The Grace of Great Things:
Reclaiming the Sacred in Knowing, Teaching, and Learning
by Parker J. Palmer,
The Center for
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We all know that what will transform education is not another
theory or another book or another formula but a transformed
way of being in the world. In the midst of the familiar
trappings of education--competition, intellectual combat,
obsession with a narrow range of facts, credentials--we seek a
life illumined by spirit and infused with soul. This is not
romanticism, as John Cobb (President of the Naropa Institute
and host of the Spirituality in Education conference) has
properly cautioned us.
I saw the other day a remarkable documentary called The
Transformation of Allen School. Allen School is an inner-city
school in Dayton, Ohio. It was for many years at the bottom of
the list in that city by all measures. There were fifth
graders who had parole officers. The dropout rate was
incredible and saddening. The failure of those students in
every aspect of their lives sickened the heart. And along came
a new principal, a principal who--it's relevant to note--came
from the Philippines, a culture which has an inherent respect
for things spiritual in a way American culture does not. And
he brought the teachers together and said to them, in
substance, as his very first proclamation as principal, that:
We have to start to understand that the young people we are
working with have nothing of external substance or support.
They have dangerous neighborhoods. They have poor places to
live. They have little food to eat. They have parents who are
on the ropes and barely able to pay attention to them. The
externals with which American education is obsessed will not
work in this situation.
But these students have one thing that no one can take away
from them. They have their souls. And from this day forth in
this school, we are going to lift those souls up. We are going
to make those souls visible to the young people themselves and
to their parents and to the community. We are going to
celebrate their souls, and we are going to reground their
lives in the power of their souls. And that will require this
faculty recovering the power of their own souls, remembering
that we, too, are soul-driven, soul-animated creatures.
And in a five-year period, that school, the Allen School in
Dayton, Ohio, rose to the top of every dimension on which it
had been at the bottom, through hard work, through disciplined
work, but through attentiveness to the inward factors that we
are here to explore. This is not romanticism. This is the real
world. And this is what is desperately needed in so many
sectors of American education.
As we go into these five days together, let us remember one
thing about the soul. It is like a wild animal: tough,
self-sufficient, resilient, but also exceedingly shy. Let us
remember that if we go crashing through the woods, screaming
and yelling for the soul to come out, it will evade us all day
and all night. We cannot beat the bushes and yell at each
other if we expect this precious inwardness to emerge. But if
you are willing to go into the woods, and sit quietly at the
base of a tree, that wild animal will, after a few hours,
reveal itself to you. And out of the corner of your eye, you
will glimpse something of the wild preciousness that this
conference is looking for.
I ask guidance for myself and, as Quakers say, hold this
entire conference in the light, to be here, to be present to
each other in the right spirit, speaking our truth gently and
simply, listening respectfully and attentively to the truth of
others, grounded in our own experience and expanded by
experiences that are not yet ours, compassionate toward that
which we do not yet understand, not only as a kindness to
others but for the sake of our growth and our students and the
transformation of education. Amen.
In preparing these remarks, I've asked myself what are we
trying to do here? We know it's about spirituality and
education, but what does that mean? For whatever it's worth,
these are the images that have come to me as I've tried to put
a larger frame of personal meaning around this conference.
I think we are here to seek life-giving forces and sources in
the midst of an enterprise which is too often
death-dealing--education. It may seem harsh to call education
death-dealing, but I think that we all have our experience of
I am always astonished and saddened by the fact that this
country, which has the most widespread public education system
in the world, has so many people who walk around feeling
stupid because they feel that they are the losers in a
competitive system of teaching and learning. It is a system
that dissects life and distances us from the world because it
is rooted in fear.
