Down with Zoom school! Up with mystics! The case for the contemplative classroom
I teach at an all-boys Franciscan high school just outside of Los Angeles. Like many educators, I have been conducting classes online since last spring. My dining room table has become a de facto classroom as I madly reformat exams and presentations for various learning apps. I spend nights corresponding with students, grading late work and trying to keep a lid on this organizational circus act. Remote learning has meant much more emphasis on many of my least favorite tasks—inputting scores, converting files and rewriting tests. Still, whatever weariness I feel pales in comparison to the fatigue and disappointment I see in those dark-circled eyes staring back at me from the other side of the Zoom camera each day.
Since going online, my main struggle has been finding ways to keep my students engaged. Yet as the months drag on, their response times have gotten slower. I notice more glances at cellphones, more repeating of questions. I know they are getting less sleep, less sunshine and laughter, and all of it worries me. Adolescence is already such a fragile and tumultuous period—even without the negative effects of isolation, monotony and technological distractions. Back on campus, we could play music, clear out desks and move our bodies. There were sports teams, club meetings, pickup basketball games and break periods. We had sacred spaces to let off steam, goof around and refocus. This past year, we have had none of that.
I have found myself thinking less about curriculum maps and more about my students’ spiritual health.
The insanity of 2020 and 2021 has also painfully highlighted my own deficits as an educator. Spanish Facebook projects, literary podcasts and travel guides have taken the place of essay questions and traditional testing as I do what I can to keep the boys interested and their cameras switched on. I have found myself thinking less about curriculum maps and more about my students’ spiritual health. The experience has forced me to reflect on my purpose as an educator in a Catholic school. I have had to ask myself, “How well am I communicating this richly flawed, complicated, wondrous, broken and constantly renewing tradition to my students?”
Catholic school enrollment has dropped, according to the National Catholic Educational Association, by a little over 67 percent since the mid-1960s. That is a drop from 5.2 million kids to 1.7 million in 2020. Whether it is the faith that is becoming increasingly irrelevant or the culture that has lost its connection to the sacred, one thing seems clear: These institutions may not survive unless we can reimagine what a Catholic school education means in the modern world. And they may not survive unless we can rethink how we use social studies, chemistry and soccer practice as unique ways of instilling in our students a faith that is practical, relevant and bold enough to withstand the challenges they will undoubtedly face as adults.
There is no question that faculty and administrators cannot wait until the day we are back on campus and things go back to normal. At the same time, what if this pandemic could also present an opportunity to reflect thoughtfully on some of the areas where our community has fallen short and devise some meaningful, creative ways to improve what we do?
The list of nightmares facing our young people is as familiar as it is overwhelming. Nevertheless, they are undeniable parts of the world they will inherit.
Embedded in a culture of shallowness
“We have certain superficial mechanisms,” Pope Francis laments in his encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” “but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.”
There is no denying we live in a market-driven, media-obsessed and distraction-filled world. Our culture, society and institutions have become too shallow, selfish and immature to demand whatever sacrifices of lifestyle are necessary in the face of such mounting ethical challenges. Our religious response has felt flimsy and ineffectual at times, while our congregations remain alienated from our most suffering citizens. Climate change, wealth inequality, rampant consumerism, immigration, racial injustice, institutional distrust, political polarization, nationalism, nuclear proliferation, escalating violence and religious extremism are the inevitable results of our collective apathy.
The list of nightmares facing our young people is as familiar as it is overwhelming. Nevertheless, they are undeniable parts of the world they will inherit. No doubt Catholics—and all global citizens of the future—will need tremendous creativity, courage and backbone to stand against these troubling trends. Yet the question I keep asking myself is this: “Are my students up to the task? Do they possess the maturity and compassion capable of meeting the needs of this suffering world?” This is the same generation that social psychologist and New York University professor Jonathan Haidt describes in the “The Social Dilemma” documentary, as “more anxious, more fragile, more depressed and much less comfortable taking risks.”
How do we speak to a generation that, at least on the surface, seems less and less prepared for the difficulties it will face?
I see firsthand the troubling effects that social media has wrought on my students’ spiritual lives (and on my own) —in their discomfort sitting with a sentence to find a more elegant way of expressing themselves, in the faces glued to iPhones just seconds after the dismissal bell. Over and over in faculty rooms, teachers express these same concerns. While there is no question that technology has had some wonderful effects on the educational system in terms of access to information, quality of presentations and exposure to new cultures and ideas, we may have in the process created a generation of young people who, as technology ethicist Tristan Harris explains, “have a digital pacifier for [themselves] that is...atrophying [their] own ability” to deal with being uncomfortable or lonely or uncertain or afraid.
What, then, is a Catholic educator to do? How do we speak to a generation that, at least on the surface, seems less and less prepared for the difficulties it will face?
