Students everywhere struggle with the Zoom mode of learning. They understand that it is an essential alternative, in this our year of plague, to the conventional mode of knowledge exchange—the querying and probing that we associate with the ideal act of learning—and they appreciate that it is a temporary measure, although how temporary is a source of continued anxiety.
Learning is, of course, much more than data collecting, the acquisition of professional skills, the accumulation of practical knowledge. It is also about the speculative and sapiential ways of knowing and ways of being.
The British university student and journalist, Madoc Cairns, likens Zoom seminars to involuntary monasticism—you have your cell, you have stability, and you have lots of quiet time. And those are not negative things. But it is involuntary, after all, and there are other things we need, other qualities that we are now deprived of that define our true education: social intercourse, collisions of intellect ( Cardinal John Henry Newman’s wonderful way of describing the struggle for truth), the cultivation of habits of mind and spirit that make for the whole person.
Cairns writes in a column for The Tablet of London: “Education isn’t about seeing more but seeing more clearly; practising the basic, boring skills of human fellowship; growing in virtue and patience and love. The pandemic has cast a deep shadow on educational institutions. Perhaps rediscovering an older and broader conception of education would be a light in our present darkness.”
Indeed it would. Education for life is a communal and not solo act. That is why we have universities.
Erik Varden, the newly-installed Bishop-Prelate of the Catholic Territorial Prelature of Trondheim, Norway, is an extraordinary leader. Immediate past Abbot of Mount St. Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire, England, he is a young, very young, Trappist monk who is the author of the deeply intelligent and subtle The Shattering of Loneliness.
In a recent article in The Tablet of London, “Chosen for Eternity,” he provides a moving portrait in natural holiness of a deceased nun, Marie-Ange de Saint Chamas, who belonged to a monastic community of women, the Little Sisters, Disciples of the Lamb, who were founded in 1985 to enable women with Down’s to live the monastic life.
Profoundly moved by the experience of attending her funeral, Varden is reminded of the observation of the devout French geneticist Jerome Lejeune that “the worth of a civilisation is measured by the respect it shows its weakest members.” He further elaborates: “perhaps not just its worth, but its durability.”
Given that he is reflecting on the life and witness of the young nun and her early death in the context of a universal plague, Varden sees great relevance and timely consequence to thinking of what her life means in our time of upheaval, and what a challenge it presents to us, when we as a civilisation emerge from under the weight of a global pandemic:
At the funeral of Marie-Ange, her siblings told us she had, like a cornerstone, a stone our parents did not reject [my italics], which solidified our family, directed the path of each one of us inimitably.” The Christian story is the story of a cornerstone we, builders of our lives, church and society, are free to place where it structurally belongs or to throw in a skip. In a Christian perspective, those mutually exclusive options add up to a hermeneutic by which history can, and must, be read and judged. It is time we applied it to ourselves here and now, asking ourselves without subterfuge what sort of world we are minded to construct, spelling out the stakes.
Something to jolt us out of the miasma of fear, confusion and uncertainty that defines our dark and isolating time.