Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Great Books Calling, Part 2

 

The second installment of a multiple-part series about my journey towards a true liberal arts education--particularly towards my dream school, Wyoming Catholic College. Part 1 can be read here.

After reading Anthony Esolen's book, it seemed I had never had another option. Going to a Great Books college was the next logical step from the quasi-classical education I'd received so far in homeschooling. I realized at last the source of my vague disappointment. I didn't just want to study English, or literature, or creative writing. Those, on their own, could never be enough. I wanted to learn about truth--in everything. And the Great Books method was the only one which addressed education as something more than a means to intellectual or material success. Its aim was to form the person. The whole person, body-mind-soul, for his ultimate destiny: knowledge of love of God.

That was what had been silently missing from my horde of college brochures. They talked an awful lot about the "what"--the number of majors, the small class sizes, the statistics of successful alumni, etc., etc., ad nauseum. So much "what" and so little "why". The purpose of higher education was presented as essentially utilitarian--fun on the side, perhaps, but really a tool for clambering higher up that ladder of highly-praised, poorly-defined, and sickeningly earthly success. So that the pamphlet I got from Harvard read just as hollow to me as the one from Joliet Junior College.

But the Great Books approach was different. While its method does prepare a person well for a career--perhaps better, even, than the so-called vocational or trade school approach--that is not the primary point. The point is not material welfare. It is not even intellectual satisfaction. The point of education is the right ordering of the soul. Not that every class must be a theology class, but every subject ought to be taught integrated with eternal truth. To me this meant something. It meant everything. The more I read about it, the more it filled me with a longing, desperate joy. I would have nothing else.

This resolve fell upon me so deeply that for several days I was afraid to tell my parents about it--for fear they'd caution me against making a college decision so quickly. My fear was groundless, but quite seriously nothing else appealed to me. Only a few schools in the country still based their curriculum entirely on the Great Books. Among those, only a few stood out to me: St. John's College in Maryland, St. Thomas Aquinas in California, and Wyoming Catholic College in...well, in Wyoming.

At last I knew what I wanted. I was going to school, not to learn more about literature, but to learn how to be a human being. Sounds a bit silly. We all know how to be human, don't we? Well--that's the question, isn't it? (I sense a Socratic discussion coming on...)

(To be continued)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Great Books Calling, Part 1

Wind River Peak. I lift up mine eyes to the mountains, from whence shall come my help...
 
In beginning my application to Wyoming Catholic College, I've had the chance to revisit my truly God-guided journey to this school and this community. Here, then, is the first installment of a ramble on the Great Books.
 
The call I've felt towards WCC, ever since I really started exploring it, has been very strong and certain. I began having my first thoughts of college during my junior year of high school. I was pretty sure I wanted to go into higher education, with a vague intention of becoming an English major. I'd been given a gift for creative writing and discovered a love of classic literature. I was already fairly certain of my calling to become a Catholic author. Among the streams of college pamphlets pouring into my mailbox, I was definitely attracted to the liberal arts rather than the trade schools. But amidst it all I experienced a foggy anxiety, a deep disappointment. This is it? I thought. Going to college was supposed to be the first step into my new, independent, fulfilling adult life. Why did I feel, even before I'd touched any application forms, that it wasn't enough?
 
To be sure, I enjoyed learning. I loved coming to new insights in literature and history and theology, felt satisfaction when mastering a new mathematics concept. I knew I could get a good intellectual education just about anywhere, if I applied myself. And wasn't that what college was about--to train your brain in a certain area well enough to earn a degree to secure a successful career? So screamed all the shiny brochures mounding on my bedroom floor. But my soul, and the faith my parents and God had instilled in my heart, ached and cried out. Something was still missing.
 
But even in the darkness of my uncertainty, God drew my steps. In my reading, for school and for enjoyment, and in my personal journaling and insights, I felt Him calling me again and again to understand Him and His Church through beauty. Absolute beauty. Not something static, sickeningly romantic, or overblown, but real, the living ideal, the light and desire of every human heart. Beauty, not off in its own little creative box, enjoyable but unnecessary to our other human occupations, but essential--as in twined in our essence. Harmoniously and gloriously weaving itself into our reason, and spirit, and body. If, as the adage said, beauty was in the eye of the beholder--in other words, if it contained no reigning truth--I thought I may as well go out and blind myself.  
 
Finally, in the spring of 2013, I received a clear answer to my wondering. I discovered at a friend's house, on Easter Sunday, a book by Catholic professor and author Anthony Esolen. His book, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, described in detail how our secular Western culture has exchanged its classical and Christian heritage for moral relativism and chaos. To combat this, he advocated--he championed--a classical liberal arts education.
 
And all at once, the missing something inside me solidified and snapped softly into place. A certainty. I had to go to a Great Books school.
 
