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Pondering and Doxology: St. Augustine’s Pedagogical Pattern

This article is part two in a series of reflections on what The Confessions of Saint Augustine has to say to modern educators.

In a culture obsessed with efficiency, performance, and competition, we often overlook one of life’s simple pleasures–a pleasure that children experience readily until grown-ups teach it out of them. Lewis explains this pleasure in one of the greatest sermons of the 20th century:

Apparently what I had mistaken for humility had all these years, prevented me from understanding what is in fact the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures—nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure of a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator.

The pleasure of the inferior is one that a classical Christian educator ought to encourage and instill in her pupils. It is the foundation of all awe and wonder, and, ultimately, the posture we all hope to take when we face God. Augustine captures this pleasure so well throughout the Confessions, and particularly in a short phrase towards the beginning of his book. It is in the opening six lines that we encounter some of the most enduring language of the Confessions, and in so doing we encounter what Lewis has called “the pleasure of the inferior.”

Man is but a tiny part of all that Thou hast created. He bears about him his mortality, the evidence of his sinfulness, and the evidence that Thou dost resist the proud; yet this tiny part of all that Thou hast created desires to praise Thee.

“Man is but a tiny part of all that Thou hast created.” This is not taken for granted in many educational systems today. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Where does this recognition take Augustine next? What does pondering humanity as “tiny” lead to in his mind and heart? As it does throughout the Confessions, this pondering leads to Doxology. To a vocal expression of the pleasure of the inferior.

Thou dost so excite him that to praise Thee is his joy. For Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.

What follows is several more paragraphs of pondering. Augustine wonders what is happening when his heart longs for God, and how it is that God fulfills that calling.

For in calling unto Him, I am calling Him to me: and what room is there in me for my God, the God who made heaven and earth? Is there anything in me, O God, that can contain You? …

But if You fill heaven and earth, do they contain You? Or do You fill them, and yet have much over since they cannot contain you? … Or are You not in every place at once in the totality of Your being, while yet nothing contains you wholly?

This pondering is not followed by complicated words that seek to cease the pondering by answering the questions, but rather by more Doxology. Yet again, the pattern of deep pondering followed by Doxology is on display.

O Thou, the greatest and the best, mightiest, almighty, most merciful and most just, utterly hidden and utterly present, most beautiful and most strong, abiding yet mysterious, suffering no change and changing all things; never new, never old, and yet making all things new…

This pattern continues throughout the Confessions, which is part of what makes this book so attractive in our age. It does not read like a Systematic Theology textbook, though it covers almost all of the “topics” one would find therein. It reads like the diary of a theologian who has pondered the deep things of God and has emerged with more praise than answers.

It is this pattern itself that I think Augustine offers classical Christian educators: pose a question, ponder, and respond in Doxology. Shape a student’s heard to respond to the mysteries of God with praise, and you set them up for a lifetime of faithful exploring.

I share an idea here in hopes that you are able to implement it in your classrooms better than I have been able to: What if our classrooms operated under the rule that any time we encounter the deep things of God—whether in a painting, the Scriptures, or a microscope—any student has the right to stand, interrupt the lesson, and begin singing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” while her classmates join in?

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