These last few weeks in most of our communities will stretch us in two directions: we will be weary, worn, and tired, but simultaneously inspired, energized, and touched by the multitude of recognitions, ceremonies, and closings to our academic year. We will remember that the places we inhabit daily are both exceptional and quotidian, and that this balance is at the heart of our dynamic approach to education in the Episcopal tradition. But it’s easy to privilege the exceptional, especially at this time of the year, and to overlook the quotidian, the ordinary, the unsung in our communities.
I recently shared with my own school community a book that encapsulates so well the nobility, grace, and deep spirituality inherent in the ordinary—Miss Rumphius, a children’s book by Barbara Cooney (inspired by a recent write-up in The Atlantic on her work, my spouse and I snatched up as many of her books as possible from the local library).
The book tells a simple story of a now-aged “lupine lady” who grew up in a quiet way, learning in her grandfather’s workshop that, as he put it, one should always find a way of making the world more beautiful.
There are many things to treasure about this book, but I love it most, perhaps, for the way it teaches children to value what is truly valuable and to think about their vocation. Miss Rumphius does have the opportunity to leave home, to see the world, to be attracted by all that it has to offer; but she also decides to return home, to the natural beauty around her, and contribute to her own community’s betterment through something rather simple—sowing lupine seeds all around the town and surrounding countryside—which will continue even after she is gone.
I love it, too, for its embrace of the impractical and its rejection of the idea that a life of “accomplishments” is the best possible life. The book never mentions Miss Rumphius’s resume or income or net worth.
What is important about her legacy is something seemingly insignificant, something seemingly very small and even fairly ridiculous. She planted a lot of flowers: so what? But in the context of the book, this is indeed a most significant accomplishment, because Cooney is trying to teach children that life is not really about the kinds of accomplishments we often think are significant.
David Brooks puts it well when he contrasts resume virtues and eulogy virtues. He says this:
The resume virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral—whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?
Miss Rumphius tries to live a life more in line with eulogy virtues. We don’t measure a life’s worth by the things that seem to obsess us while we’re alive; we measure it by how well the person was really able to live.
I don’t really know anything about Barbara Cooney’s spirituality or religious beliefs, but I can’t help but believe that she had heard of St. Therese of Lisieux, a French nun in the 19th century who was herself known as “the little flower.” St. Therese took seriously the passage in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus says one must become as a little child to enter the kingdom of heaven. St. Therese believed that the path to God for most people was not a path of upward struggle and magnificent saintly heroism, but quiet, patient care for those around us—what has subsequently been called the “little way.”
Therese died at the age of 24. Her life and death remind us that the worst tragedy is not necessarily death itself, but a life not lived in pursuit of eulogy virtues rather than resume virtues.
Episcopal schools have great opportunities to teach our students the little way, to demonstrate in word and deed to our students that if they seek for meaning and significance in many of the ways our culture demands of them, they may actually end up living a tragic life, a life always pushing for the next accomplishment, the next set of resume virtues. But if we can show them a different way of measuring the significance of their lives, one that depends on the little way—on small but consistent acts of beauty, kindness, charity, and peaceableness—they may have the best, and richest, life possible.
Perhaps the end of the school year is the best time to reflect upon the little way, as we hear our students extolled for various academic accomplishments: are we also enabling them to embrace those “accomplishments” that cannot be measured, their growth in lives of service, virtue, and love of God and neighbor?
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