Some Heart-Stirrings on Students, Classics, and Teaching

Dear reader,

Long time, no post – sorry about that! But today I feel very moved to put pen to paper (or, rather, fingers to keyboard!) and to share some thoughts with you.

Today my Durham University students are graduating. Now, it’s no secret: I have loved all of my students, every single one of them, through the years. But this is the first group of students I’ve seen complete an entire segment of their education, in this case their undergraduate course. There’s something really special, I think, about watching your students go through a whole stage of their (academic) lives from start to finish. And it’s precious, ‘packed with value’, to get to know their personalities over this years-long period; to be at their side in their classes, growing in learning right alongside them; to ponder with wonder how, before your very eyes, they are coming into their own as scholars and as human persons. How extraordinary the richness of three years spent in the company of the same set of students – and, what’s more, bright, committed, sincere students! Each one is an unmerited but revered grace.

And bright, committed, sincere students they have truly been! How fortunate am I to have tracked the vestiges of the subject I most love, Classics (i.e. all the textures of the ancient Greek and Roman cosmos), with such students, such ‘eager ones’, who, like me, have desired to see the world as it once was, to know these ancient scenes and stories and souls – no matter the fragmented, mediated, enigmatic state in which they have come down to us – for ourselves.

Yes, there are many disciplines (academic and otherwise!) which rightly capture our attention and amazement, but I find something overwhelmingly electrifying and awe-inducing about tapping into the existence and experience of human beings who have come before us. And the Greeks and the Romans seem to me to be just at the point in history, from our perspective along the trajectory, to be both known and unknown, familiar and foreign. To take a step into their reality, and in doing so to discern traces of my own, sends shivers down my spine. To make this time-transcending pilgrimage with others, especially those in my care, especially those who also care, is sublime.

My favorite paean to the study of Classics is in a fiction book called The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Please let me share with you this passage (pgs. 223-224):

“The assignment was a two-page essay, in Greek, on any epigram of Callimachus that we chose. I’d done only a page and I started to hurry through the rest in impatient and slightly dishonest fashion, writing out the English and translating word by word. It was something Julian asked us not to do. The value of Greek prose composition, he said, was not that it gave one any particular facility in the language that could not be gained as easily by other methods but that if done properly, off the top of one’s head, it taught one to think in Greek. One’s thought patterns become different, he said, when forced into the confines of a rigid and unfamiliar tongue. Certain common ideas become inexpressible; other, previously undreamt-of ones spring to life, finding miraculous new articulation. By necessity, I suppose, it is difficult for me to explain in English exactly what I mean. I can only say that an incendium is in its nature entirely different from the feu with which a Frenchman lights his cigarette, and both are very different from the stark, inhuman pur that the Greeks knew, the pur that roared from the towers of Ilion or leapt and screamed on that desolate, windy beach, from the funeral pyre of Patroklos….In a certain sense, this was why I felt so close to the others in the Greek class. They, too, knew this beautiful and harrowing landscape, centuries dead; they’d had the same experience of looking up from their books with fifth-century eyes and finding the world disconcertingly sluggish and alien, as if it were not their home.”

Perhaps this is why I feel so close to, so grateful for, my Durham undergrads, because for three years we, together, looked up from our books with fifth-century eyes.

Perhaps it’s because they, too, find this beautiful and harrowing landscape, centuries dead, somehow precious, ‘packed with value’.

And perhaps it’s because they are very lovable: their good character and friendly heart and earnest intellect have been the mainstay of my happiness in England.

To my Durham undergrads, may all felicity be yours at this milestone! And every good wish for your odyssey ahead. Multum vos amo. To all my students, past and present, I do not forget you and I love you in aeternum. To my future students, I can’t wait to be studious – ‘overflowing with eagerness’ – with you! And, though we haven’t yet met, I love you too.

 

Now that my son is beginning to learn Greek, I have been accompanying him in his studies for a second time, as though I were the same age. For the obligation to ensure that our children find pleasure in literature as well as labour, bids us to become children again.
[Symmachus, Letters 4.20; translation from Gardner and Wiedemann 1991]

 

Via Appia: the Roman road which connects the Italian capital to the eastern port city of Brundisium. Many a wayfarer hath trod these venerable stones since days immemorial; so, Deo gratias, have I.

 

 

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A Piece of My Own Heart

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Dear reader,

I came across this quote recently and was struck by how it calls out our tendency to play the blame game: to point a fault-finding finger at others rather than at ourselves. But its insights go further, because it reminds us that there is both good and evil in every human heart and it challenges us to destroy—I like the definitiveness of that word choice—whatever evil is within us.

The season of Lent is an ideal time to acknowledge the good and the evil in my own heart. I want to identify what is good in me and then work to refine and enhance those virtues. I also want to pinpoint exactly what is corrupt and cruel in me and get rid of it completely.

Is this a spiritual exercise that can be wrapped up in forty days? I don’t think so! But, actually, that’s the point: by dedicating the Lenten period to a serious self-examination and a commitment to self-improvement I can use it to kickstart the building up of lifelong habits and through these habits a better character. And it’s all the more likely to succeed if I begin by taking small but specific, doable steps in the right direction.

