Last week, I returned home at the end of a three-week immersion with Year 10-11 students. We were in the Philippines, working in poor communities with squatters, staying at an orphanage, spending time with street kids, with women in an asylum, helping care for people at a home for abandoned elderly. By the end of Year 11 about half of our boys will elect to go on such an immersion to one of about eight locations overseas. They are designed (as are many other experiences here) to take the boys out of this comfortable College cocoon, this isolated peninsular, this self-contained appendix on Sydney’s lower North Shore. We do it to open up their world-view, to prod their consciences, to form their values, to challenge their beliefs and opinions (so often narrowly shaped by their peers, by public opinion, or powerful media). Throughout their time at ‘View, in this place of such blessing, of rich resources and possibilities, we challenge them with the Gospel maxim:
“From those who have been given much, much more will be expected”.
Our last immersion phase is to go inside the national penitentiary, where there are Jesuit chaplains. The Maximum Security compound can hold up to 18,000 inmates. As the boys clear the last entry checkpoint and pass the final gate, I always enjoy watching their faces. This compound is like a medieval city. Every kind of little makeshift store is here, where inmates try to eke out some supplementary income. There is a market, food stalls, a bootmaker, a barber, a hardware shop, a bakery, a coffee shop, tennis and basketball courts, an art gallery, chapels of all denominations. Most of it simple and improvised. People buzzing to and fro, visiting families, children playing. Like nothing the boys ever imagined or expected. Their jaws drop. It is quite overwhelming. Yet, in the apparent chaos, everything hums along.
Not unlike here. I can imagine something of that experience hits you as you bring your son along to Riverview for the first time. Perhaps you have come from a small parochial school, of a couple of hundred students, with a pocket-handkerchief-sized playground. Or maybe from a high-rise international school overseas with little by way of greenery and outdoors. Here are more than 100 acres, 1600 companions, and approaching 200 teachers – to say nothing of support staff, groundsmen, handymen, nurses, cooks and cleaners. Plus four steers, 20 sheep and 50 chooks. And it all hums along in its complexity.
“Will he fit in?” you might wonder. “Will he find a friend? “Will he get lost?” “Will he get homesick as a boarder?” The answer is probably yes to all of the above. But there are the right people here to soon make him feel he belongs. For boarders, especially, this will become a second home. At the end of holidays I always ask returning boys, “Glad to be back?” And the answer is inevitably a resounding yes. There is soon a deepening familiarity and affection.
If you ask Jesuits to describe their theology, their religious take on God and the world, then most of us would say we have an “incarnational theology”. That is, a theology that takes seriously God’s incarnation, God’s taking on our flesh and becoming one of us. Like us in all things but sin. Thereby making creation holy. Making the world a sacrament, something blessed by God’s presence that can reveal God to us. So God’s experiences are our experiences. God knows the human condition. That is why the Gospel stories are so rich. They draw God, in Jesus, so close to us.
Today’s Gospel of the finding of Jesus in the Temple is a very apposite case in point. Jesus is becoming an adolescent boy. And Mary is learning this. Just as you are. It seems he has become old enough to wander about Jerusalem by himself on their pilgrimage. Off on his own discoveries. Like most young people, ignorant of time and deadlines, a little free with accountabilities, assuming ‘everything is cool’. For Mary and Joseph, parenting, once again, has a bite to it. They – the so-called ‘Holy Family’ – know what you know, or will know. There are always testing times.
But they find him. Among the teachers. Asking questions. Trying to make sense of the world. Clarifying. Sorting out the sort of person he feels called to be. Discovering his identity. Shaping his individuality.
You are sharing with Mary and Joseph something of that letting go. Letting go of that parish primary school where you could see your child through the front fence, where you led him hand-in-hand. Now he is lost in this acreage. Soon, if you drive him to school, he might want to be dropped at a distance, so his mates don’t see he is so dependent on mum. Growing up and growing away. As someone said wittily, you know your children are growing up when they suddenly stop asking you where they came from and then refuse to tell you where they’re going! Or they move into the cave of adolescence and you are so vexed that, despite spending a fortune on the finest of English teachers, they begin to communicate with you in monosyllabic grunts.
But parenting is about patience. And so is teaching. We will both delight in watching him grow. Watching his gifts and talents honed and then shared. Proud to see him emerge as a generous young man, well-fitted for the world. Competent, conscientised and compassionate. One for whom God is no stranger.
Today is a new start, and there will be many more. But for now, think of your son and remind yourself: he is loved by God as well – unconditionally. And so he is both a promise for tomorrow and a blessing for today.