We should have acted sooner. Clearly something was wrong but with a teenage girl it is often hard to know. Was she going through a phase, feeling a bit sullen, or developing an attitude? Her mom’s behavior was more perplexing. She had always been such a great partner in her children’s education, positive and encouraging, but now she seemed to avoid us, not even giving eye contact in carpool. Who likes to go looking for conflict? But knowing how critical that home and school partnership is, especially during the late middle school years, and wanting to live into the “community” aspect of our school name, we reached out to the mom and expressed a desire to meet. Thank God we did.
Every few years I go back to the monastery. Not literally so much, though I have visited several monasteries and draw great peace from their ministry to the world, but more in the ideas or “rules” that govern monastic life and in the many of the prayers of medieval saints. Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk and Esther de Waal’s Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, are two books that seek to purposefully draw upon the wisdom of early monasticism for 21st century application. They have served as great sources of wisdom and encouragement for me, both personally in my spiritual life, and for ideas about leadership and the shared life of community.
In recent months the blogosphere has been abuzz with Benedict and heated discussions around an idea called “The Benedict Option.” Fascinating though that is and perhaps deserving of a blog post or two of its own, my interest lies more in what is known as “Benedict’s Rule” and the principles that governed the ways in which the monastery practiced hospitality, relationships between the Abbot (the leader) and those he lead, and lastly promoted unity among the monks.
Benedict wasn’t a blind idealist; he was well acquainted with the frailty of the human condition and how vulnerable…precarious…relationships are to misunderstanding, hurt, and unaddressed conflict. “Let peace be thy quest” is one of the most famous lines in his “Rule.” Benedict knew that peace, either with God, or in human relationships, did not come easy; it had to be something we purposefully pursued and fought for, like a knight on a quest. Perhaps this is why he required the monks to pray the Lord’s Prayer twice daily. With the lines, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” it was a regular reminder of the essential practice of forgiveness. Esther deWaal sums it up beautifully when she says, “the heart of community is forgiveness.”
With Benedict in mind, we met with the parent. We certainly had our own set of broad concerns as well as specific incidents with her daughter that we wanted to address, but our aims were tempered both by Benedict and a later figure of the medieval church, St. Francis. Over the years I have tried to make it my practice to pray the prayer attributed to him at the start of a potentially contentious meeting. It’s his line, “Oh divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand,” that reminds me to reframe my approach. If I engage a parent with a stubbornly set position, the meeting likely won’t go well. But if I can embrace St. Francis’ prayer and genuinely desire to understand the parent’s position, it helps me in practical terms to practice what St. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, “In humility, think of others more important than yourself.” It is the interests we share in common, for the good of the child and the glory of God, that should govern our conversation, not our particular positions on a given day.
We started the meeting with prayer, as we always do, but it felt a bit perfunctory and ineffectual. The atmosphere in the room was tense. The mother was cool and aloof – gone was the warmth of years past. After briefly laying out our objective for the meeting and summarizing our concerns with the daughter’s behavior, we started with something like, “We sense that we’ve disappointed you and that perhaps you are somewhat angry with us. If there is anything we have done to lose your trust, I pray you will forgive us.” I guess that was all she needed. The floodgates opened and she catalogued her hurt and frustration. It stemmed largely from one incident, and in all earnestness, we were able to apologize for our mishandling of this particular situation. We explained our thinking but didn’t justify, for we acknowledged that she held a valid position, and we justifiably needed to apologize. An apology with particularities and specificity always goes deeper than a vaguely offered mea culpa. And the words, “Will you forgive me?” are more powerful and healing than “I’m sorry.” She forgave us. And then the real miracle happened. She asked us to forgive her…for harboring her anger, for allowing it to spill out over her daughter and impact the way she too was viewing the school and responding to authority. When someone shares vulnerably like that, recognizing and admitting their faults, how can you not quickly offer the forgiveness they seek?
Once we firmly re-established the partnership between home and school, we invited the middle school girl to join us. She witnessed a united front. She heard of apologies offered and hearts changed. Her heart changed too and that meeting served as the solid foundation for a great year.
West Dallas Community School is a unique place with a bold mission. We’re not quite as radical as a monastery, but I think St. Benedict and St. Francis have plenty to offer us if we have ears to listen. The early monastic tradition was mostly comprised of individual hermits living isolated lives in the desert. Benedict knew it was simpler and perhaps easier to be a saint alone; it is never easy to live with other people. In the shared spaces of family, or church, or friendships, or school, we hurt each other. It is inevitable. But what we lose in isolation is the personal growth that comes from forgiving and being forgiven, and how that instructs us about ourselves, our need for redemption, and the vast, unmerited love of Jesus. At WDCS we offer a challenging, classical, educational experience, but students here are learning so much more that what is described in the curriculum or classroom syllabus.
We are West Dallas COMMUNITY School and “the heart of community is forgiveness.”
Head of School
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