I’m not yet sure how this will turn out, but that’s the beauty of blog writing – it’s an invitation to enter into the middle of a story without the pressure of either having to know the beginning or close it up neatly.
One of the most stunning mysteries a writer discovers, if one puts any effort into the craft, is that ninety times out of a hundred, the audience and the reason for writing are rather secondary; the first priority is to pin those elusive, wriggling words floating around the brain down on paper where they can’t run away anymore, bring them into the light, find the shape of them. The shapes only heft into view after much wrangling, and even then, they are fuzzy, out of focus. You have to take hard looks all about before you get a clear view.
A writer’s prayer: give me clear vision.
My previous post has been haunting me since I published it. I thought I knew why I was writing it. I thought I understood the audience: the mysterious and not so mysterious dear readers who stop by whenever I have something to say, bless their patient hearts. I am realizing though, that every missive published here is a letter more to me than to the universe; if any audience could really be named, it might be my children.
Maybe I am writing to the child in myself:
Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.
Here is the world.
I don’t think I realized what a slow processor I was until Emily began writing about it a year or so ago. I used to think my time delay was unique to me and was always discouraged and berating myself; I’m incredibly heartened to realize that there are whole tribe of people who react the way I do to the world. I used to think it was a curse. I am beginning to accept it as a gift.
The words I laid out here the other day are taking further shape for me, haunting me, pushing me.
A writer’s prayer: give me clear words.
They are not easy to choose.
I live between so many worlds. I think I’ve always known that, always known that I live in the outskirts and margins of places, tucked into quiet pockets. But I don’t think I realized how profound the remove was until Election Night.
There is no way to describe what happened on November 7 in the our national pysche. An inchoate howl? A keening? A roar? A clamor?
A writer’s prayer, a mother’s prayer: give me courage.
Beautiful and terrible things will happen.
I was awake in that weird dawn because of a child who cried out in the throes of a nightmare.
Having tucked her back in, I wondered at the results, unclear as they were before I headed to bed, and so I checked in for a moment. I should have waited for the morning. I couldn’t fall asleep after that; I just sat in mute horror as I watched the noise scroll past my screen until you wanted to clap hands over your eyes, as if it would block it out.
I stood and watched in horror as blog post and news article immediately began to circle in the wee smas before most rose from their beds, so very quick to censor the pain, the anger, the hope, the triumph. The level of noise, the words, every writer so quick to put spin on something un-spinnable, barely nameable, so new in its infancy- the speed and clamor of it all upset me far more than the actual election results.
You are talking about humans! I wanted to scream. You are talking about your friends! You are talking about people you love! You are talking about people who are loved! You are talking about your mothers and daughters and sisters, you are talking about your fathers and sons and brothers. You are talking about your friends who you eat and drink with! Real flesh, real blood. Be wary, be careful. HUSH!
I have echoes of this reaction every time a major event happens in our nation, not just on Election Night; good or bad, but especially when some sort of trauma happens, especially if that trauma has roots in dehumanizing behavior (like a mass shooting). It troubles me that our humanity is subverted for a quick newspaper title, a five second sound bite.
The mama in me wanted to escort everyone to their rooms, remind them to take deep breaths, tuck them in, kiss their foreheads. Tell them we’ll talk about this in the morning. But you can’t do that, and it’s not my place. But that’s where I was. What I wished I could do.
How many times I have told a child, (how many times have I told myself?) to find peace before they said and did things they could never walk back, never undo, never unsay? It was like watching such a regrettable moment writ large across a national consciousness.
A writer’s prayer, a mother’s prayer, a believer’s prayer: help me to see.
In my last post, I was writing to all those many people who poured out words in that dark, early morning. I realize that now.
I was writing to myself. I was writing to the parts of me that want to offer a quick fix people’s pain, people’s emotions, people, period, because being human is messy. People are messy. Being a human, being in relationships with humans- it’s rarely comfortable. It can be as beautiful or as ugly as we chose to make it but it will never be perfect. Or easy.
Don’t be afraid.
The odd dichotomy of enduring through suffering is that it leaves you scarred but makes you fearless. Once your worse fears have been realized, the rest of it doesn’t quite seem the big hairy problem you thought it was. If you will allow it, suffering will also allow you to see the scars written all over your fellow humans. It will soften you. It will humble you. It will gives you eyes to see, ears to hear.
I’m not afraid of people’s pain as I once was. Perhaps more importantly, I am not afraid of people’s suffering or the fact that answers don’t come easily. I had to live through it to understand how strange a world can be.
