Venerable Emmanuel D’Alzon – Seventh Letter to the Congregation – 13 July 1874

Venerable Emmanuel-Maurice d'AlzonMy dear Brothers,

I hesitated a long time on how best to organize what I have to say about education. Should I treat the education offered in our colleges and that offered in our “alumnates” as two separate topics, or should I simply speak of education in general and treat what is common to both? After careful consideration, I chose to start with a few principles common to both. This would allow me to address in an orderly fashion the various aspects of the basic problems of Christian and religious education.

I shall therefore consider: 1) the purpose of education, 2) the teacher, 3) the college.

I. THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION

All Christian and religious education is summed up in these words of Saint Paul to the Galatians: “My dear children, once again, just like a mother in childbirth, I feel the same kind of pain for you until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). The formation of Jesus Christ in souls, that is indeed the sole purpose of education. In view of the fact that Jesus Christ reached perfect manhood, we will have given our students the best possible preparation for life when we will have provided them with the means of approaching the perfections of the God-man. The ideal purpose of education, it seems to me, is to transmit the following: a knowledge of Jesus Christ that takes into account all that he is and all that he does both as man and as God; a love of Jesus Christ based on the attractiveness of his gifts and of his beauty at once human and divine; a dedication to Jesus Christ in keeping with the sovereign rights of our King; an awareness of the rewards to which he invites us; a desire to carry out the duties and practice the virtues stemming from our relationship with Jesus Christ seen in this perspective.

In order not to go astray, it behooves us to follow Christ step by step. We understand why the Son of God did not wish, like the first Adam, to come forth perfect from the hands of his Father. He preferred to be born of a humble woman, to put up with the swaddling clothes and the sickness of childhood, to grow little by little and so reveal himself gradually to humankind. The education of children was too important for the child-Jesus not to propose himself as its model. The Christian teacher should meditate frequently on the mystery of the holy childhood and on the circumstances that surrounded it. Though these details might seem at first sight to have little bearing on education, what lessons can be drawn from them?

II. THE TEACHER

“What I did,” said the divine Teacher to his Apostles, “was to give you an example: as I have done, so you must do” (Jn 13:15). Acts recounts everything that “Jesus did and taught” (Acts 1:1). Education is not pure speculation; it is, before all else, a practical training for every moment of every day. I fail to understand the Christian teacher who does not have in his heart rather than on his lips these words of the Apostle: “The life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me” (Gal 2:20). When Jesus Christ lives in a teacher, it becomes quite easy for that teacher constantly to reflect the divine model, especially if he is mindful of that teaching of Paul: “To me, ‘life’ means Christ; hence dying is so much gain” (Phil 1:21). The teacher for whom life means Christ is characterized by two things: a supernatural spirit and selflessness.

If his whole life is Jesus Christ, if it is hidden in God with Jesus Christ, then it necessarily rises above the difficulties of this world and assumes in God, through Jesus Christ, a divine character. And if, for him, dying is a gain, it is because he holds on to nothing here below; his reward is not on earth. Were he to seek that reward in perishable things, death could not possibly be a gain when it takes them from him. If, on the contrary, we sense in the teacher a contempt for that which passes, for fame, for marks of honor, for personal feelings, for money, for material advantages, for comfort; if no human mire stains the crystalline purity through which Christ, living in him, radiates the gentle yet strong rays of his light and warmth, then, indeed, he will be strong, productive, fit to form Jesus Christ in the souls of his pupils. For their sake, he will lovingly accept to suffer the pains of some mysterious child- birth, the result of which will be a new incarnation of Jesus Christ in souls: “until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19).

To be sure, this means undergoing difficult labor pains, but what an honor for someone to be called by Jesus Christ to cooperate in the most worthy of tasks! What is the work of the six days in comparison with Christian education? Since theology teaches us that the act of redemption is far superior to the act of creation, what must we not conclude of the honor given us to cooperate in the salvation of mankind?

You might wonder if such comments apply to everyone with an apostolic function or mission? They certainly do, and it is already a source of glory to be compared with the apostles; which is what we really should be. However, a few qualifications are in order. The Christian teacher is an apostle by reason of his zeal, his virtues and his goal, but the apostle strictly speaking has a broader field of action, while the Christian teacher is more narrowly focused. The apostle deals with the multitudes in the hope that saints will emerge; the Christian teacher strives, even though not always successfully, to form individual saints. He has fewer characters to mold, but he needs to work more painstakingly. He is not a sculptor who hastily carves from ordinary stone a great number of roughhewn statues destined to be seen from afar; rather he chisels in marble a work destined to embellish the temple of God, perhaps even its sanctuary. He is all the more bound to work for perfection inasmuch as he is being asked to produce fewer pieces and more masterpieces. The apostle works in broader strokes, coming back on his work in only a few instances; the Christian teacher operates within a much narrower context. He works with individuals one-on-one in order to form Jesus Christ in the hearts of the young. He must root out the bad weeds one at a time before he can sow the seed of finest wheat, Jesus Christ, the seed of saints.