Everyone here has had his or her own encounter with the forces
of death: racism, sexism, justice denied. In my life, one of
my face-to-face encounters with the forces of death was in two
prolonged experiences of clinical depression, passages through
the dark woods that I made when I was in my 40s, devastating
experiences when it was not clear from one day to the next
whether I wished to be alive, or even was still alive--the
darkness, face-to-face, immersed in it, hardly a spark of
It was a depression partly due to my schooling, partly due to
the way I was formed in the educational systems of this
country to live out of the top inch and a half of the human
self, to live only with cognitive rationality and with the
powers of the intellect, out of touch with anything that lay
below that top inch and a half: body, intuition, feeling,
I remember one time a therapist and spiritual guide saying
words that were eventually salvific for me. He said, "You seem
to keep imaging your depression as the hand of an enemy trying
to crush you. Why don't you try imaging it as the hand of a
friend trying to press you down to ground on which it is safe
to stand?" And that image has always stayed with me of this
movement from the world of abstraction, the hot-air balloon
that education so falsely represents as the good life, down to
the ground--in my tradition, the "ground of being"--on which
it's not only safe to stand but safe to fall, and you can get
Well, at some point in that journey with depression, I was
given by a friend some words from that extraordinary novel by
T.H. White , The Once and Future King. This is a passage in
which the young Arthur, king to be, in his depression, his
dark night of the soul has sought counsel from Merlin, the
magician, who was his mentor. And I want to read these
wonderful words which created a spark of light for me in the
midst of that death-dealing episode of my life. Speaking to
the young Arthur, Merlin says:
The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is
the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and
trembling in your anatomies. You may lie awake at night
listening to the disorder of your veins. You may miss your
only love. You may see the world around you devastated by evil
lunatics or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser
minds. There is only one thing for it, then: To learn. Learn
why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing
which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be
tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of
regretting. Learning is the thing for you.
"Learning is the thing for you." I read those words, and I
began to understand that in the midst of death, there is life
in learning. I could not do much in the darkness of my
depression. I couldn't work. I couldn't connect with other
people. But I could start to learn what was in there. I could
grope around in the darkness and learn what and who was there.
And, of course, those of you who have been on that journey
know that part of what I found and learned about there was
what Thomas Merton calls true self.
What Merlin knows, as he advises the young Arthur, is that
education at its best--these profound human transactions
called knowing, teaching, and learning--are not just about
information, and they're not just about getting jobs. They are
about healing. They are about wholeness. They are about
empowerment, liberation, transcendence. They are about
reclaiming the vitality of life.
The question that we must wrestle with, I think, is why there
is so little life-giving power in our culture when we use the
words education, teaching, learning. Why are those words and
the things they point to in our culture so flat, so dull, so
banal compared to Merlin's understanding?
Of course, there are many answers to that question: the
industrial model of schooling that is still with us from the
19 th century, the diminishing effects of professionalism in
teacher training, the way education devolved into political
rhetoric and serves the purposes of power.
But the answer I want to explore is a different one. I want to
propose that education is dull because we have driven the
sacred out of it. Merlin, the magician, understood the
sacredness at the heart of all things, and learning was a
natural derivative of that. I want to explore what it might
mean to reclaim the sacred at the heart of knowing, teaching,
and learning; to reclaim it from this essentially depressive
mode of knowing which honors only data, logic, analysis, and a
systematic disconnection of self from he world, self from
As I launch into this inquiry, I want to remind us all that
the marriage of education and the sacred has not always been a
happy one. It has not always produced creative offspring. Ask
Galileo. Ask a Muslim child subjected to American school
prayer. Ask anyone whose family or history was touched by the
Nazis' murderous attachment of the sacred to blood, soil, and
There are real dangers in this enterprise when the sacred gets
attached to the wrong things. There are real dangers when the
sacred get institutionalized and imposed on people as one more
weapon in the objectifying forces of this or any other
But we need to have the courage to jump into the midst of that
mess. The Nazi story, the murderousness of the Third Reich, is
not only about the attachment of the sacred to the wrong
things by a political system of power; it's also about German
higher education refusing to get involved with those kinds of
issues, distancing itself, clinging to logic and data and
objectivism as a way of staying disengaged from the social
reality of its time.
We can no longer afford a system of education that refuses to
get engaged with the mess. We must be willing to join life
where people live it. And they live it at this complicated
intersection of the sacred and the secular. So with that
acknowledgment of the mess on whose edge we stand, let me move
What do I mean by the sacred? I was laughing to myself in
preparing this talk, remembering my first yearning for the
sacred, which was only a word for me when I was young. I had
merely heard it in church, and I wanted an experience of it.