So, I have singled out one virtue and one vice in me. Every day of Lent I will do two concrete actions: one which strengthens the virtue and one which roots out the vice.

How will I be held accountable in this effort?

I think the quote above will help, because it seems to me that part of its message is: every person is implicated in the good and evil in our world. Each time I choose virtue I increase the good in our world. Each time I choose vice I add to the evil in our world. Actually, let me be even more explicit: every step I take towards virtue or towards vice affects your life in some way.

So, in the moments when I feel too discouraged, exhausted, or grudging to follow through on my Lenten promise, I will think of you, my reader!

I will remember:

The line dividing good and evil cuts through my heart—Paula’s heart.

And I will ask myself two questions:

Am I willing to take the time and energy to nourish goodness in my heart by practicing virtues like diligence, prudence, and generosity in order to bring you benefit?

Am I willing to destroy a piece of my own heart, the part which gives rise to poisons like resentment, self-aggrandizement, and gossip, for your sake?

The answer to these two questions will always be ‘Yes’. Why? Because I love you, my friend.

In peace and with prayers for a fruitful Lent,
Paula

A Confession of Love

Meek and mild, a destined daybreak gives way
To ten o’clock stirrings within and without.
I lie there, restless, in unsure resolve:
‘I need to speak with you, though I don’t know what to say.’

Then the ado, five floors below along city streets,
Snaps me to my senses: ‘Ah, but the shopping list!’
Higher duties aside, I must go get the vegetables.
Your song on my mind, I take to my feet.

On a rushed promenade market stalls and storefronts jockey for attention.
To one merchant, I cry: ‘These red peppers are just what I’m looking for!’
To another: ‘Two tomatoes and an English cucumber, please.’
To a third: ‘Those herbs over there—for my culinary invention!’

I buy myself flowers—bright tulips—too (why not, after all?)
On this fine, fresh morning, its living breath a delight to inhale,
Still wild and bracing from last night’s rain,
A storm and a flood more within than without as I recall.

A tempting scent drifts dreamily from an entrance just by:
Warm cinnamon buns, which are difficult to decline.
I hop inside and place my order. I wait fitfully, expectantly.
The parcel, a delicate craft, now crumpled in my undisciplined grip, lets out a sigh.

I turn to leave, but, entranced by faultless creations in glassy displays, I linger,
Aching at the sight of their purity—I am not so polished and wholesome as they.
I am dispirited; yet, somehow, the glow and shine of the room comforts and fortifies.
I determine to meet you, finally certain that I cannot be satisfied without you within.

I hurry to your place, and you are home. I knew you would be.
The door is open—it always is—and by call and by choice I walk through.
I am here, at your ceaseless beckoning, to make a confession of love
So that you and I may again be fused into a we.

In an instant of fury and frailty, I burst at first sight:
‘I know I am to blame, but how could you let this happen?’,
A valid question, in its own good time;
But, for now, it’s the moment to set things aright.

The years apart did not defeat you; your yearning did not decay.
You come forward, with quickened, unreserved pace.
‘Forgive me,’ I ask as soon as we are closer.
‘In grasping self-regard, I pushed against and away—
That first step back was folly; all others have a rotten cause.
Curved inward, I withdrew, letting devotion fall into distance, disuse, and despair.
Lacking practice, I lost the will to sacrifice. Memory of your ungrudging gifts receded.
I put myself in prison when I cast you from my kingdom in strange fear of love’s laws.’

True words tumble out, at once familiar and unrehearsed.
‘I’m sorry I didn’t want to change:
Sorry because my self-exile unsettled my soul,
Promising the pain of an atrophied heart and even the long night of a curse,
Sorry too because I abandoned your love, neglecting every chance for amends
And turning a blind eye to your “Yes” forever enduring my “No”.’
Suddenly I feel my hand in yours, just like before. To and through your love in this touch
I respond: ‘I love you too, and I’ll fulfill I-love-you’s demand.’

When I awake the next morning at peace,
The dawn’s newness and calm my own,
Your kiss is still sweet on my lips.
Our song on my mind, I take to my feet.

 

[a original poem by P. D. R.-B.]

Sojourner

I feel very strange. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s a sensation that’s been bubbling up in me lately. It comes on suddenly and leaves me unsteady. It’s an unsureness, an ambivalence. Yes, that’s what it is: an interior force that pushes and pulls in equal measure.

I can’t describe it perfectly, but the ancient Roman poet Catullus gets pretty close:

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio. sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate and I love. Why would I do this, perhaps you ask?
I don’t know. But I feel it happening and I am pained to death.

Okay, maybe the comparison isn’t all that apt. Firstly, I don’t hate and love. That’s not the tension inside me. Instead it’s this: amo et amare non volo. I love and I don’t want to love. Secondly, Catullus is talking about romantic love, but my affection isn’t romantic and its object isn’t an individual.

Quid amo? What do I love? I love this: that I’ve been able to make a life here in Durham, to find a home here, to belong here. My roots have grown deeply in this place and in turn the blossom has flourished.

