Though All Else Fall Away

Twenty years ago, I helped found Torrey Academy, an interdisciplinary program for homeschooling highschool students, which was offered through Biola University in California. In June of this year, Torrey Academy completed its “final academic year providing life-changing classical humanities courses to homeschoolers.” What follows is a reflection I wrote on the closing of the program. (The essay was first published by Torrey Academy here.)

In this unsettling time of estrangement and upheaval, when loss compounds on loss, I want to sit in the stillness with the loss. I want to mourn and not to mourn. This is a time to sit in silence with the mentors who teach us stillness, guides such as the Inklings and, one of my favorites, T. S. Eliot. These are guides who weave the true myths that move us through bewilderment into a more profound understanding of reality’s deepest truths.

This necessary progression, often cyclical, through bewilderment toward mythic synthesis has been a foundational principle underlying the Torrey Academy curriculum that has impacted hundreds of students and their families for two decades. How shall we grieve the closing of a program that has not merely taught students information but has moved them to greater love, to deeper understanding, to fitter zeal, and to truer fellowship?

I both mourn the end of Torrey Academy’s run at Biola University, and also I do not mourn it. Serving as founding teacher and administrative leader of Torrey Academy for the program’s first six years was a transformational opportunity that has continued to shape the trajectory of my life. Here are some of the truths Torrey Academy has taught and continues to teach me, which I am currently sitting with and holding:

I. We are never good enough, but that’s okay.

I think it was during set-up for the first Torrey Academy awards ceremony twenty years ago that this truth crystallized: I wasn’t fit to fill my role because of my virtues and abilities, but rather, despite my vices and deficiencies, God’s grace outfitted me beyond my merits. I was fresh out of my undergraduate degree program and quite green. I made many mistakes those first years, and learned so much as I bumped along like an awkward June bug. I did my best, but God worked beyond my best. And those first families who took a chance with Torrey Academy were so gracious and supportive. I am still grateful to each of those parents and students and to all who have come after, those who have continued carrying the flag of a holistic, classically-informed, Christ-centered education. God’s grace has worked in each of us beyond our deserving.

II. We are each replaceable in our roles.

Leaving Torrey Academy to become a full-time mom was an obvious choice for me, but it was a challenge to walk away and surrender control of the program to others. The fact that Torrey Academy has continued to serve families for twenty years is evidence that good has continued to abound and I was not needed for that good to happen. Roles can be filled and emptied and filled again. The best programs and institutions outlast their founding season just as Torrey Academy outlasted me.

III. Authentic collaboration makes us better.

A role may be filled by different people at different times, but when we serve in a role on a team, we can see that a healthy team has the potential to be much greater than the sum of its parts. In my first years leading Torrey Academy, I didn’t really understand what teamwork meant or what it might signify beyond a catchphrase. Thankfully, I had colleagues who were patient and didn’t give up on me. Through their coaching, book recommendations, and examples, I began to understand. I discovered that, even within a hierarchical leadership structure, true collaboration is essential, and its success depends on vulnerability, trust, and honest communication—traits which are also hallmarks of the best Torrey Academy class discussions when students take the lead in pursuing truth together dialectically. It is only by truly listening to every member of the team (or class), and by tuning in to what constituents are really saying, that we can come to understand the fuller picture and make better decisions. This requires humility, both with regard to ourselves as individuals and also with regard to the team itself. No merely human team is sufficient unto itself and no team of colleagues is static and everlasting.

IV. Programs and institutions are replaceable and temporary.

Not only particular roles and particular teams, but even whole institutions are ultimately dispensable. School, thank God, is not eternal. And education doesn’t save us. The time for learning from books will end for each one of us as we cross over into that greater reality, “Into another intensity/For a further union, a deeper communion.”1 At its best, Torrey Academy has been no more than a shadow of the communion and knowing to come. Other programs and organizations, which have existed or will come to exist, may offer similar glimpses of glory. No mere program is permanent or perfect.

V. We each must tend our work regardless.

Rather than despair when faced with our finitude and the impermanence and imperfection of our labors, we can find rest and liberation by discovering “not less of love but expanding/Of love beyond desire.”2 As T. S. Eliot reminds us, detachment is not the same as indifference. While our love may begin with “attachment to our own field of action,” it must expand until we can see our work for what it is: our humble and necessary offering, each undertaking “a new beginning.”3 And while we may find our offerings feeble and see that “what there is to conquer/[…] has already been discovered/Once or twice, or several times, by men who one cannot hope/To emulate,” we must still

[…] fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. […]
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. 4

So we carry on with tenacity, for our work is duty and joy and worship.

VI. What is loved endures.

While our labors may be feeble and while we may each be replaceable in our roles, we are yet much more than the sum of our roles and actions. We wear so many hats they can threaten to weigh us down. Love strips off all roles and embraces the self beneath. In our deepest selves we are not our roles, not our work, not our resumés or grades. We are not what others think of us, not what we think of ourselves. We are not our poor or better choices, not our failings, not our vices. We’re not our virtues nor our wins. We are not students, teachers, siblings, children, parents, spouses. We are simply Christ’s beloved. As his own loved ones, we are clothed in his righteousness and radiate with the unbearably bright worth that he has poured into each one who bears his name and seal.

What shall we do then with such a weight of glory? We must never cease to honor the beauty and splendor of each created other—just as Torrey Academy has continued to offer a curriculum and pedagogy that reverences the sacred dignity of each student in an atmosphere of wonder and respect, gratitude and awe. As much as we are able, we must keep holding fast to the awareness of just how much we and others are individually loved—our worth is immeasurable for our lives are hidden with Christ in God.

With our shared weight of glory, we must work and also play. We must unite our avocation with our vocation. “We must be still and still moving,” for “to make an end is to make a beginning.”5 We must do the work that comes to hand without requirement, with no promise of permanence, no guarantee of greatness. Our love must expand beyond attachment to all finite endeavors so that we may be clothed in Love itself.

So I mourn and do not mourn. Christ has shown us that all shall be well, for what is loved endures though all else fall away.

1 Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets, “East Coker,” V, l.34–35. 2 Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets, “Little Gidding,” III, l.8b–9a. 3 Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets, “Little Gidding,” III, l.11b; “East Coker,” V, l.8a 4 Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets, “East Coker,” V, l.11b–14a, 15b–17a, 18. 5 Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets, “East Coker,” V, l.33, “Little Gidding,” V, l.2