April 1, 2000
Spiritual Frontiers 2000: Belief and Values in the Literary West
Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah
I would like to begin my
presentation this morning with a brief description of where I teach and
whom I teach. I am an assistant professor of English at Viterbo College
in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Viterbo College is a private liberal arts college
founded on the eastern banks of the Mississippi River by an order of Franciscan
sisters more than 100 years ago. As a private Catholic college, Viterbo
sustains the rich religious tradition of St. Francis of Assisi. This tradition
includes an awareness that it is in God alone that we find fullness of
truth and goodness, that our vision of God is manifested in our acts of
goodness and love, and that the dignity and importance of each individual
in God's creation is respected at all times. When I began teaching at Viterbo
I quickly realized that "learning" in the Franciscan tradition is never
perceived as "learning for the sake of learning," but is always thought
of as "learning in the pursuit of that true wisdom which was embodied in
Francis of Assisi." (Hayes 2), "where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there
is despair, hope." Recently Viterbo College was recognized in The Templeton
Guide: Colleges that Encourage Character Development as a school committed
to inspire students to lead ethical and civic-minded lives.
I didn't ask these questions for various reasons. First of all, although I teach at a Roman Catholic College, I am not Catholic. I am a practicing Mormon, and I am never quite certain when my Mormon beliefs may be in conflict with those who sign my pay check. And although I consider myself a religious/spiritual person, I am not generally theologically inclined. My professional "expertise" lies not in theology but in New Criticism! Thus I am much more comfortable guiding my students through the language of the literature and challenging them to read the text again as feminists or Marxists than I am leading my students to the sacred core of the text, challenging them to read the text again for a spiritual enlightenment. Also, I tend to agree with Jesus when he says in Matthew 7: 6, "Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces." My students are not dogs; they are actually very nice people, but I've heard my share of disparaging comments from my students after reading "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," and so the last thing I want is to have what I hold sacred on Sunday challenged by others Monday through Friday. Hence, we hold that which is sacred, private and silent in the classroom.
Secondly, I have had experiences with students who without invitation have brought their religious values and beliefs into the classroom, and quite frankly it inevitably caused awkward, embarrassing situations. Last semester in an American Masterpieces class a student wrote in her journal, "I hope I can withstand the 'Born Again Christian' sitting on my right whose know-it-all attitude is beginning to annoy me." Indeed, he annoyed all of us before the mid-term exam. More recently, a first-year student argued passionately in my office for permission to write her term paper on teaching creationism in the classroom as an alternative to the theory of evolution. She was one of my better writers and thinkers, and after considerable consultation, admonitions, and caveats I granted her permission to go ahead and fail the assignment. As she left my office I could not help but think that her faith (which obviously was at the core of her life and her argument) was admirable, but ultimately harmful. Matters of morality should be treated in more "extracurricular" arenas, or at least in the Religious Studies Department. Rigorous intellectual matters should be a part of the academic arena. I distinctly remember thinking that if she were to be successful at Viterbo College she must eventually distance herself from her faith and embrace those skills that would be much more valuable to her in life in school and at work--an ability to discourse using logic and reason, to deduce, to expose, analyze, criticize, in short, to think academically. I also remember thinking that it was my responsibility to help her see through her religious beliefs and adopt a more scientific view of education.
Thirdly, I am a disciple of Reader Response Criticism, and I try to give equal voice to the reader and the text when we discuss any work of literature. Just as the text affects the reader, so does the reader affect the meaning of the text. Indeed, one tenet of Reader Response Criticism is that meaning evolves from the fusion of the author's text and the reader's personality and experience. This fusion includes the psychological, social, and cultural contexts of the reader's life (Karolides 5). But although I use this type of literary theory in all of my classes, I am hesitant again to invite my students to bring their spiritual/religious experiences to the body of the text. In other words, I don't include a spiritual context in the fusion of text and reader. I'll try to explain why.