We can start by cultivating in our students a deeper spirituality, one rooted in experience rather than dogma or ethics. “Being Christian,” Pope Benedict XVI tells us in “Deus Caritas Est,” “is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
Fostering this encounter is the unique job of the Catholic school teacher, no matter what the subject, to sift through the distractions and superficiality of modern life and do what we can to awaken a direct experience with the living God. And while this notion may sound lovely on paper, the question inevitably becomes more concrete: “What does this look like in practice?” How do we reorganize our lesson plans, reexamine our use of technology, restructure our classroom goals and accreditation reports to better support this primary learning objective?
As Catholic educators, we can cultivate in our students a deeper spirituality, one rooted in experience rather than dogma or ethics.
Wading into deeper waters
I argue for a stronger commitment to the contemplative, prophetic teachings hidden within our faith tradition. Or, to put it another way, we need to get the mystics off of our podiums and stained glass windows and invite them into our classrooms, faculty meetings, retreats, theater performances and service trips. We need to engage deeply with and experience the truth of their teachings.
When I was in college, my roommate Tim and I would occasionally force ourselves out of bed early enough to attend morning prayers in our school’s chapel. This rare act of will was a minor miracle for me, a kid who designed his schedule so that he’d never have to attend class before 10 a.m. Somehow, a few times a month, Tim and I would brace the cold, five-minute walk to church, pushing through the doors a few minutes before the 8:30 a.m. start. The service was quick and informal: a reading from Scripture and a faculty reflection, followed by a brief period of silence.
Like many of the kids I teach, spirituality was low on my priority list at the time. My peace of mind was primarily determined by how well I was fitting in with the older guys on the team or whether or not I had a girlfriend. Still, something nascent in me was drawn to those quiet, reflective moments.
Walking out of the church, I felt a bit more connected to the weightier, more sacred elements of life, and freer from the superficial, neurotic swirlings that seemed to occupy so much real estate in my head. Looking back 20 years later, I see these were my first experiences of contemplation. Fleeting glimpses of peace flowing beneath the anxieties, insecurities and masks that typically weighed me down. Yet in 16 years of school, no one taught me what those moments were or gave me any practical tools to expand upon them.
In many ways, I received a fantastic secular education. I was prepared for the rigors of university work and I developed the discipline necessary to embark on the career of my choosing. At the same time, I graduated college estranged from myself, terrified of failure and narcissistic; brimming with potential, yet spiritually unmoored. I only started to struggle with my identity after the house of cards I had so carefully constructed fell apart in my 30s, and I was forced into a deeper relationship with my faith tradition.
We educators can ask ourselves: “Is there life and energy in how I’m delivering this material? Is there truth and depth? A divine spark in the eyes of my students?”
It was in the contemplative teachings of Thérèse of Lisieux, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Keating and Anthony de Mello that I found a workable flashlight and road map out of the mess I had so spectacularly created. But what if I had been exposed to those teachings earlier? What if I had gone to a school where in addition to Catcher in the Rye I was handed The Seven Storey Mountain? What if I had been introduced to Julian of Norwich and had the vocabulary to speak about and identify the contemplative dimensions of Christianity?
Contemplation, as Thomas Merton defines it in New Seeds of Contemplation, is “life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive...spiritual wonder...spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life...a vivid realization...that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source.”
How’s that for an “integral student outcome”? Though I am well aware that we can’t ship our students off to the Trappists or Benedictines, we educators can ask ourselves: “Is there life and energy in how I’m delivering this material? Is there truth and depth? A divine spark in the eyes of my students?” If not, how can my classroom become a confrontation against disengagement, grade-grubbing and spiritual mediocrity?
The creation of a contemplative classroom will no doubt require a great deal of imagination, risk and discernment on the part of educators and administrators, but there are endless opportunities to immerse our students in the mystical traditions. It could start with a silent meditation before homeroom announcements or once-a-month earth science classes outside, in nature. Incorporating the works of St. Oscar Romero into our world history curriculum. Reflecting on the mystical poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins in British literature. St. Teresa of Ávila in Spanish. Ilia Delio in A.P. physics. Chagall’s White Crucifixion in art class. And what if we taught centering prayer on our faculty retreats?
The specific implementations of these ideas will certainly depend on the institution, yet the driving purpose behind them remains the same: To cultivate in our students a deeper connection to the rich, powerful genius of their faith tradition, to introduce them to the hidden mysteries of their inner lives, as well as their shared vocation in calling forth the Reign of God.
Despite my concerns, I remain hopeful. The young people I teach are exhausted, yes. They are fragmented and scared, but they are also far more exposed to the negative effects of materialism than I ever was. They are more suspicious of worldly success, more open-minded to new cultures, religions and ways of thinking. They are more in touch with their character defects, more accepting of others and far more vulnerable. And they are hungry for a more meaningful, awakened way of walking through their lives.
These are powerful, raw ingredients for the creation of future mystics. But if the Catholic school is to remain relevant, it must embrace its role as an incubator for the nurturing of courageous contemplatives at the service of a grieving, polarized cynical world. For as Karl Rahner, S.J., so famously warns, “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has experienced ‘something,’ or [they] will cease to be anything at all.”
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