(To be continued)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Mystery of Martyrdom: Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral"


They know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer.
They know and do not know, that action is suffering
And suffering is action.
~T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, Pt 1
 
The Wyoming summer wind ripped across the church steps, flapping books and tearing the words out of our literature professor's mouth, making both lecture and discussion impossible. But it was useless to hold class inside--although it was only ten in the morning, the warmth and stuffiness of the classrooms had made all our heads buzz with sleep. At last in desperation we tramped over to a protected nook of the building. Here we circled up on the concrete in the lee of the wind, and proceeded to dive into passages such as these, from T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral:
 
Neither does the agent suffer
Nor the patient act. But both are fixed
In an eternal action, an eternal patience
To which all must consent that it may be willed
And which all must suffer that they may will it,
That the pattern may subsist, for the pattern is the action
And the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still
Be forever still.
 
I had read the play once, before I knew it was on the reading list for Wyoming Catholic College's summer program. Back then the height of language and plot, dramatizing the final weeks of the life of St. Thomas Becket, had affected me deeply. But even on multiple readings, I couldn't get my head around obscure passages like the one above. I grasped the outline of the play but seemed to be missing its essence.
 
To do all what we did in class at WCC--to dive into historical context, draw out major themes, make comparisons between Becket and Christ's Passion, and dwell on the meaning of martyrdom--is impossible in one blog post. Suffice to say I came away with a much fuller understanding of Eliot's purpose in writing the play. The conflict centers, not so much on the fatal disagreement between Thomas Becket and his king, but on Thomas's own inner struggle. As he proclaim in the first act: "The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason."
 
For Thomas knows he is going to be killed, to be "martyred". He has defied King Henry's claims of power over the Church. But is he really dying for God's kingdom, or for his own spiritual pride? This is the terrible question: Can a man never escape pride, even when he is trying to serve God? But Thomas sees the way out. As he explains in the middle section of the play, in his Christmas day sermon:
 
A Christian martyr is never an accident, for Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man's will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. A martyrdom is always the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. It is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr.
 
If Thomas submits himself totally to God's plan, he cannot be acting out of pride. That is his salvation and ours. Before Becket's martyrdom, the tone of the play is one of terror and foreboding, mounting to ultimate despair--the despair of the soul trapped in pride. But afterwards, the world of the play, so to speak, is cleansed and re-ordered. For by accepting God's will, Becket became a channel of grace to Canterbury, drawing down God's eternal plan into time. This is the eternal action and pattern so obscurely spoken of--perhaps because it is indeed a mystery. God's love, being this mystery, but also being real, bewilders and even frightens us. As the Chorus pleads near the very end of the play:
 
Forgive us, O Lord, we acknowledge ourselves as type of the common man,
Of the men and women who shut the door and sit by the fire;
Who fear the blessing of God, the loneliness of the night of God, the surrender required, the deprivation inflicted;
Who fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God;
Who fear the hand at the window, the fire in the thatch, the fist in the tavern, the push into the canal,
Less than we fear the love of God.
 
God's love is fearsome. But He requires us to embrace it, as Becket did, because He is our purpose and fulfillment. That is the wonderful mystery of the martyrs.
 
St. Thomas Becket, pray for us!
 

 

 



Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Wild and Sacred Way

 
To all of my fellow P.E.A.K. participants, and the incredible students and staff of Wyoming Catholic College: Thank you, thank you, thank you, for two of the most beautiful and challenging weeks of my life.
 
Wyoming Way
by Mary Jessica Woods
 
God's river roars in the crease of the land,
Gray rock, aspen-glitter on either hand;
O, shale-streaked cliffs and mountains pine-high,
String up my soul to the top of the sky
And there let me dangle, my spirit ensnared,
My boots on the ground and my heart in the air.
Or else, when the nightfall turns sage-green to black,
And I ease to the earth and lie stretched on my back,
Let that meteor-streak, a mere pulse-length in flight,
Be infused in my veins as eternal light:
A sharp breath of beauty for all of my days,
And a flame of the wild and sacred ways.
 
 
 
 




Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Wyoming, here I come!

 
A P.S. to my last post: on Saturday I am taking off to Wyoming Catholic College for their two-week summer program. And the week after that I am attending my very first writing conference in Chicago with the Catholic Writers Guild! Whoo! However, all that excitement likely means no more blog posts for the rest of the month. But never fear--I will have loads to write about when I get back. :)
 
In the meantime, you may feast your eyes on Wyoming Catholic's very amazing crest above.
 
God bless and see you in August,
Mary


Gaelic Gems: Carmichael's "Carmina Gadelica"

Mansueto and Regenstein Libraries at the U of C


One of the distinct advantages of having a mom who works at the University of Chicago is access to one of the largest libraries in the country--no joke. The University carries over 9 million books (probably more by now; that statistic is from 2010). That may seem like just a number, but when you walk through the miles of musty, cool, dim-lit shelves filled with the knowledge of millennia on virtually every topic known to man...it is an awesome experience.

