Telemachos and the Divine

773516The Odyssey is an epic that often reads like a contemporary novel.  It opens with an intimate portrayal of a terrible but familiar situation — a young man has grown up without a father, and is overwhelmed by responsibilities that he feels totally inadequate to face.  So we meet Telemachos, whose father, Odysseus, spent the first decade of his life fighting overseas, and then was lost at sea on his return home.   Since Telemachos turned 16, his mother has had many men hanging around all the time who have made themselves masters of the house and treated him as a boy of no consequence.  The reputation of his great father is a sorrow and a burden to him, making him feel his own inadequacies even more deeply.

But Telemachos is not alone.  Two older men, one a stranger, one a fellow-citizen, befriend and encourage Telemachos as they guide him to take the first steps towards dealing as a man with the many troubles facing him.  “Mentor” is the name of the one who encourages Telemachos to begin to take up the leadership role of a man, and guides him on a sea journey to discover news of his father.  Telemachos follows his advice, finding the courage to call out his mother’s telemachus-mentor2-1-680x380suitors in public, and to be bold in asking the great hero, Nestor, about his experiences in the Trojan War.  He is not entirely successful, but he grows visibly through the experience of taking initiative.

But unlike most contemporary novels, Homer has the divine enter into his story immediately.  Homer begins the story by having Zeus complain about how mortals blame the gods for their evils, when they really bring them upon themselves.  Athena pleads on behalf of Odysseus, then determines to give Telemachos the mentoring she knows he needs.  Mentor, we learn, is really Athena in disguise, as is the stranger who first counsels him.  This is Homer’s way – he sees the unexpected help we receive from others in our darkest hours as the divine hidden by thin veils.

I was very touched when I read the opening books early this past Sunday.  They lingered with me as we sang Psalm 146, about the faithfulness of the Lord to those in need.  The Lord “keeps faith forever”, “secures justice for the oppressed”, “protects strangers”, sustains “the fatherless and the widow”.  Homer longed for such a Lord, and perhaps experienced his tender care even through the veils of his devotion to false gods.  But Homer also made me realize how it often is that the Lord does all these things – through us.  Homer dimly sensed that the unexpected and often unmerited kindness of others was divine in origin.  Now it has become clear.  We know that the Lord inspires in our hearts care for those who are in need. Through us, He brings them comfort and counsel; they feel His presence through the love that we, who have learned from Him, show them.  Through the prayer of Blessed John Henry Newman, which was also a favorite of holy Mother Teresa, we learn to ask to be vessels of the love of the Lord Jesus: “Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel Thy presence in my soul. Let them look up and see, no longer me, but only Jesus.”

 

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Figurative Language and the Poetic Art

Many years ago, I was doing research in the Catholic University of America library, and by chance discovered Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language by Sister Miriam Joseph. At first, I was overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of her analysis, but the part that I grasped at once was her discussion of figurative language. Even though I had “honors” literature classes in my public high school, I could only name the most basic forms of figurative language: metaphor, simile, personification and hyperbole. I did not know other forms even existed. And when we studied literature, even poetry, the use of figurative language was scarcely noticed, let alone analyzed.

SrMirJoseph ShakespeareSr. Miriam’s book introduced me to metonymy (which substitutes an attribute for the thing itself, e.g a car is a “ride,” a restaurant customer is a “plate”); synecdoche (which substitutes the part for the whole, or the whole for the part, e.g. “suits” for officials or “skirts” for girls); and meiosis (or “understatement,” the opposite of hyperbole, e.g. a major wound is “a scratch”). In his discussion of poetic language, Aristotle observes that it is “the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.” (Poetics, chap.22, 1459a5-8) Aristotle focuses on metaphor, but clearly his point applies to figurative language in general. Hence, the genius of Shakespeare’s language, the richness use of figures such as metaphor, simile and many others besides, was lost on me until I met Sr. Miriam.

In my high school, we tended to focus on imagery and symbolism to the detriment of figurative language. We would analyze what the forest “stood for” in The Scarlet Letter, or what the Duke and Dauphine “symbolized” in Huckleberry Finn. This certainly has its place – imagery and symbolism are literary devices. But, if Aristotle is right, the comparisons and contrasts that figurative language makes possible is a defining trait, perhaps the defining trait of both prose and poetry. It is even, as Aristotle explains in his logical works, a philosophic ability. Part of logic is training oneself to find likenesses in unlike things (Topics, I.17). When Socrates relates his “cave allegory” in the Republic, his hearers consider the prisoners and their prison “strange.” But Socrates tells them, “they are like us.” He helps them to understand their own situation in something that at first seems completely unlike and “strange.”

