George Herbert and the Schoolmaster

Why uncertainty and love might be central to a teacher’s calling.


“[..] thou art fire, sacred and hallowed fire;

And I but earth and clay: should I presume

To wear thy habit, the severe attire

My slender compositions might consume.

I am both foul and brittle; much unfit

To deal in holy Writ.”


So am I.  I’m with the poet George Herbert on this one.  If God is the potter with his fire, perhaps I am raw clay to be shaped and set with flames in a kiln. Or perhaps not.  So little is certain.  As a teacher, I might wish in turn to take the raw material of a child and mould him into a young adult, and test him with “fire” – and yet such a comparison is supremely arrogant.  Here’s the trouble: I find speaking about faith very difficult to do, especially when it comes to my vocation, partly because I don’t like praying on street corners – speaking loudly about one’s religion is so very un-English – but mostly because, as Auden said of poetry, it is so easy to be utterly dishonest.  We might give people the notion that this schoolmastering is so awful or so wonderful (which is just as bad), that we end up either putting them off completely, or else we become the promoters of that popular form of spiritual sado-masochism that feels good by feeling bad all the time, where true happiness is supposed to be achieved by being truly miserable all the time, where people want healing but don’t want to get better, or believe that true love is supposed to reside in those who are guilty or angry all the time …


What’s more, I am, as the poet suggests, unfit to deal in holy Writ: bible readings are often quoted to young people to encourage them to “follow their calling”.  But, not being trained to interpret them, I can’t always see how they help: many saints were brutally tortured and martyred, which does not exactly promise us a life of luxury for following Christ.  However, one of you out there has decided to follow a calling to become a teacher, and I know there are others who are thinking about committing that act, because you have asked me about it.  So I can only apologise for not offering a full, Scripture-based theological piece about vocational calling, because I wouldn’t be any good at it.  What advice I do have, though, I offer here, as a brief letter to the first of you to put his head above the parapet (I’ve changed his name) :


Oundle School, Church Street, Oundle PE8 4EE

28th January, 2016.

Dear James,


I’m sorry you are not getting a sermon, or a Scriptural analysis, or a full academic paper today; if you want something to ponder, go and look up George Herbert’s poetry and that should keep you going for a few years. You, but earth and clay, are indeed unfit to deal in holy Writ, or any of the important questions of life, let alone that most important of tasks, the raising and educating of children: why should you be different from the rest of us?


It might seem strange, but let’s start by thinking about Judas, the traitor disciple.  Those who would imagine themselves called by God to some profession or other, whether teaching or doctoring or the priesthood, or anything, should always keep Judas in mind. Because if we are not careful, those of us in the teaching business can easily end up looking and behaving very much like him.  Judas is different from the other eleven apostles by being the only one who thought that he knew what he was doing. And one of the most important convictions you must hang on to if you are taking up the sacred mantle of helping raise someone’s child, is the fact that, theologically speaking, you do not and cannot know what you are doing. If you let go of that conviction, if you think for one minute that you are any good at the ‘job’, then you are on the slippery slope to seeing teaching as a mere set of skills to be acquired or techniques to be learned, rather than what it is: the intense and troubled yielding to a calling and a love that will not let you go.


There’s a militant drive these days always to analyse things, to pick them apart and understand them with the tools of Reason.  Yet our pupils are human beings, noble creatures, not objects for dissection.  The Scriptures and the sacraments on which Christian faith is based (communion, baptism, marriage and so forth) are also a bit like people: we don’t love those whom we love because we fully understand them, but because we have met them; because we have encountered them. And the more we get to know and love a person, the more we realise there is yet more to know, something always just beyond our grasp.  To try to understand them is beside the point.  We meet them; we experience them; therefore, we love them.


