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.

thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers

C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man:

Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them — how Plato would have every infant “a bastard nursed in a bureau”, and Elyot would have the boys see no men before the age of seven and, after that, no women, and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry — we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses.

the process of disenchantment is irreversible

From “Disenchantment—Reenchantment” by Charles Taylor (within The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now edited by George Levine):

These terms are often used together, the first designating one of the main features of the process we know as secularization, the second a supposed undoing of the first, which can be either desired or feared, according to one’s point of view.

But their relation is more complicated than this. In some sense, it can be argued, the process of disenchantment is irreversible. The aspiration to reenchant … points to a different process, which may indeed reproduce features analogous to the enchanted world, but does not in any simple sense restore it.

Let’s speak of “the enchanted world” to designate those features which disenchantment did away with. There are two main ones.

The first feature of this world is that it was one filled with spirits and moral forces, and one, moreover, in which these forces impinged on human beings; that is, the boundary between the self and these forces was somewhat porous. There were spirits of the wood, or of the wilderness areas. There were objects with powers to wreak good or ill, such as relics (good) and love potions (not so unambiguously good). I speak of “moral” forces to mark this point, that the causality of certain physical objects was directed to good or ill. So a phial of water from Canterbury (which must contain some blood of the martyr Thomas a Beckett) could have a curative effect on any ill you were suffering from. In this it was quite unlike a modern medical drug that “targets” certain maladies and conditions, owing to its chemical constitution.

One could sum this up by saying that this was a world of“magic.” This is implied in our term “disenchantment,” which can be thought of as a process of removing the magic. This is even clearer in the original German: Weber’s Entzauberung contains the word Zauber (magic). But this is less illuminating than it seems. The process of disenchantment, carried out first for religious reasons, consisted of delegitimizing all the practices for dealing with spirits and forces, because they allegedly either neglected the power of God or directly went against it. Rituals of this kind were supposed to have power of themselves, hence were blasphemous. All such rituals were put into a category of “magic.” The category was constituted by the rejection, rather than providing a clear reason for the rejection. It then carries on in Western culture even after the decline of faith—for example. Frazer’s distinction magic/religion. Only when Westerners attempted to make ethnographic studies of non-Western societies did it become clear how inadequate and instable this category is.

I talked about not being able to go back. But surely lots of our contemporaries are already ‘‘back‘’ in this world. They believe in and practice certain rituals to restore health or give them success. The mentality survives, even if underground. That is true; much survives of the earlier epoch. But the big change, which would be hard to undo, is that which has replaced the porous selves of yore with what I would describe as “buffered” selves.

Brings to mind when C.S. Lewis says:

For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is, essentially, the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian men of our own day differ from his as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin. The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with the writers of the New Statesman; and those writers would of course agree with me.

See also this passage about the “premodern self’s porosity.”

their unimportance is their importance

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 oficial 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.

I take for them the name Longaevi from Martianus Capella, who mentions ‘dancing companies of Longaevi who haunt woods, glades, and groves, and lakes and springs and brooks; whose names are Pans, Fauns … Satyrs, Silvans, Nymphs….’ Bernardus Silvestris, with­out using the word Longaevi, describes similar creatures­—’Silvans, Pans, and Nerei’—as having ‘a longer life’ (than ours), though they are not immortal. They are innocent—’of blameless conversation’—and have bodies of elemental purity.

The alternative would have been to call them Fairies. But that word, tarnished by pantomime and bad children’s books with worse illustrations, would have been danger­ous as the title of a chapter. It might encourage us to bring to the subject some ready-made, modern concept of a Fairy and to read the old texts the in the light of it. Naturally, the proper method is the reverse; we must go to the texts with an open mind and learn from them what the word fairy meant to our ancestors.

C.S. Lewis from the opening of chapter VI in The Discarded Image (entitled “The Longaevi”). This book is a collection of his lectures introducing the world of Medieval and Renaissance literature.

Advent Reading of George MacDonald’s Lilith

George MacDonald’s Lilith is almost entirely populated by mothers and children. Therefore, it was natural to think often of Mary and her child while washing dishes and listening to Lilith during this Advent season. (I used an audio recording made by Pete Williams for LibriVox supplemented by occasional references to a free text download from Project Gutenberg.) Lilith: A Romance was George MacDonald’s last fantasy work (1895), and it strongly resembles Phantastes: A Fairie Romance for Men and Women which was his first (1858). Both novellas involve a young man coming of age during the course of a journey through the world of myth and faerie (including encounters with child-like innocents as well as several women who run the gamut from mysterious and majestic to macabre and monstrous).

