like Tolkien’s elves who combine joy with a tinge of sadness and so point beyond earthly paradisal timelessness towards the real spiritual Good of eternity

From the “Stanton Lecture 8: The Surprise of the Imagined” by John Milbank (drawing heavily on Stephen Clark):

It is common to the entire Biblical and Classical legacy to recognise that, as Stephen R.L. Clark put it, ‘our thoughts are not entirely made by us’. …It is above all Stephen R. L. Clark who has grasped how the question of religious belief in supernatural entities—in gods, angels, daemons and fairies—is intrinsically bound up with the question of the ontological status of our thoughts and imaginings. He begins the highly nuanced and philosophically crucial reflections of his essay ‘How to Believe in Fairies’ with Yeats’ (and Chesterton’s) assumption that one should take seriously perennial folk-beliefs until one has serious reasons to doubt them. And today, he suggests, scepticism concerning the existence of fairies and the like is now on all-fours with scepticism concerning the existence of a mental reality: ‘if desires and beliefs are not real causes, and neither are fairies, why should we not investigate fairies as convenient fictions? If, on the other hand, they are real causes, maybe what we call “fairies” are so too’. He also cites W.Y. Evans Wentz’s summation of Celtic fairy lore: ‘the only verdict which seems reasonable is that the Fairy-Faith belongs to a doctrine of souls’. Clark then goes on to argue that if desires, feelings and beliefs are indeed real, then the phenomenological evidence is that they often tend ‘to arrive’ in our minds with surprisingly intrusive unpredictability and irregularity, as if we were indeed being ‘possessed’. In addition, he points out that moods are readily found to be contagious—such that, one can add, we daily discover that the ‘second world’ of our imagination is not a solipsistic one, but rather one to some degree shareable (as Wittgenstein suggested) through proferred words and gestures which engender communities of feeling. If then, the mental as the imaginary is real at all, then it makes far more logical and evidential sense to treat is as a real ontological sphere rather than a reality somehow ‘inside’ our isolated subjectivities, or ‘epiphenomenally’ produced by bodies as a coating of spectral icing sugar whose metaphysical status is simply begged.

…He then goes on to adumbrate a subtle and ethically acute analysis of the relationship between human emotions and reports and theories concerning fairies. Very often they appear as pagan gods put in their proper, subordinate place: thus they are creatures of unambivalent and abiding loves and hates, not entirely malicious, but completely given over to caprice and impulse, without any regard for ends, since their destiny is to live forever within time and they do not trouble themselves concerning eternal destiny. As Clark suggests, the temptation of ‘new age thinking’ as inaugurated by Yeats (and which Clark, as a Christian, discusses with a unique patience and degree of sympathy) as he himself half-knew, is for human beings wholly to give themselves over to these real influences, in reaction against a technocratic world in league with a falsely disenchanted (and so denatured) modern Christianity. We would then start to inhabit an amoral world of vivid, random emotions, beauty divorced from the good, and heroic, sacrificial violence, accompanied by startling symbols – since, as we saw Hume taught, feeling and image are always twinned. Clark appropriately cites William Blake’s warning against returned Druidry in Britain: ‘gods are visions of the eternal attributes, or divine names, which when erected into gods become destructive of humanity. …For when separated from man or humanity, who is Jesus the saviour, the vine of eternity, they are thieves and rebels, they are destroyers’. Certainly, human beings need to be open to all ‘influences’, on pain of being the prisoners of a few ‘material’ ones; but this openness is dangerous unless we are supremely receptive to the unifying influence of God and of the Divine Humanity which (as Blake finally realised, with a developed orthodoxy that anticipates sophiology and is not at all gnostic) guards against the influence of a distorted and itself ‘druidically’ idolatrous monotheistic influence which would sacrifice the Creation to the Creator.

In this context Clark notes that, traditionally speaking, the fairy-realm has been associated not just with a carefree innocence and endless festival, but also with disillusionment, aridity and sterility. This concurs with the fact, that as the Irish scholar John Carey has noted, Celtic Christianity tended to locate the sidhe alternatively as unfallen human beings or as chastised pagan gods or yet again as half-fallen angels. In keeping, perhaps, with the first reading, Clark suggests in the conclusion of his essay that there can be ‘third fairies’, perhaps rather like Tolkien’s elves, who combine joy with a tinge of sadness, and so point beyond earthly paradisal timelessness towards the real spiritual Good of eternity which is the active contemplation of infinite love.

…[Clark’s] own insight that fairies are now on one fairy-footing with all other fantasies, including human thoughts as such, would rather suggest that …one not only ‘can’ but must believe in fairies (and so forth) in order to go on believing in the reality of the very thoughts that we think. For if thoughts are ireducibly real as thoughts, transcending all matter, then they must come from outside us and finally from above us. And if imaginings are real as imaginings, irreducible to physical motions, sensations or intentional abstractions, then they must belong in, and derive from a real dream-world like the one twice visited by Alice: the mundus imaginalis of the near-Orient.

Full text of this lecture available here.

“Fairy Tale Kings” by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1909)

The Cosmic Christmas of John’s Apocalypse

Christmas is a time to draw close together in the dark and to enjoy the lighting of candles as we remember the birth of a baby to parents who were far from their own home. Somewhat in tension with this, I’ve often told my family with a smirk that chapter 12 of John’s Revelation is my favorite version of the Christmas story. I do love returning to it although the scope of John’s account is cosmic and does not fit well within the domestic scene that we associate with Christmas.

Part of our problem these days is that we’ve wandered far away from any capacity to recognize this world as our home. We don’t associate “cosmic” and “cosy” as G. K. Chesterton says that we should (in his beautiful chapter entitled “The Ethics of Elfland” from his book Orthodoxy). Chesterton insists that it is perfectly reasonable of him to say: “I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see.”

With this turn of phrase, Chesterton almost turns the cosmos into a cow shed filled with sheep and a weary donkey. Similar ideas show up in a very different form within “The Starlight Night” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. His ecstatic recounting of a vision into the starry heavens explodes at first with multiple images but calls forth, in the end, “Prayer, patience, alms, vows.” More quieted, he concludes that the heavens “are indeed the barn; withindoors house / The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse / Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.” The firmament is like a barn wall filled with knot holes that let out points of light from the bright domestic gathering inside—the warm fellowship of “Christ and his mother and all his hallows.” There is a sense that, even in the glory of God’s eternal throne room, Christ and his mother still inhabit a place filled with livestock and the grain from a great harvest.

This idea of a cosmic home is difficult for modern people to appreciate, but it is the right setting for the baby who is born in John’s Apocalypse. “A great sign was seen in the heaven, a woman arrayed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (Young’s Literal Translation, used throughout with some adaptations of archaic language). In John’s vision of this woman giving birth, a great red dragon waits just before her in the sky to devour her child as soon as he appears. He has seven heads, ten horns and seven crowns, and his tail lashes stars from the sky as he waits for the child to appear. At the moment of his birth, however, the baby is caught away to God and to His throne.

As her child is carried to safety, the woman flees and hides in “a place made ready from God” while Michael and his angels do battle with the dragon. We now learn that the dragon is “the old serpent, who is called Devil and the Adversary, who is leading astray the whole world.” Michael casts this dragon to the earth along with all of the dragon’s rebellious angels. The heavens are told to rejoice at this removal of the dragon from their midst, while the earth and the sea are told to beware at his wrath as he has been thrown down among them. More angry than ever, the dragon is said to have “pursued the woman who did bring forth the male.” Happily, “there were given to the woman two wings of the great eagle, that she may fly to the wilderness, to her place, where she is nourished a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.”