So how, then, shall I live?
I think of my children again, the people, the humans I want them to be, that they already are, the world I want to give them, the world they are finding within themselves.
It was the words of comedians and poets that brought it to clarity, the shape finally named.
It is usually to them I turn to when I cannot find the words.
This, from Jim Gaffigan, comedian, Catholic, father of five:
All I want for Christmas is for my country to not get divorced.
— Jim Gaffigan (@JimGaffigan) December 24, 2016
This from John Blase, one of my favorite poets bar none, wanderer, father of three:
That’s kinda where my head’s been, seeing myself standing in a room full of people much like that final scene in It’s A Wonderful Life, looking around at the eyes gathered, with a goofy George Bailey look on my face thinking “How on earth did I get here?” And then that old familiar pain: I remember that something has to die in order for something to be born.
And so I write, a letter to myself, a letter to my children.
We are the Children of the Great Divorce. We live in the now and not yet. Between heaven and hell.
And all the time — such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more “drive”, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or “creativity”. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. – CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man
I had forgotten what this meant for many years, but Aslan’s name is whispered. Let us, dear ones, my children, let us be of courage, men and women of chests.
Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions.”
“Because they are too terrible, Sir?”
“No. Because all answers deceive. If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into Eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see — small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope — something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. But ye can see it only through the lens of Time, in a little clear picture, through the inverted telescope. It is a picture of moments following one another and yourself in each moment making some choice that might have been otherwise. Neither the temporal succession nor the phantom of what ye might have chosen and didn’t is itself Freedom. They are a lens. The picture is a symbol: but it’s truer than any philosophical theorem (or, perhaps, than any mystic’s vision) that claims to go behind it. For every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom.” – CS Lewis, The Great Divorce
Be kind, my dears. Be compassionate. Choose love and life every time. Remember that the first commandment is to love God, and the second is to love your neighbor. Always choose love.
If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts — not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They might break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds. – CS Lewis, On Living in An Atomic Age
I add, here, dears, that atomic bombs and microbes have different names sometimes; but you know them all by how they are called the Other. The articles preceding the nouns are all “those” and “thats” full of fear. Those people. That thing different from me. Let those and these and thats find you at peace. Find you loving and doing and praying.
The blessed Father St. Anthony put it this way:
“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’”
Pray for peace, dear ones. Do not go mad.
The blessed Father St. John of Kronstadt said this and it is ultimately my hope and prayer for you, for me, for your father, that we would chose the real world:
“There is, my brethren, a true, real life, and there is a false, imaginary life.
To live in order to eat, drink, dress, walk; to enrich ourselves in general, to live for earthly pleasures or cares, as well as to spend time in intriguing and underhanded dealings; to think ourselves competent judges of everything and everybody is—the imaginary life; whilst to live in order to please God and serve our neighbors, to pray for the salvation of their souls and to help them in the work of their salvation in every way, is to lead the true life.
The first life is continual spiritual death, the second—the uninterrupted life of the spirit.”
Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid.
With more love than you can ever know,
As promised, I am beginning a small series regarding what I have gleaned from the Restful Teaching workshop offered by Andrew Kern and Matt Bianco of the Circe Institute. (If you ever have a chance to attend a Circe event, do go! You will not be disappointed.) Be sure to comment with your thoughts each day of the series. Each day is an one entry to win a digital copy of the Restful Teaching series. I will also grant an entry to anyone who shares this series on social media- please tag me. [Disclaimer: This series is not sponsored by The Circe Institute and I am receiving no payment from them. I just was greatly blessed by their time, and I hope you will be too! ] I hope to have these all finished by the end of January, but with our life at the moment, you never know! Thank you for your kind patience.
Restful assessment is only a small part of a holistic education, but without it, we feel a bit lost. It’s the compass that helps us on the map of our educational journey. The next question, of course, is…what map do we use?
To use Andrew’s words- what is the object of our education?
If we do not know where we are headed- the object of our education-we do not where we are going and are aimless, regardless of any curriculum we use, and anxiety builds within us and within our students.
To put it another way- for what or for whom am I doing this?
As Christians, the answer is to recognize Christ when we encounter Him. I love how Andrew puts this: the object of educating our students is to train up our children in the art of truth perception. To recognize Truth- the Logos.
