Students’ morning prayer, in Jalgaon.
At the end of many prayers in which I participate here, I hear and sing, or chant, “shanti, shanti, shanti.” “Peace, peace, peace.” May there be peace in this place, peace for those who hear the bells, peace for our community, peace for the world.
I am always reminded of the prayer of St. Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
How do I pray that, on a smaller scale, when I am still hurt, jaded, and cynical from my classroom teaching experiences? When I cannot say for certain that the schools in which I taught could ever be truly a “safe space”?
And yet, what kind of teacher—or human, or Christian—am I if I give up hope? Sr. Carla Mae once told me that the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is despair.
For the last few months, I’ve been thinking about what happens when teachers “burn out.” I wrote a paper for my multi-religious contemplative capacities course entitled, “Ahimsa Practices for Tramautized/Tramautizing Teachers: How to Restore Peace-full Teaching.” In these three weeks, I’ve been listening carefully to the stories of teachers, and attending to what the schools here feel like. Do the teachers have warmth and regard for their students, or contempt and disdain? Are students energized and joyful, or reciting rote and fearful?
What meditative or restorative practices can heal teachers who work in circumstances where systematic injustices and dehumanizing bureaucracies discourage voice (read: vocation)?
We live in a world where peace feels frequently elusive, impossible, a nice quote to pin on an inspiration board before returning to sarcasm, individual competitiveness, black-and-white thinking, and practices that leave us feeling increasingly dead inside. Gandhi and the Reverend King are heroes, far removed from the kind of daily injustices we face. Unless our voices touch millions, we fear, it’s unlikely for us to see peace—or justice—in our lifetimes.
I had a long conversation with Prof. P. last week. Last year, I attended part of the funeral of his father. Twenty days before his father died unexpectedly, his teenaged nephew drowned. It was a hard summer for his family.
We sat together on a porch in Jalgaon, overlooking green hills and orchards. I told him that I had held his family in my prayers all year, and asked how they were.
Prof. P. mentioned how devout his sister-in-law is, how ordinary and good the lives of his families are, how the thousands drowned in sudden floods were at worship. And yet, he pointed out, thieves and looters live and thrive. We were talking about the problem of theodicy. Both of us used the phrase, “…in this life.” As in, “We just can’t understand the purpose of such loss, in this life.” Or, “…there are different kinds of karma, that we can’t understand, and it doesn’t make sense, the way things happen, in this life.”
I recited again a quote that is dear to me, from the Reverend King: “…the arc of justice is long, but it bends toward mercy.”
Jain cosmology, with its radically different sense of time, reminds me again and again that my mind is finite. The universe, and God, are infinite. Maybe I will be blessed with a few golden glimmers of Truth, of Possibility, where I understand, for one goosebumpy and numinous moment—the bending.
Remember how in A Wrinkle in Time, Charles Wallace thinks he faces evil alone—a quick path to despair.
Mrs. Whatsit shares with him a glimpse of our planet Earth, seen from afar. A dark, pulsing cloud covers most of it. It is like a tumor, a living, present thing. Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who reminds Charles Wallace and his friends that we are one of millions of those who work against the dark, who work knowing their tiny acts of light will not be overcome.
Charles Wallace is surprised; he didn’t realize this battle has been fought long before his particular pain. Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who offer reminders; L’Engle writes:
‘And we’re not alone, you know, children.’ came Mrs. Whatsit, the comforter.
‘All through the universe it’s been fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it’s a grand and exciting battle. I know it’s hard for you to understand about size, but there’s very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that, and maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet, and it’s a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it’s done so well.’
‘Who have our fighters been?’ Calvin asked.
‘Oh, you must know them, dear,’ Mrs. Whatsit said.
Mrs. Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly. “And a light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
‘Jesus!’ Charles Wallace said. ‘Why of course, Jesus!’
‘Of course!’ Mrs. Whatsit said. ‘Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.’
‘Leonardo da Vinci?’ Calvin suggested tentatively. ‘And Michelangelo?’
‘And Shakespeare,’ Charles Wallace called out, ‘and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!’
Now Calvin’s voice rang with confidence. ‘And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!’ (65-66).
The mundane, daily, and systematic examples of injustice work to make us think that our impulses toward community, toward collaboration, and toward life-affirming action are silly, wrong-headed, and bound to fail.
As children of God, we are made to be light-carriers. If we tend to our spiritual selves and work in communities that can help us identify and remember our calling, we are better equipped to work against despair.
Practicing mindfulness may seem a selfish, tiny act—how is cultivating gratitude going to help my students in their poverty and hunger? And yet, we find that over time, the cultivation of a new kind of flexibility in the mind prepares us to be prepared and willing.
From childhood—ourselves threatened and made afraid from nursery school—we have been raised up in a posture of fear and despair. We forget so quickly our true potential. Even understanding that the history upon which we build assumptions may be faulty can change the position of our posture.
In Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink writes, “Learning the history of nonviolence is another way of rehearsing it. Furthermore, our ability to act may depend every bit on our knowledge of nonviolent methods and spirituality as on our fortitude” (300).
If I had to teach again, in such a situation, and I pray I will, I will do the following to begin with. I would teach the history of nonviolence, including the history and voices of those in the American Civil Rights Struggle and for every nation represented by my students. For my own good, as for theirs. I would commit to never using sarcasm, ridicule, or threats with my students—and would be forthright with them why I make this choice, and why it is difficult. I would share this challenge with my teaching peers.
I know from experience that when I have been honest with my students—in joy and humor, and in tricky times, admitting when things are hard and “right answers” far and few between, the energy in the room is one of deep community and connection. I didn’t know that when I engage with young people from my centeredness as a child of God, I am tugging a bit at the veil of despair that conceals our true natures that will help, one day, to upend it forever.
I pray that I will always have hope, and a healthy, noisy, thriving hope that fills my blood with oxygen and keeps me sharp and eager to work. I pray that I can grow in practices that help me see light, help me recognize peace when I see it, and keep me mindful of that arc of justice, ever ending toward the light.
All will be well. We are made for more than competition, poverty, sarcasm, and hopelessness. We are made to be in relationship, to heal one another, broken shard to broken shard, small light to small light.
It’s a good thing to recite “Peace, peace, peace,” many times a day. To take time to sharpen my eyes in looking for it, to reminding myself to not abandon it. I do believe that all will be well, and all shall be well.
I’m not sure how peace will come about, and in what forms it will take, but I trust that arc of justice, bending long to justice. I can see it and feel it, and I will not despair.
Portions of this reflection got their start in a paper I wrote for class in 2011, called, “Lights for Us to See By: A Critical Review of Engaging the Powers.”