In the second of three articles by Dr. Gerard O’Shea we look at more of the characteristics of what should define a genuine Catholic school. Knowing these attributes helps us to reflect more deeply on what it is we are actually doing in the great adventure of Catholic education.
Catholics believe that we live in a universe created by a loving God. Everything in the cosmos bears the stamp of the Creator – it is true, beautiful and good. Education is about encouraging our students to develop by seeking out truth, beauty and goodness. This will point them, ultimately, towards the God who created them.
In seeking truth, we open ourselves to all reality. This can’t be limited to what our senses tell us – there are abstract and spiritual things beyond this. We believe in things that we can neither see nor touch. This is not a difficult position to argue. Everyone has some experience of realities that we can’t actually see… love, for example can’t be tested in scientific experiments. Nevertheless, it’s real. Faith is like that too. Because we’ve been created in the image and likeness of God, we find in our hearts a yearning that will always be there, no matter how hard we try to suppress it. St Augustine put it very well: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Beauty, some say, is in the eye of the beholder. That’s one of those truisms that’s open to question! Aristotle taught that true beauty is a reality outside us. Beauty exists when something is exactly what it is meant to be – something that allows us to catch a glimpse of some aspect of the universe as it really is. Real beauty draws a response from us that might be described as serene joy. It seems that its purpose in human life is to bring forth hope… hope that we may reach the ultimate harmonious reality: heaven itself.
If beauty and harmony draw us to hope, ugliness and disorder will drag us into despair. If life in our school is chaotic and disordered; if our environment is confrontingly ugly for no apparent reason … then let me tell you, we will create depression and negativity in our students as sure as night follows day. Some of them, sadly – as you know – come from families like that. The last thing they need from us is more of the same.
Finally, goodness is the natural desire of every human heart. And there is a powerful passion that draws us toward what we perceive to be good – we call it Love. The danger in this, of course, is that our perceptions of what’s good can us lead us into unhelpful side-tracks that can cause harm and unhappiness.
Our task is not only to tell students what is truly good, but to exemplify it; to show it in our lives. This is where we need to be continually praying for the help of God to know and do the truth in love. We have to accept that our students, and we ourselves, will sometimes get this wrong. But it remains the greatest of all human quests! Again, St Augustine can give us wonderful insights from his own life: “Late have I loved, Beauty so ancient and Beauty so new. You were within me, but I was in a world outside myself…” also in his famous prayer that we should encourage all to repeat: “Lord, that I may know myself!”
So while we share with good schools of every stamp and creed the educational search for truth, beauty and goodness, as Catholic school teachers, we must challenge ourselves and our students to see the perfection of these things in faith, hope and charity, all of which, we will find, are united in the person of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Gerard O’Shea is a faculty member and lecturer at the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Melbourne. He is a former Catholic Principal of many years experience and still involves himself regularly in the great adventure of Catholic teaching with volunteer sessions at nearby Catholic schools. He is a father of five.
Do you think there is a relationship between beauty in a schools physical environment and student behaviour? What has been your experience?