The dragon then attempts to drown the woman in a flood of water that he pours forth out of his mouth, but the land helps the woman and swallows up the torrent of water. Denied his victim for the second time, the dragon “went away to make war with the rest of her seed, those keeping the commands of God, and having the testimony of Jesus Christ.”

Bamberg Apocalypse, Folio 31

John’s next vision features a beast coming out of the sea to worship the dragon and to receive authority from the dragon before spreading terrible lies throughout the earth and initiating a massive apostasy from God. It is tempting to follow the story through to the end, as we meet our beast again in chapter 17. With seven heads and ten horns, this is clearly our same red dragon but this time carrying “a woman arrayed with purple and scarlet-colour, and gilded with gold, and precious stone, and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and uncleanness of her whoredom.” John “saw the woman drunken from the blood of the saints and from the blood of the witnesses of Jesus,” and he “wondered, having seen her, with great wonder.” It is a vivid and terrible story.

In chapter 19, another woman appears briefly as “we rejoice and exult, and give the glory to Him, because” we have finally arrived at “the marriage of the Lamb and his wife who has made herself ready.” Our delight is brief, however. The dragon still rampages and is confronted again in chapter 20 when John sees “a messenger coming down out of the heaven, having the key of the abyss, and a great chain over his hand.” This angel “laid hold on the dragon, the old serpent, who is Devil and Adversary, and did bind him a thousand years, and he cast him to the abyss, and did shut him up, and put a seal upon him, that he may not lead astray the nations any more, till the thousand years may be finished; and after these it behoveth him to be loosed a little time.”

As the tumult truly subsides, in chapter 21, John finally hears: “Come, I will show you the bride of the Lamb—the wife.” Then, says John, the angel “carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed to me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, coming down out of the heaven from God, having the glory of God, and her light like a stone most precious.”

With all these visions of John’s—each one rising up after another in a fearsome march toward the glorious end—we get the sense that they unfold a longer story while at the same time, perhaps, circling back on themselves and retelling parts of the same story more than once. Amid this swirling sequence of visions, it is not wise to grow too confident. However, this image of a mother with a child followed by images of the harlot and the bride may all hold together. If so, we can connect the righteous lady with the radiant Jerusalem that descends from heaven in the end and have this bride contrasted with the harlot who is named for the great earthly power of Babylon.

While a grand concept of the mother in Revelation 12 as a collective figure standing for “all the people of God” makes sense, it does not need to conflict with a more intimate association directly with Mary. In the Gospel of Luke, early Christians all realized that Luke was parallelling the story of Mary’s pregnancy in the first two chapters very closely with the ark of the Old Covenant in 2 Samuel 6. Luke is a careful scholar of the Old Testament as an educated Greek proselyte to the Jewish faith, and he is clearly portraying Mary as the ark of the New Covenant carrying the Word of God inscribed in flesh (instead of the stone tablets of the law from the Old Testament ark), the body of Jesus Christ as the bread from heaven (instead of the urn filled with manna from the wilderness), and the actual and eternal High Priest (instead of the rod of Aaron that budded to prove and defend the true high priest of the Old Covenant).

As we move from John’s vision in chapter 11 to the new scene in 12, the woman giving birth is directly juxtaposed with the ark of the New Covenant. The last verse of chapter 11 declares “and opened was the sanctuary of God in the heaven, and there was seen the ark of His covenant in His sanctuary,” which gives way in the next verse (at the start of chapter 12) where “a great sign was seen in the heaven, a woman arrayed with the sun.”

It makes sense to see this woman giving birth as Mary, the ark of the New Covenant who carries the bread of life. This does not conflict with her as also the chief representative of all God’s people, as the church and as the faithful bride who descends from heaven in the last vision. God’s people are described repeatedly as the intended bride of God within the Old Testament, and we have the image of the church as the bride of Christ prominent within the rest of the New Testament. Mary should also bring to mind that other great mother of the human race, Eve. Although a daughter of Eve, Mary completes the work left undone by Eve and gives birth to the child who will finally destroy the serpent of old and allow a new creation to take place. (See the fantasy novel Lilith by George MacDonald for a moving account of all these women in one story.)

Bamberg Apocalypse

As mentioned near the start, trying to read chapter 12 as a cosmic Christmas story, we might feel that the baby plays too small a part in the account. He is simply carried up to heaven in the same moment that he appears. The woman flees alone into the wilderness and Michael comes forth with his angelic army to wage war. The child is nowhere to be found. What about the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

Several considerations tumble out together in response. First, there may be more of an overlap than we realize between the angels singing in the gospel account of Christ’s birth and angels waging war in this apocalyptic version of the story. Our prayers and songs of praise are described as great outpourings of judgement upon God’s enemies throughout John’s Revelation, and there may be little difference between an angelic choir and an angelic army from a devil’s perspective. As for the disappearing baby, where was Christ when every mother in Bethlehem had her baby slaughtered? Was he not kept safe by God in the far-off land of Egypt? From the perspective of eternity in heaven, Christ’s life on earth was a brief interlude amid the course of His endless reign as Son of God and then, as the firstfruits of the human race, the King seated upon the throne of David that will never fall. Moreover, as our King, Christ clearly puts a high value on the sufferings of his earthly people. He told His disciples that they would do greater things than he did because he is going to the Father while they would remain behind (John 14:12). Inspired by Christ, Paul also says that “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24, ESV).

Christ appears a few times in the rest of Revelation as a mighty warrior and judge, but his primary presence is as a lamb, offered up as spiritual food for God’s people. This image of the child-like priest and king—humble as a lamb and feeding his people with himself as the bread of life—is an image that shows up in the primary Christian icon associated with this Revelation 12 passage. In this icon, the mighty Angel Michael fills the center of the image, riding a red winged war horse while destroying Satan amid a glow of fiery colors. Far from the turmoil, Christ sits as a young child at an altar in heaven, ministering our heavenly food with quiet humility. It is true that the altar holds His cross and His body broken for us. Christ is fully present with us in our sufferings, and our sufferings are only made true when united to His own earthly life and death. However, Christ is alive and He is undisturbed by our sufferings. He has already overcome them and another mighty one does battle with an enemy whose defeat is already assured.

Icon of Saint Michael Horseman (Russia, 19th c., priv. coll.)
Russian, 18th century

We are invited to seek help before the manger, the tomb and the altar as Michael battles Satan upon our doorstep, but perhaps this cosmic story still does not yet have the familiarity of home. It can help to approach this all from the opposite direction: to consider that the whole fury and majesty of the cosmos is contained within our homes and our hearts. G. K. Chesterton takes this approach when he describes our private life as a greater work than our public life: “For anyone who makes himself responsible for one small baby, as a whole, will soon find that he is wrestling with gigantic angels and demons” (“Turning Inside Out” in Fancies vs. Fads, 1923).

A passage attributed to Saint Macarius the Great places the cosmos within our heart itself:

Within the heart are unfathomable depths. …It is but a small vessel: and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.