In college I ran across a book by Rudolph Otto called The Idea
of the Holy . Otto has a remarkable description of the sacred
in which he uses phrases like numinocity and mysterium
tremendum . It was my first Latin, and I was so proud of it.
What I was laughing about when I was preparing these remarks
was the title of the book, The Idea of the Holy. I could only
have an idea of it because I didn't have an experience of it.
And over the years, I've struggled to move from the level of
idea to the embodied life.
I remember a night in the middle of one of those devastating
depressions when I heard a voice I've never heard before or
since. The voice simply said, "I love you, Parker." It was not
a psychological phenomenon, because my psyche was crushed; it
was the numinous. It was mysterium tremendum. But it came to
me in the simplest and most human way: "I love you, Parker."
That experience has opened me to the definition of sacred that
I want to explore. It is a very simple definition that says
that the sacred is that which is worthy of respect. As soon as
we see that, the sacred is everywhere. There is nothing, when
rightly understood, that it is not worthy of respect.
I have had a rare experience of the numinous, and I treasure
it. But I do not have a steady flow of that experience. And I
cannot count on it to be my sustaining reminder of the
sacredness of life. But I can practice respect on a
minute-by-minute basis, especially towards those things that
somehow arouse my anger, my ire, my jealousy, some strong ego
reaction that reminds me to reach deep for respect.
How it would transform academic life if we could practice
simple respect! I don't think there are many places where
people feel less respect than they do on university campuses.
The university is a place that has learned to grant respect to
only a few things: to the text, to the expert, to those who
win in competition.
But we do not grant respect to students, to stumbling and
failing. We do not grant respect to tentative and heartfelt
ways of being in the world where the person can't quite think
of the right word or can't think of any word at all. We don't
grant respect to silence and wonder. We don't grant it to
voices outside our tight little circle, let alone to the
voiceless things of the world.
Why? Because in academic culture, we are afraid. It is a
culture of fear. What are we afraid of? We are afraid of
hearing something that would challenge and change us. The
great German poet Rilke has this amazing line in which he
says, There is no place at all that is not looking at you. You
must change your life." There is no place at all that is not
talking to me. I must change my life.
But I don't want to hear those voices because I am afraid of
change. And so in academic culture, I am carefully buffered,
carefully walled off, through systematic disrespect, from all
of those things that might challenge me, break me, open me,
and change me. It is a fearful culture.
One of the things we have to do is to remember the counsel at
the heart of every great spiritual tradition: Be not afraid.
Be not afraid. Interesting words. The words do not say you're
not supposed to have fear. I have fear. I have fear as I stand
here before you. How am I doing? Do they like me? Am I
delivering on all the preparation I've put into this talk?
I'm fearful. I have fear. But I don't need to be here in my
fear. I don't have to speak to you from my fear. I can choose
a different place in me, a place of fellow feeling, of feeling
traveling, of journeying together in some mystery that I know
we share. I can "be not afraid" even while I have fear.
If we could reclaim the sacred--simple respect--in education,
how would it transform our knowing, teaching, and learning? I
would like to suggest several answers, but I want to preface
them by telling a story, not from the world of religion, not
from the world of education, but from the world of science,
because I think there is much for us to learn from the world
of science about the very things that we care about. Science
is not the enemy, not great science.
I want to tell you about a great scientist whom some of you
will know. Her name was Barbara McClintock. Barbara McClintock
died a few years ago in her early 90s. Her obituary was on the
front page of The Hew York Times in the place usually reserved
for heads of state. She was the greatest American biologist of
the 20 th century and, arguably, the greatest American
scientist of the 20 th century.
In her obituary, she was eulogized by one of her colleagues, a
geneticist from the University of Chicago, as "a mystic who
knew where the mysteries lie but who do not mystify." I like
that very much. To be mystics who know where the mysteries lie
but who do not mystify--I presume that's part of our task.
Barbara McClintock, as a young woman, became fascinated with
genetic transposition. She wanted to know how genes moved,
carried their messages from one place to another. In her day,
there were none of the instruments and chemical procedures
that my biologist son works with as he words with DNA. There
were only hunches, hypotheses, clues, and the powers of human
imagination--the mystical capacity to identify with the other
and still respect its otherness.
