ˇ§I am grateful to my students simply because they exist and because they are what they are. I am grateful to You, O God, for having placed me among them and for having told me to be their father. But finally, I am grateful to You, O God, because I am now more often alone. Not that I run away from my students, yet sometimes I do not know myself in them. At other times I find myself in them and with them. Indeed, spiritual direction is sometimes an experiment in recognition: they recognize something new in themselves and I in myself: for You, O God, recognize Yourself in us.ˇ¨ -- Merton, Dialogues with Silence, 99
John Wu, Jr.
This prayer is particularly useful for teachers overly attached to their students. The first two lines, seemingly obscure, reflect the earthy Merton, the monk who, though always a loving teacher, never forgot his own limitations or that of his students. He served as both novice master, who gave enlightening talks and conferences, and as spiritual director.
In an audio tape, Merton good-naturedly complained that many entering the cloistered life in the monastery were not sufficiently prepared for its difficult regimen: the strict observation of silence and prayer. In a funny aside, Merton opined that the young monks were members of the video generation, a familiar complaint today. It is quite a shock to realize he spoke those words some forty years ago, long before the invasion on our lives of personal computers, t. v. cable services and cell phones.
Mertonˇ¦s prayer is helpful to me as teacher as it suggests the pedagogical necessity of knowing when to be active and attached, on the one hand, and passive and detached, on the other. Merton neither praises nor criticizes his students. He simply expresses his gratefulness to God ˇ§for having placed (him) among themˇ¨ and ˇ§to be their father.ˇ¨ Here, he shows his understanding of the fine line between nature and grace. He was confident of his own abilities but at the same time well aware of his faults; his saving grace was the strong awareness as to when, as teacher, he should withdraw from active participation so as to allow Godˇ¦s grace to take over in the studentsˇ¦ formation.
The difference between the secular-minded pedagogue and the teacher concerned with the education of the whole person is that, while the former regards the young in terms of tabula rasa or an empty bottle being filled, the latter, who is able to perceive the interiority in his students, understands there are unseen forces at work in everyoneˇ¦s formation. These forces are so deeply hidden in the person that they are not in our control, they drive nature and culture yet are beyond them, and function best when left alone.
ˇ§Being aloneˇ¨ˇXlife lived in solitudeˇXis the one great gift Merton thought essential to any contemplative calling. Without solitude, which he constantly prayed for, Merton knew he would not have had a vocation. He understood too that without our ability to see the way solitude affects us we could hardly see others as created in Godˇ¦s image, as he believed God speaks most forcefully through solitude. One danger in failing to recognize the importance of the solitary dimension may lie in our falsifying the true self. For, in perceiving ourselves in a limited empirical and utilitarian way, we shrink our being and all of life by fashioning identities we were never meant to have.
Merton is taoistic in his treatment of students. One sees a refreshing ˇ§caring- without-caringˇ¨ attitude in which he is careful not to extend his concern beyond the point that would make him meddle in their lives and inadvertently spoil natural development. We fail as teachersˇXperhaps, even more so as parentsˇXwhen we lose our knack for this wu-wei of teaching: teaching as if we were not teaching. Mertonˇ¦s attitude hints that the best teachers are those who do not flatter nor give excessive praise or blame. The teacher does his work, withdraws, and allows Godˇ¦s grace to do the rest.
To me, the words, ˇ§ˇKsometimes I do not know myself in themˇ¨ might refer to generational, intellectual and cultural differences that set the teacher apart from his pupils. Yet, no matter how distinct such differences are, they ought to be respected. The very next line, ˇ§At other times I find myself in them and with them,ˇ¨ suggests the very rare and, therefore, precious and joyous times when out of the depths of our shared solitude and experience, we are together lifted out of the ordinary into some realm of Light in which students ˇ§recognize something new in themselves and I in myself.ˇ¨ These are the great moments in learning that come unexpected when teacher and students are together enlightened. No formulas can bring them about for they come in a flash and effortlessly.
The last lineˇXˇ§for You, O God, recognize Yourself in usˇ¨ˇXis mystical and suggests one reason for our existence: that our participation in lifeˇXwhether actively or contemplativelyˇXis totally essential in the unfolding of Godˇ¦s Plan for us. Mertonˇ¦s wonderful words strongly hint that God needs us as much as we need Him. We need Him for everything; yet, He needs us to fulfill our being so that He may come to recognize ever more fully the beauty and significance of His creation. We are not God but, perhaps in some faintly similar fashion, we too need our students and all those the Lord has placed in our midst to help us come to our true selves.
What inexplicable joy it must be to God ˇ§to recognize (Himself) in us,ˇ¨ especially in His being consoled that His creation, after all, has not been in vain! If Our Lord is indeed a Personal God, could we not say His needs are infinitely greater than ours?
As teachers and parents we play the enormously important role not only of guiding the young to their natural and cultural ends; but as Christians we are also responsible for bringing them to the place of grace where they may be transformed by Christ.