The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, 15.32

If you struggle to recognize this vast universe as your private home, try to recognize the vast universe that is at home in you. Within that universe, a child is born for whom angels both ride forth to war and stand to sing. Good news.

the fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history

The moral apostasy of rational beings from the proper love of God is somehow the reason for the reign of death and suffering in the cosmos, that human beings—constituting what Maximus the Confessor called the priestly “methorios” (the boundary or frontier) between the physical and the spiritual realms—severed the bond between God’s eternity and cosmic time when they fell. Thus we may say, as fantastic as it seems—and as fantastic as it truly is when reduced to fundamentalist literalism regarding the myth of Eden—that all suffering, sadness, and death, however deeply woven into the fabric of earthly existence, is the consequence of the depravities of rational creatures, not of God’s intentions. Not that we can locate the time, the place, or the conditions of that event. That ours is a fallen world is not a truth demonstrable to those who do not believe; Christians can see it only within the story of Christ, in the light cast back from his saving action in history upon the whole of time. The fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history; it comes from before and beyond both. We cannot search it out within the closed totality of the damaged world because it belongs to another frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death—perhaps the divine or angelic aeon beyond the corruptible sub-sidereal world of chronos, or perhaps the Drcamtime or the supcrcclcstial realm of the pure forms or the Origcnist heaven of the primordial intelligences, or what have you. In any event, this (or something roughly like it) is the story that orthodox Christianity tells, and it can tell no other.

…It may seem a fabulous claim that we exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe—that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, and that the universe languishes in bondage to the “powers” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the kingdom of God—but it is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender. There is a kind of “provisional” cosmic dualism within the New Testament that simply cannot be evaded: not an ultimate dualism, of course, between two equal principles, but certainly a conflict between, on the one hand, a sphere of created autonomy that strives against God and, on the other, the saving love of God in time.

The explicit claim of Christian scripture is that God’s will can be resisted by a real and (by his grace) autonomous force of defiance, and that his purposes can be hidden from us by the history of cosmic corruption, and that the final realization of the good he intends in all things has the form—not simply as a dramatic fiction, for our edification or his glory, nor simply as a pedagogical device on his part, but in truth—of a divine victory.

From “The Devil’s March” by David Bentley Hart.

There is a lot in this echoing Chesterton who writes that we are “the survivors of a wreck, the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning of the world” (more here) and that “the end of the world was long ago, / And all we dwell to-day / As children of some second birth, / Like a strange people left on earth / After a judgment day” (citation here).

The stars, inasmuch as they are visible, do not embody exact knowledge, which can only be grasped by the mind and thought.

Summary of Plato’s understanding of the stars from Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea by Alan Scott (Oxford Early Christian Studies, Clarendon Press, 1994):

Plato is less concerned with how things happen than with why they happen, and for this reason he regards astronomy as only of secondary importance. Though Plato does associate wisdom and purity with gazing upon heaven, his ideal is not the astronomer but the philosopher. Like geometry, astronomy is a discipline in which knowledge of what is eternally true can be available, but such knowledge is of no use unless it is first subordinated to philosophy. Plato has little interest in observational astronomy: true astronomy is not concerned merely with what is seen in heaven but with the understanding of what lies behind what is seen. Even if the Greater Hippias is not a genuine Platonic work, it is faithful to Plato in depicting the learned, pompous, and intellectually shallow Hippias as particularly expert in astronomy. The destiny of the soul is not to look upon the sensible heaven but upon the ’superheavenly place’, which is not possible for physical eyes but only for the soul. The stars, inasmuch as they are visible, do not embody exact knowledge, which can only be grasped by the mind and thought. For Plato, as also for the Pythagoreans, astronomy  was useful chiefly as a means of understanding what was purely rational. To the mind which understood properly, there was true harmony in heaven even if this was not possible for the material bodies of heaven, even as there is exactness in geometry though it is not part of any merely visible diagram. This is the understanding of sun, moon, and stars enjoyed by the inhabitants of the ‘true earth’ in the Phaedo. Thus geometry and astronomy are part of the necessary training for insight into what was immutable and eternal.

Just as Plato accepts elements of the latest astronomical research but not the philosophical and religious implications it was sometimes thought to have, so too before his later writings he can accept the popular veneration of the heavens without taking it altogether seriously. In the Republic, Plato does say that the craftsman of heaven, like Daedalus, fashioned the courses of the stars with the greatest beauty possible, and at one point Plato even goes so far as to refer casually to ‘the gods in heaven’, one of which is the sun, and yet he also openly doubts that the visible stars are eternal and immutable. Even in his ‘middle period’ Plato shows little interest in the visible stars and planets and with observational astronomy. In this again he was similar to Socrates, who by all accounts avoided the investigation of the heavens and concerned himself mainly with ethical questions.

…The astral soul is either immanent or transcendent; if it is immanent it acts directly on the body, if transcendent, it acts either through the intermediary of a special material body which it provides itself, or through some unknown agency. Plato does not make clear at this point the number of souls in heaven: his usual assumption is that each heavenly body has its own soul and is a god, but if in heaven soul transcends its body there might be only one heavenly soul. It is also not clear in the Laws (as it was in the Timaeus) if stars are gods as well as planets: the Laws only explicitly refers to the divinity of the planets (which is the view found in the Statesman).

One thing which is clear is that the astral soul itself is invisible: we do not look upon the soul, we only calculate its movements mathematically. As Plato had said earlier in the Republic, it is not what is seen in heaven which is important, but what is intelligible. Thus, strictly speaking, one would expect Plato to assert that the heavenly bodies are not gods, but are merely controlled by gods in some way. More specifically, one might expect him to say that the visible star or planet is a body joined eternally to a soul, which is how he says he imagines the gods in the Phaedrus myth. But Plato is very elusive in matters of religion, and in the end his real opinion is never clear. What is clear is that he has no objection to calling the planets (and sometimes the stars) gods and worshipping them, just as he includes devotion to images in the religion of the state.

…The author of [Epinomis] tells us as Plato did that most people regard the stars as lifeless because of their uniform motion, but that this is in fact a clear sign of their intelligence. The planets do not ‘wander’, and youths should learn enough astronomy to avoid such an error. Mathematical training is combined with astronomical theory, for number is a divine gift which has been granted to humanity to be learned through the observation of heavenly revolution, and is a prerequisite of wisdom. Their precise movement is a proof of universal divine providence and of the priority of soul to body, as it was also in the Laws. The divinity of the stars and of the seven planets is both presumed and stated throughout the dialogue, as it is in much of the Platonic corpus.

This last point that “most people regard the stars as lifeless because of their uniform motion, but that this is in fact a clear sign of their intelligence” is the same one that G.K. Chesterton makes here:

People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness.

God as Architect/Builder/Geometer/Craftsman, The Frontispiece of Bible Moralisee. c. 1220-1230. 13.5 in by 10.2 in.

My Accidental Day with Super Power

I have taken down the original draft of this story as it has been posted in a revised version as “A Misunderstanding with my Guardian Angel over the Meaning of Super-Power” by Macrina Magazine.

Note on the background of my writing of this story: In preparation for our Thanksgiving get-together this year, my mother-in-law asked all of the extended family members (of a capable age) to write a short story describing one day with a superpower of their choice. I did not entirely follow the directions, but this is what came to me.

For now, I’m leaving a few passages here from other places that helped me to respond with this story.

