Discussions Often Surprise

One of the delightful aspects of having discussion classes on original works is how often I am completely surprised by what students uncover that I didn’t expect. Four brief examples from recent discussions:

1) A very simple one: In discussing the Amendments to the Constitution with students, I was pointing out the dates of ratification. One of them asked why Amendment XXVII had such a big difference between the dates of proposal by Congress (1789) and ratification by the states (1992). I thought it must have been a typo at first, but then discovered it was originally proposed by James Madison, but not ratified by the required number of states until over two hundred years later!

2) I have been reading through Dante’s Divine Comedy with high school students as part of their Moral Theology class. I planned in our first discussion on the Purgatorio to talk dante-in-purgatoryabout Dante and Virgil, but I started with a general question, “What is Purgatory like?” Some students early on noticed that Dante was casting a shadow, and that was because they were out on the surface of the earth, and had day and night. This led to a lovely discussion of the extent to which Purgatory (in Dante’s vision, and perhaps really) is very like our life on earth – a sphere of change ordered to our full development – while hell is “timeless” in the sense that it is going nowhere. It provided a wonderful point of view for thinking about Purgatory and our life’s journey.

3) “Original texts” need not always be Great Books; they often are just books that readers serious about learning would read. Even a real dictionary can provoke great discussions. My Latin class with college freshmen has been using a common pocket dictionary instead of a glossary written for students. One student translated “caritas” naturally as “charity”; another student who consulted the dictionary asked why it didn’t list “love” or “charity” as a translation, but instead listed “dearness, high price, high style of living; affection”. The discussion revealed that most students equated charity with giving money to the poor, while the Romans thought of “caritas” as the way you felt toward someone dear to you whom you value as worth a great price. The fact that “charity” is such an important Christian concept suggests that as Christians we are to feel about the poor as Romans felt about their most cherished friends.  Cool!

4) In our latest online webinar, I discussed the Rule of St. Benedict with several teachers. Among many wonderful aspects of the Rule that came up, I was most surprised by how inspiring participants found his instructions to abbots, in which he showed how real authority can be exercised with power, love, and the utmost concern for subordinates. One participant was so inspired she read the entire section to her family. I had never considered how the father of Western monasticism’s words might be profoundly helpful for parents and children today. (You can enjoy listening to the conversation through this link and this.)


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I was very struck by this reported conversation between a St. Augustine Academy (Ventura) parent and one of the students in his son’s class. The young man was homeschooled, but decided to attend the school after playing on the basketball team for a year. They were out surfing together, when:

The conversation turned and I asked him what he liked best about St. Augustine.  With a big smile on his face and dripping wet, he looked up at me with an ear-to-ear grin and said what he liked best about St. Augustine’s is how the faith is intertwined throughout all the subjects and our life at the school.  He continued to smile and intimated that being around good Catholics (teachers and students ) who knew their faith and lived it out was a tremendous inspiration and a model by which to live his life.   That’s what he liked best about St. Augustine’s.  His glowing words were truly inspiring to me.  We continued to surf, catching many happy waves.

That is success for any Catholic school.
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Fiat Mihi: The Gift of Teaching

Fiat mihi. Our parish’s celebration of Midnight Mass is always spiritually uplifting and deeply satisfying.  My wife, eldest daughter, and I sing in the choir. We have a lovely repertoire of Christmas carols, hymns, and instrumentals that we offer in honor of the birth of Our Savior, beginning well before Mass, well before many people have arrived. The usual favorites (Silent Night and O Little Town of Bethlehem) are intermingled with pieces reminiscent of older times and places (While By Our Sleeping Flocks, Puer Natus), Southern harmony (Star in the East), and a beautiful Bach cantata (“Break Forth”).The Mass is celebrated with as much pomp as we can muster – lavish incense and candles, several dozen altar boys, a young altar society girl bringing the Christ Child for the blessing of the crèche, Hassler’s Missa Secundam, Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium. I love it more each year.

In the midst of this celebration, I was struck by how all of this, all of the Church’s wonderful history and traditions, the spiritual strength she has shown through the ages, began from one simple expression. “Fiat mihi, Let it be done to me.” This was how Mary, who was to become and now is, Our Lady, responded to Gabriel’s message inviting her to become the Mother of Jesus. How simple! And, I wondered whether this could be what we really want to embrace as teachers, and what we hope our students take away from their time in our Catholic schools.

theannunciation-frafilippolippi-1450black“Fiat mihi.” Humility and obedience first come to mind when I meditate on Our Lady’s words. She was willing to do whatever the Lord asked of her. She announces herself to be “The handmaid of the Lord,” a servant who knows she exists to obey her master’s commands. But  Gabriel’s message is not really a command; it is a gift offering. Through Gabriel, the Father invited Mary to become the Mother of Jesus. Gabriel reverences Mary as one being singled out for honor by God: “O highly favored one.” He tells her, “You have found favor with God.” He has the most special gift for you. You are to give birth to the long-awaited son of David! He will be the greatest gift ever, not just for you, but for all!

Humble obedience is the foundation of all virtue. It feels like and really is an acceptance of our status as servants, a renunciation of ourselves as the center of all our striving. But the reason the Lord wants this of us is so that we can receive all the amazing gifts He wishes to offer to us. The greatest gift is His love as we experience it through His Son, Our Lady, and the Church. We are not only blessed to receive this love, but we are also blessed to be invited to share it with others.

