John Senior: In Piam Memoriam

How the time does pass . . . it was on April 8, 1999—already thirteen years ago—that Professor John Senior returned to our Father’s House. Since then, we have been all the more orphaned and greater has been our yearning for Paradise.

By what right should I, a Frenchman, be writing today about this eminent professor of an American university, from my desk in a tiny village, lost in the countryside of the old Europe? To tell the truth, I have no title, nor any right at all to evoke this great figure of American Catholicism. His children, his many students, the large cohort of priests, bishops, nuns, and monks that he raised up: they could bring forward a thousand reasons in support of their claim to take up the quill in celebration of the memory of John Senior.

I have neither the title, nor the right, but the formidable duty to testify that we owe him a debt that will not be repaid within the bounds of time and that can only be understood in light of the natural virtue of piety. Professor Senior had a profound and real influence that reached all the way to Europe and to France. It was an influence that owed much to his talents and his craft, but that above all resided essentially in the fact that he took the path opposite to the one taken by his contemporaries: he traveled from the modern world to the Christian world. We should undertake this same journey and take this same path, each day, by the love of Christ, of the Virgin Mary, and of the holy Catholic Church. Quite simply: there is no other.

Is it necessary here to recall that, having been born far from its banks in 1923, John Senior, a graduate of Columbia and a professor at Cornell, was received into the Catholic Church in 1960? The previous year, he had published his first book, The Way Down and Out, devoted to the theme of the occult in symbolist literature and marked by the development of his thinking, which was already on the path of conversion. Very quickly he perceived that Cornell did not offer him an adequate setting for his work, and so he moved to the University of Kansas, where he would found the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP) together with his friends Dennis B. Quinn and Franklyn C. Nelick.

Can one change the course of things by teaching the Humanities? As astonishing as it may be, the question deserves to be posed with respect to what then unfolded at the University of Kansas. To change the course of things, even the world? Surely, John Senior would have been astonished to have heard such an ambition attributed to his work as a professor. More simply, he understood that he was bound to accomplish the duties of an instructor in the best possible fashion, in constant fidelity to the truth.

It all began in 1971, a troubled time. At the University of Kansas, students were complaining that they were subjected to a highly fragmented program that lacked any connection to the fundamental questions of existence. In the context of this general crisis, Senior, Quinn, and Nelick put in place a program of instruction in the Humanities. Before all else they were educators who understood that the student uprisings of the late 1960s were the indications of a deep crisis, of a search for meaning, by youth who had been unsettled by modernity—and especially in its contemporary incarnations. They knew that it was imperative to respond to this deep thirst and, first of all, to teach the students to conduct themselves as men, in the full sense of the term.

Was this elementary? Yes, it was elementary good sense, and it was one that no one then was even imagining. College teaching had all too often been reduced to a cramming of the cranium with a mixture of varied ideas, thrown together without any order. It belongs to the wise man to order, as Saint Thomas Aquinas explains. But how was this to be done when one was merely a professor in a university? Senior, Quinn, and Nelick delved into the great experiences of humanity as found in the classics and gave their students a renewed taste for reading and for thinking deeply, that is to say, they taught them to quench their thirst by going the sources. John Senior and of his colleagues themselves took this path in their own teaching, and they took it resolutely. During their lectures, students were not to take notes, but instead, they were . . . to listen. They were to relearn the use of their senses both exterior and interior, by seeing, imagining, memorizing, and understanding. Twice per week, for an hour and twenty minutes, they assisted at a unique spectacle: listening to a conversation that unfolded among Senior, Quinn, and Nelick.

This was in no way talk for talk’s sake, but a true conversation, taking as point of departure Homer’s Odyssey or Plato’s Republic and establishing links and connections with other classic works of literature, history, and philosophy. According to the testimony of the students, this spectacle was fabulous, and silence reigned in the room except when the students broke out into genuine transports of laughter . . . . Silence and laughter: it was a useful apprenticeship in being human for an era that both took itself too seriously and had forgotten the value of contemplation. Between the two conferences, groups of students gathered to learn poems by heart. They also met their professors at night to contemplate the stars, to take courses in calligraphy, and to learn old songs—including drinking songs—which they sang in chorus. The goal was to reeducate the senses in order that these city-dwelling students might have the chance to encounter the real.

It was understood that what was at stake for the students was before all else to task of recovering a mode of being and of taking hold of a way of learning, rather than merely being familiar with a great number of things. Their direct model was the instruction of the middle ages and the medieval lectio—in the sense of a public reading—that gave the professor the occasion to offer a direct commentary on the text. The sense of nuance was thus given directly by the tone that was employed in reading the text aloud. The three professors loved to use the analogy of a classical jazz group improvising on a well-known theme. That is exactly what they did. And, of course, the students had the chance to ask questions after the lectures, to meet the professors, and to form deep friendships, under the aegis of the IHP motto: nascantur in admiratione.

From this experience of education and from its extraordinary flowering of vocation (more than two hundred converts came from the program), from his own life of faith and prayer according to the ancient Benedictine tradition and the liturgical tradition, and from his personal reading and meditation, John Senior drew forth the material for two fundamental works that offer the first steps for any true Christian renewal: The Death of Christian Culture and The Restoration of Christian Culture (IHS Press).

Some marveled publicly that John Senior had so warmly recommended the return to literature, to poetry, as the necessary preliminary to the restoration of Christian culture. They were offended that this disciple of Saint Thomas, this reader of Garrigou-Lagrange and Charles De Koninck, could have written that the renewal of Thomism was then impossible: “So I do not advocate anything like a revival of St. Thomas. I think it is impossible under present conditions. He is better off where he is, and incidentally needs no ‘revival’ because he isn’t dead; we’re the ones who are dead, or almost dead; the rent is overdue and we are starving in a ruined tenement.”

Faithful to Aristotle and to the Angelic Doctor, John Senior was persuaded that the intellect could not truly be restored except to the very degree to which sensibility had been able to avoid being deformed, disfigured, and massacred as it is today by modern culture. Without this first step, the intellect cannot find the necessary foundation that would permit it to play its part. This approach reposed in all simplicity upon the fact that the real is first known to us by the senses before it is conceptualized by the intellect. From this point of view, the existence of a Saint Thomas in the thirteenth century was not the result of chance. That century was the century of veritable realism, not only because Saint Thomas enlightened it and Saint Louis crowned it, but because human beings then were immersed in a cosmos whose sensibilities were healthy.

It was in this way that John Senior insisted upon a preliminary restoration of sensibility by the poetic mode. Never in any way was this mode set in opposition to the rational. But always and everywhere it preceded it. Before the Pre-Socratics, we find it already at work in Homer. Whence the insistent counsel of Senior to return to Virgil, to our Christian poets, and perhaps still more, to the traditional Office, the prayer of the Christian, that long poem that sings of God, praises Him, and has recourse to Him amidst the sufferings and joys of life.

“The restoration of reason presupposes that of love,” insists John Senior once more. There is, in truth, no other path. Caritas in Veritate!

By

Philippe Maxence is editor-in-chief of the Catholic journal L’Homme Nouveau and the author of numerous books, including Pour le réenchantement du monde: une introduction à Chesterton (2004) and, most recently, Maximilien Kolbe: Prêtre, journaliste et martyr, 1894-1941 (2011). He has also contributed the foreword to Henri Ghéon’s The Truth about Thérèse (Sophia Institute Press).

  • Sheffield Steel

    A small historical correction:  Dr. Senior spent several fruitful years teaching at the University of Wyoming between Cornell and the IHP years at the University of Kansas.  He was teaching at Wyoming when he and his family entered the Church.  Requiescat In Pace, Magister!

    • Jim

       I think he was also briefly at Tufts.

      Jim

  • Bob Harper

    I was one of Dr. Senior’s students at KU, though I graduated before the formal inauguration of the IHP. In addition, he and Mrs. Senior were my sponsors when I was received into the Church on April 26, 1970. I can only confirm the characterization of his teaching offered by M. Maxence. His teaching (and that of Profs. Quinn and Nelick) had the ring of truth, and thus unequalled power. I owe them all, but especially John Senior, an eternal debt of gratitude, and I can only echo the sentiment expressed below by Mr. Steel.  

  • Jim

    I know Philippe Maxence by reputation and
    brief correspondence.  He is not too well known over here but he has been a
    supporter of all things IHP for some time.  He published a piece of mine, translated into French, about some of these same topics of poetic education. Here, Phillipe has done a fine, and timely, tribute to our dear friend and teacher John Senior now of eternal memory.

    There is one subtle point easy for a French Catholic, and others to miss,
    about Mr. Senior’s actualized teaching and the cause of his ability to move
    hearts.  Maxence says:

    “Faithful to Aristotle and to the Angelic Doctor, John Senior was persuaded
    that the intellect could not truly be restored except to the very degree to
    which sensibility had been able to avoid being deformed, disfigured, and
    massacred as it is today by modern culture. Without this first step, the
    intellect cannot find the necessary foundation that would permit it to play
    its part. This approach reposed in all simplicity upon the fact that the
    real is first known to us by the senses before it is conceptualized by the
    intellect.”

    Yes, Senior knew Aristotle and Thomas, very well, but in his teaching they took
    their place as grist for the mill of Senior’s Muse.  He did not teach
    metaphysically, or systematically, or orderly.  Senior was not so much
    “ordered” by anything, even by his Muse, his angel — but was “harmonized” by
    what, we do not exactly know, but experienced.  We know that he sang and if we
    were listening, we learned to sing too.  He could quote the formulas that
    abstractly spoke of the necessity of sense experience, he knew well Thomas’
    commentaries on these topics.  But in his teaching, in his conversations, they were footnotes and parenthetical asides.  Never could it be said, and of course, Maxence is not saying this, that Senior taught like a Thomist or an Aristotelian. He, himself, soared.  He took flight because
    he trusted the truth and beauty he found “in the deep heart’s core” of the
    books we read to hold him up.  He knew that the poetic existed in all
    things, and like the poems he often narrated to us, not unlike his commentaries on Scripture, he found in them and in his teaching that point and space where the truth and beauty slipped the bonds of gravity and turned loops and circles in the blue sky.  We watched in awe from below.
    We were surprised and calmed when he always seemed to land where he had
    begun, an inspired discourse that had its harmonized beginning, middle and an end, “ordered” to an entirely different experience than we had known before.

    James S. Taylor

     

    • Bob Harper

      Well said. The following anecdote may illustrate what you are saying.

      One of the comparative Literature courses I took consisted in reading the Commedia Divina of Dante along with parts of the Summa Theologica. One day, as we were considering the Purgatorio, he came to these lines in Canto VIII:

      …the new made pilgrim on his way
      Feels a sweet pang go through him, if he hears
      Far chimes that seem to knell the dying day–

      (Purgatorio, VIII, 4-6, trans. Dorothy Sayers)

      He paused, then recited, from memory, the whole of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in A Country Churchyard’. I was astonished and deeply moved, and remain so to this day.

    • Sheffield Steel

      Jim Taylor both captured and appreciated Dr. Senior’s teaching “method” beautifully.  This memoriam reminds me of Jacques Barzun’s essay “What a Student Owes a Teacher.” (What a different age we studied in!)  In the case of the hundreds (thousands?) of students of John Senior, Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick, it is indeed a debt of gratitude that is well-nigh impossible to repay. 

  • Scott Quinn

    How does the author know that Dr. Senior “returned to our Father’s House”?

    • Mike Davis

      Scott Quinn, please do not be silly (or a troll, perhaps?) and besmirch a great man’s reputation – a man who brought many souls to Christ, laboring tirelessly in the Master’s vineyard. We know that those who are good, who labor for souls, find their reward in Heaven. The Lord taught so, the Scriptures tell us so.

  • Philippe Maxence

    @ All: thank you for your reactions and your precise details. I had a correspondence with professor Senior whose some extracts should appear in the United States. Now, I am working in France to make him more well known. Therefore, I seek all the possible documents and testimonies of his former students.
    @ Jim: I have not forgotten our exchanges and the text published on our premises. Best regards.

    • Sheffield Steel

      M. Maxence:  I believe a biography of Dr. Senior is nearing completion by a monk of Clear Creek Abbey.  To be published this year? Blessed Triduum to you!

      • Philippe Maxence

        Yes, indeed! But other books are also envisaged.Holy Easter.

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  • Everywhere I turn these days I meet people who are the spiritual children or grandchildren of the good Professors Senior and Quinn and Nelick.  The good they did is, literally, incalculable — they were the instruments by which God brought human souls back to life again.  I wish I knew how to waltz and how to sing those drinking songs …

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