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  • Keeping Your Eye on the Angel

    February 2011


    Cartoonist Michael Leunig does not appeal to everyone, but his often gentle whimsy frequently gives cause for deep thought. One of his cartoons, in particular, has led me to stop and think. The cartoon, published a number of year ago now, but re-printed in his collection entitled “The Stick” (2002), depicts a version of the Christmas scene, but it’s a depiction with a twist. The words under the simple drawing are a parody of a popular Christmas carol, “While shepherds watched their flocks by night”. Leunig changes the words, somewhat disrespectfully, some might think, to, “While shepherds washed their socks by night, all seated on the ground, the angel of the Lord came down – and no one looked around.”

    Disrespectful, perhaps. Meaningful, certainly. The shepherds, in this version, were simply washing their socks. It’s hard to imagine a more ordinary, mundane task. It is a task that is necessary, but Leunig’s warning is that we can get so caught up in the mundane things of life that we miss the really important things, the really rewarding things, the really beautiful things. They are what the angel represents. In fact, to take the cartoon to a deeper, but very obvious level, we can get so caught up in the ordinary, everyday business of life, that we miss the beauty of God’s presence here with us now. Sometimes we just don’t seem to have the time to turn around to see the angel.

    I find it always worthwhile to remind myself of what my own angel represents. Where is beauty in my life? What are the things in my life that make me more fully human? Where do I find God in my life? Do I remember to look around at them? Or do I just keep washing my socks? Do I keep my eye on my own “angel”?

    It is the same in the life of a school, of a parish or of any community. It can be the same even of family life. We can get so caught up in the mundane, the administrivia, in washing our organisational socks, that we forget to turn around and see the angel. And, sadly, that can leave those tasks empty of real meaning. They become just “busywork.”

    In schools, for example, there is much “washing of socks” that is absolutely necessary, as there is in every human community. There are rosters to prepare, staff meetings to attend, professional learning to pursue, programs to develop, class groups to organise, testing to be done, policies to write, rolls to prepare, resources to organise, work to correct, budgets to manage, behaviour to deal with, fees to collect, bills to be paid . . . . the list goes on and on, and all are important. But these things are a bit like washing our socks - necessary certainly, but they are not our core purpose. They are not the source of our reward, they are not our angel. They are means to a greater, more important end. Let us never forget that. We need every now and then to turn around and see the angel, to keep our eye on the angel even while we continue to wash those socks.

    In our Catholic schools our angel has three faces, three fundamental reasons that we do all those things – and they all centre, not on the school, not on the staff, but on the person of the student.

    Writing policies, collecting fees, attending meetings, etc., etc, while they are important, are not our core purpose. The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium tells us in clearly what that purpose is. In paragraph 9, that document draws attention to our angel when it says that “the promotion of the human person is the goal of the Catholic school”. It couldn’t be much clearer! We need to think of our goals always in terms of the human person, the student.

    However, as Catholics, we have a particular and precious view of what it means to be a human person, and that is found in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ. The human person we seek to promote knows and loves God. The truly human person is one who is on the journey of dying and rising, every day, to share the life of the risen Christ, one who through that on-going experience of dying and rising becomes a fuller, richer human person.

    So for us in Catholic schools, our focus is not on the administrivia of washing our socks. It is not even on making our schools more Catholic (though that is an important means to the even more important end). Nor is our focus on making our schools better learning environments, though once again this is an important means to that same important end.

    Our goal, the angel we must remember to see, must be always the promotion of the full humanness of the student. Our goals must be student focussed. The angel we need to keep our eye on in our schools is not the making of a better Catholic school but in the promotion of a true humanity in each and every one of those precious beings given to us for a very short time. That is reflected again in the same church document mentioned above. It reminds us that it is our privilege to “write on the very spirits of human beings.”

    In our Catholic schools, we can do this in three ways. Firstly we need to work to bring every student to a knowledge and love of God as shown to us in Jesus Christ through the Catholic church; we need then, to enable every student to learn so they can lead fulfilling lives and contribute positively to the development of a healthy and just society and finally, we need to ensure that every student can thrive in an environment that enhances their social and emotional growth.

    Those core purposes quite clearly put the student at the very heart of what we do as Catholic educators. They are our angel. We need often to remind ourselves of them. We need to keep our eye on that angel. It is a beautiful gift we have been given, an enormous privilege. The rest, important though it may be, is just “washing our socks”. Thank you, Michael Leunig, for reminding me of that.