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his first reading of Phantastes at age sixteen: “That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me[,] not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.” All of his life, Lewis was outspoken about his debt to George MacDonald (publishing an anthology of his writings in 1947). In another tribute to MacDonald’s fantasy works, Lewis says in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) that Jadis (the White Witch) was descended from Adam’s first wife Lilith:

But she’s no Daughter of Eve. She comes of your father Adam’s … first wife, her they called Lilith. And she was one of the Jinn. That’s what she comes from on one side. And on the other she comes of the giants. No, no, there isn’t a drop of real Human blood in the Witch. (8.35)

In his story Lilith, George MacDonald is drawing deep on mystical traditions and apocryphal stories from the Jewish exile period as well as medieval Christianity. These stories depict a host of characters around Adam, including his first wife Lilith. In some stories, Lilith is made from clay at the same time as Adam. In other accounts, Adam and Lilith are made as one person and only later separated by God into male and female. In these stories, Lilith refuses to remain united in purpose with Adam, is caste out of the garden, and intermarries with angels and/or demons to spawn a race of monstrous Jinn. In some accounts, Lilith takes on the body of a serpent, and she is sometimes depicted as the one who slips back into the garden to tempt Eve with the forbidden fruit. Another prominent feature of these stories is that Lilith hates human children and carries them off to feed upon them. In this fresco by Filippino Lippi (1502, Fresco, Strozzi Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy), Adam is depicted protecting a young boy from Lilith the child snatcher.

Filippino_Lippi-_Adam

George MacDonald’s story of Lilith follows a young man, Mr. Vane, who has inherited an ancient home with a library that was started long before printing. Mr. Vane spends most of his time in this library and finds it frequented by a spectral librarian, Mr. Raven, who has served the family time out of mind. Following this ghostly librarian one day, Mr. Vane wanders into another realm where he learns that Mr. Raven is Adam and that Adam lives with his wife Eve in a home where they tend to all those who are ready to give up their lives and die the death that brings true life. Invited to lie down in his place among these cold sleepers, Mr. Vane finds that he is unable to do it. Instead, he wanders back out and alone into the world outside the great house of Adam and Eve.

Within this realm, over the course of a prolonged adventure, he encounters a girl and two grown women: Lona, Mara, and Lilith. Lona is the innocent child of Adam and Lilith, abandoned at her birth but kept safe from her cannibal mother. He meets Mara and Lilith separately. Mara is a queenly daughter of Eve who tends to all the suffering souls who are still wandering and unready for death. With a biblical name meaning sorrow or bitterness (and often associated with the name Miriam or Mary), Mara is also called the Lady of Sorrow and the Mother of Sorrow. She is a protectress and her home is a sanctuary at times. However, her primary task is to attend upon sorrow and suffering as agents of salvation.

Lona is a child-mother, tending a tribe of abandoned and innocent babes (called “Little Ones” and “Lovers”). These children bring to mind the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem and of all human history (infants aborted and left to die). They live together in a Paradise of little fruit trees and are only very vaguely threatened by a neighboring tribe of utterly stupid giants.

Several subplots ensue as the story follows Mr. Vane’s wandering and striving within this world. However, all these plots converge on Lilith’s salvation as she faces bitter defeat and comes to accept the life-restoring death offered by Adam and Eve. George MacDonald’s universalism is openly defended in this story. Generally well within the bounds of historic Christian teaching (on Christology, trinitarianism, etc.), this is one point on which George MacDonald dissents. In Lilith, Adam says that even Satan (reduced to a dimensionless although expansive and sinister shadow who follows Lilith with a desperate and dependent hunger) will one day give up his flight from God’s love and submit to the memory-restoring sleep of death (ultimately given back his purpose as a creature of God). This salvation of Satan is a heterodox speculation for which the great Origin was sanctioned.

George MacDonald is a profound metaphysician, and this heterodox claim for Satan does not negate an otherwise profound understanding of God’s goodness in creation, the bottomless of our suffering and evil, and the faithful depths to which God will go in restoring us to Himself. Lilith is largely about soteriology, and his heterodox claims are not integral to the insights at the core of his story. While MacDonald’s doctrine of salvation strays far from the typical framework of his own Presbyterian tradition, it is faithful to the oldest ideas of the church fathers. The story of Lilith connects salvation to death and suffering. Adam speaks repeatedly about the need to die and about the presence of true life within death itself. Maximus the Confessor crystallizes the teachings of all the church fathers (including, prominently, that of Irenaeus) when he describes the trick that God played by entering into death itself and placing the source of life at the heart of death. Jesus Christ gave death a new purpose as a weapon that destroys sin instead of a weapon that destroys human nature:

[T]he Lord, …naturally willed to die…. Clearly he suffered, and converted the use of death so that in him it would be a condemnation not of our nature but manifestly only of sin itself. …The baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin. …Christ, the captain of our salvation (Heb 2:10), turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin. [Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression.”]

