At the end of last semester, I read T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets for a lyric poetry class. What at first seemed an inexplicable tangle of phrases and images in this extended meditation on time, reality, and the divine was slowly unraveled in class thanks to my peers and professor. Its lines have reverberated in my mind ever since for their truth and enigmatic beauty. Two particular lines from “Little Gidding,” the last section of the poem, cut deep into my mind and heart:
“A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything).”
These lines vividly illustrated for me the Christian call of kenosis, complete self-emptying, as modeled by the one “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself” (Philippians 2:6-7). Incredibly, the Son of God humbled himself to the simplicity of a child.
I yearn for simplicity—many of my happiest memories seem to be in a state of simplicity—yet achieving the ultimate simplicity of beatitude with God bears the price of emptying myself and humbly sacrificing my desires and will to conform to his. This realization demanded that I ask myself: am I really ready to give up everything?
While I think everyone should read the Four Quartets, this experience also showed me the importance of making my education matter. I did not expect that completing an assignment for class would jolt me out of complacency into contemplating kenosis, yet it has borne rich fruit in my life outside the classroom.
Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to confronting and internalizing truth means that our educations might be able to form our minds and our hearts. But are we willing to be formed, to let truth impress on our hearts, to shake us, even to crush us? It is a scary and sometimes painful process. The philosopher-kings were dragged out of Plato’s cave.
According to Blessed Basil Moreau, founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, this unsettling process is necessary, for education must form the human person holistically. “We shall always place education side by side with instruction; the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart,” he said. “While we prepare useful citizens for society, we shall likewise do our utmost to prepare citizens for heaven.”
Moreau’s understanding of education is rooted in his understanding of the human person. The Catholic view of the human person as being more than just a mind means that education must extend beyond intellectual engagement that trains the mind. Education must form the human person and involves acquiring the ability to think, to feel, and to act rightly.
Education that forms the mind and heart faces objections that it stifles individual freedom. As understood in this light, however, education not only follows centuries-old tradition, but also allows for the full realization of one’s humanity. The word “education” finds its roots both in the Latin educere, meaning “to lead out” and in the Latin educare, meaning “to mold.” The etymology of education, therefore, intimates that it pulls out and forms something within. Education draws out one’s humanity in developing the ability to think, to feel, and to act humanely. What does it mean to be an educated person? What it means to be human—fully flourishing, fully alive.
Ostensibly, Moreau’s vision has not been lost at Notre Dame. According to the university’s Mission Statement, “The University prides itself on being an environment of teaching and learning that fosters the development in its students of those disciplined habits of mind, body, and spirit that characterize educated, skilled, and free human beings.”
The university is responsible for fulfilling its mission. Education liberates us to be “educated, skilled, and free human beings,” and the core curriculum is the primary way Notre Dame forms students in her mission. Several faculty members have defended the importance of a formative core curriculum in this issue of the Rover. Content matters; had I not been assigned the Four Quartets, I would have missed out on a formative encounter with beauty and truth.
I would like to focus on our complementary responsibility as students in fulfilling the university’s mission. Even if a student’s courses are well-designed to form her, it will be lost on her if she does not open herself up to receiving this formation. At least, all but lost—for God’s grace and mercy can open even the most stubborn heart. But I return to my earlier question—are we students disposed to this formation?
Analogy helps in understanding the importance of disposition. Being trained in piano theory and reading musical notes is a much different experience than playing music on the piano. The latter often involves an encounter with beauty, even though the former technique is required for it. So too, intellectual training is necessary, but is not an end in itself. Education is about forming persons, not just minds, and should involve an encounter with the beautiful, the true, and the good that leaves deep, vivid impressions on us.
To open ourselves to this education, we should see ourselves as having a vocation to be students and then carefully consider attention and desire. In her essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” French philosopher Simone Weil offers insights into the disposition of a student. Education has spiritual ends, according to Weil, and if “perfectly carried out there is no doubt that school studies are quite as good a road to sanctity as any other” through cultivating attention, the very substance of prayer.
Weil also expresses the importance of desire and joy for study. “The intelligence can only be led by desire,” she says. “For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work.” Desire and joy for study can help prepare us for desire for God.
Finally, school studies establish spirituality in action as they build the “capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer,” Weil says. Education takes on a moral-spiritual role in teaching the learner to cultivate a compassionate heart. The vocation of a student requires discipline, patience, joy, and a sincere desire to learn. It cultivates attention and a compassionate heart that can lead the individual to sanctity.
Ultimately, the university should aspire to mold us through the careful selection of core courses, but the disposition of our minds and hearts is up to us. Are we being prepared for heaven at Notre Dame—and are we preparing ourselves?
Stephanie Reuter is a sophomore PLS and theology major. She found that the penitential season of Lent began early for her when she was forced to watch from afar in Indiana as her hometown of New Orleans celebrated Mardi Gras heartily. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.