Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Cross In All Things

This past Sunday the Church celebrated the glorious feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The story behind the feastday is an extraordinary one: on the fourteenth of September we commemorate the day St. Helen, mother of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Great, discovered the True Cross on which Jesus Christ gave His life for the world.

I will not attempt today to plunge the profundities that such a feast holds. So many wiser and more beautiful things have been said about the Cross than I could ever write. I simply want to share a few tidbits of this literature on the Cross that have recently caught my attention.

First, a hymn from Vespers before the feast from the Eastern tradition. I love our prayers for Vespers and Matins on holy days. They dive into poetic and theological raptures on the feast, and we bring them to life again every year with voice and melody. Through these prayers we are truly immersed in the mysterious presence of the feast:

O Cross, you are the radiant sign among the stars.
In prophecy you have revealed the sign of victory to the godly king;
And when his mother Helena found you,
She displayed you in the sight of all the world.
Today the choirs of the faithful shout aloud as they raise you on high:
Enlighten us by your brightness, O life-giving and all-venerable Cross.
Make us holy by your might;
Strengthen us by your exaltation,
For you are raised up against our enemies.

Today the choirs shout; today make us holy. The emphasis on the present shifts the focus from a mere commemoration of the feast, to an actual participation in it. It reminds us that we are Christians today and galvanizes us to live as such.

Moving westward, I take my second piece of literature from the Elizabethan poet John Donne.

Although a contemporary of Shakespeare, Donne was not half as famous, probably because his poetry is so intellectually rigorous and not all easy to understand. Nonetheless he wrote some very profound and beautiful lyrics, particularly religious poems. His Holy Sonnets are deservedly called gems and I may well write on them in more detail in the future. But today I draw attention to a few lines from a longer poem that he wrote called, simply, "The Cross":

Who can deny me power and liberty
To stretch mine arms and mine own cross to be?
Swim, and at every stroke thou art thy cross;
The mast and yard make one, where seas do toss.
Look down, thou spiest out crosses in small things;
Look up thou see'st birds raised on the crossed wings;
All the globe's frame, and spheres, is nothing else
But the meridians crossing parallels.
("The Cross", lines 17-24)

In other words, we may as well embrace the cross--because we can hardly avoid it! "All the globe's frame" reflects the astounding and glorious sacrifice of our Creator.

May the Holy Cross protect and sanctify all of us this week in our minds and hearts.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Great Books Calling, Part 4

The fourth and final segment of a blog series on my journey to the Great Books and Wyoming Catholic College. Click the links to read the previous segments: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

My mind, heart, and soul were made up. I wanted to go to a Great Books college. It didn't matter that I had to explain to every other person what the Great Books were, or that some of them gave me strange looks when encountering the concept of a classical liberal arts education. I had a calling. I had been inspired--literally, a new zeal had been breathed into me, and I was not giving it up.

In the very first days of my new excitement I believed I was called to St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland (see Part 3). I loved their small community, their dynamic classroom approach, their intellectual rigor. In fact I was so overjoyed at finding a college that actually appealed to me, that I was reluctant to search farther. But, for the sake of thoroughness, I did. (Thank the Lord!) The next college website I visited was that of Wyoming Catholic College.

I had actually known about Wyoming Catholic, vaguely, for years. My mother worked in higher education, and we had friends of friends who were involved in its founding in 2005. But the only reason it had remained on my radar was because of its equestrian program. (I had known, even before I wanted the Great Books, that I wanted to ride during college.) Other than that, WCC seemed a mere blip on the map. They were less than ten years old. They had less than 150 students. They had no permanent campus. What kind of future could I possibly find there?

I very quickly found out.

That day in late spring of 2013, I pored over WCC's website. I instantly felt their Catholicity. I had not realized how much I had been missing that element in my college search; now it called out to my like a clarion trumpet. Here was a place a could not only keep my faith, but also nurture it. Next I swooned for their curriculum. From the giants like Plato and Shakespeare, to original scientific texts by Newton and Einstein, to the Bible and papal encyclicals--this was the real deal. I had been terrified of trapping myself in one discipline in college; no fear of that at WCC. Everyone took the same incredible classes; everyone learned to think like a poet, a philosopher, a theologian. And one more thing--a cowboy.

For it the faithful culture and solid curriculum of WCC drew me in, it was the outdoor program that hooked me for good. On the website, I marveled at photos--students horseback riding, scrambling up and down cliffs, hiking in pristine mountain wilderness. This was...different. Very different. This was like no other college I'd ever seen. What other school, first thing freshman year, took its students on a required three-week backpacking trip in the mountains? It was crazy. It was terrifying. It was kind of ingenious.

As a suburban Illinois girl, whose childhood had been filled with adventures in books, I was admittedly starved for wilderness. At Wyoming Catholic, I'd be immersed in it. I'd learn outdoor skills, teamwork, leadership, and wonder. I'd be surrounded by God's glory and the song of the mountains.

At that Wyoming Catholic became my number one college; number two became...actually, there wasn't a number two. But I couldn't wait two years. So I signed up for their summer program, P.E.A.K. (Powerful Experience of Adventure and Knowledge). Those two weeks this past July were some of the most beautiful and challenging of my life. I did study the Great Books. I did feel nurtured and strengthened in the deeply Catholic environment. I did see the song of the mountains, every morning, from the porch of my dorm. I did sleep among the sagebrush and the stars.