I have had this experience twice in the past year. I remember last time I was there, standing in front of their (very large) Stevenson collection with my mouth almost watering. One tiny, badly worn volume of The New Arabian Nights caught my eye; I drew it out, and was physically shaken when I realized it was an original edition published in 1882! Those are the kinds of treasures just sitting on shelves at a library like the U of C.

Besides loads of books in English, the University library also carries a large foreign language collection. Tucked away behind the aisles of French, Spanish, and German volumes, are two-and-a-quarter shelves of Scottish Gaelic. Most are old, a few newly-published, but all written in the obscure little language that has stolen my heart.

The last time I visited I borrowed a book called Carmina Gadelica, by Alexander Carmichael. Just before the turn of the century, Carmichael toured the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, orally collecting poetry, hymns, and incantations among the old Gaelic-speaking population. By this time in Scotland's history most of that population was already gone, thanks to the massive clearances and emigration of the 19th century. So Carmichael's book, by his own admission, represents a way of life and traditions virtually extinct.

Don't get me wrong; Gaelic speakers still do exist (thank goodness!). But I would guess that the oral literature captured in Carmichael's collection is all but gone from today's native speakers. Nevertheless my own discovery of these archaic prayers and hymns has proved a rich and beautiful one.

For example, in Carmina Gadelica are a dozen or so different night prayers. Simple, rhythmic, and quite lovely in meaning, I have started using a few during my own private prayertime. But sharing them with others has proved a dilemma: none of my Gaelic correspondents are church-going, and none of my church-going friends study Gaelic! However, I'll try to remedy that in this post with a little video. Below is a recording of me reading one of my favorite night prayers, "An Achanaidh Anama", with Gaelic and English text. I hope you will find this simple piece as much of a blessing as I have. Beannachd leibh!



Sunday, June 29, 2014

Pillars of the Church: The Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul

 
 
Occasionally on this blog I must share some of the "literature" of the Eastern Catholic tradition. The ancient texts that we sing for great feast days are poetic, scripture-steeped reflections on the theology of the feast, often written by saints. The services of Vespers and Matins are particularly chock-full of them. Beautiful imagery sung to ancient melodies in two- or three-part harmony, for the better part of an hour...a true immersion in the joy and solemnity of the day.
 
Peter and Paul is one of the bigger saints' feasts in the Byzantine Church, if the number of hymns for the services are anything to go by. As I sit here writing I am having a terrible time choosing just one to share. The Church has so much to say about these greatest of apostles! But if I must...here is a hymn from the Litija (pronounced lit-YAH), a portion near the end of Vespers celebrated on particularly important feasts:
 
The wisdom of God and the Word who is co-eternal with the Father
Has truly foretold in the Gospel, O all-praise-worthy Apostles,
That you are the two most fruitful vines;
For you bore in your branches the ripe and fruitful cluster
From which we believers are now nourished
And whose taste brings us both sweetness and delight.
Therefore, O Peter, rock of faith, and Paul, pride of the universe,
Strengthen the flock that became yours through your teachings.
 
I love the metaphor of Word of God being nourishing like wine. And now I can't help myself; here's another hymn from Vespers focusing in particular on St. Paul:
 
O glorious apostle Paul,
Who can describe your bondage and sorrow in the cities,
Your tribulations and hardships,
Your vigils and sufferings?
You have suffered hunger, thirst, and cold,
Nakedness and scourging with rods,
The crossing of wilderness, shipwreck and stonings.
You have both angelic and human character,
Bearing all with the help of Christ who strengthened you,
So that you might gain the world for Christ, your Lord.
We, who celebrate your memory in faith,
Beseech you to intercede for the salvation of our souls.
 
I have long been specially attracted by St. Paul; who wouldn't be, really? His is a story comparable to the most thrilling adventure novels, complete with close escapes, shipwrecks, and encounters with kings (although Paul usually shows up much better than the royalty). And such a protagonist, too! His zeal, wisdom, humor and faith shine out in every line of his letters. Who can forget his hearty boasting of his weaknesses? Or his awestruck words on beings "snatched up to the third heaven"? Or his unforgettable plea to the Corinthians, "I beg you, therefore, be imitators of me!"
 
I would if I could. As it is I've adopted him as my patron saint when it comes to my writing, though I admit I could be a lot more consistent in prayer. I tend to only ask for intercession when sitting down to a scene I've been dreading (and procrastinating) for days. But Paul's come through for me most of the time nonetheless!
 
The feast of Sts. Peter and Paul is one of the Church's major summer celebrations, and a special one to me as a writer. They have given such richness and wisdom to our Faith. Let us all try, as best we can, to be imitators of both of them--holy in life and insightful in word.
 
Saints Peter and Paul, pray for us!