No matter what we learn about, our practicing at little “t” truths, whether they be the mathematical constant of Pi or the fact that an “A” in the English language always makes an “ay” or an “ah” sound every time we see it, all points to the order and constancy present in the Logos.
Even the Greeks were looking for the unifying principle of everything. For Christians, the unifying principle is Christ- the Logos Incarnate.
With that established, we can then look at the paths that will lead us towards this object of education.
How are we heading Home?
Andrew used the examples held within the Odyssey, and Matt used the examples present within Holy Scripture- we must remember. Through out Scripture, the Lord says to us: I remember you. Come, remember Me. (Isn’t the connection to the act of communion just beautiful?) In the Odyssey, there are two groups talking: the sirens and the muses. The sirens say: Come this way. Settle here with us. Don’t go home. The muses say: go Home now (and here’s how)- they often give advice about the next step in the journey. They say: Remember who you are. Remember where you are going. Remember how to get there.
Here is where the rubber meets the road, and this might sound a tiny familiar if you’ve read Charlotte Mason’s work- Andrew says point blank: You don’t teach a child to digest food, you FEED them. (Charlotte encourages us to set a feast before our students.) Therefore, give them the best embodiments of the Logos you can find. And then, teach them [your students] how to look at them.
As Andrew put it another way- “every single lesson is a mini Odyssey. Practice getting Home everyday.”
You’ve noticed I’ve yet to say that the map you should use is a particular method of education: Classical, Charlotte Mason, Montessori, Waldorf OR a type of curriculum like Sonlight, Oak Meadow, or Christopherus OR that you should use the Common Core guidelines or the Ontario guidelines, etc. That is because, simply put, all of these things are tools towards an education, but not the education itself. They are not the map, in the true sense.
If our education is ordered towards truth perception, as the Circe crew points out, then the curriculum- the map- is the arts (of truth perception)- teaching our students how to look at the best embodiments of the Logos. Again, I will mention here that Circe views the seven arts of truth perception as: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric (also known as the Trivium, and often referred to as the arts of language) and Arithmetic, Geometry, Music/Harmonics, and Astronomy (often referred to as the scientific arts).
To break this down even further, according to Andrew Kern’s definitions in the workshop, Grammar is the art of learning how to read and write. Logic is honing the ability to harmonize text and life. Rhetoric is understanding the art of decision making in community, and Logic and Rhetoric are arts that are often used in relationship together. Arithmetic is the math of multitudes and brings harmony to the sides of the form. (If your brain is hurting- these would include the elementary arts of numeracy, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, algebraic thinking, and higher mathematical arts like Calculus and Discrete Maths) Geometry is the mathematical art you are thinking of, but to be more specific, it holds the harmony of the multitudes (shapes). Music and/or Harmonics (Andrew and Matt used the terms interchangeably) takes numbers and shapes and harmonizes them in time. Astronomy takes all these other scientific arts and holds the harmony of them in time and space.
Let that sink in for a second, and once your brain stops hurting a bit, can I call your attention to the wonder of these arts as Andrew and Matt explained them? I’ve heard some definitions of the arts a few times, but never in a way that made me see the beauty and the wonder inherent in them. You’ll also notice that they have a hierarchy to them. You can access all of them as a very young student, but it will take time and a lot of looking on the embodiments of them to truly begin to understand the relationships inherent in them. It is a lifelong pursuit, especially as a Christian. We are always, always heading towards Home.
The map is the arts.
The path is how we choose to follow the map. The path is where the different schools of educational thought come in, the different curriculum options, the different guidelines…they are the tools we use to follow the path, but again, they aren’t the path either. They are just tools. This is where our family values and norms come into play- especially our faith. As an Orthodox Christian, I synthesize the arts with what the Church has taught and is teaching me, leaning on the wisdom of the Holy Fathers. I dare to add to Andrew and Matt’s words here- our holistic pursuit of education doesn’t begin and end when we crack the books open. It happens “when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Duet. 11:19).
How does this relate back to restful assessment (finding where we are standing) and restful planning (following the map)? Well, let me quote Andrew here: “How do you think you are planning peacefully, but really planning for stress? Buy a textbook.” I’m going to add an addendum and/or paraphrase here: To plan for stress, hold slavishy to a school of educational thought. Buy a curriculum or textbook and use it without consideration. Make sure every single lesson relates back to the Common Core without considering the student and the Truth you are pursuing. Andrew calls using these tools in such a way as “hewing a broken cistern”, from Jeremiah 2. None of these things are the fountain of Living Water, and “everything is meaningless if we are working outside of the question- where is the Lord?”, says Andrew.
