Most of us know C.S. Lewis as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters. But he was a teacher as well as a writer — and in his lectures, he often described God as a sculptor. For Lewis, the suffering in a person’s life has special meaning, echoed again and again in Scripture.
Proverbs tells us, “… Do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (3:11-12). And the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that in suffering, “… God is treating you as sons, for what son is there whom a father does not discipline?” (12:7).
Challenges and hardships help us grow. Suffering is a tool. God uses this tool to shape each of us into the saints he wants us to be. God sees the shape of our greatness in the marble of our humanity. Then he cuts away the stone of ignorance and sin to free us.
It’s a useful metaphor. Anyone who’s seen a photograph of Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Pieta — or viewed it in person at the Vatican — knows what Lewis meant. The Pieta’s figures of Jesus and Mary seem marvelously real. The smoothness of their skin, the elegance of their limbs, the sorrow on Mary’s face — these things are so real that we can forget they came from a slab of dead marble. Michelangelo saw the beauty in the stone … and he set it free with a hammer and a chisel. Nobody remembers the hammer blow; that was over in an instant. The result — the beauty — lasts forever.
Now, people aren’t blocks of stone. They’re living tissue, with the freedom and dignity of children of God. And teachers aren’t chisels and hammers — nor should they ever be. In the work of Catholic education, they’re active mentors and agents in God’s plan, not merely his instruments. But we can still draw some lessons from the sculptor and his art.
First, every great sculptor is motivated by love, not merely technical skill. The sculptor loves the beauty and the truth he sees locked in the stone. In the same way, every great teacher loves the possibilities for beauty, joy, achievement and truth — the hint of the glory of God — she sees in the face of her students.
Next, the great sculptor has a passion for his work and a confidence in his vision. In like manner, no Catholic teacher can form her students in moral character without a passion for the Gospel, a zeal for Jesus Christ, and a confidence in the truth of the Church and her teaching. No Catholic educator can give what he doesn’t have himself. If we ourselves don’t believe, then we can only share our unbelief. If we’re not faithfully Catholic ourselves, then we can only communicate infidelity. Who we are and how we live inescapably shape the formation we give to others.
Finally, we need to recognize that people, unlike marble, have free will which must be respected. A person can refuse to grow. A person can freely reject the Gospel. The adult who forms a young man or woman in Christian maturity must rely, therefore, on persuasion and never coercion. At the same time, the teacher should never lose sight of the fact that real freedom, Gospel freedom, is a very different creature from today’s common ideas of liberty, and choice for choice’s sake.
Real freedom emerges from self-giving, not self-assertion. Real freedom means letting God shape our lives, so that the beauty he sees in us emerges and gives light to others.
Michelangelo could find the beauty in nearly any piece of marble. But he also left us a reminder of failure. Millions of people know his sculpture of the biblical figure David. It’s one of humanity’s greatest works of art. But Michelangelo also produced a collection called “the Captives.” The name is a grim kind of irony. Each piece of sculpture in “the Captives” collection is a crude, half-finished form of a person, roughly cut from the marble, that the artist simply could not complete because the marble would not surrender the shape. Whatever Michelangelo saw in those stones is still trapped in them today, unfinished. It’s held captive by the marble, five centuries later. And that’s our alternative to God’s love. Persons who reject God remain captive in their own stone — without beauty, without form, and without real freedom.
As we start a new school year, we might spend a few moments remembering that academic excellence in our classrooms is important, even vital, especially today. But a genuinely Catholic education is about much more than that. It’s far more ambitious, and its expectations are much higher.
We become most “human” when we learn to place ourselves in the hands of God — the sculptor who knows the beauty and meaning of our lives better than we do ourselves. I’ll be forever grateful to the teachers I had in Catholic schools, from grade school through graduate studies, who helped me see that. It’s why we owe the teachers in our Catholic schools throughout the Archdiocese of Philadelphia such a debt of thanks.