Emily Dickinson poem 1544:

Who has not found the Heaven — below —

Will fail of it above —

For Angels rent the House next ours,

Wherever we remove —

…Perhaps the best I cn say is that I felt as if I was united to all of these middle lines of Hopkin’s great poem:

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

…Although I was wore shoes and was in downtown York, PA rather than a pastoral setting such as this, the world still reached out to me in this same way. Just as the protagonist does within this passage, I stepped out into the early morning half-light:

A wondrous change had passed upon the world—or was it not rather that a change more marvellous had taken place in us? Without light enough in the sky or the air to reveal anything, every heather-bush, every small shrub, every blade of grass was perfectly visible—either by light that went out from it, as fire from the bush Moses saw in the desert, or by light that went out of our eyes. Nothing cast a shadow; all things interchanged a little light. Every growing thing showed me, by its shape and colour, its indwelling idea—the informing thought, that is, which was its being, and sent it out. My bare feet seemed to love every plant they trod upon. The world and my being, its life and mine, were one. The microcosm and macrocosm were at length atoned, at length in harmony! I lived in everything; everything entered and lived in me. To be aware of a thing, was to know its life at once and mine, to know whence we came, and where we were at home—was to know that we are all what we are, because Another is what he is! Sense after sense, hitherto asleep, awoke in me—sense after sense indescribable, because no correspondent words, no likenesses or imaginations exist, wherewithal to describe them. Full indeed—yet ever expanding, ever making room to receive—was the conscious being where things kept entering by so many open doors! When a little breeze brushing a bush of heather set its purple bells a ringing, I was myself in the joy of the bells, myself in the joy of the breeze to which responded their sweet TIN-TINNING, myself in the joy of the sense, and of the soul that received all the joys together. To everything glad I lent the hall of my being wherein to revel. I was a peaceful ocean upon which the ground-swell of a living joy was continually lifting new waves; yet was the joy ever the same joy, the eternal joy, with tens of thousands of changing forms. Life was a cosmic holiday.

Now I knew that life and truth were one; that life mere and pure is in itself bliss; that where being is not bliss, it is not life, but life-in-death. Every inspiration of the dark wind that blew where it listed, went out a sigh of thanksgiving. At last I was! I lived, and nothing could touch my life!

As I said, imagine all this but within the context that Paul describes in Romans 8:19-22:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.

…We were close to concluding our conversation when the young man shared a few lines that he particularly loved from “The Ballad of the White Horse” by G. K. Chesterton:

For the end of the world was long ago,

As children of some second birth,

And all we dwell to-day

Like a strange people left on earth

As children of some second birth,

After a judgment day.

This recalled a line from a book that I had recently read, and I picked the book up, wishing that I could somehow point out the passage to him through the phone. Taking up George MacDonald’s Lilith, I put my fingers on the lines: “Annihilation itself is no death to evil. Only good where evil was, is evil dead. …None but God hates evil and understands it.”

…As I tried to explain what the world was like through the senses of my glorified body, one passage that I shared was from “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages” by C.S. Lewis. This was first delivered as a lecture in 1956 and then published posthumously in the 1966 collection of essays called Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature:

We find (not now by analogy but in strictest fact) that in every sphere there is a rational creature called an Intelligence which is compelled to move, and therefore to keep his sphere moving, by his incessant desire for God. …The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one. They are the unimpeded movement of the most perfect impulse towards the most perfect object.

the book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad

It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by a majority of the people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad.

G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy.

How can the end of the world start in a place like this?

From Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

The authors would like to join the demon Crowley in dedicating this book to the memory of G.K. CHESTERTON. A man who knew what was going on.

Also regarding GKC, in the story, we have this at one point within Crowley’s stream of consciousness thinking:

Who had written that? Chesterton, wasn’t it? The only poet in the twentieth century to even come close to the Truth.

One of the book’s most developed themes is the joy of life found in children and the loss of particular places where children can enjoy the world.

She gave him a helpless look. “It’s hard to describe it,” she said. “Something or someone loves this place. Loves every inch of it so powerfully that it shields and protects it. A deep-down, huge, fierce love. How can anything bad start here? How can the end of the world start in a place like this? This is the kind of town you’d want to raise your kids in. It’s a kids’ paradise.” She smiled weakly. “You should see the local kids. They’re unreal! Right out of the ‘Boy’s Own Paper!’ All scabby knees and ‘brilliant!’ and bulls-eyes—”

…The sun continued to shine. The thrush continued to sing. Dog gave up on his master, and began to stalk a butterfly in the grass by the garden hedge. This was a serious, solid, impassible hedge, of thick and well-trimmed privet, and Adam knew it of old. Beyond it stretched open fields, and wonderful muddy ditches, and unripe fruit, and irate but slow-of-foot owners of fruit trees, and circuses, and streams to dam, and walls and trees just made for climbing.

There’s also a wide variety of wit and humor that ranges all over the map of human experience. For example, this bit about “movements” (to use a Wendell Berry term) versus community:

And he’d given up on ecology when the ecology magazine he’d been subscribing to had shown its readers a plan of a self-sufficient garden, and had drawn the ecological goat tethered within three feet of the ecological beehive. Newt had spent a lot of time at his grandmother’s house in the country and thought he knew something about the habits of both goats and bees, and concluded therefore that the magazine was run by a bunch of bib-overalled maniacs. Besides, it used the word “community” too often; Newt had always suspected that people who regularly used the word “community” were using it in a very specific sense that excluded him and everyone he knew.

Seeking the Heart of the Christian Classical Tradition of Education amid Socioeconomic and Cultural Diversity

[Intro Note: this was delivered as the afternoon plenary talk at the Alcuin Mid-Atlantic Regional Retreat at Veritas (a classical Christian school in Richmond, VA) on March 22, 2019 by Jesse Hake. The assigned topic was “Classical Christian Education for Culturally and Socioeconomically Diverse Settings.” At the end of this post, a handout is included that was in the back of the room but that was not referenced from the podium. An additional “Historical End-note” has been added as well. If video footage is posted online at some point, I will plan to link that here as well (presentation varied very slightly from this text at a few points). The talk took about 40 minutes and was followed by Q&A for about 20 minutes. Finally, because it was mentioned by the person welcoming me to the podium, I do not mention in this text that I have just left Logos Academy to take a position at Classical Academic Press. My school-age children continue to attend Logos Academy.]

Thank you, all of you here at Veritas, for the generous hospitality that you have extended to us all. I have learned so much over the years from your school community as well as from the Alcuin presentations and conversations that you are facilitating this week. I will reference a few of the many exciting connections for me between the principles and practices in my talk and some of what others have shared in these last two days. I’ve been a little under the weather and was sad to miss out on much of the feasting and conversational time yesterday evening.

Logos Academy was founded in downtown York, PA over 20 year ago as a beacon of light and hope in a community that, like so many other in these United States, suffers from violence and generational poverty. When I came to Logos Academy 7 years ago, every student in the 4th grade had a parent incarcerated. During my time there, I have supported as multiple children returned to school after the murder of a parent. When I came to the school, over 95% of our students lived below the Federal poverty line. We have diversified substantially in the last several years, and over 20% of our student body now comes from middle or upper income homes. Everyone pays some tuition, and we collect about $500,000 for 250 students each year—with several families paying a little over $9000 per student and several paying about $500 per student. Every year, the advancement team raises close to 2 million dollars in scholarships. With a lot of help, I oversaw all of the teachers, families, and students in the K to 12 academic program (including student behavior, family partnerships, scholarship awards, and tuition payment).