I know, I know. OUCH.
And also, how the heck do I do that? (This has been a constant struggle for me to understand with any school of thought- I get what you are saying intellectually, but how does that look practically, in the day to day?) That is where we are headed in the next post: how to orient each day in wonder, contemplation, and inquiry as we pursue our mini-Odyssey each day.
But back to the ouch-factor. Give thanks that the Lord’s mercies are new every morning, and no matter how many times we give into stress or sin or unfortunate decisions, we get to start again, every moment. Restful teaching is both rigorous and peaceful because we know where we are headed, and we know Who we belong to, and we know Who made those arts to teach us about Himself. He holds us in the palm of his Hand. We can be at peace no matter the circumstance.
This post is third in the Wonder and Inquiry Series.
“Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”- Sirius Black, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The last few weeks have been full up to the brim. The kids are working hard; I do my best to keep up with all the amazing places their minds take them, but I am a mere mortal.
So very often, my gaze is focused right in front of me- on the kids, on the medical stuff, the house, the cello and ballet lessons- but you’d practically have to be living under a rock to not have your gaze pulled across the Atlantic right now. It’s true of every tragedy- your life goes on, the kids still have to be fed, the world continues to turn- and that doesn’t seem possible, given the sorrow- but turn it does.
My older kids are of an age that they begin to understand the nuances of the wider world around them. We listen to the news via the radio on our errands (NPR and BBC World News are probably the safest for little ears- they are usually quite careful to provide warnings if there will be language or content that is un-suitable or too violent for younger ones.) Now that we are deep into pre-World War 1 History, it is not difficult for them to make connections to the world before them- some of the deep divides we see in the world today had their beginning at the turn of the last century. As a historian, I find it absolutely fascinating just what connections they make, unencumbered of the baggage we adults carry with us. An example: the most often said phrase during discussions? Well, so and so wasn’t being very kind to his/her subjects/neighbors/friends/parents. In the vast sweep of history, they see families. Families who forgot to be kind, who forgot to love, who forgot who they belonged to, who forgot to respect the humanity of another. It reminds me of this discussion we saw between a son and his dad in Paris.
C.S. Lewis said to his god-daughter that
“I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be your affectionate Godfather, C. S. Lewis.”
I thought of C.S. Lewis’ admonition about fairytales as my children were watching Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The quote above is actually from the next film in the series, The Order of the Phoenix, but it’s the quote that came to mind as I watched my kids watching Dumbledore, watching the wizarding world suddenly go from light and laughter and joy to tremendous loss and darkness and uncertainty. All of the wizarding kids are faced with choices- very hard choices, and those choices will play out over the next few books. We as the audience have the luxury of knowing how the story ends, but the characters do not- and, as my children first watch, they, too, are left in the dark.
Doesn’t that sound familiar?
I keep thinking of something Andrew Kern said at a recent workshop I attended. He said that in the Odyssey, the muses are known by what they say- remember. The sirens always call you away from your purpose, but the muses will always remind you of first truths, as if to say- remember who you are. Remember where you are going. Remember how to get there. In Harry Potter, Harry’s closest friends will be his Muses throughout his extremely difficult journey. And it is his godfather, Sirius Black, who will say the above line to Harry when Harry becomes terrified that Voldemort is taking over his soul.
So this is what I say to my kids, gently, right out of the wizarding, fairy-tale world- we can remember who we are, and not be scared. We can remember the families- in Syria, throughout the Middle East, all over the world- in Paris, in New York- and right across the street. In remembering Whose we are and to Whom all those families belong to, we can remember and be at peace. We are heading Home. The way is so very dark, so very scary, but we can always, always look towards the Light, and walk each other Home.
A few nights ago I could tell by the light through the trees that the sunset was going to be achingly beautiful that night, so we made our way down to the river to capture it.
One of my favorite prayers from our Great Vespers service (which happens every Saturday night in preparation for Divine Liturgy the following morning) is when we chant Psalm 140. Here’s the first verse and a lovely recording:
Lord, I cry unto thee: make haste unto me; give ear unto my voice, when I cry unto thee.
Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.
Towards the end of the service, we sing O Gladsome Light.
O Gladsome Light of the holy glory of the Immortal Father,
heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ.
Now we have come to the setting of the sun
and behold the light of evening.
We praise God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
For it is right at all times to worship Thee
with voices of praise, O Son of God and Giver of Life,
therefore all the world glorifies Thee.