The genius of figurative language is to see likenesses between things that do not at once appear like to us. It is this gift that allows F. Scott Fitzgerald to say of Daisy “Her voice is full of money” or Milton of his devils that “amazement seized the rebel thrones” (metonymy); or again, Coleridge in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to write “the western wave was all aflame” or Shelley to say of Ozymandias, “the hand that mocked them/and the heart that fed” (synecdoche); or Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye to say “It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor in my brain.” and Poe to describe his macabre tale of “The Black Cat” as a “homely narrative” (meiosis).

Quinn FiguresIf you wish to learn more about figurative language, Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language is a must-read. Perhaps an easier place to start is Arthur Quinn’s Figures of Speech, which illustrates various figures with quotations largely (though not exclusively) from Shakespeare’s plays and Biblical texts. (Most of the examples in the preceding paragraph are from Quinn’s book). Quinn was a longtime professor of rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, (“Can anything good come from Berkeley? Come and see!”) and the book is as charming as it is instructive.

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The Joy of Returning

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.  (Hebrews 12:22-24)

For some reason, as I listened to today’s reading from Hebrews, the description felt familiar.   St. Paul seems to be drawing on an experience very familiar to Jews of his time – the culmination of what might be a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the holy city to celebrate the Passover.  After all the miles, the hardships of the journey, to finally arrive!  They must have felt such joy, like they had made it to their true home, as they joined the celebrations erupting throughout the city.McLean

“Why did this feel so familiar to me?” I wondered.  “When have I experienced joy like this?”  Then I remembered.  It was the beginning of last week, when college’s President culminated our convocation ceremonies with the words he uses each year:  “I declare Thomas Aquinas College in session, in this Year of Our Lord 2016.”  The student body erupted with applause and shouts and laughter, as they do every year.  Every year.  And every year, the sound gives my heart a lift.

I count it a great blessing to be a part of a school community devoted to learning truth under the light of the Catholic faith.  Our central commitment grounds our life together and makes our school a magnet for families and youth who treasure the traditions of Catholic wisdom.  The joy that we find in coming back together after our summers scattered around the country and the world gives us a taste of what the Jews must have felt, and a real foretaste of our promised entrance into the heavenly Jerusalem.

As I travel the country working with Catholic classical schools, I am thrilled to find that they share a similar sense of joy in their life together.  Yet I am also filled with great sadness, when I think of how rare it still remains.  May the Holy Spirit ground more and more Catholic schools and colleges in the love of the Truth that they might become centers of joy and foretastes of Heaven.

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Classical education — “learning to read.”

In his Confessions, Augustine expresses gratitude for his classical education. Although he is highly critical of the pagan mythology that saturated his curriculum, he observes, “those primary lessons were better, assuredly, because more certain; seeing that by their agency I acquired, and still retain, the power of reading what I find written, and writing myself what I will.” (I.13.20) As modern people, it is easy for us to see the phrase “the power of reading” and understand this as “basic literacy.” On the contrary, the curriculum of Augustine’s day studied a limited number of authors (Virgil, Terrence, Sallust, Cicero) with slowness and care almost unknown in our time.

st-augustine

As Peter Brown explains in his classic Augustine: A Biography, “The great advantage of the education that Augustine received was that, within its narrow limits, it was perfectionist. The aim was to measure up to the timeless perfection of an ancient classic. ..Every word every turn of phrase of these few classics, therefore, was significant. The writer did not merely write. He ‘wove’ his discourse; he was a man who had ‘weighted the precise meaning of every word.’ We need only see only see how Augustine as a bishop will interpret the Bible as if everything in it were ‘said exactly as it should be said’ to realize the lasting effect of this education.” (p.25)

 

One can find support for this characterization of classical education from a thinker whose views on almost everything else are diametrically opposed to St. Augustine, namely the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche is famous as a philosopher, but it important to remember that Nietzsche’s “day job” was a philologist, that is a professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Basel. (Ill health and academic politics forced him to retire early.) Nietzsche commends the study of the classics in Greek and Latin as a discipline of “reading slowly”:

 