Barbara McClintock exercised the mystical capacities at the
heart of her work in genetic science, but the price she paid
for that was to be marginalized by her profession. Her work
was scoffed at. Her work was distrusted. She could not get
grants. She could not get articles published. She could not
get laboratory space--until she won a Nobel Prize in science,
and then her dance ticket started getting filled.
Another scientist named Evelyn Fox Keller came along when
McClintock was in her early 80s and said, "I would like to
write your intellectual biography, your story as a scientist.
Tell me," she said, "How do you do great science?"
Barbara McClintock, who was one of the most precise empirical
observers and one of the most analytic logical thinkers that
we have ever had in American science, thought for a moment and
said, "About the only thing I can tell you about the doing of
science is that you somehow have to have a feeling for the
Then Keller asked her question again. "Tell me, how do you do
McClintock, who was at that age when all that's left is to
tell the truth, thought for a moment about these ears of corn
that she had worked with all her life, because they were cheap
and plentiful, and she said, "Really, all I can tell you about
doing great science is that you somehow have to learn to lean
into the kernel."
At that point in the book, Evelyn Fox Keller, herself a
physical chemist, writes a sentence that I regard as brilliant
and luminous. She says, "Barbara McClintock, in her relation
with ears of corn, practiced the highest form of love, which
is the intimacy that does not annihilate difference."
When I read that, tears came to my eyes. I thought, McClintock
had a relation with ears of corn that I yearn to have with
other people. And she knew it was possible to have that kind
of relationship with all creatures and all forms of being.
Sacredness. Simple respect. Intimacy that does not annihilate
difference. A mystic who did not mystify but who knew where
the mysteries lie. Here was a scientist--Nobel Prize winning,
responsible for the genetic breakthroughs which we now live
with, in the late 20 th century, a heroine of her own
arena--who practiced the highest form of love in the doing of
Well, I think the story stands on its own, but let me just
mention a few things out of it that would transform education
if we could embody in our knowing, teaching, and learning,
this simple sense of the sacred that Barbara McClintock
brought to her work and science.
First, if we could recover a sense of the sacred in knowing,
teaching, and learning, we would recover our sense of the
otherness of the things of the world, the precious otherness
of the things of the world.
One of the greatest sins in education is reductionism, the
destruction of that precious otherness by cramming everything
into categories that we find comfortable, ignoring data,
ignoring writers, ignoring voices, ignoring information,
ignoring simple facts that don't fit into our shoebox, because
we don't have a respect for otherness. We have a fear of
otherness that comes from having flattened the terrain and
desacralized it. A people who know the sacred know otherness,
and we don't know that anymore.
When we teach about third-world cultures in ways that confine
them, make them measure up to our standards of what greatness
or excellence is supposed to be like, we ignore their powerful
richness. These cultures have more to teach us than we have
yet to understand or imagine about real values, about
community, about respect, about the sacred, yet they come out,
by our measures, as shabby, dirty, dusty, lacking in merit.
Too many students have learned, through that reductionist
model, a disrespect for the otherness of the things of the
We do it with great literature too. This is done not only on
the right; it's done on the left as well. We do it with great
literature where the story itself may convey powerful messages
about the human condition, but because its author does not
measure up to current tests of rightness or credibility, the
text gets dismissed. A writer named David Denby has said,
"What a convenient way of making the professor and students
superior to the text," by not respecting the otherness of that
voice and engaging it on its own terms. So the first thing
that a people who know the sacred would know in education is
the precious otherness of the things in the world.
But the second thing that such a people would know is the
precious inwardness of the things of the world.
Barbara McClintock respected ears of corn in their integrity
as an alien nation, as an otherness that she needed to respect
if she was to do good science. But at the same time, she
believed that an ear of corn had an inwardness to it, had a
mind. She once said, "I learned to think like corn." The corn
thought, and you could learn to think like it. And her great
science didn't mystify that. It built on that and used her
intuitive capacities to enter the mind of corn in a way that
led to breakthrough scientific discoveries.
We don't respect the inwardness of the things we study, and we
therefore do not respect the inward learnings that those
things have for us.
