Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Unlocking the Doors of EducationUnlocking the Doors of Education

Unlocking the Doors of Education

Life’s circumstances have a way of reintroducing us to grace, writes Joseph McDaniel. His personal journey refreshed his perspective on his vocation and encourages us to be open to the expansion of our own horizons by the grace of God.

Joseph McDaniel
5 minute read

I’ve always felt at home in libraries. From the cozy West Vancouver Memorial Library across the street from my family home, to the great coliseum-like Vancouver Public Library, and the many university libraries I’ve been privileged to visit over the years, I always find immense pleasure in strolling down aisles and aisles of books, glancing at the titles collected across the decades.

In a Catholic high school in the United States where I had the blessing of being able to serve as a teacher for many years, there was a motto emblazoned above the study hall of the school library that I believe summarized the true power of education: “Knowledge is the eighth sacrament of the Church.”

This motto was taken from the writings of St. Francis de Sales, a great bishop, reformer, writer, and spiritual director of the 17th century. Known as the “gentleman saint,” St. Francis de Sales took his own immense learning and insight and made it available to the living rooms, kitchen tables, and workplaces of his diocese through direct, heartfelt, personal encounters with the people he served through his preaching, letters, and personal visitation.

For many years, I aspired to be an educator in the example of St. Francis de Sales, seeing the chapel, classroom, and library as a natural habitat in which I could hand on to students what I had first received from so many outstanding teachers over the years.

This dream was dramatically upended, as so many of our lives have been upended over these past couple of years, when a personal mental health crisis forced me to suddenly take a step back from the classroom, I thought perhaps permanently.

A teacher who puts down his chalk and steps away from the lectern feels in many ways like a baseball pitcher who must hand over the ball and step off the mound. It is hard enough when this is done by choice. When it is compelled by circumstance, as in the case of a player who suffers a debilitating injury, it is that much harder. 

What I learned, however, in my process of stepping away from the classroom, and having to spend many hours on the other side of the desk in counsellors’ offices, in the back row of the church pew, and even on a couple of occasions in a hospital gown, was perhaps the most important lesson that any teacher needs to learn in order to become who they are called to be: A person becomes a teacher only by participating in grace. There is only one true Teacher who is teacher by nature: the One of whom the words inscribed outside the doors of the Salesianum School chapel declare, “magister adest et vocat te:” “the teacher is here and is calling you.” The One who says to us, “learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart” (Matthew 11:29).

Of course, one can never really make a teacher stop being a teacher, just as one can never make a ballplayer stop being a ballplayer. A retired ballplayer, or one sidelined by injury, may one day make the journey from the stadiums and bright lights of his pro career, back to the quaint little neighbourhood field where he first learned to play t-ball, and rediscover his vocation coaching his son or daughter’s little league baseball or softball team. Similarly, I have begun to rediscover mine in the same place where St. Peter rediscovered his own vocation after the traumatic events of Christ’s crucifixion: by the seashore.

Before I aspired to be a teacher, or before I really aspired to anything, the one thing I loved doing maybe more than anything else was going fishing with my father along the shorelines and rocky beaches of Vancouver’s North Shore.

When I became a high school student, this deeply moored interest in all things to do with fish was harnessed as I was invited to take part in the work of salmon conservation undertaken by a local volunteer organization, the West Vancouver Streamkeepers.

The many adventures I had fishing with my father and volunteering with the Streamkeepers are too many to recount, but suffice it to say that these experiences remained deeply hooked within me, and provided a lifeline or a safety net by which I could be lifted, and still am being lifted, from the dark depths and swirling undercurrents of depression, anxiety, and confusion.

One of my close mentors in the Streamkeeper organization, who has been one of my greatest teachers since my days in high school, invited me to play a role once more in the organization’s programs for high school students. One of these programs is the annual student salmon survey program, where students are taken out to local streams to observe and record the returns of spawning salmon.

It is a simple but deeply sacramental task, that never ceases to captivate me and so many others involved. Perhaps even greater than the joy that arises when seeing a salmon surface from an arduous climb through steep rapids into the calm home waters of its spawning ground is the joy at seeing the profound amazement that a young person experiences when they witness this event for the first time.

It is sacramental because, just as the nose of the fish breaks through the surface tension of the water, you can literally see the emergence through the present frame of a young person’s existence a portal that opens them to the transcendence of a horizon not yet glimpsed before. For me, anything in our finite experience that opens such a doorway is a sacrament, and ultimately gives a person a glimpse of God and eternity, for which we were all made. This is rooted in the original goodness and sacramentality of creation as intended by God,[1] and finds its source and summit in the sacramental life of the Church: Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation, and all the beautiful sacramental means by which God bestows grace upon us.

This, I believe, is the ultimate purpose of education: that by introducing people, especially young people, to an ordered appreciation and gratitude for the things of nature, human culture, and divine grace, a door may be unlocked for them to a transcendent horizon from beyond which shines the eternal splendor of God whose very existence is truth, goodness, and beauty.

Of course, as the maxim goes, one cannot give what one does not have, so we who are called to the vocation of teacher, which is indeed all of us, whose classrooms are our workplaces, our churches, and our homes, must always be examining our own consciences and asking ourselves how open we are to having our own horizons constantly broadened. If we find that our own horizon has become enclosed within the opaqueness of an immanent frame[2] of sin, fear, anxiety, or ideology, like a fish trapped within a ghost net at sea, we need not drown in despair. We can with sure hope implore the grace of the divine Fisherman, the Teacher who called St. Peter out from his own fears to cast out into deep water and follow Him through the storm, to come and set us free.

[1] I remain indebted to Chapter 1 of Msgr. Kevin Irwin’s Models of the Eucharist for so clearly communicating this point.

[2] I credit Bishop Robert Barron for his insights into the concept of the “immanent frame” in his public lectures and social media ministry. 

Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash.co

Convivium publishes texts that do not necessarily reflect the views held by Cardus, the Convivium team, or its editors. In the spirit of discussion, dialogue, and debate, we ask readers to bear in mind that publication does not equal endorsement. Thanks for reading. Join the conversation!

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