“For philology is that venerable art which exacts from its followers one thing above all — to step to one side, to leave themselves spare moments, to grow silent, to become slow — the leisurelyNietzsche art of the goldsmith applied to language: an art which must carry out slow, fine work, and attains nothing if not lento. For this very reason philology is now more desirable than ever before; for this very reason it is the highest attraction and incitement in an age of ‘work’: that is to say, of haste, of unseemly and immoderate hurry-skurry, which is intent upon ‘getting things done’ at once, even every book, whether old or new. Philology itself, perhaps, will not ‘get things done’ so hurriedly: it teaches how to read well: i.e. slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with the mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes!” (Dawn of Day, Preface, 5)

 

A classical education should be approached in a radically different way from contemporary schooling, which studies too many unrelated subjects in a broad but shallow way, and which virtually guarantees that the student will retain little or nothing. A return to the classical tradition means rethinking what we teach and how we teach it. For the goal is not just to “expose” the student to knowledge, but rather to form his mind through the greatest works, to think critically and deeply about the world around him.

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The Creative Historian: The Role of the Imagination, Sacred and Profane, in Understanding the Past

By Christopher Zehnder

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Herodotus of Halicarnassus, a very creative historian

The creative historian” – who will not deny that the phrase implies a contradiction, a lie, a heresy? Even I who conceived it dread to utter it, and not least for fear that some of you may feel compelled to denounce me to the authorities for my impertinence for even making such a connexion between creativity and history. To suggest, too, as I do, that creative imagination plays any part in so seemingly an objective study as history – is that not some spawn of postmodern despair that concludes that all claims to truth are naught but lunges at power? For the creative imagination is a mighty power and, in its own realm, divine in its efficacy. It can take the events and personalities of bygone times and by a deft manipulation arrange them into a tableau that accords with its own preconceptions and pleasures. If anything – far from being an aid to the historian, creative imagination would seem to threaten him with his greatest peril and pitfall.

Moreover, when we consider where the creative imagination has most free play, we will be more than justified to reject any tie between it and the historical discipline. I refer here to what J.R.R. Tolkien called “sub-creation,” the realm of myth and fable. It was Tolkien himself that gave us the best modern example of sub-creation, especially in his magnum opus, the Silmarilien, where he creates nothing less than a mythical history of the early ages of the world. Speaking of the concept of sub-creation, Tolkien wrote:

We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming “sub-creator” and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall.

Here it is clear that, for Tolkien, sub-creation does not equate with falsehood. It will contain “error,” but it will shine with the light of truth. Let this be so. Still, who will deny that the truth for which a Tolkien will strive in his sub-creation is not entirely the same truth the historian seeks in his attempts to reconstruct the past?

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J.R.R. Tolkien, age 24

If what we say here is true of Tolkien’s sub-creation, it is equally true of those less radical creative departures from the so-called “real world” – those works that go by the name of the roman or novel? Such works, historical in character as they are for the most part (insofar as they generally speak of past events) and set in the “real world,” usually contain their dose of error or even (dare we say it?) lies. For who reads, for instance, Shakespeare’s Henry IV or Richard III and thinks he is getting the straight dope on the events proceeding and following the Wars of the Roses? Shakespeare at times frankly distorts the past for purposes of his own – purposes quite other from those of the historian. And not only Shakespeare is guilty of falsifying the past; one can point to countless other writers who, with their creative imagination, recast past events and personalities for their own arcane intentions and purposes.

If we expect poets and novelists to be liars, we count on historians to tell the truth. “The facts, mam, the facts, and nothing but the facts” – this is what the historian is after. The historian narrates, or at least tries to narrate, what actually occurred at some defined time and place, without addition or subtraction. If the historian is an artist, it is only in how he narrates the facts, not in the facts themselves, or so we think. Indeed, we would describe the historian as “scientific” rather than artistic or “creative.” The novelist may play fast and loose with the events of the past; the historian is tightly constrained within the parameters of a demanding discipline.

