Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Risk of Education


I have been reading The Risk of Education, by Father Giussani, with two friends (really, we've just begun it), and I have been thinking a lot about when I first read this book, and about how my understanding of Christianity was so inadequate then. It was a couple of years into my experience with the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and I remember being very frustrated with Giussani for not giving concrete instructions about how to do his method of education (CGS is SO concrete in its training method). I had the feeling that ten different people could read any one of his books (at the time we did not have The Journey to Truth... or Is it Possible...? in English) and they would all come away with modes of living the "CL thing" so radically different and contradictory to render the original text useless for helping them discover/encounter Christ. In other words, I found "Risk" to be a very abstract book, "in the clouds," and with very few applications to my lived life. Nonetheless, I liked it!

But now I am coming at this book in a completely new way. First of all, no method can be learned without a living guide. One cannot do the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd without seeing it in action, without the human experience of training (so many people are frustrated because they buy Sofia's books, hoping for a "road map" that they can use in place of training -- but no such luck!). The same is true of CL or GS or "Giussani-style education" -- whatever you want to call it. In CL, you can't go for "training," as in CGS, but it is available -- just not in any pre-arranged or packaged form. One can (and ought to) wrestle with the texts, read and reread them until one has deeply absorbed their meaning, but no amount of study can substitute for meeting the charism, spending time with it, and joining it.

It used to bug me so much when people would ask, "So, when/how did you meet the Movement?" I didn't like the way they used the word "meet." It seemed like a made up use of the word in order to make some "important" point -- it felt artificial to me. In ordinary English we would say, "How did you discover the Movement?" or "When did you first hear about it?" But now I understand why it bugged me -- not so much because something artificial was happening (now I have "met" the Movement, and that's the only word to describe coming face to face with a living Presence) -- but because it was a presumptuous question -- simply being exposed, hearing about, even going to SoC do not constitute "meeting." I met the Movement when I met Father Vincent. Before that, I had been able to glimpse it (as from a distance) when I heard Riro speak, or Father Rich, or Monsignor Albacete -- but my own heart was not sufficiently open for these moments to constitute true "meetings." I even had friends who revealed the charism at work: Giorgio, Sabrina, Terese, and Tiziana come to mind -- but in meeting them, I still hadn't "met" the movement because in becoming amazed at certain things or almost everything about them, I was still making myself the final judge about them -- I thought I had already figured out the wisdom, or joie de vivre, or sanctity they possessed -- I didn't try to follow it to its source -- I didn't try to follow it at all. It was like a sign pointing down a road that I refused to travel because I thought I already knew it and had already been on it.

What was different about Father Vincent? It may have had little to do with him. When the foreign thought entered my mind that day: "This is for me!", perhaps it was just that having moved to a new town so recently, I was less sure of myself, less comfortable with all the answers I was carrying around inside of me. Perhaps, in all my experiences of CL, I had finally reached the "tipping point." Or perhaps, distracted as I was that day, I could still intuit that the Presence of Christ in Father Vincent was strange, new, and yet familiar -- and tremendously attractive -- and it was a face of Christ I hadn't yet made my own (I guess you could say that I had been following one parable exclusively, without taking another, equally rich parable into account) -- and most important, it was a face I wanted to follow, join, make my own.

And now, having met Father Vincent, having met his life, it has been like a "proposal" or "provocation" or "hypothesis" for me to live all of life, in every dimension -- he, or rather the charism that has seized him, is what Father Giussani refers to as an "authority" or a true "educator." Through Father Vincent, I have received an approach to tradition. What is so weird is that I've spent very little time with this priest, and he's kind of spotty about reading and responding to his emails. But my education can continue because I have met the same thing I met in Father Vincent in Father Roberto (but what a wildly different manifestation!), in my friend Patty, in Chris Bacich, in a young guy named Giuseppe who lived in Pittsburgh for a few months this past fall...

But the even more important point is that it (the charism) doesn't depend on these particular individuals. I experience it in my daily life, mostly as a result of the profound and moving experience of School of Community this year, but most importantly in the new fraternity group that Marie and I have formed. A great and rich newness has entered my life since Father Vincent's visit two years ago.

And this richness -- something that is behind and between every word in "The Risk of Education," but cannot be explicitly communicated by any text, save maybe the Bible -- is the approach to tradition, the way of looking at reality (Father Giussani sometimes calls it a "gaze," full of love) that is the treasure of Christianity.

What is the biggest difference between how I lived my Christianity back in the early, rapturous days of discovering the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and who I am today? I think that back then I clung to a kind of dualism -- I wanted to separate my life in Christ from other aspects of my life -- certainly I wanted Christ to help the other aspects of my life, and I brought thoughts of him into every corner of my life -- but still there was a disconnect between these two elements that is hard to explain or describe. I didn't get that every circumstance in my life, every person in front of me, was the Presence of Christ calling to me in a way particular to that circumstance. I thought there were privileged moments in which Christ was present, quite intensely, and there were other moments where he was somewhere in heaven, looking down, connected by the holy telephone line to my brain/heart, but not in front of me, asking something of me in the messy here and now of human interactions. I first found him in scripture, then at Mass, then in the children in the atrium...but CL has managed to educate me to the fact that he is present in "reality in its totality." So now I live immersed in wonder (except when I forget or become distracted!).

8 comments:

Emily said...

I can relate to wanting an instruction manual for everything. I find myself falling into the trap of thinking that, if I just read the "right" book, all my problems will be solved and I'll never have to worry about anything ever again -- almost like there's an instruction manual for life that I'm not finding in any library.