Upon the verge of following the Little Ones into the very presence of Jesus Christ (described only as “the beautifullest man” and whose only words are recounted by “the smallest and most childish of the voices” as “’Ou’s all mine’s, ‘ickle ones: come along!”), Mr. Vane finds himself suddenly back in this world, alone among his library books. Returning to his own life, Mr. Vane reports that he does not see any of the characters from Adam’s realm again, with one exception: “Mara is much with me. She has taught me many things, and is teaching me more.”

Mara, as the Lady of Sorrow who helps each one in the searching out of their own hearts, certainly has much in common with Mary:

And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. …Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also) so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” [Luke 2]

Mary is the ultimate point of contact between God and His rebellious creation. Her “let it be to me according to your word” opens the way for God to be present with his fallen creatures in their suffering and death, making their suffering and death into something new, into something divine. Just as Mary is the only point of contact between our fallen humanity and God, so Mara is the only point of contact between our mortal history and the world of myth and faerie. And in both cases, the point of contact is our suffering and sorrow, where God meets us and transforms the purpose of our suffering and death. George MacDonald has this message throughout his writings:

The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His. [George MacDonald in “The Consuming Fire” from Unspoken Sermons (First Series), 1867. This passage has also been quoted by Madeleine L’Engle in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art and by C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain.]

Mary’s most glorious appearance in the Bible is in Revelation chapter 12, which is marked by both celestial glory and intense earthly suffering:

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. [For an excellent scholarly exposition of this passage, see the transcription of this lecture by Scott Hahn.]

Mary, like us, was and is vulnerable. She suffered and fled to Elizabeth in the face of expulsion from her community. But she is also the heavenly Queen Mother, and we understand her in the characters of Eve, Mara, Lona, and Galadriel. We also understand her in the tyrants of Lilith and Jadis, those self-imposed queens who hate the destiny of Adam and all his children, those mothers-apposed-to-God who hate the thought of their children bearing God’s image and mediating God’s presence.

In the end, Mara patiently but persistently reveals that this life of mediating God’s presence is available only within suffering and death because creation has fled from God and God has met us at the end of our flight from Him. This is why Mr. Vane comes so close to seeing Jesus Christ in this vision (hearing the Little Ones exclaim as they encounter Jesus) but parts the final veil himself only to find himself alone within his library again, with only Mara and bitterness as his teacher.

Nativity is the intrusion of God’s glorious intention and conclusion into the midst of our moment-by-moment travails in this life. George MacDonald’s story allows Mr. Vane to experience this end briefly without reaching it fully. In this attempt to describe God’s purposes for humanity, George MacDonald pushes his language to the limit. Humanity is the living point of contact between God and His creation—the interplay or amplification-chamber of thanksgiving, consciousness, and desire—where creation knows its Creator. This is humanity’s purpose and life as the priest and the divine image within the temple of creation:

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. …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. …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.

…Now, the soul of everything I met came out to greet me and make friends with me, telling me we came from the same, and meant the same. …Two joy-fires were Lona and I [a new Adam and Eve]. Earth breathed heavenward her sweet-savoured smoke; we breathed homeward our longing desires. For thanksgiving, our very consciousness was that.

Mr. Vane does not stay here with Lona but returns very shortly after this scene to life alone with the Mother of Sorrow for his only teacher. However, Mary’s Magnificat announces that God is with the down-trodden. “He has put down the mighty from their seat: and has exalted the humble and meek.” At the climax of Mara’s ministry to Lilith, Mara can do nothing herself but sit down to weep as Lilith suffers:

Then came the most fearful thing of all. I did not know what it was; I knew myself unable to imagine it; I knew only that if it came near me I should die of terror! I now know that it was LIFE IN DEATH—life dead, yet existent; and I knew that Lilith had had glimpses, but only glimpses of it before: it had never been with her until now. …Mara buried her head in her hands. I gazed on the face of one who knew existence but not love—knew nor life, nor joy, nor good; with my eyes I saw the face of a live death! She knew life only to know that it was dead, and that, in her, death lived. It was not merely that life had ceased in her, but that she was consciously a dead thing. She had killed her life, and was dead—and knew it. She must DEATH IT for ever and ever! She had tried her hardest to unmake herself, and could not! she was a dead life! she could not cease! she must BE! In her face I saw and read beyond its misery—saw in its dismay that the dismay behind it was more than it could manifest. It sent out a livid gloom; the light that was in her was darkness, and after its kind it shone. She was what God could not have created. She had usurped beyond her share in self-creation, and her part had undone His! She saw now what she had made, and behold, it was not good! She was as a conscious corpse, whose coffin would never come to pieces, never set her free!