This is a strange place to be, this not quite knowing, but it is the place to which we are all called in one way or another.  Answering this call is our duty and our joy, but quite often also our pain.  It is the place where divinity and humanity, time and eternity, grace and matter, collide.  It’s hard to describe what this strange place of meeting is.  For a teacher, perhaps the most obvious meeting place is the classroom, but there are others …


  • in the evening in the boarding house after several cups of tea when the pupil you’re with finally gets to the point and opens up to you;
  • when some disruptive pupil who has darkened the door of your classroom all year suddenly says ‘thank you’ after a lesson – and really means it;
  • when the doorbell goes while preparing a crucial lesson for next morning (or finally spending some time with one’s other half), and it’s a tutee who’s having a spot of bother;
  • when the phone goes and it’s a former colleague telling you about an old boy who got run over last night at university and probably won’t live when they switch off the machine in eight hours’ time …


This meeting of divinity and humanity even occurs at Departmental Meetings or other gatherings of ‘Christian’ persons – so long as we remember that Judas is alive and kicking in all sorts of ways to this day … especially in teaching!  The only proper response to this strange meeting place is not ‘understanding’ or ‘fear’ or even ‘thankfulness’, but rather ‘humility’ and ‘wonder’; something described rather well by the poet Emily Dickinson as:


“Not precisely Knowing

And not precisely knowing not

A beautiful but bleak condition

He has not lived who has not felt.”


There have been times when I have asked myself why on Earth I gave up a perfectly good, well paid job, in order to spend time training other men’s children, setting myself up to be the victim of totally unrealistic expectations from pupils’ parents, and even from colleagues – members of a large profession that, outside this School at least, spends an inordinate amount of its time wittering on about matters that have little or nothing to do with the education of young men and women, or that too often confuses human concerns with political motives, or whose pronouncements would be the stuff of high comedy if they did not affect the lives of actual, young human beings.


When this happens, I try to remind myself of this simple guide to a Schoolmaster’s Sanity:


  • hang onto the knowledge of your own inability to do what God has called you to do;
  • have faith in the grace that will transfigure that uselessness if you let it;
  • do not forget any moment or sounds or words, when the ‘glory of the story’ has crossed your path with sudden or especial clarity;
  • do not allow any one institution where you work to trivialise or parochialise your vision of what you are about;
  • do not hate the institution, for if you do not love it, you will not transfigure it, and you become part of the problem; by the same token, do not be seduced by the institution either;
  • do not settle for the cheap, sad little versions of Christianity or schoolmastering that satisfy far too many people these days; in sum, do not lose your capacity for wonder.


“Wherefore I dare not, I, put forth my hand

To hold the Ark, although it seem to shake

Through th’old sins and new doctrines of our land.

Only, since God doth often vessels make

Of lowly matter for high uses meet,

I throw me at his feet.”


James, I hope this is all of some use.  With affection, best wishes and wonderful good luck;


Mr Gunson.




Acknowledgements: Some of this piece is based, by kind permission, on an address on the nature of the Priesthood and the poetry of George Herbert, by Fr Peter McGeary at the Edington Festival of Music within the Liturgy, 2014, a (C of E) choral music festival made up from the various Oxford & Cambridge collegiate, and cathedral, choirs.  Some of us at that event felt a strong and natural comparison between the two professions (in certain respects) and discussed it well into the night over drinks. I am grateful to Peter for his advice, counsel and permission to adapt some of his ideas, and those of colleagues at other schools.

For further references, see: Wilcox, Helen (ed.), The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 550-555 et passim. Scriptural passages of particular relevance might include: Genesis iii 9; Matthew vi 5; 1 Corinthians xv 47; 2 Corinthians iv 7; Isaiah lxiv 8.


George Herbert

George Herbert, 1593 – 1633

Solitude - cover image

Science produces results. What do religion and the arts produce?

In his groundbreaking work, Solitude, Anthony Storr suggests that dissatisfaction with what is, or ‘divine discontent’, be an inescapable part of the human condition. [Solitude, 63]  Our success as a species springs directly from this discontent, which drives us to employ our imagination.  The more discontent => the more imagination => the more invention.  As in Bernard Shaw,

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – Bernard Shaw, Maxims for Revolutionists (1903).

Except that post-Freudian psychology suggests that ‘reasonable’ be replaced by ‘imaginative’, as we shall see.  This short piece draws other strands toward Storr’s work, in the context of seeking recipes for encouraging inquiry and creativity among children and adults.