I have thought often and painfully about the education about
the murderous history of the Third Reich that I got in some of
the best colleges in this country. I was taught its history by
good historians, some of whom were award-winning. But I was
taught the history of Nazi Germany in a way--and I've never
known how to say this--that made me feel that somehow all of
that murderousness had happened to another species on another
My teachers were not revisionists. They weren't saying it
didn't happen. It happened. They taught the statistics and the
facts and the theories behind the facts, but they presented
them at such objective arm's length--just the facts and only
the facts--that it never connected with the inwardness of my
life, because the inwardness of those events was never
revealed to me. All was objectified, all was externalized, and
I ended up morally and spiritually deformed as a consequence
of that objectification.
There are two things that I failed to learn from the history
courses that I took on Nazi Germany that I should have learned
and learned painfully only in later years. One was that the
very community I grew up in on the North Shore of Chicago had
its own fascist anti-Semitic tendencies. I grew up in
Wilmette, Illinois, and if you were a Jew who lived in that
area, you didn't live in Wilmette and you didn't live in
Evanston and you didn't live in Kenilworth. You lived in
Glencoe, because a fascism was at work which said, "We don't
want to live with you."
I should have been taught that. My little story and the
inwardness of my life should have been connected with the
inward dynamics of that history in a way that would have
helped me understand my own time, my own place, and my own
involvement in the same evil, because without that, there was
no way for me to grow morally.
And, of course, the second thing I didn't learn which takes me
even more deeply inward, is that I did not learn that there is
within me, in the shadow of my own soul, a little Hitler, a
force of evil, that when the difference between me and thee
gets too great, I will find some way to kill you off. I won't
do it with a bullet or a gas chamber, but I'll do it with a
category, a dismissal, a word of some sort that renders you
irrelevant to my universe and to my life: "Oh, you're just a
_________." It is a dismissal that we do with such facility in
academic life to render each other and each other's truth
irrelevant to who we are.
I taught not long ago for a year at Berea College in Kentucky.
Some of you will know this remarkable institution devoted to
the young people of Appalachia. They charge no tuition because
these kids have no money. I taught a course in which I
attempted to parallel the big story that I was teaching with
the little stories of their lives, and not only to parallel
the big story with the little story but to connect and
interweave the two.
As part of that second objective, I asked my students to write
autobiographical essays connected with the ideas of the big
story we were considering. I wanted them to see that the big
story was their story. And I wanted their little stories to
correct the way the authors of this particular text had
written the big story, because the whole Appalachian
experience had been omitted from this text on American life.
At the end of the first session, a young man came up to me,
and he said, "Dr. Palmer, in these autobiographical papers
that you want us to write, is it okay to use the word 'I'?" I
said, "Of course, it is. I invite you to use that word. I
don't know how you would be able to fulfill the assignment if
you didn't. But help me understand why you needed to ask the
question." And he said, "Because I'm a _________major, and
every time I use the word 'I' in a paper, I'm downgraded one
This goes on all the time in education. Recovering the sacred
might be one path towards recovering the inwardness without
which education does not happen.
Third, by recovering the sacred, we could recover our sense of
community with each other and with all of creation, the
community that Thomas Merton named so wonderfully as the
"hidden wholeness." I have become increasingly convinced that
this recovery of community is absolutely at the heart of good
I'm amazed by the fact that good teachers use a million
different techniques. Good teaching isn't about technique.
I've asked students around the country to describe their good
teachers to me. Some of them describe people who lecture all
the time, some of them describe people who do little other
than group process, others describe everything in between.
But all of them talk about people who have some sort of
connective capacity, who somehow connect the students and the
subject being studied and the students to each other.
One young woman told me she couldn't possibly describe her
good teachers because they were all so different from each
other, but she could easily describe her bad teachers because
they were all the same.
I said, "What do you mean?" And she said, "With my bad
teachers, their words float somewhere in front of their faces
like the balloon speech in cartoons."
I thought this was an extraordinary image, and I said, "Do you
mean that somehow with bad teaching, there is a disconnect
between the stuff being taught and the self who is teaching
it?" And she said, "Absolutely."
