14 January 2012

St Cyril, Leisure, & the Teaching Vocation

In thinking about what I can start posting here, I realised that one order of business might be to get a few more homilies up. I intend to try posting them in chronological order, in which case I shall begin with a little talk I gave on St Cyril the Apostle-to-the-Slavs at our faculty in-service training over the summer.

I'd like to talk today about our vocation as teachers, but focusing on an often neglected dimension of that vocation.

In the mid-9th c., a young man from Thessalonica named Constantine completed his university studies in the capitol of the East Roman (or Byzantine) Empire--Constantinople. He had been a student of the empire's best teachers, including St Photius the Great, who was directly responsible for the preservation of much of the ancient Greek literature now extant. [1] Constantine received a thorough classical education. Having mastered grammar:

He studied Homer and geometry with Leo [the Mathematician], and with Photius dialectic and all the branches of philosophy, and together with these rhetoric, arithmetic, astronomy, music; and all the other ancient Greek sciences. . . . Speed went hand in hand with diligence, for it is thus that knowledge and science are perfected. [2]

In a viva voce examination by Theoctistus, the imperial Logothete (i.e., 'Secretary of State'), Constantine was addressed:

'Philosopher, I should like to know what philosophy is.' To this, Constantine replied without hesitation: 'Knowledge of things human and divine, insofar as Man is able to approach God, for it teaches Man by his actions to become the image and likeness of his Creator.' [3]

Much could be said about this answer--in fact, there is a whole scholarly article about it that our future school librarian, Chris Rosser, was kind enough to obtain for me [4]--but here I shall make just a few comments (I've made others here).

First, Constantine's answer does not imply a so-called 'works-righteousness', since the 'actions' to which he refers consist first and foremost in turning to the Lord in repentance and calling on His grace. Second, the language of the response itself, is the epitome of the classical Christian tradition. Constantine is not making this up, but reciting something he has memorised. Third, the response shows the linking of knowledge and action, and, although the teacher is not mentioned, the connection of both with teaching and learning.

We shall come back to this last point later; for now, let's focus on Constantine himself. We know that the Logothete Theoctistus intended the young man for a brilliant political career--but this he flatly refused, insisting that he was interested in wisdom and knowledge alone. At this point, I should point out for all of you that Constantine went on to become famous for something very practical indeed: today he is known all over the world as St Cyril, the Apostle-to-the-Slavs. He produced the first translations of the Scriptures and Church services into the Slavonic language, bringing not only the Gospel to the Slavic peoples, Bulgarians, Serbs, Russians, etc.), but literacy itself by inventing the Glagolitic alphabet and the Old Church Slavonic literary language. For this, St Cyril has been called 'a linguistic genius' who ranks 'among the greatest philologists Europe has ever produced', [5] though his well-trained students eventually replaced the esoteric and hermetic characters of Glagolitic with an adaptation of the Greek alphabet named after their teacher.

But my point is this: St Cyril didn't set out from college to become a missionary and 'CHANGE THE WORLD!', as George Grant would say in one of his ACCS talks. Right out of college, the first thing St Cyril did was to go to a monastery for six months. He did briefly accept a position teaching philosophy, and served as a kind of missionary attaché to a diplomatic mission to the Arabs (whom he dazzled with his learning), but then he went to a second monastery where he and his brother, St Methodius, spent several years.

The real point of this talk about St Cyril is precisely these monastic interludes. Why did he do this? More importantly, what can we learn from him as educators?

In his magisterial study, The Christian Philosophy of S Thomas Aquinas, the great French historian of mediaeval philosophy, Étienne Gilson, writes:

Man can choose only between two kinds of life, the active and the contemplative. What confers special dignity on the functions of the Doctor [teacher] is that they imply both of these two kinds of life, properly subordinated the one to the other. The true function of the Doctor is to teach. Teaching (doctrina) consists in communicating to others a truth meditated beforehand. It demands of necessity both the reflection of the contemplative in order to discover the truth, and the activity of the professor in order to communicate his findings to others. But the most remarkable thing about this complex activity is that there is an exact correspondence between the higher and the lower, between contemplation and actions. . . .

In the first place, it is clear that the activity of the Doctor is not superimposed artificially upon his contemplative life. Rather, it finds its source in his contemplation and is, so to speak, its outward manifestation. [6]

I read these words while sitting on my front porch on a peaceful summer's day shortly after school ended (and before the real heat wave began!), and I've been thinking about them all summer. When Mr Carr asked me to speak at In-service on a topic of my choosing, I thought about these words, then I thought about St Cyril. St Cyril went to monasteries to engage in contemplation--which he drew upon in his active teaching among students in the capitol, among Arabs, Khazars, his close disciples and missionary companions, the Slavs, and others.

This distinction between 'action' and 'contemplation' goes back to ancient Greek philosophy. It was taken up by the Church Fathers, who saw it embodied in the story of Ss Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. But the Fathers by and large seem to have used these words in a different sense to the Thomistic tradition as represented by Gilson. For the Fathers, and therefore for St Cyril who deeply imbibed them, 'action' is not merely the 'hustle and bustle' of life, but a struggle for virtue and purification from the passions. It is therefore a preparation for contemplation. According to Bl Theophylact of Ochrid, St Martha of Bethany represents 'active virtue', but so do Christ's feet at which St Mary sits, so by sitting St Mary has already attained active virtue. Furthermore, 'contemplation' is not merely 'thinking' (and I realise it is not merely this for Aquinas either), but praying and ultimately encountering God Himself, especially in 'vision'. In St Luke's Gospel, St Mary 'contemplates' Christ--she gazes at Him, listening to His words. [7]

In the Patristic sense, St Cyril is engaging in both action and contemplation at the monastery--and as Christian teachers, it is important for us as well to do both. We must struggle to acquire the virtues ourselves on the one hand, and we must pray and encounter God on the other, hoping eventually to see Him 'face to face'. Deep participation in the divine life is the goal we aim for as well as the font from which we draw in incarnating Christ in the lives of our students, in teaching the Bible, in leading prayer, in loving others, etc.

