Love and Education

On Father’s Day, I posted a piece on God’s paternal love for us, drawing from both the Hebrew Scriptures (Ex 34:6-8) and the New Testament (Lk 15:11-32). Recently, I read a presentation delivered by Pope Francis, then Cardinal Bergoglio, entitled “The Educational Process” which describes the relationship between teacher and student in similar terms. In this paper, Pope Francis describes the difficulties which teachers, especially college and university professors, can encounter that derive from the contemporary culture which we inhabit. These difficulties include facing special interests within the educational system which “are alien to education itself,” and the ever-increasing phenomenon of the participants in the educational process (i.e., students, teachers, and parents) becoming disengaged with their own formation and the formation of those in their charge. “We have become spectators,” Pope Francis writes, “and ceased to be protagonists of our personal history and our life.”

Supper at EmmausTo bridge these divisions, Pope Francis proposes a pedagogy of “encounter.” By this he means that the educational process ought to be characterized by a type of love. Drawing from the New Testament, and the Greek learning inherited by the early Church, Pope Francis distinguishes between three types of love. Eros is a type of love which seeks its own satisfaction. Naturally, it has come to be associated with romantic love but is certainly not limited to that sphere. Whenever we have a deep desire which seeks consummation – and many of the mystics speak of the transformation and sanctification of this desire for God – it is, so to speak, erotic. Agape, on the other hand, is a type of love which is self-sacrificing. It expects nothing in return, but wills the good of the other. Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross is the example par excellence of agapic love; so much so that, in the early Church, the commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist was referred to as the ‘love (agape) feast.’

School of AthensBut education is not built upon either of these senses of love. A third type of love, which is the foundation of a pedagogy of “encounter,” is philia. Derived from the Greek word for ‘friend,’ philia is a love which is neither totally self-seeking nor totally self-sacrificing. Rather, philial love is given with the expectation of reciprocity; thereby forming a communion of persons. “It is a love of relationship,” Pope Francis writes, “participation, communication, and friendship.” Pope Francis is not advocating, however, that professors become “BFF’s” with their students. Philial love in this context is characterized by a concern for the good of the student and a recognition of the good in the teacher. It is much closer to the relationship between a parent and a child than the relationship of peers to each other. It is, one might say, covenantal.

Pope Francis sees this love as the foundation of a pedagogy of “encounter” because it is only within this type of friendship that both teacher and student can “encounter” each other as persons. Within this friendship, the student is not simply ‘student x,’ but Joseph. The teacher is not simply ‘my professor for subject y,’ but Dr. Mary. Again, as Pope Francis writes: “For this educational encounter to happen, we teachers […] need affection. Trust in your affection. Love what you do and love your students.”

Christs Charge to PeterIn closing, the type of love which Pope Francis speaks of as the foundation of education is most uniquely illustrated at the end of St. John’s Gospel (21:15-19). After his glorious resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. Naturally, and as one reads in every scriptural commentary on this passage, Jesus asks this question of Peter three times as a way of redeeming Peter’s three denials of him on Holy Thursday. But what is lost to the English reader is that Jesus asks Peter if he ‘loves’ (agapas) him twice. The final question to Peter is: “Do you love (phileis) me?” In other words, Jesus twice asks Peter if he would sacrifice himself for him, but on the third occasion he asks Peter: “But are we friends?” It is not enough for Peter to repent of his denials by offering himself for Jesus. No. In order to “tend Jesus’ sheep,” the two must have an active, living relationship: a friendship. In order to form others in Christ, one cannot simply view one’s ministry as a sacrifice. There must be present a friendship with Christ that one wishes to share with others. Similarly, a true education cannot be founded solely upon the idea of serving the other – let alone the simple communication of data – but upon a living and relational encounter: a friendship.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Forget the Past and Push On to What is Ahead

During my doctoral studies in Rome, when the going got rough, I would head over to the church of Sant’Agostino near Piazza Navona to ask Saint Monica’s intercession. Monica is buried at the church named for her son, and she is for me a source of inspiration for what it means to grow in holiness.

Monica_of_Hippo_by_GozzoliWhat I learned from Monica is why the church honors many of its sons and daughters with the title of “saint.” Their lives really have a timeless dimension that teaches, inspires and encourages Christians in every age. Monica, whose feast we celebrate today, is a testimony to the strength that comes in keeping God at the center of one’s life and making God one’s reference point in all things—in other words—never losing sight that holiness is the journey of life.

Whenever I am asked to lecture on the theme of the universal call to holiness, I begin by asking people to name people who they think are models of holiness. Always, always, Mother Theresa is the first or second to be named (no surprise there)! As names are added, we move from saints, to loved ones, to friends, but never does anyone ever name themselves! And yet, by virtue of baptism, all of us are called to holiness. We are much better at naming what disqualifies ourselves than recognizing that holy is what we are in the process of becoming. Monica teaches us that we need only to fix our gaze on God and holiness becomes possible.

From what little we know of Monica’s life, it would not be on any list of optimal environments for holiness to flourish. She discovered the enticement of alcohol as a teen, she married a man who was a drinker and known to be violent and unfaithful. She had a son who was too smart for his own good and a difficult mother-in-law who tried her patience. One could understand if the mark of Monica’s life was that of despair and yet her story is quite different.

Monica was raised in a Christian family. Her strong sense of self was grounded in her relationship with God. She was devout and committed to serving others. It is said that her husband, not a Catholic when they were first married, would criticize her for her piety and generosity, but she continued to be faithful, to be true to herself. She was faithful in the face of infidelity; she was kind in the face of ridicule. She loved her children with the love we learn only from God. In her love for her son, Augustine, we see that she saw something in Augustine that he did not see in himself. Trusting God’s providence, she prayed and prayed! She stayed close to Augustine, reminding him of what he could be rather than what he was. Monica entrusted him to God, knowing that she could only do so much. Tomorrow, the church celebrates how the story of Augustine ends!

Like, Augustine, Monica’s husband also saw the authenticity of Monica’s faith and her love for him and their children. He began to see the power of a faith that never wavered. He too converted. Monica’s patience and love and realization that she had God on her side became an irresistible invitation for her family.

Augustine writes in his Confessions, that shortly before his mother died, they were enjoying a conversation in the presence of The Truth–that is God– and speaking about the promise of eternal life. Augustine writes that in the conversation, “They were forgetting the past and pushing on to what is ahead” (Phil. 3:13). It is a good reminder to us that God is not as interested in our past as he is in our future. In Monica, we learn that we are most true to ourselves when our lives are oriented toward God and trusting of his providence.

Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.