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Let Us, Then, Renew Our Zeal

I visited St. Thomas Aquinas and Archbishop Lyke Catholic Schools shortly before the Thanksgiving break and I got a glimpse of zeal in two stages: exhausted and fresh.

At St. Thomas Aquinas, a first grader was in the hallway with tears on his cheeks. The principal, Mrs. Dengler, squatted down next to him. It was early in the morning, but he looked wiped out. She had already met with him once today.

“Remember what we talked about earlier, Fred*?” He looked down at the ground.

“Being cool.” She would tell me later that Fred is very concerned about being cool.

“I need you to pull your mask up. We talked about being cool. But what else?”

He looked her in the eye.

“Doing hard things.”

“What’s the hard thing you’re having trouble with right now?”

“Staying in my seat.”

“Would it help if you walked up and down the hall one time, got a drink, and then went back to your chair?”

He looked down again. “Maybe.”

“I think it would. Why don’t you try that and then head back into your classroom, okay?”

He looked up, nodded, and started his walk up and down the hall.

At Archbishop Lyke, I watched Ms. Warren, a brand new teacher. With a powerful voice belying her diminutive stature, Ms. Warren conducted the room of energetic kindergarten students like an orchestra. She introduced new systems and routines and dove into the curriculum straight away. The lesson I observed achieved one hundred percent student engagement. Every question was met with hands shooting up and muffled shouts of “Oo! Oo!” Students engaged in joyful jockeying for position in a game at the board where they had to identify phonemes as Ms. Warren pronounced them. I heard joy and saw smiling eyes in a classroom marked by bell-to-bell learning. It was unmitigated, raw zeal for school and learning. It felt like the first days of the year for everyone in the room—in late November!

The challenge for all in education, of course, is to find a way to sustain fresh zeal. Ms. Warren, like first grader Fred, will find it hard to keep this up for twelve weeks. By Thanksgiving, most of us in schools are more like Fred. It has been twelve long weeks since the first days of school, and our zeal is flagging. How, then, do we renew our zeal?

Blessed Basil Moreau, the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, spoke of zeal as “the flame of burning desire to make God known, loved, and served, and thus save souls.” For so many in Catholic schools, zeal is the jet fuel that propels our efforts to form children to be leaders in this life and saints in the next.

Ordinarily, the beginning of December is when the “low fuel” light comes on in a typical school. That’s normal, and Advent is perfectly timed to invade our lives with a dose of eternal hope and joy to refill our tanks. Of course, 2020 is no normal year, and this fall has demanded #AlltheZeals.

In 1851, when Moreau realized that his brothers and sisters in his fledgling Holy Cross community were losing a little steam in their ministry, he sent them a letter of encouragement, acknowledging their hard work as well as the need to recharge. “Let us then renew our zeal,” he urged.

Moreau encourages us, too. Twelve weeks into the most complicated school year in our lifetimes, we have much to celebrate. As our energy runs low and Advent begins, let us, too, renew our zeal.

But how?

There’s a moment in Mark’s Gospel, right before the feeding of the 5,000, that offers one suggestion that I think can be helpful, especially for busy people. Mark describes the moment when the apostles returned after Jesus sent them out two by two. They gathered around Jesus, telling him all they had recently done and taught. It was a hectic scene; they had been so busy, coming, going; nobody even had time to eat! Jesus stopped them all and said, “You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” So together, “they went off in a boat to a lonely place where they could be by themselves.”

The apostles must have been so excited. After weeks of travel, knocking on doors, healing, teaching, and occasionally shaking some dust off their shoes, we can imagine how that invitation from the boss to “come away and rest awhile” must have felt.

But the disciples don’t get the retreat they expected. The next verse:

“But people saw them going, and many could guess where; from every town they all hurried to the place on foot and reached it before them.”

The apostles don’t get their retreat. They don’t even get a long weekend. Instead, they get a moment. A very small moment. In print, it’s the space between two biblical verses.

But—it is a moment with Christ.

And moments with Christ yield remarkable fruit. This is a transformational moment. Because what happens next, after that small moment of graced rest with Christ?

They feed 5,000. On an empty tank.

The apostles didn’t even get a nap before the multitude raced around the lake on foot to interrupt their rest.  But their brief encounter with Christ empowered this group of graced but flawed, incredibly busy people, who had no time even to eat themselves.

This Gospel suggests that we can renew our zeal even in small moments. We need to be on the lookout for these moments. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton said, “When I can’t find hours, I take minutes.” We can renew our zeal if we can find small spaces of time to just be with Christ—even if it only lasts as long as the duration between a period and the word “but”—the space between two verses.

What I love about this moment in the Gospel is the magnitude of the miracle in relation to the duration of rest. The disciples are so busy they can’t eat—they spend the pause between two sentences at rest with Christ—and BOOM. They go from hungry themselves to feeding thousands with nearly nothing.

The return on investment of a moment with Christ is breathtaking.

As busy disciples called to a busy life by Christ, we need these moments of rest and renewal, but it’s rare that we get to carve out time to go on weekend retreat, or take a few days off to reflect. So the question remains for our teachers and school leaders—How do we deepen our relationship with Christ—how do we find those moments to just be with Christ, even when we can’t literally get in a boat and find some solitude?

When we don’t have hours to renew our zeal, I think there are two ways we can recharge our batteries this Advent.

First, we can follow Elizabeth Ann Seton’s lead and take minutes when we find them. Give yourself small moments on the boat with Christ. Even a two or three minute routine of small prayerful moments, which can be alone, or with a colleague, or with a group of students, can be rejuvenating and life-giving. If you don’t have time to say an entire rosary, say one decade of the rosary. Or just say one Hail Mary. The point is to carve out the minutes. Remember: the return on investment is of a loaves-and-fishes magnitude.

The other approach is to get better at seeing how we are in a boat with Christ in everyday moments. This involves cultivating our sacramental worldview, which is how we see God’s invisible presence in the visible things of this world. We might renew our zeal, then, by looking at the world with a sacramental lens, eyes of faith, where we actively work to see Christ’s presence in the people and moments of our daily lives.

I think back to Mrs. Dengler’s moment with Fred, and I see a school leader encountering Christ in a small, tender moment. And I remember Ms. Warren enkindling joy in her students, and I see Christ playing in so many faces. Zeal is contagious; enthusiasm inspired by Christ catches fire.

We believe that each of us is made in the image and likeness of God, so these small moments with Christ are available in every human interaction. When we remind the Freds in our lives of their capacity for being cool, a sacramental worldview helps us also remind them that they can be cool and do hard things precisely because they are made by God for greatness.

Every time a teacher speaks to a child or collaborates with a colleague, there is an opportunity to draw Christ into the room for a moment. Each time you see Christ in the face of a friend, your zeal tank tops up a little more.

One last example. A grandparent recently sent an email to Ms. Hanna, the first grade teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas. She was delighted with something Ms. Hanna had recently sent home, and she decided to let the teacher know.

By sharing her love and appreciation, this grandmother passed on a little zeal. Ms. Hanna was delighted by the compliment, and she passed it on to her principal, who passed it on to me, and I just need to share it here to show how contagious a little zeal can be. I can’t help but smile at this note. It even prompted me to write one of my own to my own kid’s teacher. I challenge anyone reading this to do the same. Let this grandmother’s zeal catch fire in you too!

These moments with Christ can be invasions of grace in these strange days of pandemic winter, and they can remind of us Advent hope. As they accumulate, they can fill our schools with #AllTheZeals to get us through this most complicated of school years.

Let us, then, renew our zeal!

Christian Dallavis is Assistant Superintendent for Partnership Schools.

*Not his real name.