A Pep Talk to Teachers from a 4th-Century Saint


What could a 4th-century saint have to say to encourage us in the 21st century? You might be surprised…

by Christian Clifford

The 21st-century Catholic educator has much to learn from St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430). This great saint summarizes the Christian vision of reality in his Confessions (Book XI):

“O sweet light of my hidden eyes … there are three times … present of things past, memory; present of things present, sight; present of things future, expectation.”

As we teach in the Catholic tradition, we draw inspiration from Church history: “present of things past, memory.”

We are part of the largest organization in the world.

Through many trials and tribulations over more than 2,000 years, the Church has presented a clear, though imperfect, vision of salvation, redemption, divine truth, and human dignity to the world. In short, we are part of something larger than ourselves, something supremely meaningful.

We defend life. In the fourth century, Christian bishops persuaded Emperor Valentinian to outlaw infanticide and to provide funds to the Church to support orphans.

We praise God in song. In the seventh century, St. Gregory the Great invented Gregorian chant, giving us the roots of written music.

We are giving.In the late eighth century, Peter’s Pence, the earliest large-scale organized charitable group, was created.

We seek to know God’s creation more intimately. In the ninth century, universities were created out of the cathedral schools. (The University of Leuven in Belgium, founded in 1425, is the oldest Catholic university still in existence.)

We see nature as a gift from God. St. Bonaventure observed that St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226), “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, … would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister.’”

We create tools to help discover God’s majesty. In the 16th century, the Vatican Observatory was founded—one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world. The modern calendar, organized by Pope Gregory XIII, soon followed.

We attempt to heal not only the soul and mind, but the body, as well.  We are the largest supplier of healthcare in the world.

We speak out against injustice. In 1922, Oregonians made public school attendance compulsory. In short, the state wanted to close parochial schools. The Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary argued that parents have the right to send their children to the school of their choosing. The Sisters took this battle all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

Throughout history, we have stood for this vision. Today we are still seeing new things: “present of things present, sight.” Brace yourselves for the sight of the amazing gifts and talents that will be uncovered this year.

Building the kingdom of God depends on this process of discovery.

We meet students where they are, trying our best to be models of Christ that they can see. We stand on the shoulders of giants such as Sts. Jean Baptiste de la Salle, Elizabeth Ann Seton, John Bosco, and Katherine Drexel—and the first and greatest disciple, Mother Mary. The same Gospel that revealed holiness in them is also our light.

Early in my career, a mentor encouraged me to keep a journal highlighting the good moments in my work. I failed to see the point then, but it makes sense now.

It is very important to take stock and remind ourselves of why we were called to become teachers. Teaching has its good and bad days.

In all honesty, at times our work may seem mundane, frustrating, trivial, exhausting. Pope Francis reminds us in The Joy of the Gospel that each Christians is to care “for the grain and does not grow impatient at the weeds” (24). What a glorious challenge!

However, even Pope Francis admits that he gets impatient and flustered at times. He gives sage advice on how to deal with this.

Breathe in, breathe out!

Just as we might advise a young person to do, sometimes we too must step back and think before acting.

In his April 24, 2015, remarks published in L’Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis shared that, in such a situation, one can choose between two attitudes: either reactive and brash or reflective and persevering,

“with this inner gladness, because you are certain of being on Jesus’ path.” Holy doors have been opened in cathedrals around the world, symbolizing the Jubilee Year of Mercy. See the doors to your classroom as doors of mercy, so that “anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instills hope” (Pope Francis, The Face of Mercy).

The most challenging task for the educator, I would argue, is coming to terms with the “present of things future, expectation.” We will never know in this life the full fruits of our labor.

We plant seeds and pray that, by the grace of God, they will bloom. I assume that nearly 1,500 years ago in the early cathedral schools, the educators who saw their pupils graduate prayed often for their students’ well-being, knowing that they would probably never see each other again.

For this reason, the Parable of the Sower speaks intimately to the Catholic educator. As God’s instruments, we help the Sower. We yearn for our students to recognize the Catholic faith as rich soil (cf. Mt 13:1–8, 18–23).

We hope that they will have a deep desire to lead virtuous lives, continually seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit. We deeply fear the day when we learn that a past student has met with harm.

At the core of all that we do is the desire to give the young people in our care the tools to build a house that can weather any storm, to see and embrace the joy in life, and to live lives with hearts set on eternity. Someone did this for each of us, most likely; for many of us, their actions may be a major reason we chose to become teachers.

The words of the Second Letter to Timothy, written more than 1,900 years ago, still ring true today. Leaders in Catholic schools must “proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching” (2 Tm 4:2). Our solemn charge demands that we remain strong in the face of the unknown.

A quote from the miniseries Pillars of the Earth, based on the novel by Ken Follett, helps put all that we will do this year into focus. Philip, Prior of St-John-in-the-Forest, says the following at the consecration of the Kingsbridge Cathedral:

“And for … our beautiful church, I thank God, our king, the people of Kingsbridge and several generations of tireless workers. But the cathedral is not finished … nor will it ever be. Just as human perfection is something we all strive for and can never attain, so this church will forever be changing, growing, crumbling at times, an ongoing legacy of our feeble efforts to touch God. A cathedral, my friends, is neither stone nor statues nor even a place of prayer. It is a continuum of creation; beautiful work, that, pray God, will never end.”

Though our work may seem feeble at times, let us continue to strive to touch God. Like the workers who built the cathedrals, may we use our gifts and talents to shape the future for the greater glory of God.

May we look forward to this year with great hope. May we persevere in our own faith so that we can confidently pass along the Faith, knowing that God, with our help, will touch the hearts and minds of the young people in our care.

Let our collective prayer be: O sweet light of our hidden eyes, help us to see you with more clarity so that we may better serve you. Amen. 

Christian Clifford has been a teacher in the schools of the Archdiocese of San Francisco since 1997. He is also the author of Saint Junípero Serra: Making Sense of the History and Legacy and, coming soon from Vesuvius Press, Who Was Saint Junípero Serra?

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