My two school-age children attend Logos Academy, and our family lives within walking distance and immediately amid the shootings that regularly devastate our community. Children of all ages have very often said to me with smiles of utter delight: “Mr. Hake, I live right near your house.”

In addition to the many challenges faced daily by my Logos Academy students and their families, the school district serving York city has consistently ranked in the bottom 2 or 3 out of the 500 districts in Pennsylvania.

Logos Academy was not my first experience with teaching in urban America. In my first school job, 16 years ago, I taught seventh and eighth grade social studies at a specialized private school serving only students from the Washington DC school district who had language-based learning disabilities. One young man who used to pretend that he was masturbating under his desk, asked me quite earnestly once if I had ever been a monk. (Which amused me as a young man who had grown up all my life as faithful and contented Presbyterian boy.) This student, and many with other challenges, did grow into strong contributing students within the school after weeks or months with us. As an indicator of the desperation too often characterizing such schools, they offered me a job as the middle school principal at the end of my second year of teaching.

With these experiences in view, I was invited to speak about three sub-topics under the heading of “the CC model and soci-economic/cultural diversity.” These three topics are:

  • Recovering the lost integrity of place and local community.
  • Potential impact on the curriculum or literary canon.
  • Practical strategies related to instruction and lesson design.

At this point, I should confess that I found time to cover only the first of these points. What I have to share was clarified for me because of my experiences leading such a diverse and hurting school community, and my practical invitations should be helpful to schools with students who are trapped by generational poverty and violence. However, the lessons that I’m sharing are very much applicable for all of us, regardless of the type of school or homeschool from which you come.

What I have learned most fundamentally at Logos Academy is that—in our modern, secular, and consumerist culture today—I have lost far more that is elemental to human flourishing than I realized and also that I am hurting and wounded (often in ways to which I am almost entirely blinded). What this means for all of us as classical Christian educators, is that we must dig a lot deeper in order to find the bedrock upon which the liberal arts and the great conversation can be faithfully restored.

What is this bedrock? It is the oral tradition, folklore, and the common arts—all of which thrive only in local human populations that have a strong inter-generational sense of place—a deep relationship to a particular valley within God’s creation. All of the liberal arts, the great books, the study of classical languages can only be restored when we recognize that our first priority is recovering this lost integrity of place and local community that makes possible the restoration of oral tradition, local folklore, and enjoyment of the common arts. One simple example of the fact that the liberal arts all rest on much deeper foundations is this devastating critique of the human invention of written language by Socrates (in Phaedrus):

[Written language and the alphabet] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. [That] which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

At a school like Logos Academy, I was forced to realize that I had to start restoring our classical Christian tradition at these much more foundational levels in order for me to also work at restoring rhetoric, logic, the other liberal arts, Latin language, or Socratic dialogue. However, this reality is equally true for any school in modern America. Some schools are in situations that allow them to remain blind to this truth for a longer time, but we all must face this reality in the end: within any logic, rhetoric, Latin, or great books classroom that does not extend some level of invitation to all of our actual neighbors who live on the ground that is within easy walking distance of our classrooms, our classical Christian tradition is cut off from its roots and its own original sources of life.

The classical Christian tradition has always been hospitable and has actually had schools throughout most of the centuries of its flourishing that were open to all students who desired what was being offered. Alcuin, for whom this fellowship is named, was explicitly ordered by Charlemagne the Great to accept any student, regardless of cost, into all of Alcuin’s many schools throughout the empire as long as the student wished to learn and could complete the work. And this was actually typical at many points in the history of classical Christian education. [See endnote at bottom of this post.] Christians understood profoundly that the liberal arts were grounded in the flourishing of local human cultures and that the liberal arts should be offered to all who wished to pursue them. However, my main point is not based on precedent or even Christian ethics.

My point is that we cannot possibly succeed in restoring the classical Christian tradition without giving first priority to recovering the lost integrity of the geographical place and the local human population that lies immediately outside every one of our schools.

Our own success as a movement depends on this because it is not possible to practice the liberal arts in isolation from your actual neighbors or in isolation from the earth beneath your feet and theirs. Another way to say this same thing is to remind ourselves that schools must always remember that they exist in order to make flourishing human homes possible. As G.K. Chesterton put it: “Just now there is a tendency to forget that the school is only a preparation for the home, and not the home a mere jumping off place for school.” We all have some sense that something is amiss if our home life has no interactions with our immediate neighbors. However, we very easily forget this reality of an actual local neighborhood when it comes to our churches and schools. In modern America, our schools and churches very easily become detached from the humans living immediately around them. By remembering that “school is only a preparation for home,” we should also be reminded that a school, to truly be a school, must serve an actual neighborhood.

Each of the speakers so far during this retreat have beautifully appealed to us to keep up the contemplation and the study of our rich tradition so that we will see our blind spots and our diseases more and more fully. My own suggestions for recovering the lost integrity of place and local community echos many of theirs.

Andrew Smith, in talking about the danger of falling into the modern black-hole of the autonomous self, referenced Bonhoeffer’s Life Together which is one of the most profound works of the last century about the fact that Christian life exists only when it is fully in contact with an actual human community (and not just some abstracted team of co-workers). It is heartening to hear stories of families at Veritas moving to the homes around this school in order to more fully experience life together. Of course, this Christian community must be located fundamentally in our churches, but classical Christian educators should be at the forefront of connecting Christian community to the human neighborhoods surrounding our churches as well as to our local civic communities.

Brian Williams, in giving us the history of grading, laid imponderable burdens on us regarding a system that we are all trapped in to some degree and that relies on a super efficient factory model of ranking students and assessing them on the most superficial aspects of what they are learning. Where Brian pointed us toward steps to take into a hopeful future, his examples all echoed the classical Christian tradition that was embedded within guilds of scholars–scholars who understood their craft as necessarily embedded within the community of other masters and apprentices surrounding them as well as within the greater civic or ecclesiastical communities just outside their school walls. Within such grounded communities, tasks given to students have a natural connection to the realities of an actual place and a local culture—such embedded tasks tend to have real-world qualities them that give them clear intrinsic value for students and that make grades irrelevant (even if you have to give them for various practical reasons). Such tasks also required the teacher to function as a forward-looking coach and exemplar rather than a technical evaluator of past mistakes.

Chris Hall brought similar realities home in remarkable ways when he shared how the common arts have a deep and vital history within the tradition of classical Christian education. Any teacher can see, first of all, the deep formative value of the common arts as Chris unpacks them. Secondly, any teacher should also see how these common arts lead almost automatically to student assignments that will leave absolutely no student, parent, or administrator thinking about grades. With the kinds of student assignments or projects that he showed to us, you can give grades if required, but these grades will be the last thing that students care about. Your battle as a teacher is won before you’ve even drawn your sword.

Most importantly, I want to reiterate Chris’ point that the sciences and common arts (as he advocates for them to be taught) go an incredibly long way toward recovering the lost integrity of place and local community. We have lost the common arts to an extraordinary degree as human communities for several reasons (mostly related to the rise of consumerism in its current form), and this leaves us tragically uprooted from the creation into which God has placed us as priests, kings, gardeners, and city builders. Finally, among the most profound integrators of people, is this capacity of the common arts to involve parents, school support staff, and community members from all walks of life in the formative practices that we put before our students. There is almost nothing so powerful as spending a year paying close attention to a small plot of ground. However, this student formation is exponentially enriched if you can bring parents and the surrounding civic community into your students’ experiences and observations via any simple and achievable means.

