The Holiness of Teaching

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2007
Reproduced with Permission

Teaching is a holy profession. In fact, teaching is activity that endures forever; for the teacher imitates the angels, who see the face of God and, at the same time, generously pour out all they receive into the lower angels, filling and elevating them as much as their natures will allow.

Pseudo-Dionysius speaks of this angelic outpouring and uplifting. He writes: "It is right too that those who give illumination - those minds clearer than the others, joyfully full of the sacred radiance, and obviously able both to receive the light and to pass on what they acquire - that these should spread their overflowing light everywhere among those worthy of it. …And so it comes about that every order in the hierarchical rank is uplifted as best it can toward cooperation with God."

After teaching on the angelic hierarchy, a student of mine, puzzled, wondered whether there would be any jealously among the ranks. Of course, the key to her dilemma is the supernatural charity that is the very life of the angels; for they burn with the fire of divine charity, and they desire to give all they have so that others will enjoy all that they enjoy, and more - if that were possible. And so there is no envy among the angels. In fact, love desires to have others to look up to, and it desires that others, who might be lacking, have more than what it currently possesses. What mother does not want her children to have a better life than she ever enjoyed?

That is why heaven is hierarchical. Pseudo-Dionysius writes: "The goal of a hierarchy, then, is to enable beings to be as like as possible to God and to be at one with him. A hierarchy has God as its leader of all understanding and action. It is forever beholding the beauty of God directly….Hierarchy causes its members to be images of God in all respects, to be clear and spotless mirrors reflecting the glow of primordial light and indeed of God himself. It ensures that when its members have received this full and divine splendor they can then pass on this light generously and in accordance with God's will to beings further down the scale."

Good teaching is driven by generosity, which is why being a good teacher - one who loves his students more than himself - can at times be frustrating; for it takes a great deal of time before students can fully appreciate certain truths, but the teacher wants much more for the student than the student is able to take in at the moment.

Nevertheless, ideas that are in themselves difficult and take time to understand are one thing; simple ideas shrouded in a language designed to hide their meaning, to make them appear as lofty and inaccessible as possible, are quite another.

I cannot boast of many virtues, but I do believe I was always a very patient student. I was seldom perturbed when I'd read something I didn't quite understand at first. I'd simply return the book to the shelf with the intention of returning to it later - perhaps a few years later - to try again. And that usually worked for me, whether I was reading Kant, Hegel, VonBalthasar, or Heidegger, etc. But what I'd discovered - after finally "cracking the code" of some of these authors - was that what I was reading could have been said more simply and that had it been more clearly written, I'd have understood it the first time, without having to put the book down.

About twenty years ago I was surprised to find a colleague of mine reading Mother Theresa. He'd spent a great deal of time meditating on her reflections on suffering, the cross, joy, poverty, etc. So I'd decided to look into what it was that captivated him so much. Doing so opened up a whole new theological perspective for me, for it was very obvious that when Mother Theresa wrote on suffering and the mystery of the cross, she wrote from the profoundest depths of her suffering soul. It became apparent to me that her reflections were of a different quality than those of some of the most celebrated theologians of the 20th century - her writings exhibited a thickness and inspirational value that was missing in the latter. Most importantly, however, I'd come to the realization that the theologians I'd spent so much time in my younger days reading and re-reading were in fact no more profound than Mother Theresa, and that the best of what they had to say could have been said much more simply, clearly, and far less pretentiously.

As an example, consider the following excerpt from a theologian many consider to be the greatest in the 20th century:

The centaur-like nature of the human being manifests something uncompletable which points beyond it to a manner of integration which is for it undiscoverable by it alone - which is formally sketched and negatively framed in the relation to God. The manner of fulfillment, however, is left open and, indeed, must be left open, if the relationship between God and humanity is to be determined and shaped in its dialogical drama by God alone.

Allow me to translate: "Oh, Lord, you made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee."

Once a person learns to swim in the current of the abstruse and "poetic" discourse of such writers - which can take many years -, it becomes evident that it is not nearly as esoteric as it appeared at first read. Consider the following from Gabriel Marcel, a 20th century Catholic philosopher:

In order to throw more light on the direction of our quest, I should like to insist strongly that what matters for us is to elucidate our own meaning when we say, for instance, that we are guided by the love of truth, or that somebody has sacrificed himself for the truth. Let us ask ourselves what condition, even and perhaps above all what negative condition, such assertions must satisfy if they are to have a meaning. It is obvious at a first glance that a traditional formula, such as 'truth is the adequation of the thing and the intellect', whatever its theoretic value may be, is by no means suited to throw light on such assertions. There would be no meaning in saying that somebody had died for the adequation of the thing and the intellect. This in itself serves to show that the idea of truth has a fundamental ambiguity. Let us take it for the present that we are applying ourselves to the consideration of truth in so far as truth is a value; it is only under this aspect that truth can become 'something at stake'".

In other words, we don't give up our lives for a definition (i.e., the definition of truth), rather, we commit ourselves, sacrifice ourselves, etc., for real persons, because the deepest truth about man has something to do with love, as Christ revealed.

Finally, consider the following excerpt from Simone Weil, a 20th century French philosopher and "mystic":

Only the absolute identification of justice and love makes the coexistence possible of compassion and gratitude on the one hand, and on the other, of respect for the dignity of affliction in the afflicted - a respect felt by the sufferer himself and the others. It has to be recognized that no kindness can go further than justice without constituting a fault under a false appearance of kindness. But the just must be thanked for being just, because justice is so beautiful a thing, in the same way as we thank God because of his great glory. Any other gratitude is servile and even animal.

What does it mean in simpler terms? I have absolutely no idea at this point, and since I don't quite have the patience I had when I was young, I will probably be as in the dark later as I am now.

But a very important aspect of teaching is making accessible to students what is otherwise inaccessible and obscure. Genuine teachers, such as Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Etienne Gilson, Walter Farrell, Mortimer J. Adler, Fulton Sheen and the like, are generous and want more for their students than they want for themselves, specifically, that those students possess all they have and more, and it is this love that drives their determination to explicate, clarify, simplify, expound, repeat, make comparisons, employ analogies, etc., without any concern that others will eventually see that they are not the inexhaustible well of knowledge and wisdom dwelling in virtually inaccessible light that students might tend to think they are.

Each angel is its own species, and so a superior and inferior angel will remain so forever, at least in relation to one another. If, however, any kind of envy is to be found among the angels, it might be an envy of human persons, particularly of their ability to partake of the sufferings of Christ as well as a human teacher's ability to create the conditions so others may in the end receive more than what he enjoys; for good teaching is fuelled by a charity that chooses to endure and suffer daily so that students can achieve heights hitherto inaccessible to the teacher. Hence, the reason teaching is a particularly holy profession.