When Trying to be the Hero in Your Own Classroom Fails: Kristin Lavransdatter and Allowing God to Be Glorified in the Mess

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Kristin Lavransdatter, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is the saga of a middle class Norwegian woman’s life from childhood until the very end. (There are a few SPOILERS in here, so read on with caution!) Kristin grows up in a devout Catholic family, gets seduced by a handsome trickster named Erlend, and spends most of her adult years dealing with the consequences of their damaged, yet enduring, marriage. Through it all, she moves as if on a spiraling track, first toward God, then away from him. She lets her father down, betrays her betrothed (Erlend’s competition), engages in superstitious practices to save her nephew’s life, stands by her husband through a terrible imprisonment due to a political snafu, and watches some of her children die. Eventually, her husband dies, and she is left alone with her sons, who eventually take over responsibility for the management of the estate. She spends her final months of life as a boarder in a convent; lastly, a plague comes and kills hundreds around her, and she falls prey to it herself. 

What a mess, right? But in some of her final moments on earth, she realizes that God’s relentless love for her has overcome even her own stubbornness and self-centeredness:

“It seemed to her a mystery that she could not comprehend, but she was certain that God had held her firmly in a pact which had been made for her, without her knowing it, from a love that had been poured over her–and in spite of her willfulness, in spite of her melancholy, earthbound heart, some of that love had stayed inside her, had worked on her like sun on the earth, had driven forth a crop that neither the fiercest fire of passion nor its stormiest anger could completely destroy”(Undset 1122). Kristin sinned a great deal, but she also suffered through the consequences of her sin, and she ended her life by performing an act of mercy– courageously burying a poor old woman, another plague victim, whose corpse had been abandoned. She became increasingly aware, in her later years, that her desire for God was nothing compared to His all-consuming desire for her. While she sought Him haphazardly, He sought her wholeheartedly, over and over again.

I think what I loved most about Kristin’s story was that it was truthful, often so truthful it was ugly. People in Kristin’s time didn’t have ibuprofen, cosmetic surgery, or diet soda. They couldn’t put filters on their pictures to make them look prettier. They sometimes died from wounds that we could easily treat today. And they did very hurtful things to each other, too, and these hurtful things turned into grudges and lies and insecurities. In the end, they weren’t the heroes of their own stories. If there was a hero in Kristin’s story, it was the Lord, not her.

As we’re preparing to start this school year, which will certainly be a year unlike any other, let’s keep our eyes fixed on the Lord. When everything else changes, He remains the same. When we try to measure our successes by earthly standards, He nudges us to seek sanctity for ourselves and our students, even though it will be messy. When we want to be the heroes of our own classrooms, He reminds us that He wants to be the hero; we have only to let Him. 

Undset, Sigrid. Kristin Lavransdatter. Translated by Tiina Nunnally, Penguin Classics, 2005.

Chosen: Praying with St. John’s Gospel to Prepare for the School Year

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Each of us longs to be noticed, to stand out, to be pursued, to be desired. Each of us longs to be chosen. We want others to look at us and say, “You! I choose you for my team. I want you.” I’ve been reflecting on this longing lately, and just like those other internal longings, this is one that never truly goes away, even though it may lie dormant for a time. Created to be utterly satisfied only in heaven, it may be more apt to call it an “ache” than anything.

As Catholic Christians, we have the incredible privilege of living the “already but not yet” of the end times. In a certain sense, we are already with the Father in heaven whenever we unite with Jesus, who is there now. But we’re not fully with the Father yet, hence the ache. In the same way, we are already chosen by God, but we cannot yet feel that chosenness with the certainty that the saints in heaven do. 

In St. John’s Gospel, after washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus tells them many things, including this beautiful verse, Jn 15:16: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.” Wow. He chose us. He wanted us, even in our mess, confusion, and frustration. He wanted us. This choice was so intentional, so absolute, that hours after articulating it, Jesus literally died on the cross for us, the ones for whom he said, “I thirst”(Jn 19:28). Lest we be tempted to think that Jesus chose us but didn’t really mean it, he proved it by offering up his very body and blood.

This makes every Friday a precious day for us to share with our students, a day when we celebrate our chosenness by standing at the foot of the cross and saying “thank you.” A couple Lents ago, I tried reading one station of the cross each Friday as our opening class prayer, and it was powerful. Sixteen and seventeen-year-olds want to be reassured that they’ve been chosen just as much as I do. It was for these crazily lovable teens that the Lord appointed me to go and bear fruit that will remain, the verse says. Your students, too, are the fruit of your labor in the classroom–those quiet mornings when your head keeps drooping over your desk while you try to plow through a stack of papers before they come in; those loud Friday afternoons when you have to take a deep breath and remind yourself that this, too, shall pass at the blessed 3:15 bell.

Your personal relationship with Jesus is fertile ground on which they can grow as his chosen ones, and you can teach them how to remain in him through daily prayer, taking them to Adoration when you can, and looking at them the way he does. And let’s acknowledge it: There really is nothing more stunning than walking into the back of the school chapel at the end of the day and seeing one of “your kids” kneeling up in front. 

The best part? Whatever we ask the Father in Jesus’s name, he will give us! As we prepare to begin another academic year, let’s bring our class lists before him and give each student back to him. He’s chosen us, and he’s chosen each one of them. That’s a love that we can remain in with our students, now and forever.