I would agree with any pushback to all of this that the liberal arts are the ultimate and the most appropriate objectives of a school community as such. However, in a world that has almost entirely forgotten what an art it (as Andrew Smith pointed out yesterday morning), we will learn a whole lot about the liberal arts simply by starting with the common arts. After all, the common arts are necessarily prior to the liberal arts, and that is where we must start in order to learn with our bodies what an art is. Common arts give us embodied understandings of what an art is before we engage with all of our heart, mind, and body in the liberal arts of the trivium and quadrivium.

What Christine Perrin shared about poetry this morning pointed powerfully in these same directions. She shared that poetry teaches us to see creation, to name it, and to continually turn and recall that creation is worth naming. There is something akin to the common arts within the fine arts of poetry and painting. Both are more elemental and deeply embodied as crafts than the liberal arts, and we cannot truly practice the liberal arts if we are disconnected from these sources of life in the fine arts and the common arts as they will always blossom forth in stable human communities that realize their dependent upon the land that they share.

Andrew Smith’s most recent reminder from Eugene Peterson points powerfully in this direction as well as we see in this passage from The Contemplative Pastor:

The subversive works quietly and hiddenly, patiently. …No subversive ever does anything big. He is always carrying secret messages, planting suspicion that there is something beyond what the culture says is final.

We’re working the depth, the heart of things. The gospel images are images of growth that comes from underneath. A seed, for example, is subsoil and subversive.

Some of these speakers overlapped with my points to such a degree that they reshaped what I had to say about my own topic. In the specific insights and practices that I have to share, I intend to pull together various strands and show a way basic forward for all of us that is hope-filled and achievable in our schools and classroom. My own thoughts recently on this need to find the fundamentals have clustered around two essays by Wendell Berry:

  • First is The Presence of Nature in the Natural World which traces our relationship as English speakers with the person of Lady Nature through the full corpus of English literature from start to finish.
  • Second is The Hidden Wound which catalogues how the dominant race in our nation has damaged itself deeply and collectively by our invention of race and our practice of slavery.

What connects these two essays is the fact the Wendell Berry is pointing with his own peculiar clarity toward the needs of human communities for each other and for the land upon which they live. Wendell Berry’s attention to these fundamental realities are unprecedented:

If white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know. If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society.

…There is a peculiar tension in the casualness of this hereditary knowledge of hereditary evil; once it begins to be released, once you begin to awaken to the realities of what you know, you are subject to staggering recognitions of your complicity in history and in the events of your own life. The truth keeps leaping on you from behind. …It took me a long time, and in fact a good deal of effort, to finally realize that in owning slaves my ancestors assumed limitations and implicated themselves in troubles that have lived on to afflict me—and I still bear that knowledge with a sort of astonishment.

Wendell Berry points out here that we are carrying a wound. It is not our only wound or necessarily our most significant wound. However, it is one that I have had to come to know better in recent years. And it illustrates the fact that we have a history as a nation that we cannot leave behind but that we must learn to carry together with dignity, humility, and grace. The way that people learn to carry such things together is by creating shared practices: a calendar of rich civic festivals, folklore, and poetry that allow them to name their wounds as well as their shared dignity and humanity. We in the United States tend to try to “leave things in the past” or to try to “move past them.” Even we classical Christian educators think subconsciously in such categories all of the time. However, we of all people, should be leading participants in the few civic festivals that our communities do have and in the threads of folklore, poetry, and song that we have found as a people. Schools in the classical Christian tradition should be the greatest champions of any vestiges of local culture, we should be seeking out any local community events in which to participate in any appropriate and respectful ways. We should simply be regularly present with our students even when we cannot find any respectful way in which to participate. We should be leaders in the lost art of being present and of respecting higher human values regardless of the important political or moral differences that are likely to exist.

Our students at Logos Academy would regularly offer share readings from beautiful poems or speeches at all of the local civic and community events in York city regardless of who they might share the stage with and what critical differences we might have with others organizing these events. Examples include rallies for immigrant rights and breakfasts honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King. It is possible to participate in such things without making political or philosophical assumptions, to simply be present and to seek to share in the collective dignity and sorrow that we are all seeking to name and bear.

The most important examples that I have to offer however, get even more elemental than this attempt to grow better and better as seeing and bearing our wounds and our victories together. In his essay about The Presence of Nature in the Natural World, Berry is pointing out that we moderns have achieved the incredible feat of removing nature from the natural world. This is exactly what Chris Hall has been telling us about the sciences and the common arts. We have made nature into a vast neutral thing that we can turn to for revitalization during vacations or that we can turn to for raw materials in the maintenance of our consumer culture. Nature is a massive resource but it is not alive, not connected to us, and not participating alongside of us as creation does throughout the Scriptures: in which the hills and trees clap their hands, the stars sing beautifully, and the rocks cry out.

At the start of this school year, I taught Prince Caspian to an 8th grade medieval literature class. In that story, an new usurping civilization (the Telmarines) has entirely lost contact with the talking beasts as well as the nyads, dryads, and fawns to which Narnia originally belonged. Among several pagan gods who appear at the end of the book to help Aslan with his reconquest of Narnia, is a local river god.

One morning, as a local walking field trip, our 30 students in 8th grade hiked with a couple other teachers and me for three miles up a local stream called Willis Run. We followed Willis Run through the heart of York city—from its mouth where it empties into the larger and well-recognized Codorus Creek up to Kiwanis Lake (the most significant landmark along Willis Run). At one point, students had to take off their shoes and cross the stream. One 8th grade boy (whose father spent most of the boy’s life in prison but showed up for his last teacher conference, whose two older sisters both graduated from Logos Academy, who saw a Macbeth performance with me recently and said he liked it, and who I am pretty sure got a lot of support on his last vocabulary quiz) asked me to piggyback him, and I did. We learned more facts about the stream in the classroom as well, but this hike was essential. A few weeks later, students all delivered soliloquies that they had written in the voice of the stream, Willis Run and had memorized before delivery. One other assignment students did at the end of Prince Caspian was writing a description of a battle between people and creatures of modern-day York versus some of the people and creatures of York’s past, along with some of York’s local nature spirits. One character in this battle was required to be Willis Run. Students were free to decide what would be at stake in this battle for York city and how it might change York for good or ill.

It turns out that attention to the forgotten land beneath our feet is a great common ground (literally) to stand upon when facing potentially alienating and overwhelming differences of culture, ideology, or life experience. Likewise, folklore is a thread across all human cultures, and a great point of communion between people separated by income or status.

Christian classical educators in America today have much to regain regarding the profound value of local culture and folklore within human life and within the tradition of a liberal arts education, and we would do well to look to Prince Caspian as a model for the education of good princes. (It is a kind of antidote to The Prince by Machiavelli, if we may caricature that work as an early study in how to develop leaders with the utilitarian values of modern political power.) Here are few items to note from the education of Caspian:

  • Lewis mentions grammar, dialectic, and astronomy. However, under all and over all comes nursery rhyme and folklore and fairy tale.
  • It is significant that Caspian’s teachers must embody these stories in their own persons. Not only were Caspian’s great teacher and his nurse both part-dwarf, but imagine the schools that King Caspian would have founded shortly after his victory—schools with all manner of creatures on the faculties.
  • While still young, Caspian is expected to take on a real task, with decisions to make and battles to be fought.
  • There is apprenticeship under the kings, Peter and Edmund.
  • Pagan values and entities are not jettisoned. They are co-opted and put to work toward new ends.
  • There is the freedom, as well, for those around this renaissance to opt out—to try different paths and to form different communities. Aslan and Caspian allow the Telmarines to walk out the door. We must seek to keep doors open as well as keeping ancient boundary stones and fences respectfully in repair.

