The editors of Franciscan Way, the flagship quarterly of the University where I teach, recently asked members of the faculty to submit a paragraph or two reflecting on their experiences with students over the years. Having been on board since 1988 when, fresh from Rome, I first began taking notice of them, I decided to reply, dispatching a few hundred words on the subject. It turns out I’d written twice as many as they needed. So, I thought, why not press on with five or six hundred more, then offer it to Crisis, whose editor might not mind so many more words?
If you’re reading this, the answer is he didn’t mind.
Apart from the pay (too little), or the parking (not enough), I’ve really only one complaint, which is that my students keep getting younger. Why this should be so has been a great and persisting puzzle to me. Might it account for why they seem to know less and less each year? In fact, so young have they become that almost any allusion drawn from the last century leaves them more or less baffled. “The Gulf War? When was that? And are you telling me there were two of them…?”
If this keeps up, they will soon remember only their birth dates, before which nothing of real consequence ever happened. “He who is ignorant of what happened before his birth,” warned Cicero, “is forever a child.”
Not knowing who Cicero was, it hardly matters what he said. Or Michael Oakeshott, for that matter, who nailed it rather nicely when, describing the mindset of the young, he coined the phrase, “sweet solipsism of youth,” which is wonderfully expressive. But, then, they’ve never heard of him either. (Nor, to be fair, have most of my colleagues.)
Ah, but they have heard of Gilbert Keith Chesterton. And why is that? Because I keep quoting him. Indeed, I mention him with a frequency in excess even of one of our former presidents, who managed to work him into every homily he ever delivered.
They’ve no recollection of him, by the way.
But what about Fr. Michael Scanlan who, more than anyone, left his mark on this place? He was, hands down, the most seminal figure of the last 75 years, which is how long the institution has been around. I’m afraid to ask.
The point is, and I’m going to let T.S. Eliot, whom I quote more often even than Chesterton, state it. Which he does in one of the great masterworks of the Christian West (“along with,” argues the late Thomas Howard, “Chartres Cathedral, the Divine Comedy, van Eyck’s ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,’ and the Mozart Requiem”). It is Four Quartets, from the last movement of which we are reminded that, “We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.
We stand on the shoulders of giants, in other words, men and women whose wisdom we must not break faith with lest we be cast at once into a bloody ditch of ignorance. That, it seems to me, is the overarching point, and one which needs especially to be made these days when the Cancel Culture Crowd appears more and more to be running the show. We have simply got to combat the growing amnesia, the sheer forgetfulness of the past, lest it efface the entire historical memory.
And so, to sound the Chestertonian alarm, the oldest things will need to be taught to the youngest people, beginning with the Alphabet, the Tablets of Arithmetic, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles’ Creed. In short, that whole burden of innocence we extend to the past because it has something of permanent value to impart.
What Chesterton, in an inspired formulation, has called “the democracy of the dead,” which is nothing other than the courtesy we confer upon our ancestors by allowing them to vote. If a democrat, he argues, “will not divest a man of his right to vote because of the accident of birth, then it surely follows that a traditionalist will not divest his ancestors of the same right because of the accident of death.”
At every turn, therefore, we take counsel with the dead because, having been on a great journey, they have much to tell us. But unless we harken to their voice, submitting in humility to the wisdom it contains, we will learn nothing from them, will take nothing of value away. “And what the dead,” declared Eliot early on in Four Quartets, “had no voice for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
This is why I became a teacher; this is why I continue to teach, immersed, as Eliot puts it, “in the intolerable wrestle with words and meaning.” Always, therefore, in ardent search of that most necessary and elusive thing of all, the still point of the turning world—the Kairos—where past and future, history and mystery, come magically together. “The point of the intersection of the timeless / With time,” says Eliot, “is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
So many “hints and guesses,” to be sure.
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is
This is why those who teach should remain at their post—to help our students find that still point, that place where all the polarities come together, where Word is made flesh. Urging them, in other words, to climb onto those ancestral shoulders and see the distant shore where truth and beauty beckon, the very things that so animated the lives of those who came before us.
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