A Message from Brother James
Brother James L. Butler. FSC has been in his current ministry as President of La Salle College High School since June 2012. he is well known for his ability to connect with students, faculty, alumni and friends through his many vehicles of communication.
16 August 2020,
Dear La Salle Family,
Last Thursday morning, I was walking over from my office to take care of some business in the main school building. On the way, I was attracted by considerable noise, obviously coming from the auditorium. A door being open, I made my way in. Just then, a socially distanced pep band began rehearsing the Alma Mater. Meanwhile in the background, a team of tradesmen were undertaking a noisy demolition of the original 1960 heating system which has completely given up the ghost (I take that as an ill omen, since it is barely six months older than I am.). At the back of the auditorium, in front of the spread-out musicians, stood their conductor, Christoper Mele, '13, newly a full-time member of our music faculty. As the hammers clanged and the saws churned (however you describe the noise a hand saw makes), Chris was trying to communicate a point about the brass getting a little draggy on the last line of the song, the "Hail, All Hail!" bit. When he told the musicians to mask up for a break, I went over to him laughing to offer a compliment: "Teaching under these circumstances and with that background noise… Before it was too easy. But now you can be confident. If you can teach through that, now you are a real teacher."
It was a lesson I learned myself more than 30 years earlier, when I was only eight years into developing my own teaching résumé. The Brothers had established a "Come and See" program, attempting to reestablish interest in our East African Missions (I went and saw, but I didn't stay. Maybe that still could be what's next after this gig.). I taught a first period class at Rongai Agri-Technical High School in Kenya and was preparing for the second period class when CLICK! the power went off. "Unreliable third world electrical grid," I thought to myself. I was wrong. As those who paid close attention in middle school geography will recall, Kenya straddles the Equator. Day and night are almost precisely equal throughout the year. The period of the year we call summer, they call the dry season. By the time second period rolled around daily during the dry, it was sunny enough to see everything clearly in the classrooms. So, the headmaster turned the electricity off to save money. Periods 2-8 were power-free. The only instructional media were an old slate chalk board and me. I learned, therefore, to teach with what was at hand, illustrating wave motion in a physical geography class (not my major, to say the least) with water in a denture bath rather than a video or computer program.
Back then, I was uncomfortable being addressed as Bwana on the street and in shops, the Swahili honorific redolent of colonialism and often used with more than a twist of irony. If I were able to return now, I would doubtless be called Mzee, the term of address for anyone with visible grey in his hair. Though its literal translation is "old man," the title is employed with great respect culturally, age meriting status and reverence. And now that I am an Mzee, I am even clearer about one thing. St. La Salle got it right three and a quarter centuries ago. Good teaching is not predicated on an optimal environment, ideal class size, cutting edge technology, abundant supplemental materials, controlled ventilation and lighting, ergonomic furnishings, or everyone having had a breakfast meeting USDA notions of perfection: fruit, some protein, the right carbohydrates, and only a scant amount of sugar. Those factors can contribute much to a healthy and productive atmosphere, but none of them can replace what de La Salle called zeal.
What is zeal? For the Founder, zeal is an experience of personal mission, nurtured by a vocation, the sense that you are not here by chance but because you have been called here by God's plan and are being sustained by a community of educators who feel likewise. We are fortunate as we begin this year that La Salle has been blessed with the technology to enable effective communication in various modes of instruction, the infrastructure to promote an hygienic atmosphere for the young men in attendance, the campus and facilities to spread out effectively, and the professional education, experience, and ingenuity to deploy all those advantages effectively. But we are most fortunate above all in the zeal our faculty and staff demonstrate each day for what is called "the human and Christian education of the young," the dual but inextricably entwined purposes for which a Lasallian education exists.
