Education is not just about information. Nor even just about teaching people how to think for themselves. Nor just to gain skills or qualifications for good money and good job. All these are certainly important, but Catholic education, if it is authentic, is so much more. In the light of today’s Word of God, Catholic education can be said to mean teaching people to stay awake and stand ready for Christ who is always coming. To play on the word, education is a great Advent-ure. It is about how to live every dimension of life for Christ, as my final goal and purpose.
The great vision of Isaiah in the first reading about Jerusalem’s future is that all peoples, thus every person, will go up to the Temple so that God will “teach them his ways” and therefore they will “walk in his paths.” We come to Christ to be taught the truth that saves and liberates us and then to walk the walk of that teaching. We are not talking of a school curriculum here, but about the teaching which leads to everlasting life. That is real education.
In the second reading, Paul puts it in terms of moving from the dark to the light, from dark and mistaken or inadequate teaching to the light of Christ’s teaching. It is about divesting self of the irresponsible and excessive behaviour that flows from error and sin, and about putting on, as if a garment, Christ himself.
True education aims at the complete formation of the human person, not just for the here and now but especially for the there and then – for our final end as well as for the common good of society now. People are to be nurtured to develop their physical, moral, intellectual, spiritual gifts harmoniously, to acquire a more perfect sense of responsibility, to learn the right way to use their freedom and to participate in social life.
This is a fuller and more holistic understanding of education. Not a lopsided development of one or a few aspects of the person, however important or useful, but aiming at the development of the whole. While intellectual, physical, and even emotional, development is essential, it is the moral and spiritual dimensions of education which reach the core of the person and draw it out. It is the education of the heart, the conscience, the spiritual potential of the person. It is to these which Christ addresses himself above all. Education is not just about teaching you what to know and how to use it but is supremely about enabling you to know, to choose and to become who you are in God’s sight. And it is in relation to Christ that we come to know who we truly are. We can’t make that up on our own. We can’t become someone Christ did not create. He won’t know that someone. Without Christ, we remain on the edges of ourselves, and our deepest heart and soul remain like undiscovered lands. Whereas He comes to lead us to the deepest centre of ourselves. He reveals us to ourselves in the very process of revealing Himself to us. And he draws us outwards in self-giving love to Himself and to one another.
So there must always be this Advent quality to education. Christ always reaches out to us and He asks, indeed commands, us to stand ready to welcome him. If we imagine education as a wheel, all its different spokes ultimately feed inward to Christ at the hub. To be clear, He would be the last to get in the way of any dimension of our education. With his presence and influence, he will always make them all flourish. Without that hub, much of education will be like a wheel that does not get very far, if anywhere.
It’s no surprise, then, that the monastic schools of the early Middle Ages, which were centred on the worship of Christ in the Eucharist and in prayer, played a key role in the great flourishing of Christian civilization. Many of them became the first universities in the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1120, it was David I, the son of Queen Margaret and King Malcolm Canmore, who opened the first high/grammar school in the British isles at Dunfermline Abbey. Today, Catholic schools are still reckoned as the best in the country. The important thing is that by “best” we don’t just mean exam results. Sadly, the impression often given is that the Catholic schools have lost the fervour of faith they once had. That’s a complex issue which I would not presume to address superficially with a few random comments. There are many arguments for and against Catholic schools and at the very least there should perhaps be an honest public debate in the church about that. The fact remains, however, that Catholicism has always had an innate calling to educate in that fuller sense I already mentioned. Its forms may change due to historical circumstances, but the Catholic mission to teach all nations and baptize them in the name of the Trinity will only end with the Parousia.
Perhaps to focus our thoughts on what this means for us as individuals, a few questions might be in order.
Am I educated for Christ, by Christ, in Christ? Have I given him access to my deepest heart and conscience or do they remain in the dark to a greater or lesser extent? What in me is as yet asleep to Christ, what in me is not ready for his coming? Let’s be honest with ourselves and with Christ and do what we have to do this Advent to welcome him with open arms and open hearts.