There is a distance, a coldness, a lack of community because
in a secularized academy, we don't have the connective tissue
of the sacred to hold this apparent fragmentation and chaos
together. Merton is right. It's a wholeness, but it's a hidden
wholeness. It's so easy to look on the surface of things and
say there is no community here at all. But if you go deep, the
way you go when you seek that which is sacred, you find the
hidden wholeness. You find the community that a good teacher
evokes and invites students into, that somehow weaves and
reweaves life together.
Community goes far beyond our face-to-face relationship with
each other as human beings. In education especially, this
community connects us with what the poet Rilke called the
great things of the world and with the grace of great things.
We are in community with all of it: the genes and ecosystems
of biology (as Barbara McClintock knew herself to be), the
symbols and reference of philosophy and theology, the
archetypes of betrayal and forgiveness and loving and loss
that are the stuff of literature, the artifacts and lineages
of anthropology, the materials of engineering with their
limits and potentials, the logic of systems and management,
the shapes and colors of music and art, the novelties and
patterns of history, the elusive idea of justice under the\
law. We are in community with all of these great things. Great
teaching is about knowing that community and feeling that
community and sensing that community and drawing your students
I had a teacher at Carleton College who changed my life, but
he lectured nonstop. We would raise our hands and try to get a
word in edgewise, and he would say, "Wait a minute. I'll get
to that at the end of the hour." He wouldn't have gotten to it
at the end of the week, the month, the year. Thirty years
later, my hand is still up! He's dead, unfortunately, but I'm
still engaged with what he said.
I wondered what was this magic that made me feel so deeply
related to the world of social thought that he was teaching,
even though he, himself, was basically a shy and awkward
person who didn't know how to connect with me on the social
He would make a vigorous Marxist statement, a puzzled look
would come over his face, and he would step over here and
argue with himself from a Hegelian viewpoint. It wasn't an
act. He was really confused.
And I realized years later what the deal was. He didn't need
us to be in community! Who needs 18-year-olds from the North
Shore of Chicago when you're hanging out with Marx and Hegel
and Troeltsch and other really interesting people? But he
opened a door to me that had never been opened before, a world
of imagination and thought that I had no idea existed, and it
was an enormously gracious act. He was an amazing man who
carried a community within himself, a community of people long
(This is a mildly political comment, but I'm amazed at this
controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton and her conversations
with Eleanor Roosevelt. After all, the heart of the liberal
arts is the ability to talk to dead people. People pay $25,000
a year to learn how to have conversations with the dead. It's
called being liberally educated!)
Fourth, if we recovered a sense of the sacred, we would
recover the humility that makes teaching and learning
Everyone in academia knows what Freeman Dyson meant when he
said, about the development of the nuclear weaponry that
threatened to destroy the earth, "It is almost irresistible,
the arrogance that comes over us when we see what we can do
with our minds." So much arrogance that we will keep turning
the crank until we destroy the earth itself. It is only with
humility, the humility that comes from being in the presence
of sacred things and knowing the simple quality called
respect, that real knowing, teaching, and learning are
A couple of years ago, Watson and Crick, the discoverers of
the DNA molecule, celebrated the 40 th anniversary of that
discovery. Those of you who have read the book, Double Helix ,
know that it's about all of the anti-virtues of academic life:
competitiveness, ego, greed, power, and money.
But when they were interviewed on the 40 th anniversary of the
discovery of DNA, James Watson said, "The molecule is so
beautiful. Its glory was reflected on Francis and me. I guess
the rest of my life has been spent trying to prove that I was
almost equal to being associated with DNA, which was a hard
Then Francis Crick--of whom Watson once said, "I have never
seen him in a modest mood"--replied, "We were upstaged by a
Finally, if we recovered a sense of the sacred, we would
recover our capacity for wonder and surprise, an absolutely
essential quality in education. I know what happens when we
get surprised in an academic context. We reach for the nearest
weapon and try to kill the surprise as quickly as we can,
because we are scared to death.
I will never be able to comprehend why people so devoutly
believe that competition is the best way to generate new
ideas, because I know from experience what happens in
competition. In competition you do not reach for a new idea,
because a new idea is risky. You don't know how to use it. You
don't know where it's going to take you. You don't know what
flank it may leave open. In competition, you reach for an old
idea that you know how to wield as a weapon, and you smite the
untruth as quickly as you can.
