Being perspective weekend, you will hear much about New College Franklin, about the excellence of our program and community. For this reason, I want to talk about education from a different perspective.
I want to conclude some recent meditations on learning by exploring the experience of the educator. Oddly enough, I am going to suggest that our experience is one of gratitude and mercy.
The inspiration for this talk is a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins addressed this poem to fellow poet and friend Robert Bridges. To R.B. is printed on your handout.
The poem can be divided into three sections: Inspiration; Labor; and fruition…which we will also refer to as apology. These divisions will guide our discussion.
Stages of Education/Discipleship/Creativity
Inspiration or insight is the most beloved and talked of aspect of education. It is the “aha” moment, the moment of faith, it is passion and encouragement.
In the geometry of Euclid, it is the flash of understanding; In art it is vision of possibility; in musical composition it is a transition or interlude; in romance a vision of beauty or goodness.
Insight marks the journey as with a compass, giving hope and direction, and the knowledge that what we pursue is not wholly of our own making.
But inspiration is just a beginning. It is a flash of insight which disappears.
THE FINE delight that fathers thought; the strong
Spur, live and lancing like the blowpipe flame,
Breathes once and, quenchèd faster than it came,
Leaves yet the mind a mother of immortal song.
And being only a beginning, the student of geometry must persevere if they are to gain understanding, the artist must endeavor if they are to give body to their vision; the musician must discipline and structure their composition if it is to be measured and harmonious; the lover must submit himself to the beloved through the practice of chastity and service.
Inspiration is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, telling us to prepare a way, and such preparation is labor.
Labor is the suffering of the inspired, the pangs of the pregnant; the apprenticeship of the learner.
The geometry student repeatedly studies, memorizes, and tests herself; the artist enters into a process of disciplined critique which refuses premature satisfaction; the mother awaits the day that her child is fully formed. She learns to distinguish between false labor (those Braxton- Hicks contractions) and those which are the true sign of fruition.
Nine months she then, nay years, nine years she long 5
Within her wears, bears, cares and moulds the same:
The widow of an insight lost she lives, with aim
Now known and hand at work now never wrong.
Labor is the process in which we discipline ourselves anew. The mother who has brought forth children before cannot apply the work of labor to her current pregnancy. The student, the artist, the lover in each act of love and creation enters into the work afresh.
The final phase is the product of labor, its fruition. It is a moment of gratitude and wonder, but strangely enough is often tinged by sorrow.
I have chosen to call it apology, both because this is what we find in Hopkins’ poem, but also because our creative and intellectual pursuits inevitably suffer from a kind of short-fall. Whenever we have sought to bring forth that which is truly good, truly beautiful, truly one and true, we sense that there is yet more that could be said or said better…perhaps most of all in our greatest successes.
Each phase of learning, discipleship and creativity is marked to some extent by this shortfall.
Insight is not a comprehensive vision, but a glimpse, a promise unto labor; and Labor guided by our imperfect knowledge, our imperfect powers, or partial dedication and imperfect technique is marred subtly in many ways; and because this is so, that which is brought forth must of necessity be something which fails to live up to our sense of perfection, and even more so, which fails to express some of that which we have longed to bespeak.
O then if in my lagging lines you miss
The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,
My winter world, that scarcely breathes that bliss
Now, yields you, with some sighs, our explanation.
It is in this shortfall, in the shortfalls of inspiration, labor, and poetic fruition, that the role of mercy begins to emerge.
We can think of this by thinking about what Mark says in chapter four of his Gospel
…“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. Mark 4:26-28
Mark is talking about the mystery of fruition, and this is the mystery which educators and parents are called to continually dwell upon.
We are often disappointed when we fail to communicate what we want to teach. And students are often deeply discouraged by their own perceived failure to bear fruit. But Mark reminds us that fruit is the final product of an organic process which is strange, slow, and of the power of God. Fruition is neither mechanistic nor immediate.
We are cautioned elsewhere of that plant in shallow soil which springs up too quickly.
As educators we are called to recognize and respect the living progression in which every joint and tendon, every stalk, leaf, and husk is formed and knitted together. And we are called to recognize a certain powerlessness over the entire process.
If I want to grow an apple, I would begin with this. But this is not an apple. And this is what is next, but this is not an apple. Do I have one here? Is this an apple yet? Is this? Is this…(seed, sprout, tree, flower bud, flower, flower unto thickening pericarp, thickening, ripening). That which is not the fruit is yet essential to the process…even while it looks nothing like the fruit.
