acknowledges the challenge of joy: “It takes more grace to be joyful than any but the greatest have.” She suggests that joy itself is a divine gift–requiring “grace”– and that it is an experience we cannot muster on our own.

Only “the greatest”–that is, the saints– have this joy, not because they are not well-acquainted with grief, but because they are actually more well-acquainted with it than the rest of us. Their grief is joined to the grief of Christ on the cross, and so too is their joy. If you read her letters I think you’d agree that Flannery herself is included in their number.

FO

source: blogs.thegospelcoalition.org

 

 

 

 

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Tell Them You Care

I think one of the hardest things about being a teacher is that moment you realize that you care WAY more than your students do.

The kid you have been pulling aside all year long, who doesn’t know how to study, and who you beg to come in for extra help? You care more than he does.

The girl who rarely comes to school and always comes to your class late, who misses so many lessons and therefore fails almost every assessment? You care more than she does.

The kid who always wants to put his head down, who always wants to go to the bathroom, who wants to do anything to avoid interacting with you or the other students? You care more than he does.

At least, you think you do.

That’s what it feels like when you are a teacher.

And yes, you get it. There are all sorts of reasons – valid reasons! – why a lot of kids don’t care about school.

But after a while you want to throw in the towel. Why should I care about Jake failing more than he does? Why should I spend all this time making retakes and practice assignments when half of those kids never show up for extra help anyway? Why should I even bother trying to make my lessons engaging? Why should I assign this essay or write this sample? Why should I put all this effort in?

I’ve been feeling this way a lot (as I often do at the end of the year). It’s a hard time for everybody.

Today I passed back yet another test which an alarming number of students failed. I showed them the study guide side by side with the test–the study guide I had assigned for homework before the test that many of them decided not to do. There were murmurs of surprise when they saw how similar the study guide was to the test, and how the homework was clearly aligned to the assessment and was clearly meant to help them.

And I felt like saying (loudly), “SEE? SEE THE CONNECTION BETWEEN DOING THE HOMEWORK AND DOING BETTER ON THE TEST? DO YOU SEE IT NOW? WILL YOU ACTUALLY TRY DOING THE STUDY GUIDE NEXT TIME?”

But instead, I just said to them, “Some of you did a great job on this test, and you have been working hard all year, and I see you and I am so proud of you. Some of you really struggled on this test. Maybe it was because you are not giving yourself enough practice outside of class. Maybe it’s because you’re confused and you needed to ask for some help.

“But here’s what you really need to know: I gave you this study guide because I care about you. I offer retakes on every assessment because I care about you. I stay up late and plan lessons every day, even though I’d rather go to bed or do a million other things, because I care about you. I do everything I can to help you be successful because I care about you. I push you and challenge you because I care about you.

“It’s not too late to learn and grow. It’s not too late to walk out of the dark woods and ask Virgil to help you. It might feel like Virgil is leading you through hell, but you have to do the hard and scary stuff in order to make progress.” (We’re reading Dante’s Inferno right now, so they get the allusion.)

“I care about you and I want you to succeed. That’s my job. Let me know how I can help.”

And I saw on their faces that some of them were moved  to hear that.

And I realized, I need to say that phrase – “I care about you” – a lot more often. Because sometimes they don’t hear that phrase as often as they should. And sometimes they can’t make the connection between what you do for them and how you really feel for them.

As with everything else in good teaching, you need to be clear. You need to say what you mean. Of course it seems obvious to us, as teachers, that we care. But it may not be obvious to your kids.

So, if you’re a teacher, insert “because I care about you” into your correction of a misbehavior.

Insert “because I care about you” into the consequence you give.

Insert “because I care about you” after you give some tough feedback on an assignment.

And see what happens.

They need to hear that phrase. All the time. And maybe if they do hear it all the time, over and over again, in big ways and small ways, verbally and silently, through actions and words, the message will hit home.

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Persuasion and the 8th commandment

The Archdiocese of Denver’s language arts curriculum for the 9th and 10th grade includes a seemingly simple standard:

“Analyze the truth of an argument in light of Catholic doctrine” (RI 2).

Okay, we’re at a Catholic school, so of course we should look at the explicit and implicit arguments we read in all sorts of texts “in light of” Church teaching. Would the Church like this idea? No. Okay, why? Would the Church like that idea? Sure. Okay, why? Etc.

But if you think about it, in order to get kids to read a text “in light of” anything, you need to enlighten the kids. They need to know what the “light” is in order to learn how to see by it.

So  I try to end almost all of my units using this standard. We step back at the end of a novel or series of poems or a play and see what the Gospel has to say about it all.