Thus, it seems I have confirmed the suspicions of at least many of you – that I am some sort of intellectual heretic for even suggesting that an historian may be creative. Yet, before you sick the hounds of the Inquisition on me, I would beg you to hear my case. For despite my protestations to the contrary, I maintain that the creative imagination has a role, a very central and important role, to play in the exploration of history, and the telling and teaching of it. I pray this august assembly to hear me for my cause, and only then, pass judgment upon me. When I have had done, if need be, you may denounce me to the authorities. Continue reading

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Jacques Barzun on Reading the “Classics”

Many readers will be familiar with Jacques Barzun from his monumental From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, which he completed at age 93. (Barzun died in 2012 at the ripe old age of 104!) Among his many interests was education, which he first addressed in his 1945 work The Teacher in America. The following excerpt is taken from his essay “Of What Use are the Classics?” from Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning. (1987)

“Because a classic is thick and full, and because it arose out of a past situation, it is hard to read. The mental attitude and attention that are good enough for reading the newspaper and most books will not work. We read ordinary matter by running the eye over the print at a steady rate, rarely stopping to think or wonder.Barzun BeginHere

“But why, after all, learn to read differently by tackling the classics?  The answer is simple: in order to live in a wider world. Wider than what?  Wider than the one that comes through the routine of our material lives and through the paper and the factual magazines — Psychology Today, House and Garden, Sports Illustrated; wider also than friends’ and neighbors’ plans and gossip; wider especially than one’s business or profession. …The great works do not yield their cargo on demand; but if one reads them with concentration, the effort gives us possession of a vast store of vicarious (indirect) experience; we come face to face with the whole range of perception that mankind has attained and that is denied by our unavoidably artificial (manufactured) existence.

“…I have said that the classics cannot be read like a magazine article. It takes some form of compulsion to get started, and often the eager starter bogs down in difficulties. To give help, therefore, and to apply the steady pressure, coaching is necessary. Hence the classics must be met and conquered at latest in college.
At latest: the really appropriate time would be the last two years of high school, when the onset of maturing stirs feelings and thoughts about the meaning of life and the nature of society. Our obtuse (slow-witted) educational experts would be astonished to see how passionately a group of perfectly average fifteen-year-olds can be brought to discuss Machiavelli’s ‘Prince’ or the ‘Confessions of St. Augustine.’  But the opportunity is missed, and college offers the last chance of initiating the habit of reading and enjoying solid books.”

 

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Homer, Zeus and Destiny

“Is there a right answer?” a student interrupted our discussion of Book XVI of the Iliad to ask me tonight. I really hate that question, which is usually a sign that students are tired of thinking. But tonight, the student was serious, and the conversation had been serious. But the topic was hard, “What is the relation between Zeus and destiny?” and he needed me to assure him that I knew there was a right answer.

The amazing thing was that he cared that much. In fact, the whole seminar seemed deeply interested in the question. Seven or eight gathered with me and another tutor after our two hour class discussion to pursue it for another 45 minutes. “I need to know!” said one young woman.

Now why would a group of college freshmen mostly from serious Catholic families “need to know” how Homer, a pagan author dealing with bloody, glory-seeking semi-barbarians, portrayed Zeus and destiny?

One reason could be that they had seen his story didn’t fit with the tidy picture they had of the Greeks, who thought fate was over everything.  Or did they? “And the will of Zeus was accomplished,” opens the epic. Later  Zeus tells Hera that Hektor and Patroklos and his own son, Sarpedon, will all die because he promised Achilles’ mother that he would bring honor to Achilles.  Yet Zeus laments that Sarpedon is destined to die. He seriously considers saving him until Hera talks him out of it, and then weeps “tears of blood” as he leaves Sarpedon to his destiny.

The surprise element must be a big factor. But I also raised the question of whether this mattered to the story. Is the Zeus/destiny question really important or just a matter for maddening or scholarly curiosity? They thought it deeply important, for if Zeus were in charge of all, then he could give reasons for why he let terrible things happen even to those he loved. And maybe he could be supplicated, and could change his mind. But if Zeus is simply subject to destiny, then no reason can be given for why Patroklos, who wins our sympathy through the tears of pity he sheds on behalf of his fellow Achaians, must die. Another senseless death.

Patroklos goes to his death because he succumbs to the rage and fury that success in battle breeds. “Besotted!” Can battle really do this to a man? It seems so. But Homer continues, “But always the mind of Zeus is a stronger thing than a man’s mind.” Do men feel that, when they are overcome by passion in the moment that something divine is driving them? Is it a god? The God? Can it have a purpose even when it leads to disaster?

