On Learning and Holiness: A Word for Teachers, Guides and Parents from Two Saints

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
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Guiding youth down the long and winding road of learning and knowledge is an artful duty.  So is guiding them along the road of holiness.  Notice that I didn’t write “guiding them along the road to holiness.”  I wrote “guiding them along the road of holiness.”  There’s a difference between a “to” and an “of.”  If a youth is baptized, the “holiness” is already  present, though it’s not apparent.  Guiding is a matter of working with the holiness of baptism and following its path.  “They follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (Revelation 14:4).  “Learning and knowledge”  also is a path “of” rather than “to.”  Learning does not have a destination.  Rather, it reveals what is already there, outside of ourselves.  Learning is growth in our relationship to the world and, thereby, “who” we already are.  Moreover, learning and holiness are not two separate paths.  Ancient and medieval Christians assumed that the path of holiness and learning is one.  That’s why St. Thomas Aquinas said that all knowledge that doesn’t end in love is useless.  Of course, Aquinas is not using the word “end” here in terms of a “goal,” but in terms of an “act” or a “fruit.”  In the August 18 bulletin, I quoted the late schoolmaster, Professor John Senior: “The restoration of reason presupposes the restoration of love, and we can only love what we know because we have first touched, tasted, smelled, heard and seen. From that encounter with exterior reality, interior responses naturally arise, movements motivating, urging, releasing energies, infinitely greater than atoms, of intelligence and will.”  Also, what Senior said of work could be said of learning (a form of work): “The purpose of work is not profit but prayer, and the first law of Christian ethics:  that we live for Him and not for ourselves.   And life in Him is love.”


The idea that academic subjects – math, science, technology, languages, literature, writing, arts, etc. – should open the soul to prayer may seem foreign to many.  But for the baptized, it’s a vocation.   Before these subjects daunt us, they should amaze us.  When knowledge is too often treated as a destination, it can cause anxiety and eclipse wonder.  Wonder, not just achieving goals, is key to healthy learning.  But  academic success comes with  an occupational hazard: it can go to the head – making one arrogant or disputatious – which narrows the mind.  As teachers and guides, we must watchfully steer youth away from the trap of thinking that “what they have learned” is either “everything” or “the key to everything.”  A little enlightenment can be deceptively dazzling, leading a person to stubbornly confuse the “part” for the “whole.”  On the other hand, a positive  educational experience always encourages humility, which keeps the mind open.  Again, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas: “The end of our knowing is to know God as something unknown.”  This truth places all knowledge under the starry sky of Mystery.  There are limits to what we can know.  The Source – of (1) the world we explore and (2) our ability to know it – is Something Unknown.  We call it the Trinity: a creative dynamic of three Divine Persons, known as Love.  “God is love” (1 John 4:8).  Humbly acknowledging this opens the mind to another life-giving truth: We cannot know God as much as we would like in this world.  But we can love Him as much as we like.  The more we love God in this world, the more we will know Him in the next.


This leads to a sense of Ethics.  It’s vital that youth learn there is a difference between “what we can do” and “what we may do.”  We “can” experiment with embryos.  But “may” we?   Ethics is a metaphysical knowledge.  It requires an ability to “know things” before “knowing how to do things.”  Moreover, justice cannot be defined in terms of either “subjective feelings” or radically “objective or abstract ideologies.”  In order to know justice, we must first know “what a thing is,” whereby we can know “what is due to it” and “how to relate to it.”   The young must be taught to ponder these matters in depth.  The moral teachings of the Catholic Church are a sure guide in these matters.  The act of teaching and guiding – and learning – is most fruitful when it’s a grace flowing from the Lord’s Pascal Mystery, Christ’s Death and Resurrection, made ever-present in the Mass.  In the words of Senior: “What is Christian Culture?  It is essentially the Mass.  That is not my or anyone’s opinion or theory or wish but the central fact of two thousand years of history.”  And so, I offer you some wisdom from two saints who were graced guides for the young. 


From the Writings of Saint Joseph Calasanz, Priest (1557-1648)
Let us try to cling to Christ and please him alone


Everyone knows the great merit and dignity attached to that holy ministry in which young boys, especially the poor, receive instruction for the purpose of attaining eternal life.  This ministry is directed to the well-being of body and soul; at the same time that it shapes behavior it also fosters devotion and Christian doctrine.  In doing this it performs for the young boys the very same service as their guardian angels.


Moreover, the strongest support is provided not only to protect the young from evil, but also to rouse them and attract them more easily and gently to the performance of good works.  Whatever the type of condition, it is well known that when the young are given this help, the change for the better is so great that it becomes impossible to distinguish those who are educated from those who are not.  Like the twigs of plants, the young are easily influenced, as long as someone works to change their souls.  But if they are allowed to grow hard, we know well that the possibility of one day bending them diminishes a great deal and is sometimes utterly lost.


All who belong to the society of men, and especially all Christians, praise those who increase the human dignity of young boys, especially poor boys by giving them a proper education.  Above all, parents are happy that their children are led through straight paths.  Civil leaders rejoice to gain upright subjects and good citizens.  The Church is especially joyful that others who love Christ and proclaim the Gospel are added to its following.


All who undertake to teach must be endowed with deep love, the greatest patience, and, most of all, profound humility.  They must perform their work with earnest zeal.  Then, through their humble prayers, the Lord will find them worthy to become fellow workers with him in the cause of truth.  He will console them in the fulfillment of this most noble duty, and, finally, will enrich them with the gift of heaven.  As Scripture says: Those who instruct many in justice will shine as stars for all eternity.  They will attain this more easily if they make a covenant of perpetual obedience and strive to cling to Christ and please him alone, because, in his words: What you did to one of the least of my brethren, you did for me. 


A Spiritual Testament by Saint John Bosco, priest (1815-1888)


First of all, if we wish to appear concerned about the true happiness of our foster children and if we would move them to fulfill their duties, you must never forget that you are taking the place of the parents of these beloved young people.  I have always labored lovingly for them and carried out my priestly duties with zeal.  And the whole Salesian society has done this with me.


My sons, in my long experience very often I had to be convinced of this great truth.  It is easier to become angry than to restrain oneself, and to threaten a boy than to persuade him. Yes, indeed, it is more fitting to be persistent in punishing our own impatience and pride than to correct the boys. We must be firm but kind, and be patient with them.


I give you as a model the charity of Paul which he showed to his new converts. They often reduced him to tears and entreaties when he found them lacking docility and even opposing his loving efforts.  See that no one finds you motivated by impetuosity or willfulness. It is difficult to keep calm when administering punishment, but this must be done if we are to keep ourselves from showing off our authority or spilling out our anger.  Let us regard those boys over whom we have some authority as our own sons.  Let us place ourselves in their service.  Let us be ashamed to assume an attitude of superiority.  Let us not rule over them except for the purpose of serving them better.  This was the method that Jesus used with the apostles.  He put up with their ignorance and roughness and even their infidelity.  He treated sinners with a kindness and affection that caused some to be shocked, others to be scandalized, and still others to hope for God’s mercy.  And so he bade us to be gentle and humble of heart.


They are our sons, and so in correcting their mistakes we must lay aside all anger and restrain it so firmly that it is extinguished entirely.  There must be no hostility in our minds, no contempt in our eyes, no insult on our lips. We must use mercy for the present and have hope for the future, as is fitting for true fathers who are eager for real correction and improvement.  In serious matters it is better to beg God humbly than to send forth a flood of words that will only offend the listeners and have no effect on those who are guilty.