So often now when I see the sunset, these prayers are echoing in my mind and heart. They bring deep and abiding comfort, and remind me to always look for the light.
I slipped out of the bright sun of a blazingly spring-like March day into a darkened nave, the breeze slipping around my skirt and making the lighted candles waver. My children were following close behind but the door had closed on their chatter. The beautiful mingled scent of beeswax and incense rose to meet me as I lifted my eyes to meet the quiet, searching eyes peering at me from the icons around the entrance. It was a moment among thousands and yet, and yet- it was a singular, holy, consecrated moment that I will never forget. I felt the warmth build from the top of my head down to my toes, the butterflies in my stomach settling, the restless wandering feeling abating.
I am home.
In that one quiet moment before the door opened again and my children, tumble-down, gurgling through the nave like a brook, my eyes filled with sudden tears. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt.
“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”
“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are -are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
It was as if the name I had always known was being spoken to me and I could see, could hear, could know that Heaven was close. It had been so very long for this wanderer. I had lost hope that I would ever find it, ever hear it again. So many doors I had walked through, only to find myself waiting in the hallway again, a little more shattered, a little more scarred, a little more hopeless. You see, I had been raised in the church, brought to the faith at a young age. I had moved many, many times. I watched whole communities shatter. I myself had felt the whip-sharp tongues of people who had their life all together and all figured out and had no room for sinners, for the broken. I was an orphan in the faith, with no home.
It’s hard to explain the loss I felt. I am grateful to know that I am not alone in this. I have met so many fellow wandering believers who have also felt abandoned by their churches, shut out, lost, believing but not able to gather in fellowship with others because they were so besmirched by their humanity as to not measure up to their local community, always on the wrong side of the door, often forgotten by the very people who should have been the first line of defense, the first hand to hold when one someone is slipping under the waves. There are so many, so much wiser than me, that are talking about the hows and whys and wherefores of this. It is not my place to delve into the theologies and thought processes. All I know is that it left me wandering and orphaned, desperately searching the Scriptures, wondering where the church of Acts had disappeared to, hopeless that it could ever be found.
And so it was that I found myself in that nave.
My children swirled in around me, the Bigs and the Littles, my husband gently shutting the door behind us. I saw it in his eyes too, everything like starbursts. He could feel it too.
A man came forward to greet us, attired in a long black robe. He introduced himself and welcomed us in. As we shook hands, my husband and I looked over our children’s heads at one another, smiling, knowing a kindred spirit when we meet one. He described himself by an archaic name- Subdeacon. It sounded strange on the tongue.
The service began a few minutes later. Two more men, dressed in long black robes and beautifully embroidered stoles that hung around their necks and buttoned down the front, approached the altar. They faced away from us. To the right was a young man dressed in a long robe embroidered over with crosses from head to foot, an altar server. After an unfamiliar prayer, the Subdeacon began to plain chant Psalm 104, a creation song of praise. The sanctuary was quiet, hushed. The glow of the candles echoed off the icons covering the walls. As the Subdeacon was singing, the priest was swinging a censer of incense and praying quietly. There were no bells on the censer, as they had been hushed for the season of Lent. I was struck by the incredible beauty of this sacred space; even in it’s Lenten sparseness, everything within the sanctuary testified to a beauty beyond knowing.
I don’t remember much after that, to be honest. Somewhere within the Psalm being chanted, tears began to run down my face. I remember looking over at my husband with no little amount of awe in my face and thinking. It’s really here. The church is really here. I’m really actually, finally home. This is mine to keep for as long as I draw breath. The sheer amount of relief that I had tried and I had tested and upon sounding the depths had come to solid rock left me gasping for joy.
When the service ended, the two priests came over to greet my family. It was an unusual situation, Subdeacon had explained. The arch-priest that normally came to serve the parish had brought a new priest with him to teach him the beautiful intricacies of the service within their church. The younger priest was able to sit with us a while and answer our questions. Again, kindred spirit reached out to kindred spirit. He understood so many of our struggles and explained in brief what it was we were seeing and hearing. I will never forget one thing he said as he explained how he had come to be a priest. He said that the day his church and his family entered into what he now called home, he had a complete and utter peace that he had shepherded his flock into safe harbor. It so matched my own feeling earlier that evening that tears began to gather at the corner of my eyes.
Safe harbor. Home. Home.
I had entered an Eastern Orthodox church that evening. Life would never be the same.