"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

18 December 2007

What I Told My Students

My Advanced Composition students have given me an outstanding semester, as they often do (this is a course for those in the writing minor). The following is the letter I've enclosed in their final portfolio.

I wish I could thank each of you individually for the specific ways you have encouraged me this semester; but, since time doesn’t allow, please accept this – because what I have to say applies, as it so rarely can, to each one of you.

During a semester rife with personal difficulties that often weighed me down and made ordinary work seem almost beyond bearing, you have made this class an oasis of joy and hope. You have come prepared and eager, challenged and challenging, with humility and cheerful spirits. You trusted me, doing the assigned work with the assumption that it had a purpose whether you always understood it or not, you came with willing hearts expecting and loving to learn – and this allowed me to trust you, to know that you
would learn, without my having to constantly expend energy seeking ways to make and keep you interested and involved. For that most invaluable gift, I thank you, as well as for the gifts of your prayers and encouragement, smiles in the hallway and chats in my office. Your love for your Lord has cast light on my way at many unexpected, now cherished, moments.

At the end of my first-semester freshman English class, my professor – a man not given to flattery – told me, “Keep writing; you’ve got what it takes.” Those have kept me going through many discouraging times. I do not repeat them lightly, or to just anyone, for flattery is destructive. But I can say to each of you in this class: “Keep writing.” Every one of you has the ability to do more than merely competent writing, and if you have the desire – if God has given you the desire and you have the commitment and discipline to pursue it with passion – you can serve your neighbors with this ability in profound ways. Whether your writing in the future is missionary newsletters, magazine articles, academic studies, memoirs for your family to enjoy, books read by millions, letters to the editor or letters to your grandchildren – you have the ability to touch hearts and minds through the truths you convey with the written word.

Lately I’ve been revisiting Thomas Merton’s meditations in No Man is an Island. He has much to say about this journey we’re on which helps me to remember who I am and why, and which draws me to desire the One who knows me and loves me as no one under the sun can. The past several days, I’ve kept re-reading the final chapter, “Silence.” Certain of his words seem especially apropos for those who are called to the vocation of wordsmithing:

“If our life is poured out in useless words we will never hear anything in the depths of our hearts, where Christ lives and speaks in silence. We will never be anything, and in the end, when the time comes for us to declare who and what we are, we shall be found speechless at the moment of crucial decision: for we shall have said everything and exhausted ourselves in speech before we had anything to say.”

But on the other hand:

“If we fill our lives with silence, then we live in hope, and Christ lives in us and gives our virtues much substance. Then, when the time comes, we confess Him openly before men, and our confession has much meaning because it is rooted in deep silence. It awakens the silence of Christ in the heart of those who hear us, so that they themselves fall silent and begin to wonder and to listen. For they have begun to discover their true selves [in Christ].”

May your Christmas break contain silences in which you hear the voice of the One whose coming we celebrate, calling you into oneness with Him so that He can make you more fully yourself. Take great joy always in words, but bathe your words in silence before the Word Himself, and let Him tell you when to speak before men what He has shown you, what He has made you.


Michael Krahn said...


I just put up a series of posts about Thomas Merton that I think you’d enjoy at:


alaiyo said...

This blogsite looks interesting - I'll check it out if I ever get out from under the rest of the grading!

Ben Marston said...

Writing as an Orthodox, I greatly value these comments. The heart of Orthodoxy is hesychasm- or the ascetic prayer discipline of Stillness. For those seeking the Lord, it is important to know that there is first the 'calling' to outer stillness- turn off the radio; unplug the smart phone, and collect your spiritual attention within, guarding your thoughts, and feelings, and bringing them to the subjection of Christ. After a time, one will find that the Spirit draws you into an Inner Stillness, that is like discovering a wonderful inner room in a house you've always lived in but never suspected this one, hidden, enriching, room. It is sort of like going into the wardrobe first, then finding it one day, opened to Narnia. It's like that.
The other thing I think of is that Merton did not have the advantage of Orthodox theology to outline the experience. The Stillness exists on the meniscus between God's Essence which is Unknowable, and His Energies, where the Unknowable God is known by us creatures. Because He is unknowable, we find Silence, but because His Presence is to us in His Energies- it is the knowing of the unknowable that is the heart's home that we have always longed for.
Energy/Essence distinction- formalized by St. Gregory Palamas in the 14th Century, I think it was, in his debates with Barlaam the Thomist.

Beth Impson said...

Thanks, Ben. You might enjoy Scott Cairns' poetry (he is Orthodox). I cited a poem of his called "Hesychia" here: http://inscapes.blogspot.com/2009/07/seeking-again.html