By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
The Greek word scholē originally denoted a state of leisure or spare time, and gradually came to describe conversations held within a time free of specific duties. The word moved into Latin, and eventually was employed to define a group of people engaged in leisurely discussions, or even the place itself where those discussions were conducted.
Students and teachers alike will surely object that our use of the word “school” hardly fits the original sense of spare time in which friends calmly chat without crushing duties to occupy their minds. Indeed, the constant barrage of homework, papers, and pressure-packed tests does not suggest any leisurely joy!
The deeper connection to the roots of the word “school,” however, lies not in the freedom to learn and acquire knowledge, but in the formation of a community dedicated to the pursuit of a noble goal. From this perspective, the wisdom of the monastic tradition has much to offer the schoolchildren of today, as well as their parents.
Long before any English speakers applied the word to buildings and levels of education, St. Benedict defined his monastery in the sixth century A.D. by the Latin term schola. In the prologue of his Rule for monks, Benedict writes that his aim is to create “a school for the service of the Lord,” the guidelines for which he sets forth in the following pages.
Who desires to enter such a school? For St. Benedict, those who seek God, and are willing to relinquish their own selfish will in obedience to an Abbot, who has the role of Christ for those in the monastery. Together, the monks learn to serve the Lord by their prayer, work, and community life. As the monks mature in their monastic life, their hearts expand with an ever-growing love of the Lord, and by serving each other, they purify themselves of selfishness and learn to receive the sweetness of God’s abundant grace.
This understanding of school is certainly different from our contemporary definition of the term as a building or a sequence of grades, but it highlights quite beautifully how a community of believers learns to serve Christ together.
Another familiar English word has undergone a similar transformation from its Latin roots. When monks spoke in previous centuries of a conversatio, they did not have in mind the meaning we attach to the word “conversation” today: a discussion between two or more people. The word conversatio meant, rather, to live among others, or the way in which monks sanctified themselves by sharing the common search for Christ by obedience and selfless service.
Perhaps this brief study of two words and their origins in the monastic life can act as a fruitful examination of conscience.
If you desire to love Christ, do you create sufficient leisure time to participate daily in the school of prayer? If you admit that your conversations often produce little more than curse words, slander, and even scandal, are you prepared to pray for a greater capacity to be prudently silent? If you are married and raising a family, do you make a proper effort to establish a graced school for the Lord’s service in your home? If you are teaching in one of our beloved Catholic schools, is your conversatio in the classroom truly animated by your desire to see the face of Christ in your students and your fellow teachers?
Do not worry when you realize that your honest answers demand dramatic improvement and a terrifying prayer for the courage to change.
The strange but memorable words of G.K. Chesterton are applicable here: “If something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly!” There is, after all, no worthier quest than the effort of constant conversion, another word drawn from the same root as conversatio! To seek Christ, to serve, learn and teach in the school of charity, is the great privilege of those who desire an ever more radical and daily conversion to the Lord
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.