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Scholé for the Restless Soul

I vividly remember my introduction to the concept of scholé. It was not a season of smooth and easy days. Between teaching and administrative duties, I was working fifty (or more) hours a week. I had one- and three-year-old boys (both in diapers), and we had recently purchased a home; there was much work to be done acquiring furniture, decorating, and painting. This particular day, I was painting the boys’ room, listening to some conversations from Circe’s audio library to pass the time. I don’t remember the title or subject of the talk, but I distinctly remember Andrew Kern’s confident assertion that our word for “school” came from the word scholé, which meant leisure. I was equally confident that, though wise, he must be confused. There was simply no way I could reconcile any relationship between school and leisure.

He was, of course, correct. Leisure is not only the etymological root for the word school, but it is also a foundational concept of Western Culture. Josef Pieper, a renowned twentieth-century philosopher, explores this idea in his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Writing in the wake of World War II, he considers how his German homeland might rebuild society after the devastation of the Nazi regime. He explains that recovering the idea of leisure first requires returning to the right view of what it means to be human. The classical ideal of leisure has become unrecognizable due to a changing conception of man as a ‘worker’. In classical Greece, leisure was a more robust concept than we understand today and was closely linked with the idea of contemplation. Pieper reveals that the soul of leisure is celebration, which finds its center in divine worship.

In recent years, much has been written about the role of scholé in education and the idea of teaching from rest. But how does one work from rest? On the surface, it is a frustrating contradiction in terms and can quickly become yet another thing to do. For many years, the concept of scholé has eluded me. This is no small wonder; I was once described by a friend as a “high-maintenance rester.” Recently, my five-year-old daughter commented, “Mama, every time I look at you, you are doing something.” When she made this observation, we had been riding in the car for several hours on a family trip; even then, I was busy. Slowly, I have realized that the elusive nature of scholé is not a lack of understanding; the problem is the state of my soul. How can I teach from a state of rest when I cannot even rest from a state of rest?

Pieper casts a vision of leisure as receptivity. He writes,

Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear. Silence, as it is used in this context, does not mean “dumbness” or “noiselessness”; it means more nearly that the soul’s power to “answer” to the reality of the world is left undisturbed. For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.

Leisure is not an advanced teaching technique; it is at the very core of what it means to be human. Without leisure, we cannot have a right relationship with reality. How can we point our students to a reality to which we do not answer? We cannot truly educate without rest.

The medieval anchoress Julian of Norwich writes about our restlessness in her Revelations of Divine Love. The Revelations are an exposition of visions she received from God while she was gravely ill. In one of these visions, she describes a sphere the size of a hazelnut, small in her hand. Upon wondering what it is, she realizes that it is all that is made. It is so small that it could only be sustained through God’s love and keeping. She explains that we cannot have rest until we are oned to Him, fastened to Him, so that there is nothing between us and God. “For this is the cause why be not all in ease of heart and soul: that we seek here rest in those things that are so little, wherein is no rest, and know not our God that is Almighty, All-wise, All-good.” Rest is not something you do; it is something you receive by fastening your soul to him.

Because feasting is at the heart of leisure, it is easy to confuse the physical goods that are fundamental to celebration with necessary external requirements for scholé. But leisure is not idealism. I would like things to settle, just for a while, so I can sort out what it means to become rested. Or, at the very least, have silence in the morning during my first cup of coffee. Currently, I have more cause than ever for restlessness – a grueling season of homeschooling, vocational upheaval, and general uncertainty. I do not want to trust, waiting for a portion of manna to last only one day. Yet Hebrews admonishes us against this, recalling the Israelites’ rebellion in the wilderness: “And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.” Exhorted to enter rest, T.S. Eliot’s words become my prayer:

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still

Even among these rocks,

Our peace in His will

And even among these rocks

Sister, mother

And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea

Suffer me not to be separated


And let my cry come unto Thee.


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