Education should make us more aware that all of our life is a gift, and that God, the great giver of gifts, has much more in store for us, if we will have the humility to ask for them, to receive them with joy, and share them with others. We learn this through the Scriptures, Theology, the Magisterium, Liturgy; through the beautiful virtues lived by the Saints; through the history of God’s care for the Church and mankind; through science and story, math and music and art; through the service hours we perform in His service to those most in need of love and generosity.

madonna-of-the-magnificatThis is a wonderful way to look at teaching. Teachers share the gifts of knowledge that we have received with the students the Lord has given us as gifts. If this is not unbelievable (how can my daily work in the classroom be all that important?) , it can be scary (my daily work in the classroom is tremendously important!). Zechariah found God’s gift unbelievable, and lost his ability to speak. Our Lady believed, but “was greatly troubled” when Gabriel addressed her with such honor. But in the end, she said, “Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.” Let us ask her, who received her gift through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, to beg Him to infuse our spirits with humble obedience in His service and our teaching with His gifts, so that we might come to share in her Fiat, and ultimately, in her Magnificat.



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Stoic Lies and Assisted Suicide

Frequently, I find immediate connections between readings and discussions of great authors and contemporary issues. In our last CIT webinar discussion, we considered St. Augustine’s analysis of all the views held by philosophers about happbzx4hchceae8xcdiness. St. Augustine points to one thing they have in common: they cannot accept that happiness is only possible in the next life. By and large the philosophers have to lie to themselves and others about the truth of the human condition. In fact (as the ancient poets saw), human happiness is extremely fragile. It is rarely achieved or maintained for any length of time, and it can never be secure.

The life, then, which is either subject to accidents, or environed with evils so considerable and grievous, could never have been called happy, if the men who give it this name had condescended to yield to the truth, and to be conquered by valid arguments, when they inquired after the happy life.

St. Augustine saved his strongest condemnation for the Stoics. They insisted that wisdom can make us securely happy in this life, yet at the same time hypocritically honored the wise man who, when faced by really terrible things like wasting sickness or torture, made a conscious decision to commit suicide . When the happy lie that happiness is ours for the choosing is overturned by the troubles that all human life is subject to, the Stoics held that the courageous man ends his own life and leaves its dishonorable miseries.

Earlier this week, a Washington Times article about assisted suicide revealed a strikingly similar dynamic. According to it, fear of pain is not the most common reason for requesting medication that will end life. Avoiding dependency on others is.

[The chair of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school] noted that most of those who have used aid-in-dying laws are white, well insured and college-educated. “These are people who are used to controlling every aspect of their lives, and they want to control this aspect of their lives.”

In a strange way, this description connects today’s most successful with yesterday’s Stoics. Although they do not use philosophy to convince themselves that life has no real evils, the comforts of contemporary life have encouraged them to believe similarly that they have achieved happiness by their own powers. When they see that their powers will no longer be sufficient, that they will have to depend upon others to take care of them, they lack the courage to resign themselves to the reality of human life. Rather, they lie about courage itself and celebrate as courageous those who insist on controlling the manner and timing of their own death.

St. Augustineaugustine proposed a different view of happiness. There is a kind of happiness achievable in this life, but it is specifically Christian. Christians do not have to lie about this life. They know it is fraught with difficulties, sometimes terrible ones. But they also know that this life is not the only, nor the most fulfilling life. The heavenly happiness will come certainly for the faithful Christian. Resting in that knowledge, Christians can be happy also in this life:

As, therefore, we are saved, so we are made happy by hope. And as we do not as yet possess a present, but look for a future salvation, so is it with our happiness, and this with patience; for we are encompassed with evils, which we ought patiently to endure, until we come to the ineffable enjoyment of unmixed good; for there shall be no longer anything to endure. Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness. And this happiness these philosophers refuse to believe in, because they do not see it, and attempt to fabricate for themselves a happiness in this life, based upon a virtue which is as deceitful as it is proud.

Christians are unique in our ability to see this life for what it is — a life in which consolations are not missing but are not to be relied upon nor overvalued. Because of that, we can live authentic lives of virtue, marked by patience, courage and hope, even when faced with the terrible news of terminal illness.

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Christian Spaemann on Transsexuals

Politically charged issues are always hard to consider carefully, thoughtfully and faithfully. This looks to be helpful with regard to a difficult topic.


The psychiatrist Christian Spaemann, son of the great Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann, has written a remarkably intelligent and balanced article on “transsexuals” and how the Church ought to give them pastoral care. The article was so good that I agreed to help translate it for First Things.

As a psychiatrist Spaeman has a lot to say about the psychological suffering of those who consider themselves transsexuals, and about the appalling way in which that suffering is being instrumentalized today, and the appalling haste with which young persons are being lead into drastic measures:

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Peter Kalkavage on Hegel’s Anti-Aristotelian Account of Desire

I remember the amazement I had when, reading through the modern philosophers in college for the first time, I realized how all the societal disasters I had grown up with were presaged and, I thought, provoked by their writings. Ideas have consequences.


Hegel has sometimes been called an “Aristotelian” It is indeed undeniable that he was heavily influenced by Aristotle’s hylomorphism, the theory of nous, and so on. But there is a great gulf between Hegel and Aristotle. It is the abyss between the ancients and the moderns. One way of understanding that abyss is in terms of the account of the good and its relation to desire. Marcus Berquist once wrote that since the good is the cause of causes, the first principle, it is disagreement about the good that “defines modern philosophy, as it separates itself from the tradition of Plato and Aristotle, and the teachings of the Catholic Church.” To the moderns the good is good because it is desired, while to Plato, Aristotle, and the Catholic tradition it is desired because it is good. The following passage from Peter Kalkavage’s brilliant book on Hegel shows very clearly how central…

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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.


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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