This post originally appeared on the Christian Scholar’s Review blog, and is reproduced with permission.
One morning in July I sat with some fellow faculty at the tail end of a writing retreat, and the conversation turned to the dawning realization that there is less summer before us than behind us, and a new semester is lumbering in our direction at what feels like increasing pace. Some shared their perennial struggle with the beginnings of semesters, and the sense that August can feel like a long succession of Sunday evenings, technically still the weekend, yet overshadowed by Monday morning.
I remember being relieved when I first read an article about teacher dreams and realized that it is not just me who, around the start of the semester, begins dreaming of searching in vain for a class that I was supposed to start teaching several minutes ago, or of facing a class with no memory of what the topic was supposed to be, or of looking down and finding that the textbook is in a language I don’t teach. With teaching (unlike, say, writing) beginning is unavoidable. The first class happens, ready or not. When beginning means facing a fresh collection of strangers and attempting to seem competent at a fairly complex task in their presence, beginning is also psychologically demanding.
I think that is why a line from the first of Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on the Song of Songs has long stuck in my mind.1 I associate it with a sense of surprise and a little admiration. Bernard (1090–1153) was an influential Cistercian abbot who left us a significant body of writings. Among them is a long series of sermons on the Song of Songs. He began work on them in 1135 and left them incomplete at his death in 1153. They are addressed to the monks of Clairvaux, though it is unclear whether they were actually delivered. The first sermon serves as a kind of introduction to the learning process. Playing repeatedly with an extended metaphor of learning as breaking bread, Bernard calls his listeners to the pursuit of maturity (solid food in place of milk) before eventually naming his topic in the form of an exhortation to feast together:
Be ready then to feed on bread rather than milk. Solomon has bread to give that is splendid and delicious, the bread of that book called The Song of Songs. Let us bring it forth then, if you please, and break it.”2
Consider the context. Bernard goes on to mention previous studies in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes as “two loaves of which it has been your pleasure to taste.” He is now announcing the start of a series on Song of Songs that will move with such painstaking focus and leisurely eloquence that 86 sermons later he will have reached the first verse of the third chapter, with the last seven sermons devoted to that single verse. Perhaps he was such a charismatic teacher that his monks were eager for whatever he taught next, but I can’t help wondering whether he could really count on a universally shared expectation of bliss.
This is why I find his comment about delicious bread a little surprising. Other opening gambits might seem more practical. Perhaps: “this is going to be difficult and test your patience and your attention span, but if you stick with it, you might grow.” Or maybe: “I know this might not be your favorite thing to do next, but we can get through this together.” Instead, he announces something wonderful: “Solomon has bread to give that is splendid and delicious.” I suspect that this kind of beginning requires a little courage, and that’s why I can’t help admiring his verve. If we start a lengthy, demanding, and excruciatingly detailed class by telling our students how delicious it will be, we have given ourselves a lot to live up to. I wonder how many of us could make such a beginning without irony, or at least a little trepidation.
Bernard does not ground his claim of splendor in his own powers of entertainment. He grounds his praise for what will follow in two ways. First comes the conviction that Solomon has prepared something delicious for us, that this text is profoundly worth diving into and will reward our attention. Bernard is confident that the text from which he will teach is worthwhile and nourishing. Second comes the claim that he is only in a derivative and secondary sense the teacher. He deprecates his own role in the process:
The Master of the house is present, it is the Lord you must see in the breaking of the bread. For who else could more fittingly do it? It is a task that I would not dare to arrogate to myself. So look upon me as one from whom you look for nothing. For I myself am one of the seekers, one who begs along with you for the food of my soul, the nourishment of my spirit. . . . O God most kind, break your bread for this hungering flock, through my hands indeed if it should please you, but with an efficacy that is all your own.
He signals explicitly that he does not have everything his learners need. Yet he also communicates confidence that as they gather around truth, Christ will take what is broken in the classroom and turn it into nourishment. Christ is present in the teaching and the learning, transforming them into a sacred meal in the presence of God.
I don’t think the best takeaway here is that we should all start class by talking about bread, or even by enthusing about the beauty of what we have in store for our students. My point here is not to call for motivational speeches, or to offer the best opening line, or to claim that everything on every syllabus can with a straight face be sold as scintillating. What Bernard is modeling here is not, I think, the jolly overconfidence of the advertising jingle.
What I think he is modeling is a settled faith in the beauty and necessity of learning, in the existence of truth that can nourish us, and in God’s desire to be present in our learning. Out of this faith comes the hope that good will follow and the courage to announce that what follows will feed us if we can muster the maturity to approach it with expectancy rather than cynicism. (“Unless in vain you have prolonged your study of divine teaching,” he allows in a pointed aside.)
What this courage in turn provides is a frame for his students’ learning, an initial lens through which they are invited to interpret the tasks that lie ahead of them. The opening frame that he pitches is not focused on grades, productivity, being smart, or personal success. It offers the image of breaking bread together.
Like other framing metaphors, this image creates a kind of accountability, an implied call to an ongoing stance and sense of meaning. That accountability involves teachers and students alike, as the metaphor defines shared space. What the teacher prepares each week for the rest of the course will need to be bread (genuinely helpful to the students), not cake (entertaining but nutritionally hollow). The way the teacher mediates their material to students will need to be marked by hospitality (“the friend who comes to us on his travels will have no reason to murmur against this third loaf,” which comes “from the cupboard of a friend”). Students are invited to learn in awareness of the needs of those with whom they share the meal, attentive to one another, and they should expect to chew on solid food, not milk. The teacher will need to make sure that each is fed, and that some do not overeat while others go away hungry. Teacher and students might succeed or fail at all of this, but the opening image has told us what we should hope for and therefore what we should work for together.
Of course, Bernard was teaching theology in a monastery, and most of us are not. I suggest that this difference is an invitation rather than a barrier. Perhaps the welcome that we articulate at the beginning of our courses will be less overtly and much less elaborately theological, and that may be entirely appropriate. Perhaps it will lean on very different metaphors. Yet it can be approached with some of the same questions in mind. How might our beginning communicate a conviction that there is truth and beauty to be explored, that they are a gracious gift from beyond ourselves, and that they will feed us? How might our opening gestures communicate proper humility regarding our own role in that exploration? How might we invite students into a way of learning together that can nourish their souls, and that calls for virtues as well as smarts if we are to make headway? And where might we find the courage that makes such a beginning imaginable?
1. See David I. Smith, “Teaching is Breaking Bread: Biblical Metaphor, Educational Vision, and Bernard’s Evocation of Learning,” Journal of Christian Education 55, no. 1 (2012):29–36, https://doi.org/10.1177/002196571205500105.
2. Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs 1, trans. Kilian Walsh (Spencer, MA: Cistercian Publications, 1971), 2. All quotations from Bernard here are from pages 2–3 of this sermon.