Guest post by Gregory Vigliotta.
As she rushed out of the wardrobe, Lucy exclaimed “There’s a wood inside it, and it’s snowing, and there’s a fawn and a witch and it’s called Narnia; come and see.” I can recall the excitement that immediately penetrated me and the curiosity that lasted as I turned each page of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for the first time, as a young boy. I was as shocked as Lucy, the youngest of four children, when she was challenged by the disbelief of her older siblings. Lucy did not yet realize the magic of Narnia and that time had not passed for her siblings while she was on an adventure. With great frustration, she rushed ahead of them, flung open the door of the wardrobe and cried “Now! Go in and see for yourself.”
As a first year Theology teacher, I could identify with Lucy’s passion and conviction when she came shouting out of the wardrobe. She was excited to share all the amazing things she had witnessed and her experience in the land of Narnia. I was just as excited to teach and share all I knew about my favorite subject. In my first year at the front of the classroom, I labored not only to teach the precepts of scripture and all that our curriculum entails, but also to instill in my students a desire to know and experience the Mystery of Christ. I know, however, too well how Lucy felt when her siblings accused her of telling a lie. My own students had the same expressions of disbelief that I imagine Lucy’s older sister Susan had when she said “Why you Goose!”
It didn’t take much time for me to realize that my expectations and assumptions had become a great obstacle for me. I assumed that my students would be interested, engaged and, if I was lucky, hungry to learn because we were in a Catholic school. This was a foolish expectation on my part. I was not that different from Lucy, who assumed her siblings who loved her would believe her. Mary Magdalene, Joana and Mary the mother of James shared the same disappointment when they told the apostles about their encounter with the living Christ. Jesus told them he would die and rise again, so why wouldn’t the women assume they would be taken seriously? Luke’s Gospel tells us that the apostles “thought what the women said was nonsense, and they did not believe them.” My students seemed to feel the same way.
My struggles in my first year as an educator became an invitation to look within and consider why it was important for me to teach Theology at all. In many ways, my first year felt like a dead end. My answer came quickly though. It was that it is the only thing to do after you’ve experienced the mystery of Christ! I have experienced the felt presence of our God who knows us and formed us in His innermost being, and I am compelled to share. Jesus wasn’t just saying something insightful when he told his disciples “If you hold onto your life you lose it, but if you give it away, it becomes everlasting.” He was telling them how the world is and how life is. The couple of disciples mourning the death of Jesus on the road to Emmaus knew the same feeling and after their encounter with the risen Christ, changed directions to go and tell what they had experienced, and I would continue to do the same.
I felt affirmed in my experience of the living God in my own life and that Christ was inviting me to use that conviction and be a witness to the young people in my classroom. To hold onto my own experience would feel wasteful. I was saddened and discouraged though, because I didn’t know how to be an effective educator and I struggled even to manage the classroom effectively. The few students, who like Peter “got up and ran,” and sought to discover Christ for themselves gave me hope and I returned to teach another year.
I began my second year of teaching with much more confidence and made sure not to make the same rookie classroom management mistakes again. I reflected to my wife one evening that I needed to figure out a way to engage the kids more. I wanted to give them a way to imagine what it was like to anticipate the coming of the Messiah and, if possible, plant the seeds of faith that could one day grow. Then it occurred to me. “Maybe I’ll have them read The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
I immediately uploaded an audiobook for the students to access and we began listening to the story. For the first few chapters, I assigned short writing assignments to ensure they were reading. Next, I gave the students a short essay to read on Turkish Delight and Sin and I asked them to underline three sentences they found interesting and to tell me why. It was in this assignment that I noticed the allegory coming to life for them. Students told me how they understood addiction in their own lives and how they’ve seen things disguised as good turn out to be bad for them. They wrote about how they related to Lucy’s older brother Edmund, who was tempted and fooled by the White Witch, because they knew what it was like to be betrayed by someone they trusted.
Deeper into the story, they answered questions about who Aslan was, just as the disciples told Jesus whom he was. I gave them a box of crayons and a blank piece of paper and they colored how they imagined Aslan to be. To the students, I am sure it seemed like a free period for coloring, but they were responding to an invitation to anticipate the one who would end the winter and bring back Christmas. The students reflected on who they most related to in the story and shared in their journals intimate details of their own personal identity. They wrote about and shared with me the “stuff of prayer,” the interior response and movements of their deeper selves.
After our lesson on the Passion and Death of Christ, we followed along with the audio book of the death of Aslan. I paused the disc and wrote on the board “The Death of Aslan” and “The Death of Jesus.” I gave chalk to two students and the class filled the board with metaphors, connections and theological meanings, some of which hadn’t yet occurred to me. What brought me consolation in this activity wasn’t the product. It wasn’t the list they were able to produce, but rather their desire and haste to discover the deeper truths hidden in plain sight, in the world of Narnia. Students who were usually quiet and disinterested became excited. Students from China and other parts of the world who are learning about Christianity for the first time, gained access to the mystery of Christ through symbol and metaphor.
A mentor of mine once told me that in ministry you have to “go in their door and bring them out yours.” The doors of the wardrobe with a wood inside, snow, a faun and a witch took us all deeper than I ever imagined. I figured out a way to engage my students by inviting them to “come and see” for themselves as Lucy did for her siblings, as Jesus did for his disciples and as C.S. Lewis has done for all of us. I underestimated the deeper magic of Narnia, which encapsulates an image of a God who loves us so deeply that He accepts the death that we deserve. The beauty of the story is that one doesn’t need to comprehend all the precepts of Christian Theology to imagine what it is like to encounter the “Great Lion.”
This experience changed me, in particular, as an educator. It showed me the power of invitation and accompaniment in creating an environment conducive for learning. I discovered a way into a pedagogy that invites the imagination and curiosity for a deeper learning experience. I experienced the power of relationship and stories as an avenue towards finding meaning in principles that might otherwise feel empty. Most of all I found joy and consolation in the wonderment and self-discovery I witnessed in my students.
Gregory Vigliotta is part of the Religion Faculty at Notre Dame H.S. in Fairfield, CT. He is an Adjunct Instructor for the Catholic Studies Department at Sacred Heart University. He is a Spiritual Director and Supervisor for the Center for Ignatian Spirituality at Fairfield University and he has his own practice. Gregory and his wife Sarah have 3 young children.