Thursday, May 09, 2013

To Hand on to Others

Last night I began to read Denys Turner's new book Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait. The first chapter, where Turner traces a brief biographical sketch of Aquinas, seeks to draw attention to a particularly remarkable feature of Aquinas's style of teaching. Aquinas, Turner suggests, sought always to disappear behind his teaching, to dissolve and become invisible so as not to stand in the way of the light he tried to share. His goal as a teacher was simply contemplata aliis tradere - to hand on to others the fruits of his contemplation.

I have long felt a strong tie between my own experiences as a teacher with my experiences as an Irish musician, particularly as a musician playing for Irish dancers. In both cases, my primary function is to dissolve in some way, to get out of the way so that the student, or dancer, can encounter the material, or melody, in an authentic way. A successful class session isn't one where students walk away saying, "Wow! I learned Mr. ____ really well today," but, rather, "Wow! I really thought ________ was an interesting idea." Likewise, in an ideal setting, the dancer should forget who is playing and surrender to the music in order to dance as best as possible.

I share this because I think Aquinas's desire contemplata aliis tradere stands in great tension with our own society. We practice, we rehearse, we prepare in order that we get noticed. Isn't the measure of success in our society how well we are regarded, how well thought of we are? To follow the path set forth by Aquinas involves diminishing and dissolving, practicing in order to disappear, working hard to be hardly noticed.

I think it worthwhile to ponder how each of us is being summoned to hand on to others what we have received. What are we called to share and how are we to share it? As I start the summer feis season tomorrow (two feiseanna in the Mid-American region), these are questions I ponder. I practice many hours in order that the dancers' practice pays off; my success isn't measure by the kudos I receive but with how well they are able to dance. The same holds true for teachers' class preparation: the hours spent planning pays off only in the hearts and minds of the students. What can seem tedious and thankless, one has need to realize, is engaged not for any other reward than the gift of sharing what one loves with others.

In this we hear the strains of vocational discernment: what have I been given and how am I being called to share it? If my heart is on fire with passion, how might I enkindle similar passions in the hearts of others?

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