Embrace is one of the most powerful tools we have when we are talking about the hospitality of the home or school – or church, for that matter. If you ever get a glimpse of the deep resonance of homecoming when Jesus said “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” then you also begin to know the certainty of the hospitality of God and the acceptance of his great grace. However, we are also challenged to extend that embrace and acceptance to others. Miroslav Wolf has described it in his book Exclusion and Embrace and it is a key to why some of us feel that our school is more of a church to us than our church is. Part of this, and it is only a part, is that we suddenly find ourselves valued, given work to do, a role to play, and our identity affirmed.
For me this contains a gentle warning to allow our school to expand and grow in grace and capacity in order to accommodate the lives, loves and talents of those who join us. We cannot simply expect people to conform to who we are, nor to remain the same when they come. If we are attractive to newcomers as a school (and we seem to be), then that alone will be enough motivation for them to find a place among us and learn the ways we have adopted to educate and bring freedom to children. Our responsibility to them is to allow them the freedom and space to act and think as though they were at home.
Amongst all the seasons of the year, autumn is a bit like that. It creates space, somehow. We know what it will bring, but there is a deep attraction – colour, sound, temperature, expectation – about this season that absorbs us into it. Metaphors for it are the collection of conkers (simply because they exist and are shiny!), the kicking of the leaves that fall in piles, the preparation of the dying garden for winter, the tidying of fallen leaves. and the watching over the plants that need care through the cold. Autumn gives us work to do, a role to play, a husbandry of the earth and a preparation for advent and the coming of Christ that is a necessary part of the cycle of our lives. A friend of mine says that it is the time to collect mushrooms (he is from eastern Europe!); Pushkin, the poet, welcomed it as the last time of dryness before Russian rains ruined the roads in November. It is also harvest, so a time of fruitfulness, of reward, and a time when perhaps our involvement with the earth is more obvious. Certainly, above all else, it is a time for thanksgiving – formal and dependent, for all the earth has given us.
So I love it – and wish we could find ways to celebrate it more richly. I am reading presently a set of essays edited by Jason Peters on the life and work of Wendell Berry. In an important essay entitled “The Economy of Gratitude”, Norman Wirzba discusses the key reasons why we find gratitude such a difficult grace to master. He suggests two reasons, from his study of Berry’s work – firstly we are consumers, and it is not in the nature of consumers to give thanks, since they are individuals with a range of choices, and there is, in the act of consumption, no necessity to think about anybody else, least of all a community in whose interest we think and act. As a result, we begin to gain our identity – our embrace, if you will – from the things we possess. Anything that hinders our consumption, we think, somehow lessens us. The potential for ingratitude, as Wirzba puts it, grows with every advertisement and every purchase. It creates a disharmony between those who want and those who have, that is entirely unnecessary and often absent in cultures where individual possession of stuff has not become a cult, as it has with us.
Secondly, we are ignorant of the link between what we consume and the places that create, manufacture, farm and grow the food we consume. Pulling parsnips today and storing them, cutting rhubarb then stewing it, collecting the last beans off a fading beanstalk, and cutting the first corn to eat, all gave me the greatest sense of thanksgiving because I have done nothing but plant and water, and yet I have depended on the earth, on God’s grace through the season, to feed me. And there are turnips to come!!!
Wirzba’s point is that in order to bring about the attractive communal life that we all want, we have to accept a degree of constraint and restraint upon our actions, our purchasing and the impact of what we say and do. It is specious folly to think that we can function as independent of others. Everything we think, say or do has impact on others, and God has created and ordered humans thus. He goes on to suggest that if we want and find attractive a
culture that affirms, promotes and celebrates what is truly our most supreme and common good: the health and vitality of all life together (p.145)
then we would do worse than to “cultivate an economy of gratitude” whose “defining marks…(are)….affection, attention, delight, kindness, praise, conviviality and repentance” with the appropriate steps that lead us to this point. And because these things are often around us, it is the matter of seeing and discovering them, rather than them being absent, that is our difficulty. To walk without seeing, or to be in a community without an awareness of its desire for your safety and contentment – these point to an inner blindness that our society has in spades.
Our vision is shallow because it is impatient, rushed, or simply clouded by self interest. With our minds we do not prize the joy and glory that are perpetually before us, nor do we sufficiently taste the sweetness of this life (p.149)
Perhaps surprising in the list of attributes of an economy of gratitude is repentance. Wirzba makes the point, and I think it is fundamental, that gratitude is found in interdependence with one another, and to the degree that we have been independent, to that degree we must repent and change:
Repentance….is the gateway to full acknowledgement of our interdependence with others, the recognition that together we form a membership in which need and satisfaction can meet because we have given up the tenacious drive to maintain ourselves at the expense of others….through confession and repentance we become detached from ourselves and thus freed to experience, cherish, and nurture the gifts we are to each other (p.152).
This relates to education in may deep ways, not only the education of children but adults too. It is children with whom we must start, and to use Albert Borgmann’s “focal practices” we can begin by putting things into young lives that will begin to free them from the tyranny of things and the rule of ingratitude:
- Saying grace before meals, reminding ourselves that all food comes from God’s good hand
- Thinking and talking about where food comes from
- Gardening with all children as a fundamental part of the curriculum
- Celebrating the agricultural year as though we meant it, and making harvest the centrepiece of our thanksgiving, formal and repeated, so it becomes part of the annual expectation of our lives.
A focal practice that we use in school, and deriving from our work in restorative practice, is to begin and end each day with a community circle, and we can use this to undermine the tyranny of things. Friday morning I was in a Y5 class and I asked the children to think of something that they possess and value but would be willing to give away if the need of another was sufficiently great. We had rings, teddies, Wiis (old ones, mind!), pieces of jewellery, as well as those who were not ready for such a leap yet, and some who would love to be able to give something when they were ready.
This is all part of the repentance (the “turning”) of our lives to face others in openness and warm community. Autumn has embraced us with its mists and colours. It is the start of a time of year when the economy of gratitude needs to supplant an economy of growth and gain.