Parochial Vicar, St. Martha, Murrieta
This essay is respectfully dedicated to all teachers, academic administrators, school staff and volunteers as the academic year resumes. Oh, yeah……. and also the students.
I am sitting in the chapel of a monastery a number of miles from my home in Redlands. I am not on retreat, although this is the place where I normally go for my obligatory annual retreat. I am here for another reason. Behind the altar there is a very large image of Christ, seated in glory. I have been visiting this image for about twenty years. I am recalling one of my professors, who taught me.
Twenty years ago I was a graduate student at a fiercely secular campus of the University of California. I got a great education but for many of the people there saying ""I believe in God" was about the same as saying "I play with matches and eat school glue." There were no official chaplains there, but several denominations had unofficial clergy there to meet the spiritual needs of the students. "Never wear your clerical collar on campus, Father Gregory" they warned me. "We have to do undercover work here." I have always found it charming how so many institutions which profess a dedication to freedom of thought have all the intellectual tolerance regarding religion as does the government of North Korea.
Even now, I normally do not wear my clerical collar on campus, although I make no secret of my faith. But I always make a point of wearing it and my cassock to graduation ceremonies just to remind them that the rascal who spent the past year teaching them about Greek and Roman paganism does not, in fact, pray to Apollo.
I did my doctoral work there under the supervision of a great professor who was known for his research and for excellence in teaching. Indeed, he had won awards for his teaching and his classes were always full to the brim. So one day, I asked him what his secret was. How do you manage to sway the mobs of undergraduates? He took a long pause before answering.
"I pray for my students as I walk to class." He said. "A lot of people ask me that and I have to tell them the truth, that I pray for my students every time I go to lecture them." And then he added, "I get a lot of strange looks when I tell my colleagues that.
"Let me get this straight" I said. "So when I see you walking across the quad and I wave hello at you, you are in fact at that moment praying for me and the rest of us? He smiled a sad smile and nodded yes.
A disciple is not greater than his master, a very wise rabbi once said. And so I try to remember to pray for my students before I meet with them. Sometimes I run down my grade and attendance roll and pronounce their names before God, and sometimes I pray for them on my way to class, and sometimes I pray for them while they are taking their examinations. I do always mention in the course of this or that lecture that I am a Catholic Christian, but I imagine they have no idea that I am appealing to Christ on their behalf. And I do not ask God for good grades for the little varmints, because the academic world is founded on the principle of salvation by merit, and they must earn the marks they get. But I do ask for His blessing on their minds, their lives and that He touch their hearts with His eternal truths, which are the foundation of everything they think they know. If you are a student, pray for your teachers, and teachers, return the favor. It may be that everyone will learn more in the process.
So this is why I am parked in the monastery chapel staring at this image of Christ in glory. I like to start the teaching year by placing myself in His service and thereby do better in their service. But as I get up to leave and drive the long road back to Redlands, I notice something odd about the icon and I walk up to it for closer inspection.
Is Jesus getting younger in this picture I visit every year? He looks rather like a young man on His throne above the sapphire pavement. When I first started visiting this chapel as a graduate student in the 1980’s, the face of Jesus seemed quite mature and solemn, as befitted a king. But now He seems rather like a young strong fellow. How could this be? There are no reports of miracles here, the painting has not been revised and it is the very nature of icons that they do not change at all. But He somehow looks a lot younger than he used to. And strange to say, my new students also seem to be younger than ever. How can this be?