These are deeply human questions. As Catholics, we are blessed to have all the answers. But having all the answers from the time of your youth often means you never really face the questions. I hope that in part my students’ fascination came from seeing how marvelously Homer shows his world, a world for which the questions are deeply real, and is fueled by the hope that his “answer’ – murky, delicate, profoundly suggestive – might offer a window of wonder opening on the mysterious God whom they love and serve.

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Cultivate wonder at the divine mystery

Great advice that extends beyond sacred theology.

As this school year begins try to cultivate wonder at the divine mystery, and be patient with the struggles of reading and discussing difficult texts, trying to catch the taste of the divine Truth. A great help to cultivating wonder is the rich liturgical life of the ITI: the treasures of the Roman and Byzantine liturgies, which are so full of reverence, awe and wonder at the greatness of God, who created us to know Himself.

From Sancrucensis.

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Preparing and Leading a Discussion on Mary and Martha

On a number of occasions, I have led seminars with teachers on the stories in Luke’s and John’s Gospels that feature Mary and Martha. These include Luke 10:38-42, John 11, and John 12:1-10. Luke’s story is among the iconic stories of the Scriptures. The Church has long seen Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus as a type of the contemplative religious life, and Jesus’ rebuke of Martha as His elevation of that life above that of the majority of Christians — lay, clerical and religious – marked by active service.

Those who indulge in serious reading of original texts find that interesting details are often lost when ideas and stories become iconic. In fact, vanity will rear its ugly head, leading Great Bookers to delight in correcting anyone who repeats the common wisdom about an author or text. In spite of this temptation, I have found that I usually get fresh, deeper looks when I pay close attention to the original sources of iconic stories. The Mary and Martha story intrigued me particularly the longer I lived with my wife. Was it really Our Lord’s intention to make her and many admirable women like her feel that their concerns about the details of child-rearing and family life are simply a distraction from what is really important? I felt something was missing – the glory of Martha story.

This puzzle floated in and out of my consciousness for some years, until one day, probably during the Lenten season when Catholics get to revel in John’s wonderful, lavishly detailed (at least according to Gospel standards) stories like the Woman at the Well, the Man Born Blind and the Raising of Lazarus, I was struck by Martha’s prominence in the Lazarus Martha speaks to Jesusstory. She along with Mary is said to be loved by Jesus; she left the house to meet Jesus outside the village; and amazingly, she kept her hope for Lazarus even though he was four days dead. Her act of faith in this moment – “And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” – is unbelievable. Who else in the Gospels had faith that Jesus could raise a man from the dead? Mary also looks different in John’s story. In fact, it almost looks as though John wanted to compare Mary and Martha in such a way that Martha looks better. Mary stayed home when Martha went to meet Jesus; Mary did not express the faith that Martha did; Mary’s weeping moved Jesus to tears, though Martha is not said to weep at all.

These considerations led me to think these two readings would make for a good seminar discussion, which I led for the first time during a workshop for teachers at a Catholic classical school in upstate New York. I did not think I fully understood the stories by any means, but I did think that what I had seen about Martha and Mary in John’s Gospel, which I continued to ponder regularly, would be new to most readers as it had been for me, and was very much worth discussing. Where it would go, how rich the conversation might be, I did not know. This kept me in a state of some trepidation, but I had enough confidence to push forward. John’s story is full of lots of other oddities that I could turn to if my main topic lagged – Jesus’s decision not to come right away, His weeping, and the story about Mary anointing Jesus’ feet that begins Chapter 12.

I have now had two discussions of these texts, most recently at the Catholic Classical Schools Conference in July. Both went very well. The CCSC group included about 18 teachers and administrators of all levels of experience. Some had Great Books backgrounds; most did not.

What did I hope would happen during this conversation? Of course, I had the general goals that I have in most conversations: To have a lively discussion with broad participation that excites wonder, to build a sense of common excitement about learning, and hopefully to provoke questions that would lead to continued thought, wonder and discussion after the end of the seminar. I don’t want lively discussion for its own sake. Someone once commented disparagingly about a discussion I enjoyed, “This shows we could talk for hours about a local telephone book.” I disagreed with him; I thought that we had such a lively discussion was prima facie evidence that it was worth talking about. Still, sometimes people are participants in discussions seem to be in it just for the excitement of the moment, leaving with no particular memory of what they talked about and not really wanting them to effect any lasting change in themselves. But usually a lively discussions come from a serious passion to understand difficult and worthwhile matters.

