05 April 2008


When I was walking to school yesterday, a huge truck with a scoop attached to it was parked beside the stream I pass on my route.  I thought, A-ha!  I bet they're going to clear away the silt that's clogged up the stream.  Because for the three years I've been here silt and mud have progressively encroached on one portion of the stream until, now, that portion is nearly dammed. And I was right!  When I walked to school this morning, the stream was burbling along in a wide swathe, something I've never actually seen it do.  I was struck by how Romantic it was - probably I was struck by this because I'm a Romanticist - and actually stopped to contemplate.  I think that must have subconsciously set the mood for the day, because when we came to discuss Mont Blanc in my poetry class today I was all filled with a sense of the quiet marvellousness of Nature.

Mont Blanc is a hard poem.  A haaaard poem.  This was my first time teaching it, and it's been a while since I was taught it, so I focused on the only aspect of the poem that seemed absolutely certain to me:  Shelley is asking where power dwells, outside or inside the human understanding.  And as I thought about this while I was teaching, it seemed to me that by engaging with this question about power, Shelley is also engaging with, perhaps even facing off against, faith.  Since the question the poem seems to end with is, "Is there an outside Power that stands apart from human cognition, or does human cognition produce that supposedly outside Power?" it was hard for me not feel that Shelley was indirectly asking about faith:  that is, Is there an entity in which we have faith, or does our faith produce an entity that we then have faith in?  

In order to explain the central question to my students, I asked them to give some reasons to believe in God and some reasons not to.  They gave lots of reasons, but oddly enough none of them said faith, and none of them said Grace.  It was left to me, an agnostic in the loosest sense (that is, I pretty much think there isn't a God, but because I can't know, I admit the possibility that there might be), to remind them of the existence of Grace, of the peace that passeth understanding.  I said, "You know, the way you can pause and just feel Grace within you?"  They looked blank, and I said, "Okay, just hush for a second."  And we all fell silent.  And I did feel within myself what I meant, which is a kind of blossoming calm that fills me with peace.  I said, "Did you feel it?"  No, they shook their heads.  So I did it again.  No, they still shook their heads.  And these are deep Southern kids, raised in the Bible belt, most of them raised with faith and a good number of them still churchgoers!  And I thought how odd it was that I, a non-believer, should be describing the feeling and experience of Grace to them.

Do other teachers do this in their classrooms, I wonder?  Do they remind their students that God comes in the still small voice, even if they don't believe in the still small voice?  Do they try to get their students to feel Grace?  Do they tell their students what they imagine the soul looks like ("like a one-ply tissue," I said today), and remind them of all the rustling, murmuring legions of people they have shuffling around inside them, and give lectures about syphilis, and use Robert Mitchum as an example of manly man, and tell them that they think a good deal of education is designed to make people feel that concepts are complex and inaccessible when actually they're pretty simple?  I don't think of those thoughts, or those activities, as unusual - I mean, surely other people must wonder what the soul looks like, or how your life might be different if you had a different name, or what it was like, REALLY like, to be John Keats, or put their hands inside Byron's corrective inner boots to see if they can experience him and what he felt.  But when I tell the students, or sometimes other people, that I do these things, they laugh, or look perturbed or confounded.  But I think it must just be that I admit to doing the things that other people do but won't say.

Anyway, Grace.  Just be silent for a minute and try to dissolve yourself into that silence through listening.  I expect you'll feel it.  Because as I said to the kids a few minutes later, it's really only happiness, or calm in the middle of business, and it's just because we don't usually feel those things that we think it's something Divine.

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