Looking at wise authors such as these and considering my own experiences at Logos Academy, I have become convinced that all of us in the modern United States do not actually have any idea what a school is. Every one of us would need many years of painful and patient practice and alternative living in order to begin participating in any holistic way in the life of the synagogue school in which Christ learned his Torah or in the school to which the akousmatics walked daily to be instructed by the mathematikoi who sat at the feet of Pythagoras himself. Chris Hall made several wonderful points about the primary goal of mathematics being the awakening of wonder and awe. There is no better example of this than Pythagoras. In the school of Pythagoras, students spent their time pursuing pure beauty and transcendence through powerfully embodied practices of music and theoretical mathematics. All of their mathematics was pursued within the context of rituals designed to present the music of the spheres to your senses so that you could participate, body and soul, in the ratios and music of the spheres. This has nothing to do with our own experiences and intentions within our math classrooms.

Consider some of these basic experiences and purposes of life that would have been felt as a deep living conviction by any students in Christ’s childhood synagogue or in the school of Pythagoras:

  • Intensely intimate relationships with family and friends sustained for many years in close physical proximity and sharing in monotonous labor as well as extended leisure both of which allowed for the stewarding of deep oral traditions.
  • Well-established habits of long personal contemplation and prayer in solitude.
  • An expectation of sharing the cosmos with many other types of minds as well as mystical and or spiritual encounters with these other minds.
  • Communal rituals experienced from infancy with deep roots in layered stories heard in a wide variety of settings as well as grounded in the daily and yearly rhythms of agricultural life. These stories and their many accompanying communal rituals would often include profound communal experiences of both traumatic destruction and injustice as well as extravagant blessing and shalom. Communities would remember together annually their greatest triumphs and failures from one generation to the next without a sense of leaving the past behind or moving into categorically new stories.
  • A deep sense of givenness and placement within your own layered human community (across the generations as well as in connection to a particular people and homeland with its many human stations, offices, and callings). It is worth noting that, despite a life of extensive travels, which ultimately lead to a self-imposed exile, Pythagoras returned to his homeland to help care for his teacher Pherecydes when his teacher was old and dying.
  • A similar deep sense of givenness and placement within a particular place that sits at the heart of a layered but unified and home-like cosmos.
  • Another way of stating the last two points is that the convergence between our particular piece of land and our immediate human community is our only point of access to the transcendent place and time of all those who are gathered around the throne of God (as several of the New Testament authors describe Christians as doing in each of their worship services). In the Kingdom of God, all specific human places and times can be present simultaneously, and we can’t come before God throne except by being truly and deeply present within a particular human place and community.

It should be clear that restoring schools such as these is not a simple task. It will only happen with generations of deeply committed, patient, courageous, and self-sacrificial children. However, I truly believe that the pursuit of this goal is possible—even that it is simple, delightful, and life-giving to us as teachers. There are countless ways to do these things, and I know that all of you are already doing these things already and you will recognize them easily because they were the most integrated and life-giving things that you have experienced with your students.

I would love to share more stories and examples of wonderful teachers I have known at Logos Academy who have lived inside of Homer with classes of delighted 7th grade students or who have gently shepherded 8th grade students into places of deep and caring contemplation of Christian martyrdom or who have guided students through senior thesis papers and presentations that left mature leaders in our community deeply impressed. However, I hope to have some time to answer questions and to hear your stories.

I’ll end with this note. Schools that shoulder their responsibilities for the dynamics of socioeconomic and cultural diversity within the modern United States should cling to this dictum by Wendell Berry: “Local work, well done, is applicable elsewhere, not as prescription but as example.” If we are at all faithful to the riches of our tradition, classical Christian schools will lead the way in just this kind of local work that is well done. Regional, or local, retreats such as this one–for sharing and rearming ourselves–are our best resource. While respecting their differences and limitations, schools of widely different types must form open and unexpected fraternities both locally and across larger regions, giving faculty, staff, and students opportunities to see and learn across the pockets of false abstractions and idealism as well as the broken spaces and the incomplete efforts that characterize all of our communities.

Handout with extended passages and additional resources:

The Presence of Nature in the Natural World by Wendell Berry. This traces our relationship as English speakers with the person of Lady Nature through the full corpus of English literature from start to finish.

The Hidden Wound by Wendell Berry. This examines how the dominant race in our nation has damaged itself deeply and collectively by our invention of race and our practice of slavery. Here is a select passage:

If white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know. If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society.

…There is a peculiar tension in the casualness of this hereditary knowledge of hereditary evil; once it begins to be released, once you begin to awaken to the realities of what you know, you are subject to staggering recognitions of your complicity in history and in the events of your own life. The truth keeps leaping on you from behind. For me, that my people had owned slaves once seemed merely a curious fact. Later, I think, I took it to prove that I was somehow special, being thus associated with a historical scandal. It took me a long time, and in fact a good deal of effort, to finally realize that in owning slaves my ancestors assumed limitations and implicated themselves in troubles that have lived on to afflict me—and I still bear that knowledge with a sort of astonishment.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is an excellent corollary to The Hidden Wound by a contemporary African American author.

There is much to unpack in this short document regarding the creation of slavery in the United States as an unique institution that twisted the masters far more than it twisted the enslaved. Here is this unprecedented Virginia court ruling from July 9, 1640 in full:

Whereas Hugh Gwyn hath by order from this Board brought back from Maryland three servants formerly run away from the said Gwyn, the court doth therefore order that the said three servants shall receive the punishment of whipping and have thirty stripes apiece. One called Victor, a Dutchman, the other a Scotchman called James Gregory, shall first serve out their times with their master according to their Indentures, and one whole year apiece after the time of their service is expired by their said indentures in recompense of his loss sustained by their absence, and after that service to their said master is expired, to serve the colony for three whole years apiece. And that the third being a negro named John Punch shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere. [H. R. McIlwaine, ed. (1924). Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia: 1622–1632, 1670–1676. Richmond: Virginia State Library. p. 466. Punctuation and spelling modernized.]

Theodore W. Allen notes that the court’s “being a negro” justification made no explicit reference to precedent in English or Virginia common law. He suggests that the court members were aware that English common law held that a Christian could not enslave a Christian and that they were wary of the diplomatic friction that would come of enslaving non-English Europeans. They seemed to presume that Punch was a non-Christian, unlike his European accomplices. On these grounds, they were possibly hopeful of replicating the lifetime indentures of African slaves held in the Caribbean and South American colonies. At root here, we have an example of how new racial and theological categories were being created and codified in a process that was driven by implicit commercial forces.

The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A study of Monastic Culture by Jean Leclercq. This is a close scholarly study the classical Christian tradition of education in its most vibrant and flourishing form. Written by a monk, it has a lot of insider lingo, but it is nonetheless full of fruitful insights for any educators.