That being said, I quite readily agree that the Christian teacher must be above all an apostle. What prayers, what tears, what penances must not accompany his outward activity! A teacher who does not pray much, who does not suffer much for his pupils, who does not make education his overriding concern might be brilliant and distinguished, and might win applause and success; but, in the final analysis, he will be a mediocre and commonplace teacher, bearing no fruit for God; he will be a hireling. May God preserve us from such teachers! The essential characteristic of a true teacher is summed up in a single word: dedication. One must know how to give one’s self completely: “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Cor 12:15).

III. THE COLLEGE

It would be absurd to pretend that we can turn a college into the vestibule of heaven for all who come knocking at our door. To console us, Jesus Christ shed considerable light on the subject when he said: “Did I not choose the twelve of you myself? Yet one of you is a devil” (Jn 6:70). No matter what we do, therefore, we will have “devils” among our students, but that should not prevent us from trying to make angels of them. Difficulties should not stand in our way. Did Our Lord not have to suffer much from the coarseness, the lack of intelligence, the scepticism of the Apostles themselves? At every turn, they were stupidly preoccupied with dignity, ambition, rivalry. Time and again, they failed to understand what was happening: “They understood nothing of this” (Lk 18:34). Unquestionably, the Christian teacher must be patient, though he will never have to be quite as patient as his divine model.

Let it be understood from the outset that the students entrusted to our care are not perfect. If they were, why would anyone entrust them to us? To teach them a smattering of Latin, Greek, history or physics? Hired professors who teach for nothing else but money would suffice in that case.

The Creator shaped the first human being from a bit of clay. Yes, college students are this unformed mass, unfortunately viscous at times, into which the Christian teacher must, in imitation of God, blow “the breath of life” (Gen 2:7). But to transmit this breath, one must have it. What a pity that so many teachers do not have it and are not even aware that they lack it!

Please note the difference – all to the advantage of the Christian teacher– between the formation of the first man in paradise and the formation of the new man in the Church. “The first man was of earth, formed from dust, the second is from heaven” (I Cor 15:47). No matter what meaning you give the expression “formed from dust,” yours is the task of training “men from heaven” according to your model, Jesus Christ, who is within you and before you: “let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2). To achieve such a noble goal, we have a lot of work to do.

We must know Jesus Christ. As I mentioned elsewhere, we can speak adequately only of what we know well. We discover Jesus Christ through study and through meditation. Without these two means, it is impossible to learn enough about him to speak of him fittingly. The study of Jesus Christ is something good in itself, though it can be dry at times. On the other hand, meditation without formal study gets lost in a cloud of false mysticism. Together, study and prayer provide fruitful results. Sadly enough, experience shows that, if Christ is so poorly formed in the hearts of youths, it is because their formation has been entrusted to teachers who do not pray, or who do not study, or who all too often neither pray nor study.

We must love Jesus Christ. This is a serious matter. Why is it that, as a rule, students love Our Lord so little? The reason would indeed be hard to take if the answer were that they have lost their innocence and consequently can no longer bring themselves to love the one who enjoyed resting among the lilies of the field. This would constitute a sad state of affairs! Is it possible that students do not love Jesus Christ because their teachers love him so little? Since we should force ourselves to get to the heart of the matter in these reflections meant just for us, let us admit shamefully that this is the real reason why our students lack fervor for the divine Master. When the Christian teacher is with his students, he should keep in mind at all times that scene when Jesus Christ questioned Saint Peter just before conferring upon him supreme teaching authority in the Church: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Jn 21:15). Not once but twice does the Lord entrust him with the sheep of his fold. At the third questioning, Peter is saddened and in a burst of love cried out: “Lord, you know everything. You know well that I love you” (Jn 21:17). Christ answered him: “Feed my sheep.” The measure of our love for Jesus Christ should be, and in fact will always be, the measure of our influence on souls in the Church and in school.

3) Love proves itself by deeds. If we succeed in forming Jesus Christ in our students, they will not only love him but pray to him. Let me confess something to you in the form of a question. Did I not set a bad example by not sufficiently encouraging you to educate our students to a spirit of prayer? Could it be that we are not training them well enough because we ourselves fall so far short of being men of prayer? Please think about this. Reflect on the terrible consequences this has for our students and on our responsibility in their regard. Because we do so little to develop in ourselves a life of prayer, it becomes practically non-existent in those around us. How then can we hope to form Jesus Christ in those entrusted to our care?

4) Love proves itself by deeds. These deeds are nothing other than the practice of the virtues, each of which is a particular imitation of the perfections of Jesus Christ. What a wealth of perfections on which to model ourselves! What an eloquent sermon for our students! It is really an opportunity for us to do as Christ did: act first, then teach!

