Catholic Education as Pilgrimage

Go as a Pilgrim

            There are whole shelves full of travel literature—odysseys, hegiras, journeys, travelogues, picaresques (or novels of the road), guide books for tourists and vacationers, and more specifically, “pilgrimage literature.” It nearly goes without saying that a reason for the enormous amount of non-fiction travel literature and the surfeit of fictional travels is that the metaphor of a journey for our movement through life is clear and well understood. It should be the model for Catholic education.

            Dante begins his great Commedia with the line, “Midway in our life’s journey…” thereby setting off on a great journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise.  Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with its 30 pilgrims heading to the Shrine of Thomas a Becket and swapping tales, is famous. But, the most popular book of the late 17th century, and the book that is thought to be the most translated English language book in the world, is one that is little known in contemporary America—it is Pilgrim’s Progress and is by a preacher, John Bunyan.  Though virtually unread today, parts of the book exist in vestigial fashion in our notion of the world as “vanity fair” which draws us away from higher pursuits (it is also the title of Thackeray’s great novel and of a popular magazine) and such phrases as “the slough of despond” and “the straight and narrow.” The book is an allegory about the trip of “Christian,” an every-person, from this world to the next.  The language is simple and plain, the events are easy to recount, and the journey is recognizable.  The book asks us to adopt the posture or role of pilgrim and that is what I am asking you to do. To go as a pilgrim is different from going as a vacationer, a tourist, or a business traveler.  When one goes as a pilgrim one is open to a spiritual transformation—a metanoia—and one goes on a pilgrimage expecting to be changed.

            An educational philosopher once observed that a good education teaches critical thinking, encourages service, and models excellence, but that a great education does all that and “touches the soul.” We should never settle for giving our students less than a great education—but the only way to do that is to go as a pilgrim ourselves—and to ask, cajole, and convince our students to go as pilgrims on their journey through life.

            There are other ways of undertaking the educational journey; the student vacationer is one who comes here expecting to be entertained—whose attitude towards the school assumes that the experience is ephemeral; vacations don’t last forever.  Anyone who has been on vacation with a teenager will recognize that the common complaint about the vacation is likely to echo the common complaint about school; “I’m bored.” There is a sense of just passing through as they head on—or back to—“real life.” The student vacationer may bring back mementos of the trip but is not fundamentally altered by it.

            The student business traveler is one who often takes school seriously but does not let it touch him profoundly.  He wants to get what he believes he needs from trip.  If he is interested in business or science or math he will often ask about Theology or literature or art—“Why do I have to take this?” I can often identify these students on their senior exit interviews where they are critical of anything we did that did not advance a personal cause of theirs. Perhaps the most common comment from this student is “Will this be on the test?” If something is not test-worthy, the reasoning goes, it is not worth knowing.

            The student tourist sees education as a journey to unfamiliar territory and depending on his attitude his approach can range from acquiescence (“I’m going because I’m expected to go here”) to a bemused tolerance (“you’re taking me to another museum?!”) to a sort of hostility (“you cannot make me go to another educational site”) to a sort of provincialism that borders on anti-intellectualism—characterized by the “I can’t believe that they use chopsticks here/drive on the left side of the road/eat [insert local cuisine]!”).

            On the teacher side of the desk you have the same kinds of travelers. The teacher vacationer is a rarity.  This person is not in teaching as a destination but as a way-station on their way somewhere else, he or she is slumming it while waiting for law school maybe.  The Onion did a funny piece one time on Teach for America participants as teacher vacationers. They imagined a kid writing in and complaining that he was part of someone’s narrative of how she helped poor minority kids on her way to her political career.  Some of those who move on from teaching really did think they were teachers and then they found out differently—but there are some who teach and immediately know that they are marking time until they go to “the real world.”

            The teacher business traveler is certainly more common than the vacationer.  But this person typically believes that he or she would do the same job in any school.  The context or mission of the school, its history and traditions make no difference because the teacher business traveler is only concerned about the transactional nature of teaching and—along a scale of poor to proficient—will do the job assigned. The teacher business traveler will often ask why we need to have assemblies or pep rallies, will question the value of community service (or praise it as long as it doesn’t affect homework), thinks that anything outside of his or her range of academic responsibility—sports, music, drama, social functions, development, etc., is a waste of time.

            The teacher tourist—or tour guide directs the student tours and is mildly concerned whether the tour group is pliable or hostile—he would prefer pliable—but  realizes he is getting paid whether the tour group has a good time or not, learns anything or not. The teacher tourist is often knowledgeable about the subject area he or she is presenting but that knowledge does not reflect a consuming passion with the subject but rather a view that is cool and expert. This kind of teacher almost functions as a docent in the museum of education.

            The pilgrim teacher travels with students and expects to be transformed in the process of leading the pilgrimage. She expects to take her students to a sacred space of biology or ethics or pre-calculus and she expects to help them adopt an attitude of reverence. No pilgrim teacher or pilgrim student expects the journey to be easy or smooth or obvious. What they do expect is that they will have a shared sense of purpose and openness to transformation. The pilgrim teacher realizes that many of the students may be vacationers, business travelers, or tourists—but that the goal is to help them become pilgrims.

            A pilgrimage usually has three-stages.  Part 1 is a “separation” from the current world—the start of the journey. On many pilgrimages this actually takes the form of adopting simple clothing that everyone on the pilgrimage will wear. The second part is called the “liminal stage” and involves the journey itself.  Part 3 is called “reaggregation” or the homecoming. Key to the pilgrimage experience is the bonding together with other pilgrims—having the shared experience with them. Significantly, a pilgrimage is an experience that provides a “temporary release from social [status] and a strong sense of … community or fellowship.” (Catholic Encyclopedia on “Pilgrimage”) Think of how well this fits with the academic enterprise as we hope to practice it in Catholic schools.  We separate students from the ordinary world (and we often dress them alike!); we accompany students on the journey itself; and we return to the world—whether at the end of each period, each semester, or each year, changed by the experience. On our journey, we put aside differences and focus on what we have in common.

            Alfred North Whitehead, the great British polymath, wrote a wonderful series of essays collected in The Aims of Education. He says there that “all education should be religious….  A religious education,” writes Whitehead “is an education which inculcates duty and reverence. Duty arises from our potential control over the course of events. Where attainable knowledge could have changed the issue, ignorance has the guilt of vice. And the foundation of reverence is this perception, that the present [moment] holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backwards and forwards, that whole amplitude of time, which is eternity.” We are fortunate in Catholic schools to have a clear mission that reminds us that we serve something larger than ourselves.

            Our students stay with us for a semester or a year—we often recognize that our pilgrimage with them is finite—but the gift of making them pilgrims is permanent. Ursula LeGuin, the terrific American fantasist, has numerous stories of travelers, and in one, she writes, “It’s important to have an end to journey to, but it’s the journey that matters, in the end.”

            Be a pilgrim, go as a pilgrim.  Take your students with you to sacred spaces and model for them reverence for your subject and the way it reveals the truth.  Be a pilgrim, go as a pilgrim.  Show your students that “A pilgrimage is a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance.” Do not let them settle for being vacationers, business travelers, or tourists.  Our goal is to adopt the attitude of pilgrims and accompany each other on a great journey to an encounter with the sacred.  If we do that, we will achieve the metanoia that separates the great education from the good.

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