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Christian Education as Conversion

By Christopher Wells

Education, teaching: doctrina in Latin, as in Saint Augustine’s most-influential manual on all things revealed and discursive, De doctrina Christiana, translated recently as Teaching Christianity. Augustine’s book, completed in the year 426, set the curriculum for all western seminary education for a millennium — a premodern bestseller, still unstintingly studied. Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa of theology provided, 850 years on, a commentary on Augustine, taking doctrine in much the same sense. Sacred doctrine, said Aquinas, begins with God’s own revelation of himself as necessary for human salvation, and takes up Scripture as the singular, essential guide into these mysteries, which center on the triune God. God’s initiative is basic. For this reason, theology approaches all things from his perspective and all Christian belief and faithful response are built upon his Word.

Call this the evangelical basis of Christian education, as a lively pursuit of God himself: faith (and hope and love) seeking understanding, with an emphasis on the means of grace as God’s instruments of formation. In other words, we are called to continual conversion. “O Lord, open thou our lips. / And our mouth shall show forth thy praise,” that is, more fully: O God, give me your own distinct word to speak and understand again today, and by your grace transform me, making me fit for your purpose. Whether we be students, teachers, stay-at-home moms, bankers, baristas, or bishops, all Christians must seek God daily in order to hear and know his will. Presuming the irreplaceable norm of corporate worship on Sundays, the next critical building blocks are structured prayer with Scripture (the Daily Office) and times of personal devotion, in which we seek to hear and obey God’s word for us now. In this broad sense of Christian education — seeking to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that [we] may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2) — I’d like to share something of my own continuing meditation on three “stations” of prayer, about which I wrote several years ago: an icon of Saint Mary and Jesus, a crucifix, and an icon of Saints Peter and Andrew.

The icon of Mary and Jesus, known as the Sweet Kissing or Loving Kindness icon (Panagia Glykophilousa), depicts our infant Lord seated on the lap of his mother in a warm embrace. Mary is called God-bearer because she gave birth to — thence weaned and trained up — the God-man, and here we also see her as Seat of Wisdom, for behold: Wisdom incarnate rests upon her! They delight in one another, and one can imagine her amazement and joy.

What does the image communicate? God’s glorious goodness, generosity, and power — “infinitely more” than anything Mary, or any human actor, could even have thought to “ask or imagine” much less engineer (Eph. 3:20). God’s grace given fully and freely; indeed, the face — faces — of God’s salvation, redeemer and redeemed.

Praying with this image of Mary and Jesus inspires gratitude in the reality of God’s love for us personally. Christian prayer would have us ask God to act in our lives and then trust that he will do so. To be sure, God claims us by baptism, and we receive him in the Eucharist, which is a regular and reliable miracle. But do we believe that we are becoming like him, being “conformed” to his image (Rom. 8:29), and do we fully trust his power to change our hearts and circumstances? Whether our temptation is to fear and anxiety, prideful self-reliance, or both by turns, meditating on Mary the Mother of God reorients our mind and heart on God’s amazing grace for us, in our lives. “The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name” (Lk. 1:49). Christian conversion is planted here in the gift of God’s “sweet kissing,” out of which soil true obedience and discipleship, rooted in tender humility and gentle surrender, true freedom, may grow.

This is the pattern of each of our lives as God would have them, revealed in our infant Savior resting happily on the lap of his mother who is also our mother and sister. Gazing gratefully at them, we may ask God to fill us with virtue, and to speak his word of call again this day, according to his plans, knowing that he will supply all we need. We may thank God for the mystery of our salvation given in his Son, and pray that we may be given a Mary-like patience to watch and wait for miracles.

Next, consider our Lord on the cross. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, and it is our privilege “not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). This is the grace of cruciformity, from which may grow another aspect of humility, the dying of our plans and pretensions. When people say, “it’s not about you,” they are observing that the world does not revolve around us. That is important to grasp, if elementary. More profoundly, contemplating our call to imitate the crucified Lord and to discipline every thought and desire by his great love (see Phil. 3:10-11), we see that our own lives are also not about us, because we are not our own. “I die every day,” says Paul (1 Cor. 15:31), that is, I continually give my life back to the Lord and pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” The curriculum of conversion is theocentric because, having found new life in Christ, each day can only revolve around him and his will.

As we prepare for our day and work after God’s Word, we must hold ourselves accountable to the high standard of Christ on the cross. Falling into the earth and dying, a single grain of wheat bears much fruit (John 12:24). The more we concentrate here and ask to be made like him, the more we will speak and behave soberly, not seeking to impress others, and abandon our pride and fear, which flourish in the sewer of self-focus. More than that, in the power of Christ crucified we will manage the greatest works of our lives, called and equipped supernaturally. With the discipline of the cross comes freedom from distraction. Clear headed, we can speak honest and direct words to ourselves and others with compassion and love — the truth, fulfilled and offered in Christ. We can keep busy in the right way, recognizing that “the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16) — full of opportunities for stumbling into ambition, competitiveness, greed, envy: all that contradicts the fruit of the Spirit.

Finally, turn to the icon of the Holy Apostolic Brothers, depicting Saints Peter and Andrew embracing under the watchful gaze of the resurrected Lord. Given by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras to Pope Paul VI to commemorate their historic meeting in 1964, the icon imagines the visible reunion of the one Church, West and East, and the sacrifices that will make it possible. The Lord mercifully sends us out two by two “to every town and place where he himself intended to go” (Luke 10:1), the vast Catholica of the known world, and sets us within a beloved community of brothers and sisters in him (see Philemon 1:20). Here we may find rightly ordered Christian love in common pursuit of union with God (see Augustine, DDC I 37).

If Christ’s Incarnation and passion form the sacramental substance and ever-present reality of our life in him, the hope of resurrection, including the healing and resurrection of the Church for all to see, presents the evangelical horizon of our work, looking up to Christ who goes before. All Christian action must build up the single communion of his body. We are not lone rangers or free agents but servants and slaves (2 Tim. 2:24; Gal. 5:13). The call is to unite and not divide, to forgive, and to seek Christ’s own reconciliation (Eph. 2). The grace is God’s having gone before, placing our work, our life, and our loves in his Son, who will transform them.

Lord Jesus, be born in me again today, and show me your wonderful plans. Help me hold every thought and word accountable to your cross. And make me a steadfast servant of your Church, where I may both give and receive encouragement. In all things, increase my faith, hope, and love, according to your word. Amen.


Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director and editor of the Living Church Foundation.


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