To Thrive is to Be Small
— Cody Bertram · Sunday, July 31, 2022 —
What does it mean for a Covenant graduate to thrive in college and beyond? What will it mean for our seniors to thrive in our current culture?
If we take a cue from a wildly popular song – our Seniors were 9 years old when they first heard it – we can get a glimpse of what they are facing. One of the "Let it Go" lyrics states:
It's time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
Elsa tells us that we – the modern expressive individual – are the source of our breakthrough. To thrive means to test limits and to break through to a world where there is no right, no wrong, no rules for me. This attitude is quite popular with my 4-year-old.
This attitude is not new – and modern culture is not to bear the blame alone. In 1875, William Earnest Henley wrote a poem titled Invictus. In stanza one, Henley states:
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
He continues in the second stanza:
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
He wraps the poem up with the most famous line:
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
In sum, the good that our lives should consist of is an unconquerable soul, an unbowed head, and ultimately a self-sufficient life in reference to nothing outside of ourselves. I’m not above the vision of life Elsa and Henley present. Who doesn’t want control, no limits, and a full life where we get all the credit? But, we know how this ends. Look around. We live in a world that is profoundly confused.
Though I have pulled from two poems, you can find the same message in our movies, novels, politicians, and sports. If this is the vision of the Good, True, and Beautiful our Seniors are facing, what are they to do? What good is a Covenant education in the face of such pervasive confusion?
I believe the key to preparing our students for a life of flourishing is in our school's motto: In all things, Christ preeminent.
To thrive means that we are not preeminent. We are not in charge. We aren’t the captains of our souls, and heads must be bowed. There exists, right, wrong, and rules. Compare our motto to the poems above. Christ turns everything our world values on its head.
Ultimately, what a CCS education teaches our students is humility. After 13 years of exposure to the greatest literature, art, beautifully complex math, and the wonders of science, one can’t help but feel small. Our students learn to submit to these subjects by listening attentively, asking difficult questions, arguing, and presenting their ideas in clear and winsome ways. If you are one of the parents of our most recent class of 2022 graduates, you know this.
In their 9th-grade Medieval history class, the students read Saint Benedict’s Rule. I believe Saint Benedict lays out what it means to thrive no matter what our culture says is true. In chapter seven, Benedict lays out a vision for what it means to make Christ preeminent – he teaches us what it means to foster humility. I believe these precepts are the key to thriving in college and beyond.
- The first step, then, of humility is if one set the fear of God always before his eyes and altogether avoid forgetfulness …
The Proverbs tell us that this fear is the beginning of all knowledge. From Kindergarten onwards our students see this fear of the Lord in the lives of their teachers. We often say at Covenant that the teacher is the text. This means that each teacher is walking alongside the students to guide them to a deep reverential awe of our creator. They learn to fight forgetfulness through daily Bible readings, prayer, Chapel, and a worldview shaped by Scripture and the Christian tradition. Living with the fear of God always before their eyes keeps their affections rightly ordered and reminds them that they are wonderfully and beautifully made in God’s image.
- The second step in humility is, if anyone, loving not his own self-will, delight not to fulfill his natural desires, but in his deeds reproduce that word of the Lord Who says: “I did not come to do My will, but His Who sent Me.”
In my time at Covenant, I have yet to meet a student who is excited about the uniform requirements. Yet, what they are learning is to give up their own wills and submit to another. In this requirement – and countless others – our students learn what It means to submit. In college, they will need to submit to their professors and their dorm's resident advisors. In their careers, they will need to abandon self-will to their bosses, boards, and customers. In their marriages, they will need submit to their spouses in all humility. Living with the fear of God always before our eyes means we live in the shadow of a King. Paul tells the Corinthians, "You are not your own, you were bought at a price" (1 Corinthians 6.19). Laying aside our preferences in humble submission stands out in a world that refuses to bow its head. In this, our graduates will" shine like stars in the sky" (Philippians 2:15).
Benedict goes on the give 10 more rules for fostering humility, but I believe the first two lay the groundwork for a life of humble submission to Christ. A thousand different voices will compete for our Seniors’ affections and allegiance. To thrive means to listen to the only voice that matters, the only voice that will give them true success. Christ tells us again and again that if we long to be great, we must become small. Even Alice had to shrink in order to see Wonderland.
Saint Benedicts ends the chapter by indicating that the one who possesses this type of humility:
…will presently arrive at that love of God which, being perfect, puts fear right outside; and by means of which all that formerly he could not observe but with much fearfulness he will begin to keep without any difficulty, as it were by habit become second nature, no longer through fear of hell, but for love of Christ and a certain good habit and delight in virtue, in which the Lord will deign to manifest by the Holy Spirit to His labourer now cleansed from vices and sins.
Every teacher at Covenant longs to see their students leave us with a love of Christ that drives out all fear. We long to see them continue fostering virtuous habits and to walk in their faith with boldness and integrity. Our Seniors will thrive when they see the wisdom and love God has shown them in Christ and will ultimately make Christ preeminent in every aspect of their lives.
by Cody Bertram, CCS Upper School & Senior Thesis Teacher