By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
“As for you, do not be called ‘teacher’. You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers” (Mt 23:8).
The coronavirus is creating a big challenge for teachers and students around the world. My heart goes out to the students, who, if they are among the lucky ones, are sitting at home with online schoolwork, but without the ability to spend time with their classmates in person, play sports, enjoy clubs, and do other fun things. My heart also goes out to the teachers, who, if they are among the lucky ones, are still employed but now facing the giant challenge of having to reinvent their pedagogy in little time. And, as they deal with their own struggles, they know so many kids and families are looking to them precisely in this moment for encouragement and confidence.
I’m also a teacher, and although this might sound surprising, I see something really positive in all this. Sure, we are losing some educational opportunities, and we could lose more if the pandemic worsens. But things always look bad when we focus only on what we’re losing and not on what we’re receiving.
Ultimately, God is our True Teacher and life is our true classroom. This time of “distance learning” can help us to draw closer to our true Teacher, and thereby help us dive deeper into our real education. We should not think that we can only grow when we are in control of our education. On the contrary, we are always able to learn and grow in the ways that really matter, and sometimes losing a little control over our lives opens us more easily to the greatest lessons.
Let me give you just one lesson I’ve learned recently, thanks to our True Teacher working through this unexpected pandemic. At the monastery we have elderly monks to care for, and one needed 24-hour assistance for a while. Because the coronavirus forced us to reduce our nursing staff, one day I had a video monitor next to me while I studied in the monastery library, so that I could go help him when he needed. I ended up going to his room about once an hour, and so I was not able to learn as much as I had planned. But what did I learn? A lot… Whenever I helped this elderly monk to the bathroom, to his lunch, or just to exercise, he was so docile and sweet. Everywhere we went, he kept saying things like, “Okay… okay…. Which way? What’s next?” And at the end of every encounter he repeated, with hands clasped in gratitude, “Thank you. God bless you. Come again.” I began to wish that I could be so docile to God as he leads me about my days… For God is always watching us (like through a video monitor) and as soon as he sees us needing to do something he swoops in (like me sprinting up the stairs from the library) to ensure that it is done well and according to his plan. How sweet life is when we welcome him, saying “Okay! Okay! Which way? What’s next?” And how pleasant is our relationship with him when it ends in gratitude and a desire for him to visit us again: “Thank you! Come again!”
I didn’t plan on learning that lesson when I woke up that morning. Actually, I had planned on learning several other things. But while I wasn’t able to learn those things, I can see that what I did learn was very precious. It was a lesson that gives peace in this time of uncertainty. And I learned it just by trying to be open to the True Teacher working in our true classroom – the present moment.
What lessons can we learn at this time of distance learning? In addition to lessons about technology, I imagine students will learn a lot about time management, self-discipline and the virtues necessary for independent study. Spiritually speaking, I imagine we will all learn a lot about ourselves during this “imposed monasticism” (to borrow a phrase from Bishop Barron). We will learn about our ability to dwell within ourselves, to reflect on our lives more deeply, and to pray.
So, let us focus on what we are receiving at this time and not obsess about what we are losing. God is our True Teacher, and we can be sure that he has tremendous lessons to offer during these days. They might not be the ones we were planning to learn, but they will be the best ones, for God works everything for the good (cf. Rm 8:28). So, let’s be open and say, “Okay! Okay! Which way? What’s next? Thank you! Come again!”
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.