One major criticism of a Reader-Response approach to teaching literature is that the range of responses possible with any given reading of the text seems limitless. Is any student's experiential response acceptable? Is one response more "valid" or acceptable than another? Indeed, how can validity be measured at all? Literary interpretations become relative to one's cultural/social/intellectual experiences. Occasionally students completely ignore what is even in the text, or they read into the text facts or inferences that are clearly not present or not defensible (Christenbury 105).
I have often heard these arguments, and I have had to deal with these situations with students who most often support their reading of a text with a plaintive, "But that's the way I feel," as if that constitutes the last--and unassailable--word on the discussion. Or, "Well, my reading is as good as your reading." Reader Response theorists counter this criticism by asserting that anything encapsuled in the reader's mind that has no relevance to the text, may be a "wonderful fantasy" but it is not applicable to the literary transaction that takes place within an informed body of readers (Rosenblatt Reader 105). Such fantasies take the reader from meaning rather than to meaning. The truly "informed readers," learn from one another; indeed, some readers may conclude that their first readings were thin or unsubstantial, and they learn from the experience of others through open dialogue.
But students are with good reason reluctant to classify their spiritual experiences and a "spiritual reading of the text" as "wonderful fantasies," or to admit that those readings may be confused or impoverished (Rosenblatt, Reader 105). Most spiritual references come from a codified religious source that has been systematized by the student through years of practice, experience, and instruction. My experience in dealing with students who believe in this type of what William J. Bausch calls a "systematic theology" (16) has been that most often these religious beliefs are closed off to other assumptions, possibilities, and/or conclusions. These beliefs are derived from highly personal metaphysical experiences. Also, because they are from God, they are absolute. If critics of Reader Response ask, "How can you argue against experience?" critics may also ask, "How do you argue against testimony?"
If there are moral absolute readings that are received from God, there doesn't seem to be much to discuss. How can an instructor or a classmate take divine commands and/or interpretations and treat them as topics of open discussion (Strike and Moss 181)? Hence, literary interpretations centered on the spiritual experiences the reader brings to a text may tend to inhibit rather than enrich the discussion. For example, I shall never forget the peeved tone in a student's voice when she challenged my interpretation of Abraham's wisdom to sacrifice his son Isaac. (I was trying to raise the possibility that Carol Gilligan's "feminine" morality is at play in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll House by juxtaposing Abraham's morality of obedience with a mother's morality of care.) This student first quoted Genesis 22:5 and then Hebrews 11:15 to support her own interpretation of Abraham's obedience, and she then sternly cautioned me of loosely interpreting the Bible! Believe me, that discussion of A Doll House was brief as I was unwilling to enter into a debate of Higher Criticism of the Bible. This semester, during a discussion of the changing role of women as presented in Daisy Miller, one student raised her hand and said that the role of women was made perfectly clear in Ephesians 5: 22-24. "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church…therefore…so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything." My class gave a collective sigh of resignation, and we moved on. Therefore, for these reasons I have avoided engaging in my students' spiritual connections with literature.
But Spiritual Frontiers 2000: Belief and Values in the Literary West gave me the impetus if not the excuse to explore my students' spiritual readings of literature.
I began my mission into exploring the "spiritual" qualities of narratives by asking my students to respond in their journals to any of the following questions: What does it mean to read a piece of literature with a faith in God? How do your personal spiritual/religious beliefs/values inform your reading of literature? What piece of literature have you read recently that caused you to reflect in a spiritual way upon yourself, your relationship with God, and/or your relationship with others? How did that literature link you with God and or others? How was that literature sacred? They had one week to write their responses.
Libbie said that to her to read literature with a belief in God means to recognize the struggles the characters have and the choices the characters make. Ultimately the struggles and subsequent choices move the characters either closer to or away from God. Libbie added that as the reader, she too struggled along with the characters, and that the literature moved her either toward a greater understanding of or appreciation of God, or a greater confusion or doubt.
Pat said she wasn't so sure this doubting necessitated a movement away from God. If a piece of literature organized questions and concerns that are important to her, then that piece of literature is a "spiritual" text. "If the literature offers me insights into my own spiritual beliefs, if it confirms what I believe" she said, "then I rate it on a high scale. But if it causes me to doubt, to question, to worry, then I rate it even on a higher scale because I have found that when I struggle with my beliefs I force myself to find the answers. And the answers do usually come."