Continue reading

Stephen Fry vs God

Stephen Fry has taken up the distressed cries of thousands of years, from believers and unbelievers alike, by asking that crucial question: if God exists, how can there be such suffering in the world? Here’s the clip that went viral:

A gallant man of impassioned phrase and strident tongue has taken on the Almighty where He seems weakest: how can an all-loving, all-powerful God create a world of child cancer?  Fry is following a great tradition, says the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.  Such anguished cries of distress against God are already heard in Scripture: in the Books of Job and among the Psalms. Not to mention Blake and others.

The essence of the answer to Fry here is not meant to dull his cry and query, so much as show that it is misplaced.  Free will is the short, traditional and complete answer to such cries.  A longer answer deals with the nature of God, which is missed by Fry’s words.  That is, though all-powerful, God is also the exact opposite.  Not just a Grand Old Man on a throne creating a mountain here, a species there, a disease here …  He is also a baby; a poor carpenter; a crucified, mocked, dying man.  And it is this second ‘God’ that gives this deity the unique right to speak on suffering – and to comfort us that “all shall be well”.  Giles Fraser, Guardian columnist and once Canon Chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral, sums it up:

“This is why the Jesus story is, for me, the most theologically revolutionary story that there can be. Because it imagines God and power separated. God as a baby. God poor. God helpless on a cross. God with a mocking and ironic crown of thorns. In these scenes it is Caesar who has the power. And so the question posed is: which one will you follow when push comes to shove? You can follow what is right and get strung up for it. Or you can cosy up to power and do as you are told. By saying that he will stare ultimate power in the face and, without fear, call it by its real name, Fry has indicated he is on the side of the angels (even though he does not believe in them). […]

Furthermore, this powerless thing subverts Fry’s accusation of God’s iniquity. For if we are imagining a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself – and yes, this means we will have to think metaphorically about a lot of the Bible – then God cannot stand accused as the cause of humanity’s suffering. Rather, by being human as well as divine, he fully shares in it. This is precisely the point of Christianity: that God is not some distant observer but suffers alongside all humanity. Which is why, even in the midst of absolute horror, he has the authority to whisper in my ear that all will be well.”

What’s more, crying to God that there’s evil and sickness and harm in the world begs the question: what are we going to do about them?  Have we not intelligence, and power, and skill, in ourselves – God-given or otherwise?  Tim Stanley, of the Telegraph, puts it this way:

“Stephen Fry suggested that religion has no answer to the problem of suffering. On the contrary, it’s obsessed with it. Consider Christianity (because most of you reading this will be Christian, either by belief or culture). The Christian take on suffering is that it’s an inevitable part of being human. This is because we live in a fallen world in which God largely leaves us up to our own devices to look after ourselves – although he gifted us intelligence and compassion to enable us to do the right thing.”

The reason this sort of question is posed with such vigour by Stephen Fry is that it is a natural one.  Indeed, it is a powerfully dramatic one – hence why the clip went viral.  Other media examples even include fictional uses.  President Bartlet of The West Wing spoke truth to power on the accidental and unfathomable death of an old friend; this is heroic venting at its most powerful, orating as he advances straight down the aisle of National Cathedral, Washington D.C., cigarette in hand:

Let’s also refer in passing to Kevin Spacey’s eulogy for the dead child in the recent House of Cards: he both shocks and connects with his audience-congregation by shouting “I hate you God!”, before (cynically, in his case) speaking on suffering.

These ‘longer answers than free will’, as I hinted above, necessitate discussing the nature of God. Fraser touches on it further in his article quoted above, but let me quote instead from Stanley – and particularly the human example with which this section concludes:

“[Firstly,] the idea that God just watches suffering and feels indifferent to it is nonsense. This is a God who sent down his only Son to actively endure the worst pain and humiliation that any human can take. The Romans drove nails through his body, suspended him from a cross and left him in the burning heat slowly to expire – crucified alongside a common criminal.

[… Secondly,] our model in life isn’t some Aryan hard-body god with good health, white teeth and a tan. It’s a broken cripple upon a cross. And living up to that model means not avoiding suffering but going to where it is found – in hospitals, care homes, prisons etc. It means suffering alongside people in the hope of sharing the burden of their pain. […] Often the question is asked, ‘Where was God at Auschwitz?’ The answer is Father Kolbe.”

