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Questions: The Key to the Country from Whence the Shadows Fall

Every parent I know is intimately familiar with the barrage of questions we receive from our children. This past summer our family spent a week at a beautiful lake in the mountains of North Carolina. My wife, a high school literature teacher, and I, a religious studies teacher, planned to use our peaceful vacation as an opportunity to read and prepare for the school year ahead. We have three beautiful children, a nine, seven, and five-year-old. Since many of you are parents and educators, you will likely understand the reference below from the 1785 poem by Robert Burns, To a Mouse.

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!

Without fail, we would sit to begin our reading and the questions would begin. “Daddy, can I have a snack?” “Mommy, can you come swimming with me?” “Daddy, why did God make mosquitos?” “Mommy, why do I have to wear a mask when we tour the Biltmore Estate?” Our best laid schemes…

As classical educators, we face similar disruptions to our best laid schemes:

“Mr. Ranieri, how are we supposed to help a friend who is suffering spiritually and emotionally?” “Mr. Ranieri, why must we hold to an orthodox Christian sexual ethic?” “Mr. Ranieri, why did God put the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden in the first place?” “Mr. Ranieri, what can we do about racial injustice?” “Mr. Ranieri, why do we have to read this book?” “Mr. Ranieri, have you graded our papers yet?”

We are trained to cultivate within our students the ability to ask great questions. We want our students to seek the truth by way of questions to encourage them to take the mental heavy lifting required to exit the cave of shadows to the transcendent world beyond. Many of the questions asked by students are filled with depth and complexity. Some questions asked by students seem inane and shallow. I believe it is incumbent upon classical educators to not only see the opportunities within complex questions of our students to touch the transcendent, but also in the simple questions of our students. When my children ask me for a snack, they are beginning to interpret the shadows of desire and satisfaction. When my students ask whether I have a graded a test they are interpreting the shadows of value and purpose, although the question perhaps displays a misinterpretation of both.

In the fairytale, The Golden Key, George MacDonald tells of young Mossy and Tangle who encounter fairyland. The two children grow, embark on their journey, seek to live fully human lives while constantly pursuing “the country from whence the shadows come.” Mossy holds the blessed “golden key” as the two walk through the field of shadows searching for the door for which the key is designed. As they grow older, they learn to interpret the shadows:

After a while, they reached more open spaces, where the shadows were thinner; and came even to portions over which shadows only flitted, leaving them clear for such as might follow. Now a wonderful form, half bird-like half human, would float across on outspread sailing pinions. Anon an exquisite shadow group of gambolling children would be followed by the loveliest female form, and that again by the grand stride of a Titanic shape, each disappearing in the surrounding press of shadowy foliage. Sometimes a profile of unspeakable beauty or grandeur would appear for a moment and vanish. Sometimes they seemed lovers that passed linked arm in arm, sometimes father and son, sometimes brothers in loving contest, sometimes sisters entwined in gracefullest community of complex form. Sometimes wild horses would tear across, free, or bestrode by noble shadows of ruling men. But some of the things which pleased them most they never knew how to describe.

MacDonald’s fairytale leaves immense space for interpretation. What are the shadows? What is the golden key? What is this country from whence the shadows fall? The country from whence the shadows fall is heaven, the eternal, transcendent mind of God. The transtemporal and transfinite seat of truth, goodness, and beauty. The kingdom ruled by the King of Kings. The dwelling place of the Logos, who was with God and who was God. The Logos through whom all things, visible and invisible, are made.

And what of the shadows? The shadows are the fingerprints of the Logos, Christ and the brushstrokes of our Creator. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory, the penumbras are “good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” For more insight on the shadows I would simply echo the words of the Old Professor in Lewis’ The Last Battle, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato.” These images attune our hearts to the knowledge of our true home. The Country from whence the shadows fall and the shadowlands appear, at first, to be ethereal. The golden key, however, is concrete from the onset. “Can I have a snack?” This questions communicates something concrete, hunger and satiation, as well something ethereal namely, longing and satisfaction.

I believe the golden key is the inquisitive nature which is innate in each of us. The golden key is the ability to ask questions. The golden key of questions is meant to unlock the door to the world of answers. “Seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Our questions display two realities. First, that we long for answers to life’s questions because existence in the cave does not and can not satisfy. Secondly, the transcendent world from whence the shadows fall is intelligible and can be touched, tasted, seen, and heard if only we “have ears to hear.”

Our goal as classical educators is to illuminate the true fairytale that is the human life. We are calling our students to something more than merely watching the shadows bounce along the walls of the cave. We are calling our students to the country from whence the shadows fall. Leave space for questions. Do not simply leave space, but encourage questions. Become masters of interpreting each question, even seemingly inane ones. The modern world has made the cave quite comfortable while the shadows are appearing increasingly distorted. Our students’ questions are the still small voice, the golden key, which can lead them to the country from whence the shadows fall.

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