“We go up to Jerusalem,” Jesus says. The phrase signals the beginning of Lent in the Christian understanding. This Thursday at the School, we “go down” for the March break. It is an interesting conjunction of metaphors both indicating a kind of journey, an exodus of some sort or another.
For some it is about getting away from the bleak midwinter to warmer climes either out of a sense of privilege or entitlement. For others it may be a journey to other countries and cultures, “an educational experience,” we hope. For many others, it is a matter of staying close to home. But they are all journeys of one sort or another and signal a break from the routine of classes and patterns and/or the distractions of events. Whether one travels far or stays close at hand, there is one thing that you can’t get away from: yourself.
Lent and Ramadan – they overlap somewhat this year – are intentional seasons of self-examination that connect to the philosophical traditions of self-reflection. There is Socrates’ famous remark that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and Descartes rigorous examination of the ideas in his mind to see what can be known and in what way, for example. The pursuit of learning necessarily includes us as knowers and thinkers; in short, students which really means those who are eager to learn! Traditionally, school breaks were understood as “reading breaks.” Why? Because they were intended to provide a time of leisure, of scholē, ironically the root meaning of school in the sense of a freedom from the practical necessities of life which inhibit the freedom of the mind in contemplation. The reading breaks were a break from the routines of schools to allow for time to read and think.
In the passage from Luke 18, Jesus tells the disciples and us exactly what going up to Jerusalem means. It means some rather disturbing things, things which are a reworking of the exodus theme of wandering in the wilderness to some extent. He speaks of suffering and abuse, of his passion, death and resurrection. But the disciples, Luke tells us, “understood none of these things, and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken.” It is a strong indictment of our unknowing; a triple negative. And yet to know that we do not know is to know something and marks the beginning of the journey of learning. Thus, what follows immediately is the encounter with “a certain blind man” sitting “by the way-side” near Jericho. Jericho is the biblical symbol of the earthly city in contrast to Jerusalem, the symbol of the heavenly city. He cries out to Jesus. The disciples try to shut him up, but he calls out all the more incessantly. Jesus speaks to him and asks him what he wants. “That I may receive my sight,” he says. His desire is drawn out of him explicitly. He is healed and glorifies God.
The point is fairly obvious. We are meant to see ourselves in the blind man not just in not seeing – our ignorance, as it were – but in our desire to see, to know. But how do we come to know? In the Christian spiritual traditions, it is not about our claims to self-knowledge, to identity claims and privileges; it is about going with Christ in his passion, death and resurrection, learning from him about the forms of our unknowing and sin, on the one hand, and about our redemption in him, on the other hand. But what impels that journey? There has to be in us a desire, a yearning to know and to understand. That is what we see in the blind man who, in some sense, “sees” something in Christ that belongs to his healing and wholeness. To know that we do not know is to see “in a glass darkly,” perhaps, but it is meant to encourage us to be self-reflective.
What stands out is the self-critical nature of the Gospels. They highlight our unknowing and ignorance in contrast to our being “assured of certain certainties” (T.S. Eliot, The Preludes) and our sense of entitlement. But they do so to bring us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and of the reality of which we are a part. None of this implies a flight from reality or from one another – the proverbial getting away from it all (and from everyone else!). None of this is about self-obsession and self-absorption. To the contrary, it seeks a better knowing of ourselves in relation to one another and our world.
My hope and prayer is that whatever kind of journey you are on there will be time for quiet and prayerful self-reflection, for the kind of self-examination that belongs to the dignity and freedom of our humanity. It is, in some sense, the one thing necessary and the truest form of renewal and refreshment, a renewal by the transformation of our minds in which we find the real truth of ourselves.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy