Ann Mellow: Morning Meditation from Biennial Conference 2020

The following is a meditation given by NAES Associate Director, Ann Mellow, at NAES Biennial Conference 2020.

When I first began teaching, I thought academics were all that really mattered. But the more I worked with young people, the more I came to see that great intellect did not always come with a warm heart or a clear moral compass. I saw students crippled by sadness in their lives, or worry, or anxiety or anger and hurt that made learning a shadowy process. Slowly, I came to see not merely their minds but the totality of who they were, and who they were becoming.

And the longer I taught, the more it seemed that by the time they were eighteen or sixteen or thirteen many young people were already spiritually bereft– unable to see where they fit in the world, to know their true heart, to view their neighbor as themselves, to catch a glimpse of still, small voice within. To know their soul. To know they are loved and beloved in the complete fullness of their personhood.

There is a contemporary illness born of anxiety, fear, and the need for control that views children increasingly as some sort of product, perfectly perfect if we could just get them to do everything and like everything and everyone and be good at everything or at least at the things we think are important – and so  we hold tight and never let them from our grasp—even if, in so doing, we risk that they never find themselves, or know strength after sorrow, or redemption, or their own reasons for being.

Over and over Jesus tries to teach us that there is more than our human eyes can see or our minds alone can comprehend. He chastises the authorities and chides his own disciples, all of whom, in their various ways, judge who is worthy and who is not; who is an insider and who is an outsider. Jesus is always turning our eyes towards the stranger and not away. He never asks anyone to be other than who they are – but he does ask people to see with a heart informed by love and dignity and compassion.

Drawing upon the great Quaker educator Parker Palmer, Lucy Nazro, retired Episcopal school head of Saint Andrew’s in Austin TX, has put it this way:

With the mind’s eye we see a world of fact and reason. It is a cold and mechanical place, but we have built our lives there because it seemed predictable and safe …. (But) we open the eye of the heart and we see another sight: a world warmed and transformed by the power of love, a vision of community beyond the mind’s capacity to see. We cannot forsake our hearts, and yet we cannot abandon our minds. How shall we use both eyes not to create a blurry double image, but one world, in all its dimensions, healed and made whole?

Lucy Nazro

Episcopal schools are places that teach students to use both the mind’s eye and the eye of the heart: a wholeness of spirit, a connection to others, a life graced by joy and purpose. In Episcopal schools, ideas matter and spirit matters. We strive for equity and justice not because it’s trendy or political but because it is our gospel call. Students give service not to build a resume but because it’s the right thing to do. This is what holds so many of us fast to Episcopal schools.

And what do so many Episcopal school students and alumni speak of when they return, inevitably, to visit: I was known. My teachers knew me. My peers knew me. Sometime too well! Of course there is always challenge and struggle, the questioning and self-doubt, the hard work and uphill battles that every young person must confront. But it is a gift to be able to navigate all of the struggles and joys of what it means to be an unfolding human being in a place that ultimately says, “I know you, I love you, you are important. “

It is a vision that challenges the most common stereotypes of private and Episcopal schools: rich, spoiled, exclusive, sheltered, and self-indulgent. But great Episcopal schools transform all: the poor, the middle class, and the rich. All of us, in all of our dimensions and with all of our stories – Bound together, we are changed together. Episcopal schools alums will speak over and over again about how well they were prepared academically but even more about how they were shaped in fundamental ways.

The impact of this kind of education is not linear but exponential. Each life touched is like a pebble in a pond. It is in the student who goes on to be a student leader or the young person who develops a lifelong capacity for compassion. It is in the trajectory of an entire family forever changed by this kind of education, and in the lives of the hundreds of graduates over the lifetime of a school who bring a sense of purpose and inner strength to whatever they do. To right wrongs. To free to oppressed. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Young people desperately need places where they can put one spiritual foot in front of the other. Episcopal schools can do just that. And it happens when each and every adult commits to be a journeying presence of love – even when they are making us crazy, or disappointing us, or shattering our preconceived notions of who they are or who we think they should be. It is our love that makes it possible for them to love.  Love one another as I have loved you. This is a charge not simply to love our neighbor, but to love those closest to us. Our students, Our colleagues. Yes, even our heads of school and anxious parents.

Episcopal schools have the capacity to embrace all—be they believers or doubters, cynical or secure in faiths of many varieties and all of the in-betweens as each young person slowly comes to see who they are, who they shall become, and how they shall be in the world. It is a capacity sorely missing for too many today.

The book of Isaiah reads, “I have called you by name, and you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you…because you are precious in my sight.”

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