Engaging Faith in the English Classroom

Author: Fr. Tony Grasso, C.S.C.

From as far back as I can remember, I always had a love of reading, fostered by good teachers and supported at home by my parents. In third grade, when our teacher encouraged students to help each other with reading in small groups – long before they called such ideas ‘teaching strategies’ – I was hooked on becoming a teacher. Naturally, I assumed I would eventually teach English. Because the community was involved in secondary and post-secondary education, Holy Cross appealed to me greatly when I was searching for a religious order to join.

While studying theology, I discovered that Biblical exegesis also engaged me because it too required close reading and interpretation. It was difficult to choose between the two areas when I was discerning graduate work, but I pursued literary studies because so much of the human experience is captured in the pages of the novel or the lines of a poem.

Recalling how literature always got me thinking about life and its choices, I hoped to be able to assist future students in reflecting about what matters in their lives: the importance of family and community; making ethical choices; broadening one's outlook about the world and our place in it; and the role of faith.

Fr Tony Grasso, CSC

After they discover that I teach English, people often ask: “Don't priests usually each theology?”  Literary and artistic works contain so much that pertains to and emanates from the deeper things of life, that it does not seem at all strange for a religious or priest to be engaged in the arts. Often we can discern in the human values under discussion the levels of imaginative and spiritual understanding. By asking the right questions, we may be uniquely poised to help young people engage their deeper longings at a crucial period in their lives and development.

During my first semester at King's, while teaching a section of required “Intro to Literature” to a group of upperclassmen, a powerful example of that intersection occurred. An active, popular member of the senior class was killed in an unfortunate accident. Two of his roommates were students in the class, and a week after his death we were scheduled to discuss the theme of “Poetry and Death.” I wasn't sure whether to proceed, and asked if doing so would help them to deal with their feelings of loss.

We decided to work through it together, and began the unit by reading John Donne's Holy Sonnet #14. His reworking of Paul’s words about death no longer “having power over us,” became something other than words on a page; they were incredibly moving in that context. Students shared how faith and friends were helping them cope with the loss, something they might not normally reveal in a classroom. And I felt privileged to walk with them during that critical time.

Fr Tony Grasso, CSC at Kings College

Over the years I have loved being in the classroom and relish the moments, large and small, of sacred interaction that occur – often unexpectedly – each day. These sustain my faith and my vocation as a teacher. I sometimes struggle to model the compassion of Jesus, working to be a more patient and enthusiastic teacher, encouraging them not to “follow blindly” in life or to give up on themselves. The experience of our shared humanity cuts to the core of what we are studying, and we learn to accept, forgive and understand each other as people.

The intersection of faith with academic work occurs and challenges me at many levels. I have also found that link professionally with the international Conference on Christianity and Literature (CCL). Presenting papers and engaging in ecumenical discussion with other like-minded scholars has been enlightening and helps to combine what we teach with our faith perspectives. This year King's College is assisting me to host the Northeast Regional Meeting of the CCL here in early November on the topic of “Christianity in the Public Square: The Literatures of Politics, Protest and Social Justice”, which we hope will be a timely discussion in light of our forthcoming national election.

Another project which combines literature and faith has involved working on reflections and poems that I’ve written during retreats, based upon Scripture passages in which Jesus invites or challenges His listeners to change. I have composed 31 poems, each accompanied by a reflective prayer, which I hope will offer fresh access to familiar texts. They are arranged into sections, from Jesus’ early ministry to the post-resurrection period, taking us into our own daily lives. I hope the work can eventually be an aid to reflection about what is involved in our spiritual transformation.

Teaching remains a ministry that engages me on the emotional, intellectual and spiritual planes. Should you be discerning a vocation in the teaching ministry, whatever your area of academic interest, know that there are numerous ways in which we, as religious of Holy Cross, can be “educators in the faith.”  We can assist our students to experience God's presence in all that is and in all that we study in our pursuit of wisdom. We can bring a hopeful vision of our common future from the classroom into the world we have been asked to remake in faith, so that it will better reflect God’s Kingdom.

Fr

Fr. Tony Grasso, C.S.C., is a Professor of English at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Penn. He also served a four-year stint at King’s as the Associate Academic Vice President and Dean of the Faculty before returning to the classroom that he loves. Fr. Tony professed Final Vows in the Holy Cross on September 3, 1976, and was ordained to the priesthood on June 10, 1978. His post continues our series for the Spes Unica Blog in which we hear from some of our Holy Cross scholars who work in education. Learn more about the work of Holy Cross in universities and colleges, as well as our men in advanced studies preparing for such work in the future.

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