Phyllis, responding to A River Runs Through It, said the novel brought her closer to God through its descriptions of the beauty of nature and the simplicity of the life the family lived. "I think Pastor Maclean appreciated the wisdom and closeness to God that his boys could establish if they were left to 'commune' with nature and go fishing." She added, "The pastor drilled his son with academic lessons in the morning, but he sent him off in the afternoon to fish, reflect, and establish a close relationship with his brother. Thus he gained knowledge of the environment and wisdom in his realization of his relationship with the river and the mountains." Several of the students in my class said that when they are in a natural setting they shed their material selves; they close off extemporaneous noises and take joy in the sound of the river, the colors of the sunrise, and the majesty of the mountains. This, they claim, brings them closer to God.
I found my students' comments to be insightful and true. The students talked about how literature changed them, and although they did not use the word "transform" in the discussion, I sensed that they recognized that one purpose of education itself is to transform the individual. This transformation traditionally has been defined as becoming better readers, better writers, better thinkers, better nurses, accountants, lawyers, teachers. But my students expanded the definition to include a spiritual transformation that helps us to become better people, better healers. To experience the spiritual in literature means to connect with something larger, deeper, richer than ourselves. It means we have an awareness of something or someone beyond our own concerns that adds meaning and value to all, that heals wounds, that creates a wholeness consisting of self and other. Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall call this awareness "spiritual intelligence" which is the soul's intelligence (9).
Libbie was correct when she said she identified with the characters whose struggles and choices moved them toward God or away from God. She formed a sense of compassion for the Maclean family, and from this compassion came a sense of belonging, not only to the Maclean family, but to all families who experience heartbreak and loss. Libbie learned that her personal suffering is like others' suffering, and her joy is like others' joy. "When we know ourselves to be connected to all others, acting compassionately is simply the natural thing to do" (Remen 34). This is a valuable lesson for all of us to learn.
Pat was right when she said that spiritual literature forces us to ask painful questions. Sacredness as the ground of learning asks us to consider the possibility that the sacred is here and now. It challenges us with the questions: Can we see this world as sacred? Treat everything and everyone with respect? Can we open our minds wider, and our hearts wider too? (Glazer, "Sacredness" 10). Sacredness is the practice of wholeness and awareness. "It is approaching, greeting, and meeting the world with basic respect." What is sacredness as a foundation of learning? It is rooting education in practices of openness, attentiveness to experience, and sensitivity to the world. Spirituality in education begins with questions: What is my experience? What is my effect? What are the interrelationships between myself and others? Are these being attended to? (Glazer, "Sacredness" 11). As educators, we need to teach that inquiry and openness are spiritual virtues and avenues to spiritual growth. It strikes me that when Jesus asks Peter, "But who do you say that I am?" (Matthew 16: 15), he affords Peter an opportunity to interrogate his own discernment of this carpenter from Galilee. Peter answered positively, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16: 16). But Peter learned a painful lesson about himself when he answered the question: "Surely you also are one of them…" (Matthew 26: 73). "I do not know the man," answered Peter just before the cock crowed (Matthew 26: 74). As my students said, struggling with our beliefs forces us to move through pain and doubt to a firmer faith in God.
When I assigned the students Norman Maclean's novella A River Runs Through It, I gave to them a list of discussion questions to consider as they read the story. Among them were the following three questions: First, do you agree with Reverend Maclean's orthodox view, "that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace…and that only by picking up God's rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty…all good things come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy" (2, 4). How has your experience shaped your attitudes toward mankind, grace, and art? Second, in his last "sermon" to Norman, the Reverend claims, "…you can love completely without complete understanding" (103). Has this been true in your life? If it is our responsibility to always be our brother's keeper, then what consequences, rewards, blessings, complications does such a responsibility carry? And third, A River Runs Through It is filled with great "proverbs." Discuss one that especially inspires you, surprises you, puzzles you, moves or touches you in a spiritual way.
