Vol. 2 No. 4 - Holy Cross 2007
Back to School:
Guarding the Senses
"Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth, keep watch over the door of my lips." - Psalm 141 (140): 3
Every classical civilization - from China to Egypt to Greece to Rome - recognized the profound impact education has not just on the mind, but on the very essence of the human person. These insights into the interior life of human beings were not lost on the pagan philosophers. Socrates, in particular, faced down the hypocrites of his time, confronting them with the reality that the education of young people is not simply a utilitarian function - a preparation for work, productivity, or even good citizenship - but something much more profound and eternal.
Centuries later, the understanding of classical paganism was revealed in its fullness with the coming of Christ. Those who had searched for the Truth, the Way, the Great Mind, were confronted with Him Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Thus, the task of education took on an even greater importance: knowing the Truth as a Person, Jesus Christ.
The Church Fathers speak volumes about the obstacles to true learning - not learning about facts and dates or even concepts, but the true learning of the spiritual heart, the enlightenment of the darkened soul. This is of course the only real task of a true education; everything else, as the book of Ecclesiastes tells us, is ultimately useless.
Yet modern education is a world away from such insights into the realities of the human heart. Dazzled by technology and the entertainment industry, the enlightenment of the darkened soul has been replaced by the noisy distractions described by Plato in his famous discourse The Cave, in which prisoners of the underworld prefer speculating about shadows inside a cavern, to the acquisition of sight for their physical and spiritual eyes.
The Desert Fathers, and others as diverse as Saints Theophan the Recluse, Dorotheus of Gaza and Ignatius Brianchaninov, repeatedly caution Christians regarding the need to guard the senses: not only to be aware of the things that we see, hear, discuss, and think about, but to actually place limits on the doors of our senses, carefully filtering that which enters, since every impression on the mind produces a life-long seed for future ideation and the stimulation of passions. Even the ancient pagans understood something of this.
Yet modern education, with its utilitarian underpinnings and rational academics, doesn't have time for such trivialities: there is important business to do, curriculum to cover, and controversies to explore. Faced with this plethora of state-determined needs, the bloated school structure is confronted with a frightening challenge: bored students.
Of course, students have been bored for centuries. But in the modern age, current technologies - almost all of them used for entertainment - allow a never-ending stream of noise, images, and chat to flood our senses. This is almost inevitable in any urban setting, unless a very determined effort is made to guard against it. Yet this highway of stimulation for the senses is often the very thing which is used for the occupation of students in schools, and for their distraction before, after, and in between classes.
If our Christian Faith had Truth to offer the pagans of our classical past, who knew something of the interior life, and the guarding of the senses, how much more does the Orthodox Faith have to offer modern post-Christian, post-classical pagan students. On the battlefield of the senses, the weapons of the Orthodox spiritual life - with its strategies for the interior life, offering help for freedom from addiction, and methods of breaking obsessive and lustful preoccupations - are a great gift indeed.
Yet if we are to offer this great gift to young people, as they return to the spiritual battlefield of our schools, we must first immerse ourselves in recovering this lost wisdom of the Church, these strategies for the Christian life which run through all the lives and teachings of the Church Fathers. And not only must we recover them and learn them: we must struggle, with the guidance of a spiritual father or confessor, to put them into practice, lest becoming the teachers of our young people, we fail to have anything worthwhile to offer them from our own experience.
The ancient pagans of all great societies recognized that true education was the faithful passing on of all the acquired wisdom of the past, the sacred inheritance of the ancestors. This practice finds its fullness in the Holy Tradition of the Church, which is nothing more or less than the faithful transmission of all Christian experience. We owe our children no less than to begin to and to continue to acquire this experience ourselves, and to pass it on faithfully to them.
Anything else we pass on is simply dust, the useless shadows on the wall, the blue glow of the monitor.
Father Geoffrey Korz, (Holy Cross, 2007)
© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.