I also hoped that many would see in the readings what I thought I had seen. When I first led the discussion, I probably thought about it as, “Martha is pretty good, better than Mary in some ways.” Still, I didn’t want to push this too hard. Focusing too much on getting participants to see my point of view has often kept me from seeing other things that they were seeing. So I was determined not to press it too hard. I usually learn a lot myself if I pay careful attention to the conversation.

Whether the participants agreed with my point of view, or whether I would change my view through the conversation, I hoped that, by asking the right questions, participants would pay more attention to the story than they ever had before. They would notice some of the puzzling passages that I had seen, which would lead them to look at it more closely, become conscious of and wary of their own assumptions about it, and see it with new eyes, like Chesterton’s Mooreeffoc. Close attention to a text as rich as that of St. John, fostering a lingering wonder about it, could not help but produce good fruits.

With these goals in mind, I had to choose a good question to start off the conversation. I usually try to find a question that I think will quickly raise more questions as participants offer different answers. A good opening question is one we will usually return to throughout the conversation to see how we have gotten at providing satisfactory answers. On the other hand, the question can be one that I expect will lead to larger questions, the latter of which I expect to become the real locus of the conversation.

In this case, I decided to propose two questions and let the participants decide which to pursue. One was fairly general, “How do Mary and Martha compare with one another in the two stories?” This was an indeterminate version of the question which motivated me to CCSC 2015 Mary and Martha discussionchoose these readings in the first place. The second was more particular, more immediately puzzling, and also one concerning which I only suspected an answer: “Why does John (11:2) identify Mary as the one who anointed Jesus in the chapter before he tells the anointing story?” This was a strange thing I had noticed about the story in preparing for this discussion; it might have been my fourth or fifth careful reading. A riskier question, but I thought it would drive us to consider why Mary would do such a thing, and what the Lazarus’ story might reveal about her action.

No one spoke at first. After a half a minute, one participant addressed the first question by suggesting that the two sisters looked different in the two stories, and that John presented Martha in a better light than Luke. In Luke she looked like the Elder brother in the Prodigal Son story, but she was much more connected to Jesus in John. Others joined this line of thought, and developed many of my own ideas about how Martha looked better than Mary in John. They suggested that Mary almost seemed to be in despair over Lazarus. At this point, some who had not spoken reacted very strongly. Why were people thinking that Mary was in despair? Why did they think she was presented in a light inferior to that of Martha?

Up to this point, I had intervened only occasionally, and mostly with “method” comments. I frequently ask those arguing a position if they have support from the text we are discussing. I then ask them to tell us where it is, give others time to find it, read it aloud and then tell us what they think is significant about it. That way everyone keeps looking back at the precise words of the author, often seeing much they had overlooked in their own reading. I ask participants to repeat their points if I thought they were unclear, or perhaps others didn’t seem to appreciate the significance of what was said. If someone goes on at length, I might ask them to give us the short version. I interrupt more active speakers to less forceful ones get into the conversation. I also point out where I think speakers are disagreeing, something they do not always see themselves. This is not to provoke a fight, but so that each can begin to consider whether they should modify their positions, or begin to give reasons why they think they should hold their ground.

In the Mary and Martha conversation, everyone realized there was disagreement. So I asked those who thought Martha looked better in John to go over their evidence. Among that group they pointed to:

  • Martha’s expression of faith in Jesus, which culminated in a statement very like Peter’s in Matthew’s Gospel: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”
  • Mary speaks to Jesus with the same words as Martha, but omits an expression of faith: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
  • These differences in faith connect with the reason Jesus gave for letting Lazarus die in the first place: “Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.”
  • Mary stayed at home when Martha went to meet Jesus. She didn’t come till Martha returned and told her Jesus was asking for her.
  • Mary was weeping when she spoke to Jesus, and Jesus wept when he saw her and the Jews weeping.

The other side then responded to most of the points. Some they thought were overreadings of little portions of text. Did John really intend us to connect Martha’s expression with Peter’s? Was he really trying to draw our attention to Mary’s omission? Mary stayed home because there were guests. One participant said that many of these texts could be showing us that Mary was more docile to Jesus than Martha. She didn’t go out until she was called; she didn’t make any demand on Jesus to raise Lazarus.

At one point I asked whether we thought John meant to call our attention to these differences by the details and wording of the story. I thought it would help our discussion, but it is also an important premise of most Great Bookers – great authors are very careful with their words, and so it pays us to take every word very seriously. One participant denied this strongly, suggesting that it is easy for readers to make up grand interpretations which the original author never considered. But most seemed to think John’s words at least very significant, though they disagreed on their meaning.