I shall share with you (with the students' permission) parts of three essays that I received.
The first essay was written by a student named Sarah. Sarah was an art major who presented her final paper with her final project--an oil painting of the main character in James Welch's Fools Crow. In her essay Sarah cited three passages in A River Runs Through It that had impressed her as she worked on her painting. She said, "I especially liked the scene when Paul and Norman are fishing and Paul gives Norman one of his flies. Paul knows what the trout are biting. Norman, who hadn't had much success, asked, 'How did you think that out?' Paul answered, 'All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren't noticing which makes you see something that isn't even visible' (92). It is the same thing in painting.
"When we read Welch's novel," she said, "I read the same descriptions of Fools Crow that the other members of the class read. But at one point, after I had finished the book, I began to see things that perhaps the rest of the class did not notice. I saw the vision in his eyes, the nobility in his forehead, the simplicity and strength in his torso. I mixed the Sedona sand with my oils and began painting, and as I painted it seemed almost like a mystical magical experience for me, as if Fools Crow were actually before me sitting for his portrait. Everything came together: the time, the subject, the medium, and me, the artist. I was, as one of my art professors says, "lost in the motif." I was no longer aware of myself doing the painting. My focus was entirely outside of my self-consciousness and inside Fools Crow. When I finished, I remember thinking, 'How did I do that?' It was one of those good experiences artists sometimes have.
"Reverend Maclean told his sons that only by picking up God's rhythms are we able to regain power and beauty (2). As I painted, I felt as if I had picked up Fools Crow's rhythms; we became one, artist and subject. It was quite a spiritual experience."
Sarah concluded, "Reverend Maclean knew what he was talking about when he said that 'all good things come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy' (4). Of course he was talking about grace in a 'religious' way, but both art and religion can be seen as ways that human beings express themselves, ways that human beings express who they are. When performed with grace, both art and religion offer a way back into another's soul, into the beauty of God's nature."
I was impressed by Sarah's artistic insight to the concept of grace. When I couple spirituality and grace my inclination is to think first of Paul and his notion of sola gratiae, salvation comes through grace alone. But Sarah suggests a new concept of grace, a harmony of one person with another or one person with the elements. Sarah experienced a coordination of the mind and hand and earth with the spirit. "Eventually, all things merge into one," (104) said Maclean. For Sarah, her colors, her strokes, her proportions, her symbols, her mood, the sand from Sedona all came out just right as though some invisible wisdom beyond herself guided her to the creation (or re-creation) of Fools Crow. She could not explain it fully; it was an act of grace. As an educator I was pleased that I had provided her an opportunity to demonstrate her learning through her art and words. I suspect all of us can provide that same opportunity to demonstrate spiritual connection to reading, writing, thinking, and creating (Graves 19).
The next essay was written by a woman named Beth, a senior student majoring in music education. She chose to discuss the Reverend's quote: "…you can love completely without complete understanding," and the issue of being our brother's keeper. I shall never forget her words.
"I can process intellectually how Paul may be considered a classical mythic western hero," she said. "He is a loner. He isn't encumbered by Baym's emasculating female who supposedly prohibits him from realizing his masculine dreams. He doesn't seek wealth or fame. He is self-sufficient, refusing help from his family. He's the silent "Lone Ranger" type who lends his brother flies, and takes time to help his brother fish the Blackfoot River, but who at the same time toughs it out alone with his own problems. Norman calls him 'knot headed,' but he adds that his brother was often a winner 'because he didn't borrow flies' (90). I can recognize Maclean's characterization of Paul as godlike, 'The spray emanating from him was finer-grained still and enclosed him in a halo of himself' (20). The fishing pole is his magic wand, his scepter; the Big Blackfoot was his domain. I can appreciate all of this in my mind, but in my heart I can only recognize my own brother, a narcissistic man who lived apart from his family from the time he turned 18.
