My favorite thing about John Senior, one of the most successful and influential teachers in the last century, is that his success and influence was not in talking about teaching or writing about teaching. If the growing talk about his legacy seems to grow, his post-mortem fame is coming from the fact of his teaching. He’s no John Dewey, famous for making his educational theories famous, but in being an educator, a true teacher. Having had bishops and pastors that were his students, and being taught by his more distant disciples, I can literally see and feel his greatness. He was real.
And that was his lifelong love affair – what was real. Having escaped the inevitable despair of secularism and relativism (he was a convert), he helped his students and those around him to see what truly is, which necessarily meant teaching them to awaken their senses to the sense of creation and, from there, to truth Himself. One of the foundational “exercises” that he thought to be central to education was to look at the stars – not just look, but to see the stars and wonder at them. As Fr. Bethel, priest and student of John Senior, explains in a new biography, Senior’s life was a love affair with the stars, a constant drawing upward toward the heavens through the wonder that begins – for those that have eyes to see – in gazing at the burning lights that shine in infinite darkness. He wasn’t the first to think stargazing a sure path to higher things. Plato once said, “Astronomy compels the soul to look upward, and leads us from this world to another.”
Milking cows twice a day, I get to watch the sky change through the seasons, and one of my favorite parts of winter is how brilliant the stars become. With shorter days it means that I am forced to see the night sky more often, and I am grateful for it. I naturally tend towards a rushed mind and body, but I’ve committed to stopping at a particular point each night (after putting the cows back in the pasture) and pausing to gaze at the stars. It’s worth the effort, and I cannot describe here in words what exactly it does within me, but I can say that I’m simply imitating wiser men of wiser ages, and I think its worth saying we need to do this more.
Awaiting the coming feast of the Epiphany, where we remember wise men that were guided by a star, and feeling the power of the night sky to incline me to wonder and, therefore, humility (“As I consider… the moon and stars … what is man…? [Psalm 8:3-4]) I am certain John Senior was right. To grow in wisdom – to be “wise men” heading toward Christ – we need the stars. We need to look at them, to wonder, and to be drawn to the Light that their light points to.
Many of you are beginning Exodus this New Year. Part of that is the needed discipline of the eyes when it comes to screens and media in general. In an age of flashing and hectic “light”, consider not just taking your eyes away from the frenetic glow of amusement, but actively and positively turn them toward the light of the stars. Men in search of true wisdom have done just that for a long time.