One final comment.  Because you might worry that all this means “you have to suffer to be good” – that popular form of spiritual sado-masochism that feels good by feeling bad all the time, where true happiness is supposed to be achieved by being truly miserable … You don’t. Instead, it’s a question of resisting the bad by walking alongside those who suffer, as God/Christ did/does.

That is why God is not that aloof being, carelessly creating the world of child cancer and hunger that Fry describes in his distress. But rather, a being who has given us a world where we are free to do as we please – for good or ill – and who suffers as we do, but also shows us ways to alleviate this, and gives us the intelligence and the grace to do it.  To give freedom to beings you’ve created, knowing it could all go horribly wrong – or that some of the problems they’ll encounter, they simply won’t be able to solve (yet), is love of a deep and parental kind. Blaming a deity for human problems that humans haven’t yet solved, seems to be missing the point.

And so does the flipside of Fry’s comment, which suggests a desire for Utopia.  If we expect both human freedom and worldly perfection to exist at one and the same time, then we are asking to be deceived.  Pick one …

– WDG.

Related articles on celebrity/religion:


What’s Bred in the Bone

Why Symbols and Richness of Imagery Matter

This passage is from Canadian author Robertson Davies’ novel, “What’s Bred in the Bone”. It describes why science (however wonderful all its discoveries) has a good deal to learn from all the symbols and images of religion (however religious or not one may be). These images enrich the human experience of the world; they are essential to wonder; they are essential to discovery.

“Well, science is the theology of our time, and like the old theology it’s a muddle of conflicting assertions. What gripes my gut is that it has such a miserable vocabulary and such a pallid pack of images to offer to us – to the humble laity – for our edification and our faith. The old priest in his black robe gave us things that seemed to have concrete existence; you prayed to the Mother of God and somebody had given you an image that looked just right for the Mother of God.

The new priest in his whitish lab-coat gives you nothing at all except a constantly changing vocabulary which he – because he usually doesn’t know any Greek – can’t pronounce, and you are expected to trust him implicitly because he knows what you are too dumb to comprehend. It’s the most overweening, pompous priesthood mankind has ever endured in all its recorded history, and its lack of symbol and metaphor and its zeal for abstraction drive mankind to a barren land of starved imagination.

But you, Maria, speak the old language that strikes upon the heart. You talk about the Recording Angel and you talk about his lesser angels, and we both know exactly what you mean. You give comprehensible and attractive names to psychological facts, and God – another effectively named psychological fact- bless you for it.”

Robertson Davies was a UCC man who taught at Trinity and was a parishioner of the Church of St Mary Magdalene. All his books are about Torontonian culture in all its glory. He spoke in a sort of Victorian RP and wore a Jehovah-like beard his whole life. Here is a video of him:

A deeply-dipped hat tip to Dr Michael Bonner, who suggested this text, and this author.

Inventing the gods.

A forgotten history of curious places.  

Hidden corners of cultural & aesthetic experiment,

amid two of the greatest events in the history of Western Europe.

Heidelberg Thingstätte

Heidelberg Thingstätte

In an isolated clearing somewhere in the Black Forest, a young German sits thinking, at dusk, on a step.  Below him is arrayed the architecture of a low-rising amphitheatre, crisply and newly built.  The top steps blend into the forest, their gentle curve broken just by a small path leading away into the woods behind him, lit by soft lamps.  A tall monument rises in front of him, resembling nothing in particular. The place is peaceful, but contrived.  The young man thinks of nothing in particular, though much is on his mind.  The year is 1942, and he is sitting in a curious construction known as a Thingstätte – a “being place”.

Scroll your mental navigation bars back a few centuries.  A file of anxious-looking French boys is being led two-by-two into a large, neo-classical building, in the coastal city of Toulon.  They are told to fan out, well separated from each other, to sit for an hour, and to ponder a problem in their heads.  Any problem.  Inside this building, the walls are of perfectly flat stone, the rows of hard pews are of rigorous and logical symmetry around a central circular space, which is empty, over all of which a high lantern dome casts a dim and religious light.  Yet there is no religion here.  The boys – and the flotilla of government officials accompanying them – are from the early class of the naval college.  They have just entered a building that was intended, when construction began, to become the Roman Catholic Église Saint-Louis, serving the west of the town.  But the year is 1794, the Revolution has come, and the boys have just sat down in a freshly-minted Temple of Reason.