"Paul is the prodigal son, the favored son who is always welcomed back to the home despite whatever emotional damage he may have caused his family, especially his parents. Whenever there is a family reunion, it is Paul who is the central attraction (78). When Norman and Paul return to Missoula together, Norman says, 'Mother was especially nice to me, since she hadn't paid much attention to me so far, but soon she was back with fresh rolls, and she buttered Paul's' (79). She offers Paul chokecherry jelly, forgetting that it was Norman who liked that particular type of preserve. When Paul was killed, and Norman brought the news to his parents, Mrs. Maclean turned and went to her bedroom alone. 'She was never to ask me a question about the man she loved most and understood least' (102).
"The most vivid image I have of my mother is of her standing vigil at the kitchen window that faces the highway that runs past our house. She stands there waiting for my brother to come home. She cooks his favorite meal; she washes the dishes; she waters the plants; she fusses over the curtains; she paces the floor. And always she looks out the window waiting for her son to come home, waiting until the darkness outside drives her finally to bed. On those rare occasions when my brother does pull into the driveway, on those rare occasions when he comes into the house sober and not stoned on alcohol, drugs, or both, my mother does precisely what Mrs. Maclean does. She warms up the meal she had prepared and then she laughs at his stories, because no one can tell stories and make people laugh like my brother can.
"But as I said, those are the rare occasions. More often my brother doesn't show up at all, even though he had promised to be home. More often we get a call from the police or a friend instead of a call from my brother telling us that my brother once again has been in a fight, has shoplifted an item for beer money, has wrecked his car, has passed out in the park. To me a hero is someone who goes through a journey. He gets the call, he goes on the journey, he has setbacks, but then he rises and returns and is celebrated. I don't find any of these qualities in Paul. I don't see any of these qualities in my brother.
"A hero must see something beyond himself. He must have a sense of a larger community that adds meaning and value to his existence and to the existence of others. A true hero adds to the community traditions that ground us in some kind of understanding of who we are and why we are here. I am very tired of 'heroes' who are grounded only in their own ego. These people are completely wrapped up in themselves and see those around them only as objects. I can't believe Paul had any true attachment to the Cheyenne woman even though he fights to defend her. She is more a symbol of his defiance of convention than a human being with dignity and individual worth. Paul despises Old Rawhide, kicking her in the ass, for ruining the men's fishing trip. Neal probably doesn't deserve any respect from Paul, but still it is the Reverend who understands that helping is 'giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly' (81). Paul hasn't learned that lesson. He has learned only that he doesn't like to give any part of himself, or take any part from another."
My student concluded, "To me a true hero is someone like Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm X. These people fought for a purpose. But what was Paul fighting for? What was he defending? The art of fly fishing? What did Paul die for? Fly fishing? No. He wasn't out fighting to preserve the river or a way of life or his family. Paul wasn't defending anything. Paul died because he was a gambler. He died because of his gambling debts and his drinking. Paul never learned what is basic in being a hero, that when he harms himself he harms others. When my brother physically abuses himself again and again, he emotionally abuses my family. When he selfishly refuses our help again and again he slowly becomes a stranger to us, a distortion of what our family is. When Paul isolates himself from Norman and his parents, he isolates himself from the only people who could make him whole, and by doing this he seals his self-destruction. I am sad to admit that my brother still continues in this path.
"The Reverend Maclean said Christ's disciples were fishermen, and 'that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Gililee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman' (1). I love this passage because it reminds me of what my own pastor always told us in Sunday School, that the disciples were fishermen, but they were also fishers of men. Paul is an expert dry-fly fisherman, but he is not a fisher of men.
"Am I my brother's keeper? Can I say what the Reverend said, '…you can love completely without complete understanding" (103)? No, I cannot. People who are heroes leave their mark for good on society; they are celebrated; and they continue their work. In A River Runs Through It Paul isn't going to be celebrated or remembered for his contributions to his community. He was a hack journalist who showed up to work drunk. I fear that the last memories his parents and Paul will have of him is his broken hand. I have seen the hurt my own brother continues to inflict upon all of us in the family. He has left us nothing to celebrate. He has left us only marks of hurt. We don't know him any more. I can only echo the Reverend's final sentiments, 'It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us' (104)."
