A child born,
A farmer’s labor,
A flower burst forth,
A student’s wrestling,
A mind illumined,
A savior’s death,
A people delivered.
A sinner’s repentance,
A soul freed,
And love is made known. ―Jennifer Dow, 2019
What do each of the stanzas in the poem above have in common? What is the same; what is different? Take a moment to consider.
A pattern exists in nature: Work before fruit, sorrow before joy. Learning, scholé, and contemplation are fruits—highly desired fruits, the highest good kind of fruits. But what is the work that precedes them, makes them possible, calls them forth?
True learning, or scholé, requires suffering, requires sorrow. The suffering of the mother in childbirth, the suffering of the tilling of the earth, the suffering of wrestling with an idea, the suffering of our Lord, the suffering of coming to terms with what is and uttering those truths to God. Authentic learning requires suffering because it is made manifest through suffering and sorrow. This is the work that precedes it. Josef Pieper, the author of Leisure: The Basis of Culture, says it this way:
Earthly contemplation means to the Christian, we have said, this above all: that behind all that we directly encounter the Face of the incarnate Logos becomes visible. . . . Contemplation does not ignore the “historical Gethsemane,” does not ignore the mystery of evil, guilt and its bloody atonement. The happiness of contemplation is a true happiness, indeed the supreme happiness; but it is founded upon sorrow. ― Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, “Happiness and Contemplation”
“The happiness of contemplation is a true happiness, indeed the supreme happiness; but it is founded upon sorrow.” This last line is reminiscent of Boethius and his lessons in The Consolation of Philosophy, the journey of the Red Cross Knight in The Faerie Queene, and the journey of the philosopher over the divided line in Plato’s Republic. In all of these instances, contemplation was the highest end of their quest and the joy of the hero who endured that quest: Boethius, the Red Cross Knight, and the philosopher. The pleasure of scholé and contemplation was granted to those who did the hard work of wrestling, repenting, and dying.
In The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius is in despair. He has been wrongfully imprisoned. He believes that because he has been a good man, his life should reflect that goodness. He is sorely misinformed about how the world works. Lady Philosophy comes to him and finds him attended by “crooked muses,” whom she casts away. The only place Boethius’s reflection took him while he was in that state was deeper into despair. Lady Philosophy leads Boethius on a painful journey of repentance to learn who he really is and how the world really works. The truth was buried in darkness within Boethius, and he has to labor in facing his sin and deceptions to see true happiness manifested. This true happiness seems to be wrapped up in contemplation.
He who would track the truth,
And resist false paths,
Must turn back the light of innermost sight.
Guiding reflection into a circle curved round,
Reason finds that what is labored for without
Can be discovered—from a treasury within.
This image once buried in darkness
Dawns forth! ―Boethius, Metrum 11, The Consolation of Philosophy
In The Faerie Queene, the Red Cross Knight goes on a quest for Holiness. His whole journey is marked by his inability to see, which causes him to become captive and to be deceived over and over again. The entire journey climaxes in his battle with Despair. He tries to reason with Despair, but cannot. The only escape is the Faerie Queene herself, Una, who saves him from utter self-destruction. Once freed from Despair, the Red Cross Knight enters the House of Holiness. Within he finds help and his needs relieved, but he must encounter many characters in the house, each with something to teach him: first Humility in order to enter the house, then Zeal, then Reverence, onwards with Fidelity, Obedience, Patience, Amendment, Penance, Remorse, Repentance, Mercy, and finally, Contemplation, in that order. It is Contemplation who at last ushers him into the heavenly city, Jerusalem, the highest happiness and good.
His name was heavenly Contemplation;
of God and Goodness was his meditation
. . .
From thence, far off he unto him did shew
A little path, that was both steepe and long,
Which to a goodly Citty led his view;
Whose wals and twres were builded high and strong
Of perle and precious stone, that earthly song;
Too high a ditty for my simple song;
The citty of the greate king hight it well,
Wherein eternal peace and happinesse doth dwell. ―Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Canto 10
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates outlines “the journey the soul must take up to the intelligible place.” It is the work of the philosopher who must transcend the captivity of the culture, the images we are deceived by, and labor through reason to reach the highest good and pure apprehension of what is a great reward, but not without cost.
. . . this power is in the soul of each, and that the instrument with which it learns—just as an eye is not able to turn toward the light from the dark without the whole body—must be turned around from that which is coming into being together with the whole soul until it is able to endure looking at that which is and the brightest part of that which is. And we affirm that this is the good . . .
The joy of scholé, of contemplation, is nothing less than an encounter with the divine. It is indeed the highest good, a good that has a cost. That cost is a kind of suffering. In other words, it is a work that begins in wonder and ends in worship, but a work nonetheless.
This understanding has everything to do with how we teach, but specifically, it gives us two paths. First, it informs the demeanor we ought to have as educators, and second, it informs our mode of instruction.
If it is true that learning is a kind of good, then it is also true that hard work precedes it. As teachers and parents, we must keep this in mind and allow our students and children to feel the work that will yield the crop. We must resist with all fervency saving our children from suffering and hard things, for this is the very means by which they will come to encounter the good. This shifts our role; instead of savior, we become a mentor. There is only one Savior, and we are not Him. We are best equipped to be a guide, to sit with them in their pain, and to provide the truth that there is a way forward. In other words, we teach them how to suffer well. We teach them how to engage suffering from a view of goodness. We know that if we suffer through doing our math problems, we will eventually see the joy in knowing how to do and see the math. We know that if we keep pressing through trying to understand a book, we will see something we have never seen before, and it will be our joy. Our children do not know that joy is on the other side of suffering, and they do not know how to suffer without falling prey to despair. That is where we come in, with compassion, love, hope, and a vision.
Second, it informs our instruction. Specific methods of instruction nod to this pattern of nature. Any way of teaching that requires students to take in new ideas, wrestle with those ideas, synthesize those ideas, and then embody them in their own voice is a method that gives space for hard work and the subsequent beautiful fruit. It indeed is a work, oriented toward wisdom and virtue. The very pattern and form of teaching methods such as narration, close reading, Socratic teaching, mimetic teaching, and Multum non Multa put our students in a position where they must wrestle and work hard. This is a kind of suffering, but one that is not arbitrary. Rather, it is a kind replete with purpose and goodness, a suffering that makes manifest the goodness and joy we long for the most.
“A student’s wrestling,
A mind illumined,
And love is made known.”
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