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They understood none of these things

The paradox is striking and yet instructive. Last week we heard from Jeremiah about “go[ing] down to the Potter’s house”. This week we have Luke’s powerful story in which Jesus says “we go up to Jerusalem”. Up and down and all around, it seems, but really this reminds us of the character of wisdom and philosophy. It is not about a linear kind of reasoning, going from this to that in the mere accumulation of facts and factlets devoid of meaning. Instead, it is about a kind of circling, a redire ad principia, a constant returning to a principle.

Luke’s eighteenth chapter signals the near approach and meaning of the Christian season of Lent which like the preparations for the Jewish passover and like the Islamic Ramadan concern an essential feature of the world’s religions and philosophies, namely, the idea of return and renewal to that which is of greatest significance. That idea of a return is only possible on the basis of two things both of which are highlighted in this story: our not knowing and our desire to know.

Education is often imagined as a journey. That journey is only possible in the awareness of our not knowing. Teachers tell you things all the time yet quite often it is the case that you understood nothing. To know that we do not know is ancient wisdom about the possibilities of learning and knowing. But that brings out the second idea, the idea of wanting to know. That is seen in the story in the figure of the blind man sitting by the wayside crying out incessantly to Jesus for mercy. When asked what he wants, he simply says, “that I may receive my sight”. This is to want to know. The desire to learn is intrinsic to the educational project, to the formation of character.

Jesus tells the twelve about what it will mean to go up to Jerusalem. He tells them explicitly about his passion and death and resurrection. “They understood none of these things.” The question arises then about how will we come to know what is wanted to be known. The answer is found in the journey of learning, in the journey of the soul to God, in the constant circling about the principle in the awareness of the limitations of our knowing. It is always a work in progress and never in a linear progression. It is about growing into an understanding. Such are the formative qualities of any education worthy of the name.

The journey of Lent begins for Christians on Ash Wednesday this week with the imposition of ashes signalling repentance, a turning back to God from whom we have turned away. “Fire ever doth aspire and makes all like itself, turns all to fire but ends in ashes”, as the poet/preacher John Donne puts it in a love poem. But like the poem in which love is not meant to end in ashes, so too the love-journey of Lent begins but does not end in ashes. The ashes signal here our awareness of faults and failings of will and intellect. Lent, as with the special seasons of reflection and discipline in other religions, involves the interplay of three classical forms of pilgrimage or journey: the way of purgation, the way of illumination and the way of union.

“We go up,” Jesus says. Our journey to God is with God at once in the cleansing or purgation of our souls, at once in the illumination of our minds, and at once in our being with God. It is the divine love in us that moves all three.

“Love bade me welcome”, the poet George Herbert puts it, in a poem that illustrates wonderfully the interplay of those three aspects of pilgrimage. God’s love allows us to confront our limitations, our unknowing and our sinfulness and shows us the way of their being overcome in him. We confront our unknowing so as to embrace the journey of learning.

This week brings us to March break and it is my hope and prayer that you will go forth and return refreshed and reinvigorated in the journey of learning. As Lent teaches, and in ways that echo many an ancient and modern journey, that journey is very much about learning through suffering (pathemata mathemata) and, more importantly, learning through sacrifice. We have to have, to use the title of an intriguing book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “skin in the game”. There has to be personal commitment and the sense that things really matter, that something is quite literally on the line.

(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy

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King's-Edgehill School is a coeducational boarding and day school for grades 6 through 12, located in Windsor, Nova Scotia, Canada.