Is Beth's personal essay an example of a spiritual understanding of Maclean's novella? Or does she miss completely the pathos of A River Runs Through It? I don't know, but perhaps Beth, by telling her story, is on a profound journey of healing. Educators are healers (Remen 35). We heal our students as we give them opportunities to tell their stories, to create a sense of compassion by attending first to their own humanity, coming to a deep acceptance of the pains and joys of their own life, and then embracing the pains and joys of others. Schools are institutions for processing information. But schools are also institutions for processing emotions by telling stories. Leslie Marmon Silko said that with stories: "We can escape almost anything, with stories we will survive. We keep the stories for those who return, but more important, for the dear ones who do not come back so that we may remember them, and cry for them with the stories. In this way we hold them and keep them with us forever, and in this way we continue." I take some comfort in believing that Beth, who told me her story, will one day begin to escape the pain, even anger, that she expressed, and that she will regain a care for her brother and together continue.
The final student response to A River Runs Through It that I would like to share with you is from a fourth-year student named Gena. I first met Gena when she enrolled in my first-year composition course, and she subsequently signed up for three of my classes in the following years. Thus, through her journals, essays, and conferences I got to know this talented student quite well. She has agreed to share with you a fact about her life that is key to understanding how and why she responded to Maclean's story as she did. When Gena was 14 years old, she was raped by two boys in her high school. Her family was new to the community, and the two boys came from established families. And so for whatever reasons when it came to prosecute the boys, the attorneys agreed to a plea bargain and the offense was reduced from a first-degree felony to a third-degree misdemeanor. Both boys served minimum jail and probation time only. Gena writes.
"The main scene in A River Runs Through It that moved me was when Norman and Paul had taken Neal fishing. The weather was far too hot to fish, and so Norman relaxed in the shade and comtemplated nature and the river. 'I sat there and forgot and forgot,' says Norman, 'until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched…Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river…Not far downstream was a dry channel where the river had run once, and part of the way to come to know a thing is through its death. But years ago I had known the river when it flowed through this now dry channel, so I could enliven its stony remains with the waters of memory' (61-62).
"I used to do something very similar, and for me it became a ritual. When I lived up north things were always very crazy in my life. It was a very small town, and my family and I were never accepted because we came from the 'big city' and brought our 'big city ways' with us. This left us as targets for gossip and alienation at the slightest mistake any of us should make. Anyway, when things would get really bad there was one place where I could go to free myself of the pain and confusion of all of my troubles, the marina. I would sit by the water, listening to its movements, watching the water critters, breathing in the smell of the water and the moss, communing with the healing power of nature. Sometimes I would stay until very late, watching the stars or the northern lights, both of which were so sharp and defined. I would let my body relax, let the tension and pain flow out of me in time with the lapping of the water or the shifting of the Northern Lights. I realized the power and energy in the living world around me and I felt my mental anguish dwindle and fall away. From the very first time I wandered down there I was able to find peace in the water. Just as Norman was able to free himself from the burdens of the mind and body, allowing himself to move beyond the boundaries of his physical form and his reason to become one with something greater than himself, so too was I able to find peace and solace with nature.
"The state of bliss that I found in my time at the marina was like nothing else I have ever experienced. While I was there I ceased to be a scarred body, a troubled soul, or a shattered mind on the brink of self-destruction. I became an element of the greater power of nature. In such a state I was simply unable to hold onto the pain, the fear, or the anger. And this sense of greater peace would permeate my being and stay with me, in full force, in calming rhythms, or as a residue, long enough to get me through until the next time I could journey out to the water.
"Norman's 'waters of memory' help him to complete a picture even when that visual something is no longer there. So it is with my waters of memory. Even though it has been years since I've been to that marina, I can still calm myself by thinking or talking about how amazing my experience there was. I still find solace in the memories. I guess what it all comes down to is that A River Runs Through It was able to awaken fully something that had been dormant in me for a long time. My spiritual understanding and connection with this book stems mainly from the way in which it was able to quicken something so powerful in me. Thank you."