I need not recall the specific virtues which characterize the spirit of Assumption. Since I wrote on the subject elsewhere, I need not come back upon it here. Suffice it to remind you that we should emphasize both for ourselves and for our students a spirit of faith, frankness, sacrifice and initiative. Beyond that, we should allow them a certain freedom in their development and not crush them by trying to force them into a uniform mold.

At any rate, let us return to the three important principles that we must constantly try to inculcate in our students: love of Christ, love of the Blessed Virgin, the guardian of their purity, and love of the Church, that noble cause for which we must set them on fire. We can be confident that their interest in the Church’s struggles will see them through the boredom of certain subjects and afford them wholesome distractions from the effervescence of youth and the enticements of the world and of Satan.

Think of the vocations that would then emerge almost on their own! Think of the great number of young people who will easily become heroes once they have been seduced by the greatness and beauty of our goal, as well as by the dangers to be overcome in attaining it. Think of those who would respond to our three-fold motivation: the love of Jesus Christ which we will have imparted to them, the love of the Blessed Virgin and of all the virtues that she conceals beneath her royal and heavenly mantle, the love of the Church in its struggles and in the persecutions to be endured for her sake! As a matter of fact, all this could be easy, but only on one condition: that we ourselves first become heroes for Jesus Christ.

5) I to speak about the faults to be corrected and the abuses to be reformed. Both require constant attention and persistent effort. The love of Jesus Christ is the source of all good for the people he has redeemed. It implies hating evil and uprooting it from our hearts. God himself spoke the last word on education when, in expelling Adam from Paradise, he told him that the earth would produce nothing for him but “thorns and thistles” (Gen 3:18), that he would need bread to live on, and that he would earn it “by the sweat of his brow” (Gen 3:19). We too need bread as do our students. It is up to us to secure it for them and, at the same time, to teach them how they will have to secure it later on for themselves. That bread, which is so necessary for us and for them, is that most substantial bread that Saint Matthew speaks of. It is our touchstone. Let us push them toward this bread; let us give them a hunger for it. By our teaching and especially by our example, may our young people learn to earn it by the sweat of their brow, by struggling against their faults, their vices, their sinful habits. Let us train them for these personal struggles. Let us show them this admirable bread, the strength of the weak, the sustenance of the strong, the true bread of angels. The young man who, prompted only by the grace of God, often goes to communion on his own, carries within himself the seeds of perfection. When he leaves, he will love us. Even if he forgets us–which matters little–our work will have been successful, for whatever is lacking in his training will be continued by Jesus Christ at communion. We will have made him a Christian; we will have formed Jesus Christ in his soul. When Jesus Christ returns to him in the Eucharist, he will take care of making him a saint.

Obviously, there are many topics I have not mentioned about education. I have said nothing about how a teacher should be attentive to what is special in each student, uproot certain vices, identify what is good in view of developing it, and mold character so as to give everyone a certain stamp, while respecting the individuality of each one. Jesus Christ is the epitome of all perfection; the saints, though reflecting the divine model in many ways, possess only certain virtues to an eminent degree. What is true of the saints is true of our students. The saints had to fight against certain innate tendencies and reject certain temptations, acquiring thereby their own special merit. The same holds true in the field of education. We must form Jesus Christ in our students, but according to the raw material at hand: gold, silver, bronze, marble, stone or wood.

All these considerations could be the object of a more thorough study. At any rate, what is certain is that when a teacher, through personal dedication and holiness, has acquired the confidence of his students, the one they will imitate most faithfully and easily is the teacher himself.

It is not my purpose here to treat the question of instruction. However, I do want to mention that the study of Jesus Christ, if well done, can be the source of much Christian inspiration. What is more beautiful or more admirable than God approaching us closely by becoming one of us? What could be greater than the reflection of his divine beauty in the different forms of human beauty, nobility and moral sensitivity which are to be found in the saints? Because we absolutely must study these models, I wonder if we will have the time to study the pagan ones as well. This could even be the final answer to that famous controversy.

We do not proscribe all non-Christian literature; we admit that it has the value that some of its supporters claim. But the Christian treasures to be exploited are so rich, the mine so inexhaustible, that we do not have the time to spend on anything else. When we have exhausted the world of supernatural beauty and when we have assimilated this wonderful order, which admittedly revelation situates beneath the heavenly realm but well above the terrestrial, we can then consider the beauty of nature as understood by the pagan world. But until we have reached that point, we will forego that study simply because it would be an unprofitable use of our time.

The notion of Christian beauty, studied in its highest form, is obviously a powerful means of education. Once someone falls in love with truth and experiences emotions of a purer order, he becomes more pure himself, is improved, and discovers that he has less taste and drive for lower desires. It would take too long to explain here the relationship between Being, Truth, Good and Beauty as they constitute the substance of God and are revealed in Jesus Christ. Yet, we get a taste in these brief considerations of what is developed at great length in a literature that is wholesome, invigorating, superior, and which can serve as a precious vehicle for the kind of education we would like to provide. I beg you, my dear brothers, to think of teaching in these terms; you will be surprised by the results.