Spirituality is in all things, even schools

23rd December 2011 at 00:00

"Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth," so Milton assures us in Paradise Lost. The poet is referring to the order of angels, though his observation is equally true of humanity. We are spiritual beings who constantly live in the spiritual world with our loves and likes, fears and phobias, foibles and fancies, strengths and weaknesses. These express themselves in a stream of consciousness based on past memories or hopes for the future. On average, we spend a third of all our time sleeping, dwelling in the haunt of dreams, while psychologists maintain we spend a third of our waking time daydreaming or mentally drifting. We live and breathe our own unique consciousness.

We constantly deal with the spiritual: ideas, concepts and theories. From such sources we create our physical world. Take any room - everything it contains, be it pictures, carpets, furniture or books, is the result of someone's ideas. Indeed, every human being (we hope) is the result of a concept, a spiritual feeling of fulfilment between two human beings expressed in a physical act.

From this spiritual world, everything that is good or beautiful - a sonnet, a piece of music, a painting, a meal or celebration - originates. Regrettably, human spirituality is also the source of nightmares, be it the Nazi death camps, religious wars, gulags, or the violent oppression that crushes the human soul. Our spirituality poses further paradoxes. It can be deeply enmeshed with religion. But it can also be a savage reaction against religion, especially any form of organised religion. The third chapter of Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit begins with this harrowing description: "It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close and stale, melancholy streets in a penitential garb." This sets the scene for one of Dickens' main characters, Mr Arthur Clennam, to reflect on the mind-crushing, heart-stifling, soul-numbing memories of countless gloomy "religious" Sundays.

A second paradox, as noted above, is that our spirituality is not limited only to what is good, noble and uplifting. The writings of Voltaire and Rousseau, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the work of Unesco, Unicef and so on, must be offset against the spirituality of much darker forces. The Nazis had their own spirituality - malevolent, twisted and seething with hate, yet it was still a spirituality.

A third paradox is that human spirituality is as intensely individualistic as that person's DNA. We are all the result of myriad forces, events and relationships. Nevertheless, we nourish a yearning for unity, merging with others of a similar outlook, be it in a political party or religious movement or at a pop concert.

Accordingly, though the centrality of spirituality in education should be obvious, this poses even greater paradoxes. Spirituality is vital, yet very difficult to teach, as St Francis of Assisi wryly observed: "Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words." True, this spirituality may well express itself in certain subjects and disciplines, such as literature, music, physical education, religious studies, philosophy and so on. But can a common, unifying spirituality be taught in a school where diversity permeates every aspect of the community?

The solution must surely lie in the central vision of a school and how that vision is implemented in a practical, pragmatic way, laying emphasis on the importance and equality of each individual's contribution to the community and the pursuit of the common good. Such a vision must express itself in the structures of the school: firm, clear codes of conduct and discipline, an emphasis on praise and the involvement of all in what affects all. This is not pure theory. The Book of Proverbs maintains, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." Blaise Pascal, in his theory of vacuums, maintained that any vacuum will always be filled. The lack of a proper vision could lead to Mr Clennam's spiritual wasteland rather than a vibrant spiritual community.

School communities, like the individuals who form them, are deeply spiritual, for good or bad, with yearnings, hopes, ideas and dreams, fears and aspirations. Members of a school, both adult and child, act within a physical environment that includes buildings, uniform and all other furnishings that mark it as distinctive. If the physical environment is easily recognisable, the spiritual environment should be just as obvious in its uniquely articulated ethos.

This vision should be published, become the mantra of the school and used as a source for action. It should be invoked as the template for decisions made about the diverse aspects of school life, be it the curriculum, pastoral care or code of conduct. However, in a complex society, what can be offered as spiritually acceptable to all? Visitors to a school may well talk of "the invisible curriculum", the ambience of the place. But how is this achieved? What is the route that can be accepted by all? I offer one such roadmap from an outstanding English educationalist who taught in the dingy taverns, forlorn chapels and messy marketplaces of 18th-century England. In one of his letters, John Wesley (1703-1791) lays out his vision:

Do all the good you can,

By all the means you can,

In all the ways you can,

In all the places you can,

At all the times you can,

To all the people you can,

As long as ever you can.

For a school to take that as a vision and implement it - the most practical yet idealistic of all spiritualities - would be truly outstanding.

Paul Doherty is head of Trinity Catholic High School in Redbridge, London.

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