Any words that I might add will only detract from the power of Gena's testimony and experience. But it seems to me that Maclean's work accomplished at least two things for Gena, and these are aims teachers of English wish for their students. First, the narrative transported Gena to a spiritual height that she had not before experienced in literature. It allowed her to re-unite in a holistic way to the marina, to nature, the essence of our existence. She remembered the intimate healing power of a universe defined by the interconnection of all things, her body, her spirit, the water, the moss, the Northern Lights. This interconnectedness became a center of spiritual strength for Gena, and it can serve us as well as we become aware of the reciprocal healing power of nature and humanity.
Secondly, Maclean's story provided Gena a basis for hope and morality--perhaps at a time of personal hopelessness and despair. When a person is in a hopeless situation, the only way out is to imagine other possibilities and alternatives. It is the individual's imagination or an author's imagination that gives birth to hope by providing these possibilities and alternatives. Reverend Maclean recognized this truth when he said to Norman, "After you have finished your true stories sometime, why don't you make up a story and the people to go with it? Only then will you understand what happened and why" (Bausch 104). Norman writes his story to give meaning to Paul's life. A River Runs Through It rekindles Paul's spirit. We read Norman's story to give us hope as fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters. It rekindles our spirit. There is amazing hope voiced in Gena's concluding sentence, "Thank you." A River Runs Through It allowed Gena to envision a different future, a different self, a different morality based upon a better way of being. This is the key to gaining spirituality through literature; we begin to understand who we are and who we can be.
And so, where do I, a Mormon teaching Lutherans at a Catholic college, go from here? How will my experiences with my students inform my teaching? How will this symposium, Spiritual Frontiers 2000, ease me "spiritually" into the new millennium? I don’t have firm answers or strategies, but I have at least a resolve now to bring grace into my classroom. To do this I must return again to a trust in Reader Response Criticism. I must practice what I have here preached. Wolfgang Iser says in The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response that the significance of a piece of literature does not lie in the meaning sealed within the text, or sealed within the period, the genre, or the professor/scholar. The meaning of the text instead brings out what had previously been sealed within us (157). A River Runs Through It brought out spiritual meanings sealed within Sara, Beth, and Gena. To assure that all of my students have this same opportunity to grow spiritually as well as intellectually in my classroom, I must create an authentic and disciplined setting where my students are encouraged to speak and listen honestly and with respect for others. I must foster an atmosphere of dialogue that freely integrates the emotional and the cognitive, the material and the spiritual. I must value my students' life narratives that can provide powerful learning experiences for us all. I must give my students opportunities to share those narratives in journals and/or discussions. St. Francis of Assisi said, "We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way." I have always thought this is what literature does: heals, unites, and brings home. I must model my spiritual intelligence in the literature I choose, the decisions I make, in the goals I establish. I must take courage to share my spiritual self with others.
Booth, Wayne C. "The Ethics of Teaching Literature," College English, 1998.
Christenbury, Leila. Making the Journey: Being and Becoming a Teacher of English Language Arts. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1994.
Fleckenstein, Kristie S. "Creating a Center That Holds: Spirituality Through Exploratory Pedagogy." The Spiritual Side of Writing: Releasing the Learner's Whole Potential. eds. Foehr and Schiller. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1997.
Foehr, Regina Paxton and Susan A. Schiller, editors. The Spiritual Side of Writing: Releasing the Learner's Whole Potential. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1997.
Glazer, Steven, ed. The Heart of Learning: Spirituality in Education. New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1999.
Graves, Richard L. "Grace, in Pedagogy." The Spiritual Side of Writing: Releasing the Learner's Whole Potential, eds. Foehr and Schiller. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1997.
Hayes, Zachery. "In Search of an Identity: Franciscan Schools in A Changing World." 1990. (Essay in my possession.)
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Zohar, Danah, and Ian Marshall. SQ: Connecting with our Spiritual
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