We’re (finally) finishing up Julius Caesar this week. The unit was about the art of persuasion, since persuasion is at the heart of this tragedy; Cassius manipulating Brutus and convincing him to join the conspirators who assassinate Caesar is only one of many examples of persuasion in this play. And most of these acts of persuasion, though effective, are bad. They are either riddled with logical fallacies or stocked with deceitful uses of pathos, logos and ethos.

See, for example, this masterful performance of Antony’s speech to the Roman rabble. He has to convince them that their beloved Brutus is a criminal. And he does:

He uses mostly pathos — playing upon the crowd’s hopes and fears. He establishes his credibility with ethos and pretends to be on the side of Brutus and the others. He repeats the phrase “honorable men” — at first with reverence, then with doubt, and eventually with increasing sarcasm so that the crowd begins to wonder why it ever considered Brutus honorable at all.

The whole play is largely about how people manipulate the truth in order to convince others to do and think what they want.

#Americanpolitics

So I teach my kids about what the Church says about the truth and the 8th commandment — the rule that God gave us to safeguard the truth: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

6.5 SWBAT apply Church teaching on the 8th commandment to persuasive arguments.

That way, maybe my students will not be so easily manipulated. And maybe they will think about their own reverence (or lack thereof) for truth.

So we look Christ’s intriguing conversation with Pilate:

So Pilate went back into the praetorium and summoned Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?”

Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants [would] be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.”

So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?”

Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

When he had said this, he again went out to the Jews and said to them, “I find no guilt in him.”

(John 18:33-38)

We discuss how since Jesus’ primary language was Aramaic, and Pilate’s was Latin, that they were both probably speaking Greek to one another (the universal language of commerce in the ancient world) and that therefore the word Pilate used when he asked that fascinating question “What is truth?” was probably ἀλήθεια (aleteia).

At any rate, ἀλήθεια is the word John’s Gospel uses, as John wrote his gospel in Greek.

The Greek word for truth has a literal meaning akin to “unveiling” or “disclosed-ness”. Truth, then, has many philosophers have discussed, is the “unveiling of being” or the “disclosure of reality.”

Yeah – I guess that’s pretty intense for 10th graders.

But it is very beautiful, too. Going to a Catholic school that talks about “Truth, Goodness and Beauty” a lot might have given them the impression that “Truth” is some sort of abstract object in the sky they ought to adhere to or else.

But thinking of truth as the uncovering of reality, the unveiling of being, gives my kids a fresh look at their own relationship with the truth. How do they try to uncover the truth about themselves and others? What is the right way to approach the truth? What is the right way to unveil ourselves or to unveil truths to other people?

When you try to persuade someone, hopefully you are trying to persuade that person toward the truth about something. But so often we merely use the truth – or facts, perhaps – to manipulate and to control others, as Antony does in his speech to the gullible Romans and [insert politician’s name here] does to the gullible Americans.

We then talk about the 8th commandment and what the Catechism says — how the 8th commandment is about much more than simply not lying, but that it also forbids gossip and detraction and calumny.

The kids are pretty floored that you can say something 100% true about someone else, and yet still break the 8th commandment.

I even give them a little Hans Urs von Balthasar to consider:

“Even though man is predisposed to communication in general, he is not compelled by nature to any one conscious communication in particular. He does not have to say what he knows. He has the command of his treasury of knowledge, so that he can make a free gift of every particular disclosure. No one can wring his truth from him or manipulate it without his knowledge and consent. Truth as self-unveiling is, in the case of man, a free, hence responsible, ethically consequential act.”

Theo-Logic: Truth of the World

Every act of self-disclosure is “a free” and “ethically consequential act.” How beautiful, and how humbling.

Basically, this seeing things “in light of Catholic doctrine” part of every unit is my way to be a theology teacher and an English teacher at the same time.

Happily, at a Catholic school, those two things are not mutually exclusive.

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Classroom Discussions

You know it’s been an intense few weeks when I haven’t had the time or energy to write a blog post!

In the meantime, here is a great video on creating productive classroom discussions. This teacher is using “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor – and she slips in a nice definition of grace:

 

Since it is the Ides of March, check out this version of Julius Caesar I have been watching with my kids as we make our way through a unit on persuasive techniques:

 

I find this unit to be very timely. We have been using excerpts from the Republican and Democratic debates to identify and explain pathos, logos, ethos — as well as plenty of logical fallacies.

I have been doing my best to restrain myself in not drawing too many analogies between the events of the play and current events in the U. S.

“You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!” Marullus says to the Roman people as they take a day off of work to celebrate Caesar’s conquests.

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