“An experience of grace”

Hans speaks of his experience of lockdown, the closure of his school, and his unexpected discovery of the movement. The outcome? A book of reflections upon his experience as a headteacher.

It took Prime Minister Johnson exactly 12 seconds to shut down our school. A few colleagues and I were huddled around a small laptop in my office watching a small screen. The press conference was well underway when, almost in passing, as if he was uttering an afterthought, Mr Johnson mentioned that schools would close and children would not do exams. He said he would not say when they would reopen. We looked at each other in a state not of surprise but of uncertainty. What happens now? Our community, our learning village, emptied of students. Our beautiful campus was empty, silent, lifeless.

On my way home that evening, I had very mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was happy that my family and I would be able to stay safely at home together, hunkered down in the comparative safety of our house. On the other, I was bewildered by the prospect of not going to school, seeing the pupils and my colleagues, pursuing plans and strategies, holding meetings, living my life and doing the job I love.

Lockdown meant walking the dog…a lot. I would pray while walking, pray for everyone affected by the virus, but also pray for a direction, a purpose, a meaning. These prayers felt directed to a void. I could not pray easily or with confidence. I was confronted not by nothingness, but by a strong feeling that my response to the situation of the lockdown and the closing of my school was not causing me despair but rather inducing a mild apathy and comfortable listlessness, or even laziness in me.

We enjoyed a tremendous amount of “quality time” as a family. We played board games, read books, walked the dog again.

I do not know what possessed me to google youtube videos of Fr. Lorenzo Albacete. I had a vague memory of his interviews on CNN at the time of 9/11, another moment of crisis. I had been very impressed by his ability to explain his own reaction to events then. I wondered if he was now speaking about the pandemic with similar insight. I discovered he had died in 2014.

But I did find a video of Fr. Lorenzo in 2003, in conversation with a person who worked for MeaningofLife TV. Intrigued, I clicked through. By the second minute, I understood that I had been, and still was, deliberately and ardently supressing my deepest desires and amputating my own reason, subverting and ignoring my own experience. While watching this interview I felt like I was awaking from a sort of sleep and being invited to live fully awake. As the interview progressed, I felt it physically resonating within me. “This is how it is with me,” occurred to me. This is a true account of my experience as a human being. I recognized, as Virgil calls it, vestigia veteris flammae, the footprints of an old flame, a memory of an unbounded desire for the fullness of life, for all of reality, for what I would now call the Mystery.

My response was to share the interview with my wife and parents and to find out more about the movement Fr. Lorenzo alluded to in the interview. I devoured all the books that I could get hold of written by Fr. Carron and Fr. Giussani. I discovered the website. Fr. Lorenzo had left a very clear trail from me to the movement.

The invitation to allow myself to pursue my truest and deepest desires, to speak them and to recognize them not as phantasms but as tokens of reality, as real, made me think about every aspect of my life, and especially about my work as an educator.

After reading The Risk of Education, I felt a need to express what my reason and experiences had taught me about the work my colleagues and I were doing in school for children and for each other. Fr. Giussani had given me a clear criterion to do this. This was not easy because our school is very popular, very successful, by most standards, and I worried that my writing might perplex or offend others.

While writing a book of reflections, I also tried to reach the movement, something surprisingly difficult to do, in my experience. I called a parish in Bournemouth, left a voice mail in Cambridge, even contemplated calling Fr. Carron himself as a final act of desperate impatience! I was extremely keen to join others in this way of living. Fortunately, my wife remembered that a woman who was a member of a whatsapp group she belongs to sometimes sent links to Communion and Liberation texts to her. Soon we were attending School of Community and although we are not able to meet in person, it is very exciting to begin this journey.

Read also - "A festival of humanity"

The book meanwhile progressed and I entitled it Confessions of a Headteacher. It is an attempt at an examination of my conscience as a headteacher, which is accessible to persons of faith or no faith. One of the most striking things about Fr. Giussani’s educational methods is how sound they are in any context, including a school which is secular. His emphasis on experience, reason, freedom, hypothesis and verification are effective because they are based on an accurate understanding of being human. Only this accurate understanding leads to effective pedagogy.

The book was written for my colleagues and the teachers we train at our school. It is now published and has been purchased by all sorts of people. My journey with the movement is not very old nor has it been very long. But without the movement, I know I would never have written this book, or felt free to do so. Somehow, I needed to find someone who would give me the courage to write what I really believe. Lockdown for me has been an experience of grace.

Hans, Liverpool, UK