Thirteen years after the first, my third venture teaching overseas was in Palestine, at the only Catholic university in the Arab world. My introduction to teaching in that environment was summarized in three rules, law laid down to me by numerous veteran expat instructors: "Nothing is simple. Nothing is easy. Nothing is as it seems." The progress of the pandemic and the evolving and often contradictory medical and governmental response to it has brought those earlier lessons home again in not the most nostalgic way. Full attendance, hybrid/ blended, or fully virtual: these modes of instruction attract fanatical adherents like European football clubs. Speaking of football, debates on the place of sports and other collective activities remains fully unmoored, drifting between those focused on epidemiological containment and others concerned for what Aristotle would have called eudaemonia among developing young persons, the flourishing of the human spirit.
Such questions will continue to be debated vigorously at the present; the success of various answers will be analyzed over the years to follow. What cannot be debated though, it seems to me, is the power of zealous teachers. These teachers, also gifted with the creativity that is zeal's favored child, are able to bridge the gaps various modes of instruction may create, detect the anxiety and uncertainty this context will give rise to, and encourage good performance in a situation that may understandably inspire a degree of apathy or indifference. Some of these teachers will be classroom instructors, while others will be encountered in offices, passing in the corridor, on sidelines or pool decks. Some will demonstrate this zeal despite noteworthy preoccupations of their own, whether medical, financial, or familial.
The musical Pippin is an acquired taste. I like it. Many other people consider it outdated (like the architectural taste that inspired St. Michael's Hall) or unengaging (like when I've tried to watch a cricket match in Kenya or Australia). Admittedly, some people just hate it (like the Patriots). As I said, I like it, and one of the things I like most is the opening number where the Leading Player, whose job it is to breach the fourth wall, employs a refrain that is always appropriate on the eve of a new school year at La Salle:
We've got magic to do........ Just for you
We've got miracle plays to play
We've got parts to perform.... Hearts to warm
Kings and things to take by storm
As we go along our way.
And that magic will be done, whatever the mode, whether the day is odd or even, without regard to whether blue or gold bums are in the seats. It may look different, but the reality behind distracting appearances is unchanging: strong zealous educators, luminous people, sure that their calling is to pass that light from teacher to student, guiding students to share that inspiration among themselves, passing it in turn further along into the darkness, a darkness which will never dim or overcome it.
Brother James L Butler, FSC
Dear Parents, Students, Guardians, Alumni, and Friends of La Salle College High School,
Quomodo sedet sola civitas. These words popped into my head late Monday afternoon as I flicked on the news prior to leaving for an evening engagement. I confess I first encountered them nearly forty years ago in a secular context: a Modern British Literature course where we were studying Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited prior to the release of the television miniseries of the same name, the one which introduced Jeremy Irons to the world. Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo. The words themselves are an allusion to scripture, to the first verses of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. This Latin translation is sung in the Holy Week liturgy of Tenebrae, the "service of shadows." Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo! Facta est quasi vidua domina gentium. "How does the city sit so lonely that was filled with people! How she has become a widow, she that was great among nations."
I have visited seven world cities repeatedly over my adult life. Two don't really hold a special place in my heart, though I am not blind to their allure (London and Rome). I am more susceptible to the magic of Hong Kong, Venice, and Prague, though I just haven't been to those cities as often as I have Sydney and Paris, the two where I feel an instant connection once the plane lands at Kingsford Smith or Charles de Gaulle Airport. Both cities provoke the same predictable behavior on arrival. Once I drop off my bags wherever I am staying, the first stop is always the same. In Sydney it's Circular Quay, the area nestled between the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. In Paris, of course, the first destination was always Charlemagne Square and the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.
The first sight of Notre Dame in flames on 15 April was surreal. At first it seemed like watching a clip from a film contending for a computer-generated special effects Oscar. This couldn't be happening, not to the place where human aspirations and divine transcendence intersect more perfectly than any other structure on earth. The images were shattering: the roof and scaffolding ablaze; the elegant, delicate spire collapsing inwards, the fire threatening the towers and façade, but held back, the inferno contained at a critical juncture. Devout Parisians and those of no faith alike looked on, generally silent and bereft, their "New Jerusalem" fulfilling Jeremiah's vision, not Revelation's.
