The Habit of Wholeness

Some timely words from a deeply respected friend of USMC, Professor Emeritus Michael Vertin. These were first delivered at the Commissioning Mass for the Faculty of Theology, on 15 April 2016.

As I complete forty-five years of teaching at St. Michael’s, many things stand out for me far more clearly than when I began my first course. One of those things is the importance of encouraging what I would call “the habit of wholeness” in one’s students. The habit of wholeness is the Catholic principle, in the basic meaning of the Greek adjective “katholikos”: “kata” — “completely,” and “holos” — “whole.” It is the worldview of exhaustive inclusivity, of “ecology” writ large. It is the personal predisposition toward wondering about and responding rightly to absolutely everything: everything on the earth, under the earth, in the heavens, and beyond the heavens; everything past, present, and future.

Most of us here are or at least to some extent will be teachers. If we envision our responsibility as anything more than giving our students information, we face two challenges, no matter whom we are teaching. One challenge is to skillfully think out, organize, and present the ideas we want to share. But the other challenge is more basic. Unless the students are eager to hear and discuss our ideas, the teaching exercise is a waste of time. All of us know how quickly we shut down when faced with someone giving a detailed answer to a question we do not have! How then can a teacher meet the challenge of evoking students’ interest in big ideas in an atmosphere where the most common attention-grabbers are packaged in bits and bytes? And what about a really big idea, such as the one we heard in today’s second reading: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day”?
Early in his career, Bernard Lonergan remarked: “If you want to be an effective teacher, begin by discovering what your students are curious about. What are their real questions? Then conduct your course so it connects with those questions.” Perhaps Lonergan’s remark gives us a pedagogical clue.

Suppose that initially we bracket what we want to share with our students. Suppose that we begin instead with one or more concrete exercises intended to evoke their experience of their own most basic wondering, and then invite them to talk about that experience if they wish. For everyone wonders, though not everyone thinks about their experience of wondering, much less talks about it. If you can evoke it and then get even a few students to talk about it, you can be sure that everyone will be thinking about it. And that in turn can give you fertile soil in which to grow your course.

Fruitful examples of the type of pedagogical exercise I’m suggesting will depend upon your particular personality, your particular students, and your particular topic. Over the years, I have developed many such exercises, keyed to various students and various topics. Let me sketch an updated and expanded version of one I first used during the summers following my last two years as an undergraduate. I was serving as a senior staff member at a Boy Scout camp in northern Minnesota.

Of course the best way to get in on this exercise is to engage in it, not to think about it or try to imagine it. But for the moment, we must be content with imagining. So imagine yourself with a group of your students, gathered quietly outdoors in a large open area far from city lights, late on an April evening, beneath a sky with no clouds and no moon. Imagine that you and your students meditate together on the following succession of seven ideas that collectively manifest the magnitude of the universe, and that you then share your reactions with one another.

1. If you watch someone a block away who is shingling a roof, you see the hammer slam down an instant or two before you hear it. But if you point a powerful flashlight even at some far away tree, you can discern no difference between when you turn it on and when you see the tree illuminated. For light travels much faster than sound. If the flashlight were powerful enough to send a beam of light around the entire world, the beam would circle the world more than seven times in just one second.

2. During the daytime, at any given instant the sunlight we see was emitted by the sun around 8 minutes earlier. For the sun is much farther away from us than the tree is.

3. Now let’s look up at the North Star, the end star in the tail of the constellation Little Bear [or Little Dipper]. The light we see was emitted by the North Star 323 years ago. That’s 66 years before Wolfe defeated Montcalm in 1759 at the Battle of Quebec. In fact, the North Star could have blown up and vanished completely in 1759, but we won’t know it for another 66 years. Nonetheless, as stars go, the North Star is quite close to Earth.

4. Next, let’s look toward the southwestern quadrant of our April sky. There’s the constellation Orion, the Hunter. To the left is Canis Major, the Big Dog that follows Orion. And within Canis Major, you can see the star VY. More precisely, you can see the light that started heading toward us from VY around 5,000 years ago. That’s 3,000 years before the birth of Jesus. It’s more than 1,000 years before Abraham. It’s around the beginning of recorded human history.

5. The light we see from the so-called “Big Bang,” the originating event of “our” universe, was emitted more than 14 billion years ago.

6. We cannot exclude the possibility that the beginning, ultimate expansion, subsequent contraction, and death of “our” universe is but a single set of events in an indeterminate sequence of prior and subsequent universes.

7. In a purely spiritual realm, distinct but not separate from the realm of matter and embodied spirit that we are well acquainted with, is the radical ground and ultimate goal of all universes. For it is the radical ground and ultimate goal of all that was, is, and will be. It is what Christians affirm and worship as the divine Trinity.

Let me conclude with a culminating suggestion, expressed in terms familiar to students of theology, which finally means all of us. Growing in the habit of wholeness is one way, though not the only one, of growing in openness to the habit of holiness.

Michael Vertin
University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto