Sometimes a single encounter with what is healthy and ordinary—I use the word advisedly, with its suggestion that things are in the order that God by means of his handmaid Nature has ordained—is enough to shake you out of the bad dreams of disease and confusion. If it isn’t quite yet like meeting Saint Francis on the road, it is like meeting a bluff and jovial fellow who has just come from a conversation with that great little man of God.
I’ve had such an encounter, at Thomas More College, in New Hampshire.
Where shall I begin? I was at the noon Mass in the college chapel. You must know that everybody except for the couple of students who happen to be helping out in the cafeteria that day can attend Mass, because there are no classes scheduled for that period. Call it a Sabbath rest, right in the middle of work, so that the work will savor of the Sabbath, when the usual practice in our lives is to begrudge God a little bit of our precious time and turn the Sabbath into a vigil for Monday. Cheerful faces, and plenty of them—and I waved to the daughter of dear friends of ours, who was sitting on the other side of the chapel. It’s always moving for me to see professors and students together at Mass, but here they really were together in a way that I’ve never otherwise seen; not separated by five rows of empty pews, but next to one another, male and female, tall and small, of all ages.
When we came back from the altar at Communion, a young bearded fellow stood up to the side, with another lad and four lasses, directing them in a sung prayer to Saint Michael, singing the verse at first in unison, then in harmony, then in harmony while two of the sopranos sang a descant. It was elegant and beautiful and devout, without the least trace of the “show”; all subordinated to the Mass and to prayer. I was later told that the director is a freshman, that he himself composed the music, and that one of the first things he did at Thomas More College was to establish that small chorus.
Now, I have been teaching college students for more than thirty years, and have never been near to such an act of devotion. But then—in ordinary times, people who have the talent compose music, plenty of them, and people, both men and women, sing. “Singing is what the lover does,” said Saint Augustine, so you shouldn’t expect much singing from young people who have been scalded and scorched by the Lonely Revolution; but from blessedly bright and cheerful boys and girls who have retained their innocence, you would be foolish not to expect singing. And not to expect other ordinary things, too.
I sat at table for lunch, with three or four students, among whom was the young lady I have known since she was a little girl with curly hair. One of them smiled as she put before me a copy of Dante—would I sign it for her? We all talked and laughed for about an hour. A young man whose people come from South America talked with me about Portuguese, and the conversation then ranged all over the place, as happens when somebody with real intellectual objects of devotion, and their little brothers called hobbies, meets somebody else of the same sort. Good Lord! I enjoyed that conversation as well as the best of such that I’ve ever had with college professors. Among them you must often hedge and keep your thoughts to yourself, lest you be accused of breaking The Unwritten Law and having your head nailed to the floor.
Then came the joy of teaching. I’m a born teacher. I don’t mean to say that I am great at it—I’m quite aware of my flaws, which I’d rather not enumerate. I mean that even when I was a little boy I wanted to show people things, just because I liked them and wanted to share them. Teaching, for me, has always retained much of that happy boyish enthusiasm; it’s why I find it hard to understand people who turn teaching into politics by other means. Why would you do that? Wouldn’t it be like sitting on a Rembrandt while holding forth about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? And what finally is the tremendous utility of giving yourself over to the study of those may-flies, those shadows passing on the wall of the cave?
You will say that anyone can experience that joy, anywhere. True in a way; you can experience it in a dank cave, but I wouldn’t recommend the attempt. But when people are not in college to have their souls be born in wonder, and when professors themselves scoff at truth and beauty, believing the former to apply only to what can be quantified, and the latter to be a pleasant fiction at best, what assistance can you expect from the surroundings? And we are not gods.
I sat for an hour with happy and talkative students, combing through the allusions and the strange repetitions of Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”—not the most auspicious text for cheerful and enthusiastic conversation, and yet that is what we enjoyed. Nobody had a cell phone in his lap. Nobody gave me the sense that reading Eliot took time away from the really important things in life, whatever they are. I sat for another hour with a different group of happy students (including a lad and lass who will be married in a couple of weeks; they have been an “item” since they were sophomores, God bless them), reading a passage from the ninth book of Virgil’s Aeneid, in Latin, and feeling out its intricate contours by recalling other passages in the text, or other instances of the use of this or that important word. Class was supposed to last for an hour also, but there was no clock in that comfortable room in the library, and I did not know what time it was. When I finally asked, the students laughed and said that it was already past six o’clock, well into the supper hour.
They were not eager to leave, because they were having too much fun. They were having too much fun—repeat this sentence three times carefully—reading Virgil in the Latin, with a gray-haired fellow they had never met before. I drove home almost in tears.
I have countless memories of fine students at Providence College, some of whom are now my close friends; and to my colleagues in Western Civilization—of whom many have retired and some have passed away—I owe a debt I can never repay, for their friendship and support and instruction. But I am too old to want to spend the evening of my career trying to shore up a crumbling wall, when those who are in authority at the college are unwilling to listen to our pleas, or even to meet with us so that we can make the pleas in person, but instead pass out lemonade to the professors with the sledge hammers.
No, I’d prefer to be in on building something exciting for the Church and for sheer ordinary humanity: The Center for Cultural Renewal, at Thomas More College. More on that to come.
Meanwhile, my family and I wish to extend our warmest thanks to President William Fahey and the good men and women of Thomas More. A window shuts, and a door opens—or rather the very roof is blown off, and I see again, in their silent and ordinary beauty, the stars.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from Raphael’s “School of Athens.”