A mother’s suffering,
A child born,
A farmer’s labor,
A flower burst forth,
A student’s wrestling,
A mind illumined,
A savior’s death,
A people delivered.
A sinner’s repentance,
A soul freed,
And love is made known. -Jennifer Dow, 2019
What does each stanza in the poem above have in common? What is the same, and what is different? Take a moment to consider.
A pattern exists in nature. Work before fruit, sorrow before joy. Learning, schole, and contemplation are fruits. Highly desired fruit, the highest good kind of fruits, but what is the work that precedes them, makes them possible, calls them forth?
True learning, or schole, requires suffering, requires sorrow. The suffering of the mother in childbirth, the suffering of the tilling of the earth, the suffering of wrestling with an idea, the suffering of our Lord, the suffering of coming to terms with what is and uttering those truths to God. Authentic learning requires suffering because it is made manifest through suffering and sorrow. It is the work that precedes it. Josef Pieper, the author of Leisure and the Basis of Culture, says it this way:
“Earthly contemplation means to the Christian, we have said, this above all: that behind all that we directly encounter, the Face of the incarnate Logos becomes visible… Contemplation does not ignore the “historical Gethsemane” and does not ignore the mystery of evil, guilt, and its bloody atonement. The happiness of contemplation is a true happiness, indeed the supreme happiness; but it is founded upon sorrow.”
― Josef Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation
“The happiness of contemplation is a true happiness, indeed the supreme happiness; but it is founded upon sorrow.”
This last line is reminiscent of the philosopher’s journey over the divided line in Plato’s Republic, Boethius and his lessons in the Consolation of Philosophy, and the journey of the Red Cross Knight in The Faerie Queene. In all of these instances, contemplation was the highest end of their quest and was the joy of the hero that endured the quest: the philosopher, Boethius, and the Red Cross Knight. The pleasure of schole and contemplation was granted to those who did the hard work of wrestling, repenting, and dying.
In The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius is in despair. He has been wrongfully imprisoned. He believed that because he has been a good man that his life should reflect that goodness. He is sorely misinformed about how the world works. Lady Philosophy comes to him to find him attended by “crooked muses,” and she casts them away. The only place Boethius’ reflection got him while he was in that state was to go deeper into despair. Lady Philosophy leads Boethius on a painful journey of repentance about who he really is and how the world really works. The truth was buried in darkness within Boethius, and he had to labor in facing his sin and deceptions to see true happiness manifested. This true happiness seems to wrapped up in contemplation somehow.
“He who would track the truth,
And resist false paths,
Must turn back the light of innermost sight.
Guiding reflection into a circle curved round,
Reason finds that what is labored for without
Can be discovered –from a treasury within.
This image once buried in darkness
― Boethius, Meterum 11, The Consolation of Philosophy
In the Faerie Queene, the Red Cross Knight goes on a quest for Holiness. His whole journey is marked by his inability to see. This inability to see causes him to become captive and deceived over and over again. The entire journey climaxes in his battle with Despair. He tries to reason with Despair but cannot. The only escape is Una, who saves him from utter self-destruction. Once freed from Despair, the Red Cross Knight enters the House of Holiness. Within, he finds help and his needs relieved, but he must encounter many characters in the house, each with something to teach him. First, Humility to enter the house, then Zeal, then Reverence, onwards with Fidelity, Obedience, Patience, Amendment, Penance, Remorse, Repentance, Mercy, and finally, Contemplation, in that order. Contemplation then ushered him into the heavenly city, Jerusalem, the highest happiness and good.
“His name was heavenly contemplation;
of God and Goodness was his meditation.”
― The Faerie Queene, Canto 10
“From thence, far off he unto him did shew
A little path, that was both steepe and long,
Which to a goodly Citty led his vew;
Whose wals and twres were builded high and strong
Of perle and precious stone, that earthly song;
Too high a ditty for my simple song;
The citty of the greate king hight it well,
Wherein eternal peace and happinesse doth dwell.”
― The Faerie Queene, Canto 10
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates outlines “the journey the soul must take up to the intelligible place.” It is the work of the philosopher who must transcend the culture’s captivity, the images we are deceived by, and labor through reason to reach the highest good and pure apprehension of what is a great reward, but not without cost.
“…this power is in the soul of each, and that the instrument with which it learns –just as an eye is not able to turn toward the light from the dark without the whole body –must be turned around from that which is coming into being together with the whole soul until it can endure looking at that which is and the brightest part of that which is. And we affirm that this is the good…”
The joy of schole and contemplation is nothing less than an encounter with the divine. It is indeed the highest good, a good that has a cost. That cost is a kind of suffering. In other words, a work that begins in wonder and ends in worship, but a work nonetheless.
What does this have to do with teaching on Monday morning? It has everything to do with what we do on Monday morning, but specifically, it gives us two paths. First, it informs the demeanor we ought to have as educators, and second, it informs our mode of instruction.
If it is true that learning is a kind of good, then it is also true that hard work precedes it. As teachers and parents, we keep this in mind and allow our students and children to feel the work that will yield the crop. We must resist with all fervency saving our children from suffering and hard things; it is the very means by which they will encounter the good. This shifts our role; instead of a savior, we become a mentor. There is only one savior, and we are not Him. We are best equipped to be a guide, to sit with them in their pain, and provide the truth that there is a way forward. In other words, we teach them how to suffer well. We teach them how to engage suffering from a view of goodness. We know that if we suffer through doing our math problems, we will eventually see the joy in knowing how to do and see the math. We know if we keep leaning into the work of understanding a book, we will see something we have never seen before, and it will be our joy. Our children do not know that joy is on the other side of suffering, and they do not know how to suffer without falling prey to despair. That is where we come in, with compassion, love, hope, and a vision.
Second, it informs our instruction. Good teaching adhere’s to the patterns of nature. Any pedagogical practice requiring students to take in new ideas, wrestle with them, synthesize them, and then embody them is tapping into this organic and fruitful pattern. It is a practice oriented toward wisdom and virtue. Teaching methods like narration, attentive reading, Socratic inquiry, picture study, nature study, and Multum non-Multa. The very pattern and form of these methods put out students in a position where they must wrestle and work hard, which are kinds of suffering, but a kind of suffering that is not arbitrary but replete with purpose and goodness. A suffering that makes manifest the goodness and joy we long for the most.
“A student’s wrestling,
A mind illumined,
And love is made known.”