We have flattened our landscape. My image of this objectivist
landscape in higher education is that it is so flat, so
lacking in variety, so utterly banal that anything that pops
up and takes us by surprise is instantly defined as a threat.
Where did it come from? Where did it come from? It must be
from underground. It must be the work of the devil.
The sacred landscape has hills and valleys, mountains and
streams, forests and deserts, and is a place where surprise is
our constant companion--and surprise is an intellectual virtue
beyond all telling. Those are some things I think we might
bring back if we pursued the themes of this conference in our
lives and education.
I want to say one final word about the journey toward
recovering the sacred, about getting from here to there. I do
not believe that we can rightly ask or hopefully ask our
institutions to manifest the qualities of the sacred that I
have been talking about. I don't think institutions are well
suited to carry the sacred. I think distortion happens when
the sacred gets vested in an institutional context or
I think institutions have their utility. They have jobs to do.
We all have important vocational decisions about whether to be
inside or outside institutions and how to do that dance
because we all know their power of co-optation. But I don't
believe that what we're talking about here is going to be
carried by the Roman Catholic Church or the Philadelphia
Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends or the
University of Colorado at Boulder or even the Naropa
Institute. I believe these are things we carry in our hearts
into the world in solitude and in community.
I have been doing a small study of social movements that have
transformed the landscape: the women's movement, the black
liberation movement, the gay and lesbian identity movement,
the movement for freedom in Eastern Europe and in South
Africa. I will not trouble you with all of the details of how
movements evolve. I just want to say a word about the starting
point of social movements as I understand it.
I believe that movements start when individuals who feel very
isolated and very alone in the midst of an alien culture, come
in touch with something life-giving in the midst of a
death-dealing situation. They make one of the most basic
decisions a human being can make, which I have come to call
the decision to live "divided no more," the decision to no
longer act differently on the outside than one knows one's
truth to be on the inside.
I call it the Rosa Parks decision, because she is emblematic
for me and for many people I know of the historic potentials
of a decision that can feel very lonely and very isolated.
Rosa Parks was prepared for that day on the bus in Montgomery,
Alabama, December 1, 1955. She was prepared in many ways. She
had gone to the Highlander Folk School where Martin Luther
King also learned nonviolence. She was the secretary of the
NAACP in her community.
But we all know that the day--the moment--she sat down, she
had no assurances that the theory would work, that the
strategy would succeed, not even assurances that people who
said they were her friends would be there for her in the
aftermath of that action. It was a lonely decision made in
isolation, but a decision emblematic of that being made by
many other individuals in that place and time, for which she
has risen to be the exemplar. It was a decision that changed
the lay and the law of the land.
I've often asked myself where people find the courage to make
a decision like that when they know that the power of the
institution is going to come down on their heads? How do they
find the courage to make a decision like that when they know
it could easily lead to loss of status, loss of reputation,
loss of income, loss of job, loss of friends, and, perhaps,
loss of meaning?
The answer comes to me through studying the lives of the Rosa
Parks and the Vaclav Havels and the Nelson Mandelas and the
Dorothy Days of this world. These are people who have come to
understand that no punishment that anybody could lay on us
could possibly be worse than the punishment we lay on
ourselves by conspiring in our own diminishment, by living a
divided life, by failing to make that fundamental decision to
act and speak on the outside in ways consonant with what we
know to be true on the inside.
And as soon as we made that decision, amazing things happen.
For one thing, the enemy stops being the enemy. When Rosa
Parks sat down that day, it was partly an acknowledgment that
by conspiring with racism, she had helped create racism. By
conspiring with death-dealing education, we help to create
death-dealing education. But by deciding to live divided no
more, we help change all of that.
When the police came on the bus that day, they said to Rosa
Parks, "You know if you continue to sit there, we're going to
have to throw you in jail." And her answer is historic. She
said, "You may do that." An enormously polite way of saying,
"What could your jail possibly mean compared to the
imprisonment I've had myself in for the last 43 years, which I
break out of today?"
I don't know where you are on your journey. My journey is
constantly toward trying to understand what it means to live
divided no more. And I think if we come out of this conference
understanding that decision better in the context of
education, we will have done something well worth doing.