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

Pensant et bien pensant

Place de la République, 7 janvier, 18h50, une foule silencieuse

Place de la République, 7 janvier, 18h50, une foule silencieuse

In the July 17 TLS, Julian Jackson writes of How the French Think, reviewing Sudhir Hazareesingh’s new book of that title.  Jackson notes accurately that after the Charlie Hebdo killings and the global demonstrations of 7 and 11 January, the “momentary spirit of national unanimity has been followed by anxious soul-searching.”  Such moments reflect a widely-held sensibility at a point in time, if not always with absolute unanimity; they suggest the beginnings of a movement in favour of those demonstrating.

But are such demonstrations not the beginnings, but the last flowerings of a sensibility or spirit?  The soul-searching they precede inevitably changes their society because it engages reason to the spontaneous (or pent-up release) of passion – in itself, a rather French, Cartesian vs Rousseau-esque meeting of opposites.  Would people manifest in the streets again for – God forbid – a similar event?  Not a journalistic one, that is, where the absence of crowds might be accounted for by a lack of novelty – however cynical or insensitive that sounds.  But perhaps if, say, a religious or literary or charity leader was attacked – someone ‘unofficial’, like the Hebdo contributors.  We pray that such a thing never comes to pass – indeed I hesitate even to write it – but if it did, would people emerge in numbers once more?

Possibly, but the spirit would have changed in some way from the Je Suis Charlie street demonstrations.  They marked the end of something – or perhaps more accurately its peak, or governing pressure limit (on a ‘vent’ theory) – just as, in their quite different ways, did 1968 or Woodstock or the 9/11 vigils.  The anniversaries of this last are still poignant and sincere in so many cases, but with different assumptions and feelings latent, now that so much has occurred in the world, for better or for worse, as a result of the original events.  Do  such outbursts or flowerings signal the end or peak of something?  Or the passing of a leader – actual or construed or symbolic?  Or the passing of an idea?  Or a lack of incoming leadership, hence the melancholy felt so soon?

If some form of leadership will provide an answer to the question such flowerings pose, will it be one of reason or of passion?  Descartes or Rousseau?  Or, somehow, both?  And is this unique to France, given the international examples given – or is this aspect of the French spirit and of French endeavours, as Jackson notes that de Gaulle might have it, something more universal, in “the interest of all”?

Strasbourg, 7 janvier 2015

Strasbourg, 7 janvier 2015



Bordeaux, 7 janvier 2015

Bordeaux, 7 janvier 2015


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.


Stage One: The Ordinary World

THE ORDINARY WORLD: The hero is introduced to his ordinary world. Most stories take place in a special world, a world that is new and alien to its hero. If you’re going to tell a story about a fish out of his water, you first have to create a contrast by showing him in his mundane, ordinary world.

  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Dorothy in Kansas.
  • The Hobbit: Bilbo Baggins in Hobbiton.
  • Star Wars: Luke Skywalker on Tatooine.
  • The Lion King: Simba at Pride Rock.

The Ordinary World is as different as possible from the Special World the hero will soon enter, so that audience and hero experience a dramatic change when the threshold is finally crossed. In The Wizard of Oz, the Ordinary World is depicted in black and white, to make a stunning contrast with the Technicolour Special World of Oz. In the Hobbit, the Shire is peaceful, quaint and green, and probably quite boring. Quite the contrast from the myriad landscapes the hobbits will encounter, including the warlike, dangerous, blackened – but exciting – county of Mordor. Yet the seeds of adventure are already here, in this Ordinary World. In Oz, Dorothy clashes with Miss Gulch and is rescued by three farmhands – this is foreshadowing for the Wicked Witch and the three friends (scarecrow, lion and tin man) she finds in the Special World.

Every hero needs three conflicts: an inner one, a conflict with another person, and a conflict with the whole universe: Luke Skywalker’s inner yearning for adventure, bored at being a farmhand; his battle with his great adversary, Darth Vader, and his fight with the whole galactic empire and dark side of the force. At the climax of the story, he’s going to have to beat all three at once.

The audience should feel a strong bond of sympathy with the hero – he (or she) is like us; during this story we see the world through their eyes; they are the ‘centre of the good’ in their world. This doesn’t mean every hero is a goody two-shoes: for every lovely little hobbit, or valiant Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), or suave Rick Blaine (Casablanca) or charming Harry Potter, or neurotic Neo (The Matrix), there are plenty of violent gangsters, devils, conmen and crooked politicians in stories, who are the heroes. That’s one of the warm thing about humans – through the power of storytelling, we can see the good in just about anyone.

Look at it from the point of view of the ‘baddy’ – in their own world, they are the hero, not the anti-hero or evil one. Lord Sauron (Lord of the Rings) just wants to rule Middle Earth; Darth Vader (Star Wars) is just trying to get his son to rule the galaxy; Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter) is an abandoned orphan who was wants to live forever … ‘bad guys’ who aren’t actually good in some way, simply aren’t interesting.

This opening part often begins in medias res – right bang smack in the middle of the action. As a reader or audience, you’re thinking: What on Earth is going on? Who are these people? Where did all this come from? But gradually you figure it out; you absorb yourself in the world before your eyes in the theatre, or on the screen, or on the soft pages of the book in your hands. This is called the willing suspension of disbelief* – it means that, even if the story be set in a magical world, or in outer space, or another country, you can identify with it because the characters feel real.

Questions to consider:

  1. What is the Ordinary World of a story you know?
  2. How does the author introduce the hero?
  3. Is there foreshadowing to suggest where the story will go?
  4. Are the heroic journeys/stories of men & women different?
  5. Do different cultures need different kinds of stories?

