As the first semester, including Christian Manhood year 40, comes to a conclusion I am, as usual, a bit nostalgic as I look back at where we have been since August. From the strangeness of thinking that each of my students was about to be the perp in a stick-up, to the joy of actually seeing faces – often quite unshaven – during Zoom sessions in the final weeks of the semester, it has been a time filled with, to quote the title of one of my favorite books, “another sort of learning.”
That work, Another Sort of Learning by the late Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., not only has the longest subtitle of any book I’ve ever seen (Selected Essays on How Finally to Acquire an Education While Still in College or Anywhere Else Containing Some Belated Advice about How to Employ Your Leisure Time When Ultimate Questions Remain Perplexing in Spite of Your Highest Earned Academic Degree, Together with Sundry Book Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found), but is one of the few that I have had the desire to go back to again and again since I bought it over 20 years ago.
What lured me to open its dog-eared pages once more was a statement that Fr. Schall, one of the greatest Jesuits to ever walk into a Georgetown University classroom, made early on in in the chapter “What a Student Owes His Teacher.” In discussing the relationship between a university professor and her or his students, Fr. Schall states, “Too much is made, I think, of the idea of the small, intimate atmosphere of a classroom, where everyone can really ‘get to know each other’.”
I haven’t often disagreed with this brilliant Jesuit, but this may be one of those times. I understand what he is trying to say, and I agree with his assessment that, “The activity of learning goes on, perhaps even better, when student and teacher are addressing themselves to the matter at hand…with a kind of mutual awe before something they neither created nor made.” But, there is the possibility, inherent in his phrase “perhaps even better,” that leaves the door open for “a different sort of learning” that is perhaps even better still.
Maybe it is the difference between teaching in a university and in a high school, or maybe it is the difference between teaching political science and theology; but to my mind the bond crafted between teacher and students during a semester is one of the essential elements of a Catholic, and specifically a Jesuit, education. Because Catholicism is an incarnational and sacramental religion, the Catholic classroom should also be incarnational and sacramental.
Certainly the “matter at hand” that we approach “with a kind of mutual awe” in our classrooms is both incarnational and sacramental, and at its best it can take on characteristics of the Eucharist which, at the Liturgy, is truly the “matter at hand” that we approach “with a kind of mutual awe.” Or at least that should be our view of the gift of the Sacramental Body and Blood of Christ.
But, to continue the metaphor, what is also important in the reception of Communion is the communio itself, the community of believers. Fr. Schall could certainly counter that, as in a classroom, one can at Mass be distracted from what is truly important – the Eucharist – if there is too much of a familiarity among those present. That point, though well taken and definitely borne out by personal experience, only becomes an issue if the main focus of either the classroom or the church is forgotten.
Anyone who teaches theology, on whatever level, always must remember that, more than teaching any particular material, we are teaching Jesus. And whether it is explicitly on the mind of the teacher or not, there is an almost innate sense that our classrooms should be a proving ground for the words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel that “where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them.”
So last Thursday and Friday as I finished our discussion of The Little Prince and reminded everyone about the due-date for the final paper, I also made sure to tell each group of young men how much I enjoyed wasting my time with them this semester – knowing that each had learned the lesson that it is the time wasted on those we care for that shows them how important they are.
I hope and pray that they felt that their time was also well-wasted and that they carry with them the ultimate message of our class – the belief that God, both in the Incarnation and in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, has wasted His time on us and it is that wasted time that has redeemed us.
When seen rightly – even if seen through eyes that are a bit misty – time redeemed and time wasted are two ways of saying the same thing, and, I’m sure Fr. Schall would agree, that is truly another sort of learning.