Lilith is all of us. We are Adam’s first family. Lilith is Eve without God’s unmerited grace (to use a little Presbyterian lingo). Lilith is Eve without Seth and Mary. Take or leave any part of Lilith and her story, and you are still left with Adam, Eve, and all of their children. When the end finally comes for Lilith, and she yields to Mara, we see a picture of ourselves accepting our poverty and our need apart from God:

Without change of look, without sign of purpose, Lilith walked toward Mara. She felt her coming, and rose to meet her. …Like her mother, in whom lay the motherhood of all the world, Mara put her arms around Lilith, and kissed her on the forehead. The fiery-cold misery went out of her eyes, and their fountains filled. She lifted, and bore her to her own bed in a corner of the room, laid her softly upon it, and closed her eyes with caressing hands.

Lilith lay and wept. The Lady of Sorrow went to the door and opened it.

Morn, with the Spring in her arms, waited outside.

At Christmas, it is the Lady of Sorrow who opens the door for morning and spring to enter our world and our lives. God’s arrival as a baby does not spare the innocent children from tyrannical slaughter, but this baby who is driven into exile with his young mother will establish a Kingdom that belongs to “such as these.” This “beautifullest man” will always welcome the “smallest and most childish” with: “You’re all mine, little ones. Come along!”

I certainly can’t conceive … any grosser abuse of language than to call a discussion a meditation

Delightful collection of “less commonly used quotes” from the letters of C.S. Lewis:

  • Many men of our time have lost not only the supernatural light but also the natural light which pagans possess.
  • I certainly can’t conceive any less suitable preparation for Holy Communion than a discussion or any grosser abuse of language than to call a discussion a meditation.
  • I really believe I would have come to Christianity much less reluctantly if it had not involved the Church.
  • There is much to be puzzled about. There is nothing to be worried about.
  • It has been my experience that the rich of any country are usually the least attractive specimens of that nation.

Learning to Laugh with Angels

He remembered a hornbill, which was simply a huge yellow beak with a small bird tied on behind it. The whole gave him a sensation, the vividness of which he could not explain, that Nature was always making quite mysterious jokes. …He wondered whether even the archangels understood the hornbill.

Coming across this passage yesterday in G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday and being flat on my back today with a high fever, I spent some time reflecting on his theme of heavenly humor. This topic is taken up by several other Christain authors including C.S. Lewis. For example, this scene in The Magician’s Nephew when a Jackdaw has an awkward moment just after Aslan has given voices to all of the animals in the new world of Narnia:

“Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.”

So they all let themselves go. And there was such merriment that the Jackdaw himself plucked up courage again and perched on the cab-horse’s head, between its ears, clapping its wings, and said:

“Aslan! Aslan! Have I made the first joke? Will everybody always be told how I made the first joke?”

“No, little friend,” said the Lion. “You have not made the first joke; you have only been the first joke.” Then everyone laughed more than ever; but the Jackdaw didn’t mind and laughed just as loud till the horse shook its head and the Jackdaw lost its balance and fell off, but remembered its wings (they were still new to it) before it reached the ground.

Chesterton, like Lewis, clearly had a high view of humor and defended it often. His two main themes on the topic are the goodness of human laughter vs. the awfulness of divine laughter. Chesterton suggests that human laughter is an almost unmitigated good. Here are several examples from over the course of his lifetime:

  • Laughter has something in it in common with the ancient winds of faith and inspiration; it unfreezes pride and unwinds secrecy; it makes men forget themselves in the presence of something greater than themselves; something (as the common phrase goes about a joke) that they cannot resist.
  • For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.
  • Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.
  • Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity.
  • It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.
  • Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.

And this one (which most directly sheds light on the hornbill passage at the start of this post):

Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshipers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.

In another vein, however, Chesterton suggests that God’s laughter is a serious (even terrible) thing—too wonderful for us—something that we must be protected from or that we are mercifully incapable of hearing:

We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.

In a later passage, Chesterton suggests that divine laughter is not so much inaudible to us as it is mercifully hidden us:

The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

In an even more serious-sounding passage that I cannot find, Chesterton says (if my memory serves me), that exposure to the raw power of our Creator’s laugh, in our current sickened condition, would virtually unmake us. Certainly God’s laughter in some Old Testament passages is something very close to judgement. We may also, perhaps, learn something about God’s humor (and I say this tentatively because I doubt that I am right but I still think it worth considering) through a study of the lives of holy fools or through the preaching and the satirical skits of certain Old Testament prophets (see God’s compromise with Ezekiel in 4:15, for example).