*A phrase coined by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1817.

The Vintner’s Reply

Albert Camus (1913 – 1960)

One day in the 1960s, during an uprising, the French government announced that French settler-descendants in Algeria would be evacuated.  De Gaulle had previously promised to keep Algeria French.  The pieds-noirs saw the decision as a betrayal; they were being forced to leave their homeland.  Albert Camus tells the remarkable story of one ageing man, a winemaker, who had worked the land all his life, and was a born and bred French Algerian.  He responded calmly and methodically to the crisis.  But his calm is a chilling one, laden with silent rage at injustice, and the scene is intensified still more by Camus’ clipped prose.  (There are shades of Wyatt’s torch from the very roughly contemporaneous Atlas Shrugged, here, too.)

In another twist, the novel wherein Camus relates the tale, Le Premier Homme, is lucky to exist at all.  The manuscript for the book was pulled from the burning wreckage of Camus’ car, which had swerved on ice and hit a tree, killing both the Nobel laureate writer and his publisher, Gallimard, on 4 January 1960.  The work was only published – complete with unfinished text and marginal notes – in 1994.  Much of the sentiment of the time about the events, as expressed in it, is therefore still raw.

As so often with Camus, however, it is set out in plain language, concise, clear, direct.  So here it is: the story of the vintner’s reaction to De Gaulle’s Algerian exit.  I include first the translation (by Hapgood, for Penguin) and then the original text, from the manuscript.

When the order to evacuate came, he said nothing.  His grape harvest was over, his wine was in the vats.  He opened the vats, and he went to a spring of brackish water that he’d diverted long ago, and he turned it back to run into his fields, and he equipped a tractor with a trench plough.  For three days, at the wheel, bareheaded, saying not a word, he uprooted the vines all over his property.  Think of it, that skinny old man bouncing around on his tractor, pushing the accelerator lever when the plough wasn’t getting a vine that was bigger than the others, not stopping even to eat, my mother bringing him bread, cheese, and sobrasada, which he ate calmly, the way he had done everything, throwing away the last chunk of bread and accelerating some more, all this from sunrise to sunset, without even looking at the mountains on the horizon, nor at the Arabs who’d soon found out and were watching him from a distance – they weren’t saying anything either.

And when a young captain, informed by who knows who, arrived and demanded an explanation, he said to him, “Young man, since what we made here is a crime, it has to be wiped out.”

When it was all finished, he headed towards the farmhouse, crossed the yard that was soaked with wine pouring out of the vats, and began to pack his bags.  The Arab workers were waiting for him in the yard.  (There was also a patrol the captain had sent, no one knew just why, with a nice lieutenant who was waiting for orders.)

Boss, what are we going to do?”

If I were in your shoes,” the old man said, “I’d go and join the guerillas.  They’re going to win.  There’re no men left in France.”


– from p. 140-1 of Albert Camus’ The First Man, translation published by Penguin, 1994.


Algeria (at Tlemcen)

Quand l’ordre d’evacuation est arrive, il n’a rien dit.  Ses vendanges etaient terminees, et le vien en cuve.  Il a ouvert des cuves, puis il est alle vers une source d’eau saumatre qu’il avait lui-meme detournee dans le temps et l’a remise dans le droit chemin sur ses terres, et il a equipe un tracteur en defonceuse. Pendant trois jours, au volant, tete nue, sans rien dire, il a arrache les vignes sur toute l’etendue de la propriete. Imaginez cela, le vieux tout sec tressautant sur son tracteur, poussant le levier d’acceleration quand le soc ne venait pas a bout d’un cep plus gros que d’autres, ne s’arretant meme pas pour manger, ma mere lui apportait pain, fromage et soubressade qu’il avalait posement, comme il avait fait toute chose, jetant le dernier quignon pour accelerer encore, tout cela du lever au coucher du soleil, et sans un regard pour les montagnes a l’horizon, ni pour les Arabes vite prevenus et qui se tenaient a distance le regardant faire, sans rien dire eux non plus.

Et quand un jeune capitaine, prevenu par on ne sait qui, est arrive et a demande des explications, l’autre lui a dit: “Jeune homme, puisque ce que nous avons fait ici est un crime, il faut l’effacer.

Quand tout a ete fini, il est revenu vers la ferme et a traverse la cour trempee du vin qui avait fui des cuves, et il a commence ses bagages.  Les ouvriers arabes l’attendaient dans la cour.  (Il y avait aussi une patrouille que le capitaine avait envoyee, on ne savait trop pourquoi, avec un gentil lieutenant qui attendait des ordres.)

Patron, qu’est-ce qu’on va faire?

Si j’etais a votre place, a dit le vieux, j’irais au maquis.  Ils vont gagner.  Il n’y a plus d’hommes en France.”


– from p. 198-9 of Albert Camus’ Le Premier Homme, published by Gallimard/Folio, 1994, Paris.


Algeria (at Biskra)

Kipling’s Shilling

Rudyard Kipling, poet and writer extraordinnaire

Some time ago it was stated in various papers that Rudyard Kipling had received a shilling a word for a story he had written for Pearson’s Magazine.  This induced a young American to write to him and enclose a shilling.

“Hearing that wisdom was being retailed at a shilling a word,” wrote the youth, “I enclose a shilling for a sample.”

Kipling kept the order, and sent back the word: “Thanks.”

– from “A Sample of Kipling Wisdom”, published at p.27 of “The Kipling Guide Book” (1899), by William Roberton, held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.