Église Saint-Louis, Toulon

Église Saint-Louis, Toulon

In both cases, new régimes had swept to power, clearing all superstition in their path.  Except, of course, for the natural superstition inside the people they claimed to lead.  The official Nazi state religion was that of “Gott-Glauben” – God-believing, a term so nebulous as to lose its grip on monk and atheist alike.  They built strings of thingstätte across the country.  That anyone thought a quasi-spiritual offering, a café blend of multi-sourced mythology, an abundance of burning sticks and children beating drums in straight lines, could ever replace the centuries of cultural tradition and faith, is, well, curious.  The French Revolution killed off a large portion of the ancien régime during the Terror.  Convents burned, churches tumbled; Reason rose.  Yet within two short years, they had to invent a god.  Ils ont inventé un Dieu!  To keep the people happy, an off-the-cuff deity was posited.  Not for the uneducated masses.  Not for stick-in-the-mud mystics and superstitious throwbacks.  But for the mass of the thinking, reasonable – and Reasonable – populace, who knew that something was missing from their sparkling new society.  The same in Revolutionary France as in National Socialist Germany.

And in both cases we see the common thread not just in the political, but in the aesthetic.  In France, the hard edge of cold logic usurping the conciliatory ear of a priest.  Stone walls no longer adorned by gilt-edged devotional pieces bathed in lambent light.  Superstition undealt-with: dangerous no doubt in the admission even of the most ardent of atheists.  Places of refuge, centralised.  Organic structures broken into line.  Yet a soft spirit in the poetic renaming of the months – Brumaire (the foggy one, roughly November), Frimaire (the frosty one, roughly December), Floréal (the month of darling buds, mostly May) and Pluviôse (the rainy month, mostly February), against the rigorous logic of a newly metric numbering system.  And the invention of a comforting deity, amid the merciless toppling of the churches.

The Zeppelin Field Rally Ground, designed by Albert Speer

The Zeppelin Field Rally Ground (Zeppelintribune), designed by Albert Speer

In Germany too, the thingstätte, built as places for spiritual reflection, embodied the paradox of the sharp and the soft, which collided at the heart of Nazi ideology.  The smoothly imperial geometry of a stone amphitheatre against the ephemeral watercolours of an untamed, mythical forest.  The sharp white lines of Albert Speer’s planned Berlin colonnades – and the infamous ones he did build in Nuremberg – against the deep pigment dyes of lace-skirted maidens churning butter in the high woodlands.  The idea of harnessing the calligraphic power of the flamboyant Black Letter and Fraktur, against the urge to standardise its typography.  The stark design of a hooked cross, black on white and red, against the concession to add velvet and voluminous gold tassels to the flag’s edge.  The yearning to build a city more beautiful than Paris, against the final order – mercifully ignored – to destroy it.  The mystical hedonism and exotic productions of Wagner, against the penchant for marching songs and uniformed masses.  A network of semi-secular, vaguely-mystical “being places” proclaiming the new state religion, against an ancient, sometime deeply Protestant, sometime deeply Catholic, always deeply Christian, people.

A modern use of the thingstätte at Heidelberg, on Walpurgisnacht

A modern use of the thingstätte at Heidelberg, on Walpurgisnacht

In both cases above, the places were built in the name of an extreme socialism – something for the people, the volk, the citoyens; something for humanity.  Yet it was things belonging to those people that had been cleared away, by increasingly inhuman régimes.  Sharpness, centrality and certitude in the new replaced the softness, subtlety and superstition of the old.  Except, in each case – and in every other case I can think of – they have always had to bring it back.  Not partially, not abstractly, but totally.  These places, among them the Thingstätter and the Temple of Reason, are but two curious remnants.  Remnants that serve as examples of why the intensely private, the intensely faithful, and the intensely superstitious are always more human – and indeed humanising – than the coldness and artifice of logic and reason.  They’re also a good excuse to visit two picturesque corners of France (Toulon) and Germany (Heidelberg) …