I also did a few crazy things, like this:

Australian rappelling--ie., walking headfirst down a cliff! That's me on the right, just starting to freak out...
(Photo by Mikaela Heal and Grace Pfeifer)

When I returned to my Chicago suburb, I found it...depressingly flat. But I know I'll be back. I've left a second home in Lander, WY. My Great Books calling led me to the mountains, where I saw beauty and felt terror and knew humility and joy as never before. In my mind, there is no question: I am a future student of Wyoming Catholic College.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Feathers & Trumpets: A Story of Hildegard of Bingen, by Joyce Ray

Recently I signed up as a volunteer on, a wonderful site dedicated to "news, views, and reviews of classic and contemporary Catholic fiction." The following is my first book review for the site. My Great Books series will return next week.
When I picked up this book I knew little enough about St. Hildegard of Bingen--only that she was a medieval nun who composed music and wrote books, both of which activities were unusual for women of her time. However, thanks to Joyce Ray's beautiful and well-researched novel, I now have a much greater appreciation for this unique saint and Doctor of the Church.
Young Hildegard is an unusual girl. The tenth child of noble parents in 12th century Germany, she is from her birth destined to become a nun, thanks to the medieval practice of "tithing" every tenth child to the Church. As a girl she is plagued by headaches, fainting spells--and visions. She predicts the color and markings of a calf before it is born. She sees fantastic landscapes and ferocious mythical creatures. Troubled about the source of these visions, her family agrees Hildegard will be safer behind the walls of a monastery.
The plot follows Hildegard through her years of preparatory training, her profession as a Benedictine nun at the age of fourteen, her life as a secluded anchoress in St. Disibod Monastery, and later her leadership role among the larger community of nuns. All through these events her visions continue. Some are terrifying, others unbearably beautiful. Because Hildegard is still unsure whether the source of the visions is holy or evil, she only shares them with her two closest companions--her ascetic mentor Jutta and her beloved disciple, Richardis. But when a Voice out of a blinding light commands her to write down her visions, she cannot keep them a secret any longer. With the help of a monk named Volmar she begins recording God's revelations.
Hildegard's visions are some of the most beautiful prose passages in the story. All her life Hildegard searches for love in her fellow man, but she only finds love's consummation in her intense encounters with the living God:
"In the clear radiance, the blue was azurite, as pure as the pigment illuminating her Psalter. The point came nearer, took human form and shimmered with sapphire brilliance. The human figure gazed as Hildegard. She floated on a gentle current....She neared the radiant human, knowing that he was her destination, that he was the answer to her pain. But the current supporting her flowed faster now. It became a torrent of floodwaters that churned and sped her toward the shimmering sapphire which radiated heat. When the figure engulfed her, she knew instantly that the arms of her Lord cradled her."
The strength in God that her visions inspire allows her to carry on her monastic work through much physical suffering and human opposition. In the latter part of the book she receives a vision, which she believes is a command, to move her community of nuns from St. Disibod  and to build a new monastery at Mount St. Rupert. The abbot of St. Disibod, who has enjoyed the funds and notoriety his monastery has received ever since Hildegard revealed her visions, resists the change. But through Divine intervention he is eventually forced to allow Hildegard to follow her calling.
One of the remarkable things about the book is Joyce Ray's skill in portraying Hildegard a character with whom the reader can sympathize. Most of us are not cloistered monastics, nor do we have heaven-sent visions. But Hildegard is not distant or incomprehensible. She loves music and gardening. As a girl she dislikes the tedium of memorizing Latin psalms. She cannot follow the ascetic habits of her mentor Jutta, who flays herself and fasts to the point of sickness. As a young nun, she struggles with her attraction towards the monk Volmar; as an older woman, she feels a mother's pain when her faithful disciple Richardis leaves her to lead a different monastery. In fact, the character of Hildegard presents a remarkable portrait of a person who really is ordinary, but is also given immense gifts by God.
As historical fiction, the book is researched thoroughly enough that the setting feels honest and real. For an added treat, each chapter is headed by a quote from Hildegard's actual poetry, letters, and biography. As a young adult novel, is does an excellent job of turning a character who would at first seem foreign into a person whom the young reader can care about. Under Joyce Ray's pen, the monastic life becomes a drama of love between God the Creator and his created. Feathers and Trumpets is a worthy tribute to this unique and wonderful saint. 
A bonus for my blog readers: a taste of Hildegard's music. Listen to as little or as much as you like; it is all gorgeous.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Great Books Calling, Part 3


The third installment of a mini-series on my path towards a Great Books education and Wyoming Catholic College. Click the links to read Part 1 and Part 2.

Thus far in my ramble I've shown what I felt was missing in the mainstream college experience, and explained why the Great Books approach, in contrast, drew me so deeply. Typical colleges today (and I'm lumping the Ivy Leaguers into this definition) hone their students into a particular career path, with relatively little concern over the actual formation of the students' minds and souls. The Great Books method, on the other hand, challenges its pupils to understand the fundamental truths of their existence. A human being is defined by more than what he or she does for a living.

So I desired this deeper kind of education. But which school to choose? Fortunately I did not have an overwhelming number of options--true Great Books colleges are a novelty nowadays. (I can't tell you how many times I've had to explain to people what they are!) The first school to draw my attention was St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland.

Of all the college brochures in that oft-mentioned heap in the corner of my room, St. John's was the only one that spoke meaningfully to me. Among the oldest schools in the country (found in 1696), it has retained the classical liberal arts curriculum which most colleges have dropped. Although not religiously affiliated, they respect the integral place of Christianity in Western tradition, studying the Bible and many great Christian works of thought and literature. In class they use the time-honored (and stimulating) method of Socratic discussion. They care about intellectual life--and how it forms you for real life. They are emphatic on the integration of the different disciplines, on the harmony of the whole. I sensed wholeness from St. John's as I had from no other school.

So how did I end up heading west, not east? Why did I forgo the historic school in Annapolis for a tiny, 8-year-old college dropped into the vastness of Wyoming?

Three words: Mountains, horses, and the Catholic Faith.

(To be continued)

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 and 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!