Education into Darkness

As many readers know, Rod Dreher has recently written about the life-changing experience of reading Dante's Divine Comedy. On his blog at The American Conservative, Dreher has continued to reflect on its lessons for the modern seeker. Dreher's ruminations are a delight to read and always leave me with a helpful thought or three. Sooner rather than later, I'll have to return to the masterpiece itself and reappropriate, with a new perspective, the wisdom of the poem.

Yesterday, Dreher's starting point was his Sunday Orthodox church service, specifically the sermon his priest gave on the healing of the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda. Dreher writes:

The entire Commedia is a pilgrimage toward healing, toward wholeness. When he was in the dark wood in the first canto of the Inferno, lost and terrified, Virgil appeared to him like Christ at the pool of Bethesda. Virgil asked Dante why he stayed there in all that wretchedness. Dante said he wanted to leave, but couldn’t find his way out. Virgil said, essentially, “You’d better come with me if you want to live.” And so Dante did. The first steps of our own journeys toward healing, toward being made whole, must be made from a deep desire to be delivered from our misery, a desire so strong that we’ll walk into the fearful unknown for the sake of saving our souls.

A walk into the fearful unknown. It reminds me of what Fr. Richard Rohr once said: "Faith is a journey into not-knowing." For educators, what a paradox: enlightenment begins in darkness; wisdom, in mystery. What a challenge for today. How do we communicate this to young men and women? How do we help them appreciate that the highest truths are elusive, not things we can completely wrap our minds around? That everything we call knowledge is only the visible portion of a reality we will never comprehend? How do we communicate that even what we call enlightenment is actually a special kind of darkness?  


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Beth Cioffoletti
4 years ago
I don't know exactly why, Matt, but your final 3 questions brought to mind the following words of Merton as recollected by Sr. Mary Luke Tobin SL ... that somewhere along the way we are going to have to talk about "prayer" to young people: There is no prayer or inner life without reality. Prayer is rooted in reality. "Well, you see, prayer is basically response," he said. "In prayer we are continually responding to the questions of who we are and who God is. We're working with reality here -- the reality of our own identity and freedom and its relationship to God." ... Prayer helps you find your identity, your true self united with God. In this identity, you find your freedom; and in this freedom, you are able to respond to reality. "The interior life is what happens to you when you come alive in contact with reality," he says. "You do not come in contact with God except through reality. The interior life is the capacity to respond. Prayer is not praying five or six times a day. It is an expression of who we are." - from "Hidden in the Same Mystery - Thomas Merton and Loretto" pp. 56-57, an essay by Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, Merton on Prayer: Start Where You Are
Matt Emerson
3 years 12 months ago

Beth, thanks for your reply and for adding additional thoughts from Merton. Very insightful.


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