Mary anointing JesusThe debate continued, and more details were brought into consideration.

  • Luke refers to the house as “Martha’s house”.
  • Mary is often at the feet of Jesus – in the house, when she went weeping to him, when she anointed him.
  • When Mary anoints Jesus, Martha is again serving, but this time she does not complain about her sister, though Judas does.
  • Was this anointing a second one, unconnected with the repentant woman? Was this Mary, Mary Magdalene? Was she repenting in John’s Gospel, or simply preparing his body for death?

I finally ended the conversation. We did not reach a common agreement, but still I was very satisfied. We certainly had had a lively discussion that came from paying greater and greater attention to the details of the Gospel authors. Everyone in the group participated at some point – I thought I was going to have to call two people to express their opinion, but they finally entered of their own accord (and with some passion). I was confident that most would continue to think about the questions we raised for a long time, which was confirmed by subsequent lengthy conversations with several of the participants.

Was I disappointed that we did not come to an agreement at the end? No. I have found that most questions worth discussing are ones that need to be thought about for a long time, in different contexts, and even in different periods of our lives. I thought they were in a good position to do that. They had formed, developed and defended their own opinions, but they also knew the stories contained much more that they would need to account for before they could be sure.

Most of what I had noticed before the discussion came out, and I noticed a number of details for the first time (such as the connection between Martha and Peter, and Martha’s serving without complaining in John 12). I also began to think more deeply about Mary and Martha as types of the contemplative and active lives. Perhaps John’s story was pointing out the strengths and limitations of both types of life, so that we can see why the Church needs both. One thing I regretted – I thought but did not suggest that Mary might have been angry with Jesus for not coming rather than in despair over his powers. That idea, which I had before the conversation, did not come up. When I mentioned it to some after the discussion, they thought it very helpful.

The conversation had what was to me a beautiful epilogue. The next day was the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. The texts used in Morning and Evening Prayer and in the readings for Mass reverberated with themes from our discussion, arousing in me a greater excitement in celebrating her feast than I had ever known.

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Great Books in the Classroom — Dante’s entry to Paradise

I am beginning to get a feel for using Dante to help arouse wonder about Moral Theology.   This is my second time leading discussions on it with groups of 30 or so juniors and seniors to complement the Didache series textbook, along with Mere Christianity and an excellent work on prayer for the laity, This Tremendous Lover. 

This week we followed Dante as he enters the earthly Paradise at the top of the mountain of Purgatory.  As he is about to enter, Virgil tells Dante, “You are now morally free! Do whatever  you want to do.”  I asked the students, “What does Dante do with his freedom?  Would you do that?”  We saw that he “lingered”, slowly wandering as he absorbed the beauty of tree and grass, birds and breeze.  He sees a woman across a stream picking flowers, listens to her song, then slowly wanders with her along opposite sides of the stream.  Is this what the process of moral purification should lead to?

The woman tells Dante that the stream is called Lethe, the stream of forgetfulness according to Greek mythology.  He is told that by drinking of it he will lose all memory of his sins, after which he can drink of Eunoe, which will cause him to remember all his good deeds more strongly.  Several students thought it would be wrong to forget one’s sins.  Why?  Because we need them to remind us of our guilt, to remind us how weak we are.  Does Dante think that when you become spiritually free, you no longer need to remember your guilt?   I told them it made me think of Matthew’s account of the  Last Judgement, where Our Lord points out to those on his right all the times they are served Him without realizing it, but made no mention at all of the times they had failed.  “Blessed are those who sins are covered” Dante hears Matilda sing.

But before Dante can drink of the stream, Beatrice arrives (in rock star style, by the way!).  She sternly reproaches him with his greatest sin, one he has yet to repent for.  Her reprimand leads him to weep for his sins for the first and only time in the Comedy.  “Have you ever wept for your sins?” I asked them.  Next discussion, we will look more deeply into Dante’s sin — what does she say that causes the ice in his heart to melt and pour out in tears?  I think they answer will surprise and challenge them.

These are examples of the many questions raised by encountering Dante’s literary creation go to the heart of students’ assumptions about their moral journey and the teaching of the Church, questions that will rarely come out of reading textbooks, no matter how faithful.

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