Of course, this point about God’s laughter being dangerous is part of a larger theme in Chesterton as well as Lewis and Tolkien: heavenly things are so good that they (in one sense) pain or hurt us in our current condition. In The Great Divorce, Lewis famously describes people from hell stepping off of a bus that has taken them to heaven. They decide that the grass in heaven is too painfully real. They would rather return to hell than endure the too-substantial grass of heaven. However (and Lewis would agree), God’s goodness is always and ultimately wholesome, even when it pains us. We see this perfectly in Jesus Christ. His divine humor may have been heavily veiled as Chesterton suggests, but Jesus clearly teased and jested with those closest to Him. This simple human laughter of Jesus never comes up directly in scripture, but it is easy to imagine what a gift it would have been in the hearts of those who loved Him. In helpful contrast to Chesterton’s reflections on Christ’s awful and hidden divine humor, Patrick Henry Reardon talks about Christ’s sense of humor, and Reardon fully humanizes it. He makes the case that Christ regularly enjoyed laughter with those closest to him:

Jesus related to these original disciples—even from the beginning—as ‘individuals,’ as particular men. He does not permit their specific identities to become lost in the group. Philip, Andrew, Thomas, and the others preserve their individual characters. Observe, for instance, how he teases them. Jesus’ irony toward Nathaniel is a perfect example of this [John 1:45-47].

…What shall we say of the nickname Jesus gave to the two sons of Zebedee: James and John? He called them “sons of thunder,” which in our modern idiom would be “hotheads.” One suspects the brothers received this moniker because … they [once] said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” (Luke 9:52–54)

…Luke relished the irony of it: John bar Zebedee … got his wish … when the church at Jerusalem sent him … as one of its delegates to call down on the Samaritans the true fire from heaven—the Holy Spirit.

…Peter, when he felt enthusiastic, imagined himself invincible … [and ] readily mistook a rush of adrenaline for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit…. Jesus surely recognized the name’s improbability in Peter’s case. The only time [that Peter] showed any rocklike quality was on that memorable occasion when he attempted to walk on water!

…In all these instances, we perceive a light and jocund side of Jesus’ relationship with these men, whom he chose ‘that they might be with Him’ (Mark 3:14). With these disciples, Jesus carried himself as a man among men, to whom he was bound by the sorts of habits, attitudes, and discourse [by which] normal men establish friendships and maintain loyalties.

There are some clear parallels between Reardon’s portrait of Jesus (jesting with his closest followers) and Lewis’ portrayal of Aslan (the first joker encouraging laughter over the vivacious Jackdaw). However, there is also a comforting difference between these two accounts. The humor exercised by Jesus is more gentle, subtle, and deeply personal than that of Lewis’ Aslan. To those learning to follow Him, Christ is a gentle friend (in the aggregate at least).

Finally, in Reardon’s account, Jesus’ joking is connected almost entirely to renaming and nicknames. It is remarkable that Jesus’ humor is bound up so closely with something that is so central to His identity as the Logos, by whose words all things are made and sustained. Naming is a task that God calls humans to share with Him, and Adam’s naming of each animal might have involve more laughter than we imagine. Chesterton may be onto something with his idea that the angels themselves are still learning to laugh at the hornbill. Furthermore, simply by process of elimination, it seems possible that humans with a healthy sense of humor could provide an important example for any angels who are still learning to see God’s mirth on display throughout creation. This line of thinking about Jesus’ enjoyment of clever nicknames also puts new possibilities into play when it comes to the intimate name that Christ has prepared for each of His saints (Revelation 2:17). Each of God’s children may be revealed as an even better joke than the Jackdaw before all is said and done. For my part, I take some comfort in the hope of garnering a few laughs as the trillion-and-first joke when my own time comes.

Nonetheless, if I make light of myself, this is not to make light of humanity or of my own high calling to communion with God. (As Chesterton says: “Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.”) In Christ, Peter did live up to his nickname.

now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald.

Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend. They can then say, as the blessed souls say in Dante, ‘Here comes one who will augment our loves.’ For in this love ‘to divide is not to take away.

In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.

C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves.

spears and water-spouts of truth from the very depth of truth

I cannot at all say whether they were what men call real or what men call dream. And for all I can tell, the only difference is that what many see we call a real thing, and what only one sees we call a dream. But things that many see may have no taste or moment in them at all, and things that are shown only to one may be spears and water-spouts of truth from the very depth of truth.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis.