The faith journey of young people is wonderful. I usually enjoy teaching Year 8 religion but it can be holy chaos. Early in the term, I happened to hear a boy, full of wisdom from his 13 years on earth, refer under his breath to ‘sir’s invisible friend’, meaning God. He is a delightful boy, always looking for encouragement, which made it easy to hear what he was really asking.
I told him that I had heard that phrase often enough before. Indeed, I could remember a boy referring archly to my invisible friend when he was in Year 10. He happened to be one of the most difficult boys I have encountered, full of anger and as much a nuisance to himself as the rest of the class. When challenged, he set like stone and gave you nothing. When not challenged, he ran like a river, flooding the world around him with his confusion. We didn’t hit it off but somehow we got through the year.
A few years afterwards, I encountered him in the drive-through of McDonalds late one night when I was pausing for salad on the way home from work. He greeted me with unexpected warmth.
‘Hey sir! Great to see you!’
Let me assure you, it was the first time he’d said this or anything like it. There was nobody in the queue so we got chatting. He told me that at this time of night, there was often a long gap between customers.
‘So how do you fill in the time?’
‘Well, I just sit here thinking.’
‘What do you think about?’
‘Don’t laugh, sir, but a lot of the time I think about God.’
I shared this story with the boy in Year 8 and told him not to close the door just yet as God might surprise him.
I could tell many stories like this and they never follow the same script. I am sure God gets a giggle out of all our plans to create guidelines and dot points for the Holy Spirit to follow. Indeed, one of the most challenging things in teaching these days is working for liberation within an increasingly controlled environment.
I was filling out my documentation for the NCCD when I heard news a week or two ago of the death of Jean Vanier. This is the kind of thing that can happen when you are doing mundane bureaucratic tasks. Your attention slides to the computer, looking for distraction. The sad news had just come through.
I am not the first to wonder if the heart of teaching is being smothered alive by endless administrative demands. On the worst days, it seems as if we are not so much teaching young people as preparing a case for the lawyers. In an Edmund Rice school, ticking boxes can become the wood that stops us seeing the trees. Indeed, we don’t just have trees. We have an extraordinary forest, a spirituality rooted in the Gospel of history’s most creative teacher, Jesus. It is impossible to work towards liberating education when you are yourself increasingly unfree. It is hard to talk about inclusive community if your knowledge of students is based on statistics.
This is not to disparage the NCCD by any means. Teaching has a hundred and one TLAs (three letter acronyms). At least NCCD is a superior being, a FLA (Four Letter Acronym). The letters stand for the National Collection of Consistent Data. It aims to help our students with special needs and this is great. Justice needs always to be based on the facts and I am surely not going to argue against the gathering of accurate data concerning the most marginal people in our communities. We do need to be factually accountable for how we look after them. Liberation is about much more than good intentions and warm fuzzies.
But all our professional acronyms need to be windows and doors to help us discover a human person. They are not the point of teaching.
This is where the story of Jean Vanier can help us more than we may realise. Vanier spent his lifetime slowly maturing a spirituality of encounter with vulnerable people, especially the intellectually disabled. Born in 1928, his life could have taken any respectable direction. He was the son of a Canadian Governor-General and an officer in the navy. He was also tall and good looking. The world was his oyster. But he wanted a pearl. On a holiday in France, he came across mentally disabled people institutionalised in a chateau. He would later comment that the most extreme suffering can happen in places of extreme beauty. Does Manus Island come to mind?
Vanier befriend two men, Raphael and Phillipe, and moved with them to a leaky cottage. They changed his life. This was the beginning of L’Arche, a community which does not serve the poor, which is usually an expression of power and even condescension. It gathers around the poor.
Vanier came to understand that it is from the poor, and only the poor, that we learn the Gospel. If the rest of us want to preach the Gospel, we need to do so from our poverty, not our professionalism. I console myself with this sometimes when Year 8 is being difficult and I feel unequal to the task of engaging their imaginations.
Forty years ago, Vanier published a book called Community and Growth which was an enormous influence in my neck of the woods. I began reading it again as I was working on my NCCD documentation. In it, Vanier writes:
Is it possible, though, to accept ourselves with our darkness, weakness, flaws and fear without the revelation that God loves us? It is when we discover that the Father sent his only beloved son not to judge us, not to condemn, but to heal, save and guide us on the paths of love, and to forgive us because he loves us in the depths of our being, that we can accept ourselves. There is hope. We are not imprisoned forever by egoism and darkness. It is possible to love.
This is the language of relationship, not bureaucracy. This is the kind of spirituality for which our teaching really hungers.
About three weeks after my student scoffed at sir’s invisible friend, he told me, to my astonishment, that he had celebrated his Bar Mitzvah the previous Saturday. This is unusual at our school so I urged him to tell the class about it. He spoke about having to read from the Torah in Hebrew. At the end, I asked him why he had chosen to take this significant step.
‘I thought you didn’t believe in my invisible friend.’
The whole class laughed, including the boy.
‘Well, he said. My great grandparents were in the Holocaust. And my grandparents were little kids at that time. They inspired me to do it.’
You could have heard a pin drop, which is rare in Year 8. You could tell the mood of the room was strongly supportive. It was wonderful the boy had connected so powerfully to his tradition, even one with so much pain.
Pain, as Michael Leunig has observed recently, can be sacred ground. It is the place where we meet the young people who struggle the most. We don’t have to be afraid of it and nor do we have to hand it over completely to a bureaucracy to keep it looking neat and tidy.