What about growing corn or grain Again, do I have grain? Well yes and no, but what is one grain? If I wish to feed someone, it must fall to the ground and die in order to bring forth much fruit. Next comes forth the blade and stalk, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
A student attempts to make an apple or corn (to write an essay for instance) but often what comes forth is not a coherent product, but rather the germ of an idea, what is but sprout, a stem, or bud…or perhaps they have produced a formally correct paper without insight, the have a stalk without grain. A student is rarely capable of producing the entire organic structure of an essay at first. Instead, as apprentices, they each develop the ability to write in their own time, in fits and starts, in the secret seasons of their hearts and minds. The teacher merely helps identify that which is truly of the process and that which is alien. The teacher helps the student honor the mystery of growth and the organic structures which characterize it.
Like a child learning to walk, they stumble, they stub their toes, they plop back down on their bottoms and want to cry. But such a child is yet learning to walk!
And doesn’t this happen to us too? Don’t we grown-ups still fall down, stub our toes, or our neighbor’s toes, don’t some of us somedays want to crawl back under the covers…wishing we didn’t have to adult?
The lesson of the student is the lesson for the teacher. We are fragile and foolish, sensitive and frightened, we are human beings in need of direction, correction, love and mercy. Maturity takes friends not just to point out our failings but to praise that which although imperfect or unfinished is yet part of one’s growth unto maturity.
The adult, the artist, the mature Christian doesn’t come out of thin air. To make corn you first need one of these, and than this and that. Who knew? The pilgrims journey is one of a single step at a time which leads him through a series of humble but radical transformations.
In 2nd Peter, we are reminded that we are to
…make every effort to supplement [OUR] faith with virtue,[e] and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities[f] are [OURs] and are increasing, they keep [us] from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The educator is uniquely called to honor the slow, joint by joint process of maturation. In such recognition, we learn to refrain from harsh criticism and frustration, we show mercy unto fellow travelers, and in doing so we receive mercy ourselves.
In some sense, we gather the harvest which you have planted. We benefit from what you have poured into the lives of your children. It is our honor and delight to walk with them during this stage of their journey…in which they begin to discover the wisdom of the disciplines you have sought to develop in them. In walking with them, we are equally reminded of the necessity of such discipline.
For although we have walked longer and farther than most of them, at times our legs still quaver, are hearts can still fail us, but the love of God endures forever.
Let’s conclude by taking a last look at fruition.
When fruit finally comes, it may not be what we expected. Ask any artist about his finished work and he will most likely admit that despite a sense of overwhelming gratitude, there is yet a lingering sorrow, particularly toward those works which aimed highest.
I would like to suggest that this bittersweet disposition has something to do with the fact that God has set eternity in our hearts.
However-much we manage to bring forth into the light of what he has revealed to us, we inevitably fall short.
We thus can reread Hopkins apology, not so much as an admission of artistic failure, but of the need for greater inspiration, greater poetic power than that which he yet possessed.
Every sermon, every song, every gesture of love only touches the fringe of God’s glory.
The miracle, the heartbreaking mercy of God, is that he superintends this entire process. He yet blesses the work of our hands and particularly our works of mercy, such that He may say to us one day, well done good and faithful servant.
We can marvel at such a merciful declaration. But how are we to understand this. There is an analogy for those of you moved by, nourished by Hopkins’ poem, for have you not extended a similar mercy to him?
There is another writer who tried to touch upon the mysteries of poetry and mercy. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare describes the poet whose eye:
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth 15
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
The effort of the poet is here described as insight, unto labor, unto poetry fruition. The poet attempts to give body to the invisible, that is, to bring to earth what has been glimpsed in heaven.
And are not such efforts of poetic embodiment destined to fall short? After all, there is but one perfect image of heaven.
In that same play, Bottom is transfigured into an ass. This is after all the figure of any person who attempts to speak of heavenly things. This Bottom has a vision of glory and awakening from his vision declares, paraphrasing 1st Corinthians 2:
I have had a most rare
vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to
say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go
about to expound this dream. Methought I was–there
is no man can tell what. Methought I was,–and
methought I had,–but man is but a patched fool, if
he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye
of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream
was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of
this dream: it shall be called Bottom’s Dream,
because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the
latter end of a play, before the duke:
The impudence of such a man! To intend to sing what cannot be sung, and sing it for the Duke, to perform for one who might very well despise his poetry! And yet, we do not despise him, and can somehow trust the Duke will show similar mercy and pleasure in Bottom, even if the Ass cannot quite convey the nature of his vision.
In the final words of the play, the muse, the playful fairy Puck, who indeed scoffs at us mortals offers an intriguing apology. He recognizes that the pretensions of such dreams might yet offend, and asks for our forgiveness symbolized by applause. He states:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended—
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearnèd luck
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long.
Else the Puck a liar call.
So good night unto you all.
Give me your hands if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
Puck contextualizes the removal of offense in his apology as the mercy of friendship. He ultimately relies upon the mercy of his audience. Why?
In showing mercy and receiving it, in reading the works of one another, in perceiving each others attempts, and even our failures in the light of mercy and friendship, may we not truly discover the fruit of mercy?