Veteran European correspondents appeared ashen and tremulous while transmitting developments to anchors at homes. A surprising number among both groups framed the loss in terms of their own personal Catholicism, speculating with varying degrees of articulacy about the significance of the disaster in terms of the Holy Week mysteries. Laïcité, the enshrined French principle regarding the thoroughly secular nature of public life, was put to one side for a moment as groups prayed in the street; the video of those young people kneeling and singing a haunting French version of the Hail Mary went viral on cable news and in social media.
Then there were the pictures. I'm not referring to the videos of the conflagration in progress, which are simply disturbing, but to a couple of the aftermath. The ones accompanying this letter, they show the gold cross on the high altar strikingly visible amidst the haze and that same altar, wondrously intact when Tuesday dawned, surrounded by rubble from the roof, fallen 100 feet to the ground.
As any of your sons or peers who paid attention in AP European History can tell you, a Gothic cathedral is "a sermon in stone"; the stained glass and carvings provided an illiterate populace with access to the stories of the bible and the mysteries of salvation. And what a homily the edifice accounted most eloquent of all preaches this Holy Week, 2019:
- It teaches us the value of community, both that formed by strangers in the anonymous city as they stated speechless at the devastation and that we make in our own parishes and congregations, teams and clubs, parents' organizations, and alumni classes in mid-life meeting for beers after work, a ritual that becomes lunch in our senior years;
- It shows us how important it is to accept our limitations, but never to translate those limitations into inaction. Les Pompiers de Paris couldn't prevent all damage from the fire. The combination of 800-year-old timber, the scaffolding, incendiary chemicals and BoushXButton urban firefighting conditions proved overwhelming. But they did stop the fire from claiming the bell towers. Therefore, the cathedral's external structure remained intact, the three rose windows preserved. When we gather as family this Easter, we may be painfully conscious of the things we could not save: a child's marriage (or that of one's parents'); the addict who can never make it in recovery long enough to grab a six-months' coin; the kid we could never motivate to finish college; the recent widow or widower who finds in a holiday only the invitation to blacker, more wordless depression. These problems may be beyond our ability to solve, but that doesn't imply there isn't something we can do, someone affected to whom we can offer a healing love, a love that inspires hope.
- It suggests the value of an incremental approach. The task of rebuilding seems so overwhelming right now. It may not end for years, but it will begin when the first wheelbarrow of blackened timber is carted away from the sanctuary floor. Most of us are self-reflective enough to know our faults and to experience frustration at their durability. But all God asks of us is to make those first small steps towards improvement, to "live Jesus" a little better each day, to find God's Presence in one more difficult person.
- It trains us in the virtues of resignation and gratitude. How long will it take to restore Notre Dame, to replicate, however imperfectly, the glories of its past? You'll hear different numbers, but I'm guessing 30 years. By then, I'll be too old to undertake another trip to Paris (if I haven't made a shorter but more definitive one-way trip east on Cheltenham Avenue already!). But I got there six times over the last three decades, and I'm so grateful for that and for the opportunity to experience this epitome of western civilization across several seasons of the year and of my life. As we take stock of our lives and relationships over the Easter Triduum, may we all find that elusive "serenity to accept what I cannot change, courage to change what I can, and wisdom to know the difference."
- It speaks emphatically to what endures: the saving power and mystery of the Cross, especially when we can barely glimpse it through the haze of confusion, even when it seems to preside only over the rubble of our lives. Sociologists tell us that only five percent of the French attend Church on a regular basis. It seems a much higher number were praying this past Monday. The lesson is the same as the theme Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited to illustrate. You may forget to call to mind the Holy Presence of God, lose sight of the Cross, even turn your back on it. But that doesn't mean that its saving power will become one bit less efficacious for us and all those we love.
As we enter these holiest days of the Church year, please include in your prayers all of us at La Salle, that we may be blessed to succeed in the most important aspect of our Mission: instilling in our students, your sons and grandsons, a faith that fulfills the aspiration expressed by the city of Paris' ancient Latin motto, a retort to the quotation with which this letter began: Fluctuat nec mergitur. "It is rocked by the waves, but it does not sink."
Brother James Butler, FSC