But Gilson points the way to a more prosaic interpretation of these terms, as well as of St Cyril himself, and therefore of the teaching profession. It is not fortuitous that I did this reading and thinking during the summer. The summer is a time of 'leisure' for teachers, and leisure, even a little bit, is necessary for contemplation. Another Thomist philosopher, Josef Pieper, connects the two when he points out that the 'Christian concept of the "contemplative life" was built on the Aristotelian concept of leisure'. [8] The purpose of leisure, in fact, is contemplation: ultimately, 'gazing' at God, prayer and worship (doxology, celebration of feasts), but also the more prosaic 'thinking' on truth, study, etc. We often think that the purpose of leisure is to 'unwind', 'veg out', or 'relax' after work in order to be refreshed to go back. But Pieper argues that this idea is the product of the modern materialistic culture and our slavery to work:

Now leisure is not there for the sake of work, no matter how much new strength the one who resumes working may gain from it; leisure in our sense is not justified by providing bodily renewal or even mental refreshment to lend new vigor to further work--although it does indeed bring such things!

As contemplation, so leisure is of a higher rank than the vita activa. [9]

In other words, leisure and contemplation are goods per se, they are the highest activity of man. They are good for us as human beings, making us more fully human, and not beasts of burden. But of course, they are also good for our work, and especially for teaching. Indeed, leisure and contemplation--even in the less spiritual and more intellectual or philosophical sense of just reading and thinking--are crucial to our vocation as teachers. Reading, quiet time on porches, conversation with each other, and academic conferences (especially the CiRCE Institute conference, where there were no 'workshops' on bulletin boards, just steady reflection on the theme 'What is Man?'!) need no justification. They are not work, but we draw upon them in our work.

As an illustration, and apropos of my reference to the CiRCE conference, in a session on 'Mimetic Teaching and the Cultivation of Virtue' Andrew Kern described a Christian interpretation of 'mimetic teaching':

First: Truth is the aim.
Second: the soul must be like, i.e. be conformed to, compatible with, the Truth.
Third: to be perceived the Truth must be embodied.
Fourth: this embodiment is then imitated.
Fifth: in this way Truth is known per se (the embodiment becomes transparent). [10]

The teacher's knowledge of Truth must be gained through some kind of contemplation (requiring leisure). The teacher embodies the Truth, the student imitates, the student knows the Truth. It is a pattern that can be applied to all kinds of objects and methods of contemplation, from St Paul's 'Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ' (I Cor 11:1), to using Lucy Pevensie to illustrate childlike faith, to letting Kindergarteners do arithmetic with beans.

To return at last to St Cyril, the monastery in Asia Minor was the shady porch where he spent his summer reading deep, thought-provoking books; his Glagolitic alphabet and the translations of the Gospels and liturgy he produced were the lesson plans (or in-service talk notes) born out of that deep reflection; the barbarian lands of Eastern Europe were his classroom and the barbaric Slavs themselves his students (hard to see the analogy, I know!). And what students they turned out to be! While Christians in the West have by and large remained woefully ignorant of the 1200-year Christian Tradition among the Slavs, suffice to say it has produced countless giants of the life in Christ as well as of Christian culture, art, and literature. St Cyril and his brother, St Methodius, really did 'change the world', but not by setting out to do so. They spent less time 'strategising' and more time reflecting on what man is. Theirs was an activity born out of profound contemplation.

[1] L.D. Wilson & N.G. Reynolds, Scribes & Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek & Latin Literature, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976), p. 57.

[2] Qtd. in Anthony-Emil N. Tachiaos, Cyril & Methodius of Thessalonica: The Acculturation of the Slavs (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2001), p. 25.

[3] Tachiaos, p. 27.

[4] Ihor Ševčenko ‘The Definition of Philosophy in the Life of Saint Constantine [Cyril]’, For Roman Jakobson: Essays on the Occasion of His Sixtieth Birthday, 11 October, 1956, comp. Morris Halle, Horace G. Lunt, Hugh McLean, and Cornelis H. Van Schooneveld (The Hague, 1956), pp. 449-57.

[5] Sir Dimitri Obolensky, Byzantium & the Slavs (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1994), p. 207.

[6] Étienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, tr. L.K. Shook, CSB (London: Victor Gollancz, 1957), pp. 3-4.

[7] Bl Theophylact of Ohrid, The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact, Archbishop of Ochrid and Bulgaria of the Holy Gospel According to St Luke, Vol. III of Bl. Theophylact’s Explanation of the New Testament, tr. Fr Christopher Stade (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom, 1997), pp. 121-2.

[8] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, tr. Gerald Malsbary (South Bend, IN: St Augustine's Press, 1998), p. 5.

[9] Pieper, p. 34.

[10] This is based on my notes from Kern's talk.


Ivan said...

I fully agree. I hear from my boss that we go away to recharge so we can hit hard next semester, all over again. I've never agreed that this was the reason. Leisure is fulfilling in and of itself, provided you are pursuing actual aims and not just "vegging out."

Thanks for sharing.

Aaron Taylor said...

Good to hear from you, Ivan! I think you'd be hard put to find a handful of people these days who would get this, or even, given the presuppositions involved, be capable of understanding it or being persuaded of it.