After my first few weeks of classes teaching new undergraduate students, I am reminded once again, as I always am at the beginning of each school year, of what an awesome privilege it is to have the opportunity to invite students, through the study of theology, to reflect more deeply on God, themselves, and the world around them, and to plumb at greater depths both the Mystery of God and the purpose of their own existence. As I listen to them and hear the ‘beat’ of the fast-paced, frenetic, noisy, pressured world they inhabit, I am offered, not just the challenge of it all, but another glimpse of God’s infinite immensity in the uniqueness of each young person in my classroom.
This is why I was so struck by a reflection that came across my desk as the semester began. It was written by Fr. Bill Harmless, S.J., currently professor of theology at Creighton University, on the occasion of his 25th year of ordination. Several years ago, while teaching in the Summer Institute of Christian Spirituality at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, where Fr. Bill taught full-time for many years, I came to know the affection and high esteem in which this distinguished theologian and historian of early Christianity was held. In the passage I would like to share below, Fr Bill, in his typical pedagogical fashion, invokes St Augustine, capturing the universality of the experience awaiting all teachers in the young and beautiful faces that, from Augustine’s time to ours, have proclaimed God’s glory:
Over the last 25 years, I have taught some 5000 undergraduates, not to mention the thousands of others in various talks, workshops, and conferences. I have devoted myself especially to teaching college freshmen, who are beginning their adulthood. Teaching brings inestimable joys every day. As a teacher, I take both consolation and certain cues from St. Augustine, the 5th-century North African bishop and one of the great theologians in the history of Christianity.
Augustine was deeply attuned to the needs of beginners and once composed a brilliant little treatise entitled On Teaching Beginners (De catechizandis rudibus). In it, Augustine stressed that teaching beginners is both a noble task and an intricate artform. He reminded his readers of the experience of taking friends on a tour of one’s hometown and the nearby countryside, noting how “we, who have been in the habit of passing this landscape by without any enjoyment, find our own delight renewed by their delight at the novelty of it all.” And if, he added, long familiarity has cooled our enthusiasm, then we should be “renewed in their newness” and “catch fire in their fire.”
And so, how much more should we catch fire when people come to us to learn of God. Good teaching, he believed, springs from a profound heart-felt sympathy between teacher and learner: “For so great is this feeling of compassion that when people are touched by us as we speak and we by them as they learn, we dwell each in the other, and so it is as if they speak in us what they hear while we, in some way, learn in them what we teach.” I agree with Augustine: Beginners are the best of teachers; they renew us in their newness, and all that we do, we do for love.
Peggy McDonald, I.H.M.