Socrates (in Phaedrus) regarding what humans lost when they adopted the alphabet:

[Written language and the alphabet] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. [That] which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

In the “The Secret Commonwealth” (First Things, 2009), Notre Dame professor and world-renowned philosopher David Bentley Hart has written about the connection between the world of spirits and the intergenerational human relationship to the land beneath our feet. He describes a fabled pamphlet publication by a Scottish Presbyterian minister and Bible translator Robert Kirk (1644 to 1692). In addition to being a scholar trained at St. Andrew’s and Edinburgh, a master of Celtic tongues, and the author of the Gaelic Psalter of 1684, Reverend Kirk also possessed the second sight and wrote a short treatise on “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies.” Here is some of what Hart had to say:

One aspect of Kirk’s investigations I find especially interesting is the purely autochthonous quality he ascribes to the second sight. Once removed from his native heath, says Kirk, a prophet loses the virtue that allows him to see the other world, and he becomes as blind to preternatural presences as any other mortal. He is like Antaeus raised up off the earth. Not only is every fairy a genius loci, every seer is a vates loci with a strictly limited charter. And the reason it pleases me to learn this is that it allows me to offer a riposte to an English friend of mine, a famous theologian whose name (which is John Milbank) I should probably withhold, who has quite a keen interest in fairies, and who regards it as a signal mark of the spiritual inferiority of America that its woods and dells, mountains, and streams, are devoid of such creatures.

In proof of this, he once cited to me the report of some English traveler in the New World who sent back a dispatch from Newfoundland (or somewhere like that) complaining that there were no fairies to be found in these desolate climes. But, ah no, I can say (having read Kirk), of course some displaced sassenach wandering in the woods of North America would be able to perceive none of their ethereal inhabitants, as any faculty he might have had for seeing them would have deserted him. And, anyway, anyone familiar with the Native lore of the Americas knows that multitudes of dangerous and beneficent manitous haunt or haunted these lands. They may lack some of the winsome charm of their European counterparts, not having been exposed to centuries of Greco-Roman and Christian civilization; and they may therefore be somewhat more Titanic than Olympian in their general character and deportment; but they certainly do not merit disdain or a refusal to acknowledge their existence.

As C.S. Lewis about the world of fairies (from chapter VI in The Discarded Image, entitled “The Longaevi” which is the name that Lewis selects for the fairy folk):

I have put the Longaevi or longlivers into a separate chap­ter because their place of residence is ambiguous between air and earth. Whether they are important enough to justify this arrangement is another question. In a sense, if I may risk the oxymoron, their unimportance is their importance. They are marginal, fugitive creatures. They are perhaps the only creatures to whom the Model does not assign, as it were, an official status. Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design. They intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, too luminous.

G.K. Chesterton regarding how all of creation reflects the life of God:

It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy. …The variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. …If his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstasy of his life would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. …The sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. …A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

C.S. Lewis on the nature of the cosmos:

Go out on any starry night and walk alone for half an hour, resolutely assuming that pre-Copernican astronomy is true. Look up at the sky with that assumption in mind. The real difference between living in that universe and living in ours will, I predict, begin to dawn on you. …You will be looking at a world unimaginably large but quite definitely finite. At no speed possible to man, in no lifetime possible to man, could you ever reach its frontier, but the frontier is there; hard, clear, sudden as a national frontier.

…The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one. They are the unimpeded movement of the most perfect impulse towards the most perfect object.

G.K. Chesterton on the nature of the cosmos:

A man may say, ‘I like this vast cosmos, with its throng of stars and its crowd of varied creatures.’ But if it comes to that why should not a man say, ‘I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see’? …I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance.

I would be glad to hear from you with specific questions or stories of your own: jjhake at gmail dot com.

Historical End-note

[This additional material—expanding on some of the historical references made in the talk—was added just to this post and was not available with the handout at the talk.]

“Establish schools in every town and village, and if any of the faithful wish to entrust their children to them to learn letters, that they refuse not to accept them but with all charity teach them …and let them exact no price from the children for their teaching nor receive anything from them save what parents may offer voluntarily and from affection.” —Charlemagne (in 797 via his chief educational adviser Theodulf, Bishop of Orléans)

Alcuin of York arrived at Charlemagne’s court in Aachen in 782 and began to have great success with educational goals that Charlemagne had struggled to pursue for years before. Not content to see education taking place only in his palace school, Charlemagne sought Alcuin’s advice as he started issuing a series of enactments from 787 to 789 to establish schools and educational reform throughout his empire.

Charlemagne was not content with securing for his palace school the services of the ablest teacher of that age. Acting under Alcuin’s advice he proceeded by a series of enactments dating from 787 (two years after the final triumph over the Saxons) to 789, to inaugurate a reform in the educational conditions throughout the empire. Theodulf, Bishop of Orléans, succeeded Alcuin (retired to the monastery of Tours) in 796 as Charlemagne’s adviser in educational matters. Charlemagne had his own daughters taught to read, but girls continued to be taught at home. While the schools were meant only for boys, historians are confident that they were open to all classes. Clearly, the candidates for the monastery and the wards (generally the children of nobles) committed to the care of the monks could attend. Provisions were also made, however, for the children of the village or country district around the monastery, for whom there was usually an external school attached to groups of monastic buildings.

In a document dated 797, Theodulf explicitly enacted: “that the priests establish schools in every town and village, and if any of the faithful wish to entrust their children to them to learn letters, that they refuse not to accept them but with all charity teach them …and let them exact no price from the children for their teaching nor receive anything from them save what parents may offer voluntarily and from affection” (P.L., CV., col. 196).

As we see in this brief passage from the Encyclopedia Britannica, elementary education was widely available for most of that empire’s existence (demonstrating the very early priority of Christians to make the fundamentals of a classical liberal arts education available to everyone):

Elementary education was widely available throughout most of the empire’s existence, not only in towns but occasionally in the countryside as well. Literacy was therefore much more widespread than in western Europe, at least until the 12th century. Secondary education was confined to the larger cities. Pupils desiring higher education almost always had to go to Constantinople, which became the cultural center of the empire after the loss to the Muslim Arabs of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in the 7th century. Monasteries sometimes had schools in which young novices were educated, but they did not teach lay pupils. Girls did not normally attend schools, but the daughters of the upper classes were often educated by private tutors. Many women were literate, and some—such as the hymnographer Kasia (9th century) and the historian-princess Anna Comnena (1083–c. 1153)—were recognized as writers of distinction.

cowled with smoke and starred with lamps

Modern Elfland
by G.K. Chesterton

I cut a staff in a churchyard copse,
I clad myself in ragged things,
I set a feather in my cap
That fell out of an angel’s wings.

I filled my wallet with white stones,
I took three foxgloves in my hand,
I slung my shoes across my back,
And so I went to fairyland.

But lo, within that ancient place
Science had reared her iron crown,
And the great cloud of steam went up
That telleth where she takes a town.

But cowled with smoke and starred with lamps,
That strange land’s light was still its own;
The word that witched the woods and hills
Spoke in the iron and the stone.

Not Nature’s hand had ever curved
That mute unearthly porter’s spine.
Like sleeping dragon’s sudden eyes
The signals leered along the line.

The chimneys thronging crooked or straight
Were fingers signalling the sky;
The dog that strayed across the street
Seemed four-legged by monstrosity.

‘In vain,’ I cried, ‘though you too touch
The new time’s desecrating hand,
Through all the noises of a town
I hear the heart of fairyland.’

I read the name above a door,
Then through my spirit pealed and passed:
‘This is the town of thine own home,
And thou hast looked on it at last.’