How did it happen? Nescio. I don’t know! Before coming here I told myself: “Don’t love this experience because its days are counted. You know yourself, Paula. If you let yourself get too attached you’ll be sad when it’s over.” So I mustered resolve and determined not to commit my heart to anyone or anything. Even now a well-meaning instinct still warns me: “Keep your guard up. Don’t waver! The more you bind yourself to this passing time, the more you will pay the price when you have to move on.”

But my defenses have gradually, sweetly, mercifully failed. And, in my final months here, I see that somehow I have become wholeheartedly involved (‘rolled up’, according to the Latin!) in what is only a temporary episode of life. Is it painful to think of the change which awaits? Yes, it is. But it would have been painful to resist the joy that has come with this experience. Better to risk pain by love than pain by hardness of heart.

“Sojourner”

Sojourner,

You love what you must leave.
This is your grief (to be so chained).
While hearts, once charmed, hold fast,
The march forward has been ordained.

‘tween tender bond and break suspended,
Though of two minds you do no wrong.
We can delight in what is worthy,
Mourn its loss when it is gone.

We can too rally our spirits,
When reaching our term’s fixèd end.
Affection’s a perennial bloom,
And its petals shall please us again.

Seize today, sojourner, and hope!

Whene’er they come, this morn or the next,
Let glad moments receive due cheer;
For there’s no telling which may be best:
Past, present, or coming year.

 

 

Credits

Odi et amo… Catullus 85 [English translation by P. D. R.-B.]

“Sojourner”… an original poem by P. D. R.-B.

The Easy Way Out

For Good Friday two years ago I wrote about my favorite person in the Bible: Pontius Pilate. As this Good Friday approaches I find myself dwelling on the person I most dislike in the Bible: Barabbas.

 

Pilate then summoned the chief priests, the rulers, and the people and said to them, ‘You brought this man to me and accused him of inciting the people to revolt. I have conducted my investigation in your presence and have not found this man guilty of the charges you have brought against him, nor did Herod, for he sent him back to us. So no capital crime has been committed by him. Therefore I shall have him flogged and then release him.’

But all together they shouted out, ‘Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us.’ (Now Barabbas had been imprisoned for a rebellion that had taken place in the city and for murder.) [Luke 23:13-19]

 

As a child, whenever I heard this part of the Passion during Holy Week, I would scowl and think, “Barabbas is a bad guy. How could the crowd possibly choose him over Jesus?” And so, year after year, I distanced myself from those impatient, foolhardy people. I was confident that, had I been among their number, I would have done the right thing.

But as I listened to the Passion on Palm Sunday this weekend, I was struck by the suddenly uncomfortable familiarity of the lines, “‘Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us.'” Where did I know them from?

My mind left behind the scene unfolding in Pilate’s praetorium as wave upon wave of memories came flooding back: all those occasions (those countless, unrecoverable encounters!) when my intentions and actions, if not my very words, had rashly and perversely declared:

‘Away with this man!
Release Barabbas to us.’

How often has my heart (my own impatient, willful heart!) shouted out, ‘Away with selflessness! Away with endurance! Away with responsibility! Give me self-regard. Give me gratification. Give me the easy way out’?

How often have I (from the smallest daily decisions to the greatest moments of consequence!) preferred Barabbas to Jesus?

And how often has Jesus (in His mercy without end!) cried out for me, ‘Father, forgive her, she knows not what she does’?

Perfect

Dear reader,

It’s a Friday afternoon, another week of teaching has gone by, and I just need to share. (Thank you in advance for letting me share.)

“I remember a girls’ night with our missionary friends on a cool, clear evening in Soddo. We were playing games and talking, and at one point everyone was asked: ‘What has living in Ethiopia taught you?’ My answer then was: ‘I’m not perfect.'”

Living in Ethiopia was a real eye-opener, a masterclass in learning about my imperfections. No wonder most of my blog posts from that missionary year are about self-improvement.

But do you know what else has taught me that I’m not perfect?

Teaching. Every single hour in the classroom teaches me that I’m not perfect.

Maybe I’m at a stage in life where the big lesson is: “Become aware of your deficiencies.” “Become REALLY aware of your deficiencies.” “ALL OF THEM.”

Deficiencies

 

Maybe this is just a standard part of the growing-up process.

Strangely, my ever-increasing recognition of my inadequacy (and inadequacies) doesn’t stop me from teaching. It doesn’t stop me from loving, loving, teaching. It doesn’t stop me from wanting to do everything, everything, I possibly can to serve my students. On the contrary: even when I’m feeling particularly disheartened, the first thing I do when I leave the classroom is write up my ideas for how to make the next class more successful.

 

I’m not perfect.

 

But I want to be.

 

Until next time, reader, and thank you for reading.

Yours,
Paula

 

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The Fig Tree

Too good a Gospel passage not to share:
 
There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’
 
There is always hope! Always!
 
Prayer for this week: Lord, let me welcome Your gardener, the Holy Spirit, when He comes to till the intractable, barren soils of my heart. May His tender care bring forth a harvest of sincere repentance and joyful service for Your Kingdom.