Suzanne said...

Yes, wanting the instruction manual is one of those "original needs" that make up the bundle of desires that is our heart. It is a sign of Christ. And our hearts will be restless until they rest in him...

Ryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ryan said...

I found this old post and was interested in your parenthetical comment:

I had the feeling that ten different people could read any one of his books (at the time we did not have The Journey to Truth... or Is it Possible...? in English) ...

It seems to imply that these two books are somewhat more concrete than The Risk of Education or the Trilogy. Is that the case? Right now I've got the budget for one book - do you have any advice on which to pick? I know that I would be missing the entire point of your post if I was seeking an instruction manual. But at the same time, Giussani resonates with me the most when he is most concrete, sharing anecdotes and illustrations.

Suzanne said...

Hello, Ryan -- and welcome! Yes, it's my own opinion that "The Journey to Truth..." and "Is it Possible...?" are more concrete. "The Journey..." was derived from Giussani's experience teaching high school students and is very accessible, and "Is It Possible...?" is a collection of transcripts of Father Giussani's talks with young people in formation for Memoris Domini -- so the tone is refreshingly conversational. It would be most useful to you to try to find a School of Community group nearby -- the Movement is now reading "Is It Possible...?" and reading it alongside others provides many, many more concrete examples and stirs up even more examples from one's own life. Where do you live?

Ryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ryan said...

Thanks Suzanne. I live in central Illinois. There used to be a School of Community here, it was started by a PhD student at Illinois State University and ended when she graduated and left for a job.

The former chaplain of the Newman Center was not officially "in" CL, but had strong ties to it. His favorite seminary professor was Albacete, who he brought in to speak. And the chaplain testified that a CL priest retreat was one of the most profound events of his priesthood. His way of speaking, and seeing, and living were so unique and compelling. But then, when I began to read Giussani, it seemed very familiar and I learned where he got it! (He did not usually use CL "jargon" but his method was identical.)

But, School of Community never really got off the ground very well here. One of the problems was that the Newman Center already had an extremely strong community where "He is experienced to be present in reality in its totality," and with no silly separation between orthodoxy and joy. So, through the priest's CL formation, and in this community, CL was already being lived! We just weren't studying Giussani's texts. But, the woman who tried to start School of Community here did not want to integrate with the existing community at all, but instead re-invent the wheel with a new and separate CL community. (I think another factor was that everyone found Giussani to be quite a hard read! Albacete's book was more accessible and therefore more popular.)

Now I am part of another amazing Catholic community at the local parish, where I will again boldly claim that CL is being lived, just not in name. Sometimes I have thought of starting a School of Community here, but I have not, because I'd still be concerned about the previous problems (re-inventing community, Giussani a hard read) and because I'm pretty occupied with my "domestic church" right now, with daughters 18 months and 3 months old. For this same reason, unfortunately I cannot to travel to Peoria, and definitely not Chicago. (There is a priest in Peoria who loves CL and brought Albacete to speak at his high school.) This is why I wish to study Giussani's texts on my own, even though that is admittedly not optimal.

But, I actually found your blog through an internet search not for CL but CGS. I would love to find an atrium to visit and learn more. I read Cavaletti's book and it was fascinating, but certainly not an instruction manual. If CGS is what I hope, I think there are many people at my parish who would love to work together to implement it, if they knew about it.

Suzanne said...

I wonder, Ryan, if either of these atria are near you?

1) Atrium: St. Patrick

Location: 708 W. Main St., Urbana, IL 61801

Age Levels: All

Contact: Tina Sherman , (217) 684-2341
tinahagerty@hotmail.com

Setting: Parish

Denomination: Catholic

2) Atrium: St. Patricks - Home School Atria

Location: 708 W. Main St., Urbana, IL 61801

Age Levels: All

Contact: Ann Birchenough , (217) 253-6269
ann.birchenough@gmail.com

Setting: Parish

Denomination: Catholic

Here's where I found these two -- if they're too far, you can look here and maybe find one closer:
http://cgsusa.org/atriums_results.php?States=IL

There are atria in Peoria, as well. We used to live in Chicago, so I believe that I know the personalities you describe! I would say that rather than try to start up a SoC in your parish, start just by asking your friends if they would like to try to read the book with you. Starting with the current SoC book (Is It Possible...?) would be a big help, because though not "easy," it is more accessible than some of the others, since it is comprised of transcripts of talks. You could go very slowly. The rest of the country is just beginning the third (and final chapter) on Obedience -- you could start there, too; it is not so hard to sum up the first two chapters and then jump in at the third chapter (if you like, I could post a quick summary). I would say that if you just invite some friends to read with you, if none show up, then you read on your own, but if someone does, then you have the opportunity to share something beautiful together.

The temptation that all of us need to avoid is imagining that we can "build" or "create" a community. Our unity already exists, as a result of our Baptism. That your parish is vibrant and that those in your parish community already live with this awareness is such a gift! All you really need is to follow it and to ask your friends if they'd like to go deeper...all of our adult Schools of Community here welcome people to bring their kids -- we always have little ones running and playing around us as we read or speak. It's beautiful! Who knows, maybe one of your friends is trying to read Giussani on his or her own as well?

If you send me an email at

suzanne [dot] ciellina [at] gmail [dot] com

I can send you a pdf of the first 39 pages of "Is It Possible...?" so that you can see what you think about the readability of the book.

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."