There are certain questions one expects to hear bandied about in an academic environment. “What is the square root of 125? Why is the sky blue? How many lines in a sonnet?… Where’s your homework? …Will this be on the test?” As a student progresses through school the questions get harder and the answers more complex. For the most part, however, at least there are answers. One doesn’t necessarily expect to grapple with life’s Really Big Questions where the answers are Far From Certain until one is immersed in a university level philosophy, theology or, say, quantum physics course. That is, unless you happen to attend Notre Dame Prep. And then all bets are off. Which is a very, very good thing. This is the kind of education I’d want my kid to get.
Throughout this entire 2013-2014 academic year, a bulletin board along the east corridor has silently posed the following question to passersby:
How do you make visible Divine Mystery?
I have passed the bulletin board at least a hundred times on my way to one interview or another. Which means that, most likely, every NDP student, faculty, and staff member has also passed it while coming and going. I find the question fantastically provocative and have pondered it like a Zen koan. I had to get to the bottom of it. Not the answer – necessarily – but the question. Who first posed it? In what class? To what end? Not surprisingly, I was directed to the Humanities Department, where I met with Humanities Chair and English Literature teacher, Rob Quinn, as well as Art Department Chair, Ann Walker. For those readers who don’t know, the Humanities Department was established at NDP in recent years as a highly interdisciplinary program that opens the girls’ eyes and minds to the interconnectedness of coursework as a way to better understand the human story. Students are exposed to the concept in freshman year and then must apply for acceptance into the program, which runs from sophomore through senior year.
“What makes you think the kids are ready to grapple with questions like that?” I challenged Rob, referring to the bulletin board.
“Why?” he repeated. “Because they’re the ones asking the questions in the first place,” he said without hesitation. “They’re always asking variations on questions like: ‘How do you prove what you cannot see? What does God look like? How and why is my God different than your God? How is my story like your story? What is the point of human suffering?’ When you get right down to it…the whole course is an exploration of the Divine Mystery. And, believe me, the questions are just as important as the answers. It’s a basic human impulse,” Rob continued, “to ask these questions. In exploring them, the girls come to understand that there are universal themes not only in the questions, but in the answers. And those themes carry across and transcend time, history, and culture.”
Heady stuff. But also thrilling. The particular question about making visible that which is invisible came out of the junior year humanities course of study. Blending themes, content, and questions across such subject matter as World Religions, World History, Literature, Art, and Social Studies, the junior Humanities class discovered some of those universal aspects of the human story. At the beginning of the year they started with a unit on Divinity and explored ancient answers to the bulletin board question.
“We studied a variety of ancient cultures and their attempt to answer the question through the creation of primitive but artistic face masks,” explained Ann Walker. As part of that study, the girls created their own masks in the primitive style but with their own interpretation of the answer manifested both in the mask and in an accompanying essay. According to Ann, the girls really struggled with the assignment, but the results were incredibly creative and insightful and can be seen as background to the question posed on the bulletin board.
“Masks are allegorical,” Ann continued. “Every culture has used masks to both hide and reveal ultimate truths. It’s a paradox, really. But all part of the mystery. Essentially, a mask is a tool to self-discovery and self-expression. The outward eventually helps one discover the inward, which ultimately leads to the Divine.”
Like I said, heady stuff.
“The approach is actually very Socratic,” Rob chimed in. “Part of what we’re doing is teaching the girls how to ask better questions.”
“And we’re teaching them the importance of making connections…” Ann added.
“That’s right,” Rob said. “We get them to do so across disciplines and courses. If you think about it, the whole purpose of humanity is to make connections. Between question and answer. Cause and effect. Experience and expectation. Between one human being and another…”
“And human beings and God…” Ann finished the thought.
“This semester we read No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre,” Rob continued. “No Exit asks the ultimate question: ‘To what degree is my experience bound by other people? And how am I supposed to respond?’ This concept of connectedness, both in its question and response form is the key to unlocking universal truths…”
“Getting beyond ourselves and to The Other,” said Ann.
“Right. At NDP, we help make those connections to The Other through our service component,” Rob continued. “Again, crossing over all disciplines, the girls eventually come to realize that even as we look at our differences, we relate more to each other than we think. We are more alike than different. It is a reason to love more than hate. The Other becomes a reflection of myself. The human narrative – as revealed by history and handed down through myths, culture, and storytelling throughout the ages – bears that out.”
Giving whole new meaning to the catechismal, “Made in the image and likeness of God.” Revealed not by a mask, but by our love for another. And a pretty good way to make visible… Divine Mystery.