All posts by andrewthorntonnorris

Elfdom in New England

The blaze of the bonfire had ebbed to a low red flame, and the great pile of live coals born of it skipped and sparked among the ashes. I sat on one of several rude wooden benches, and as I sat I thoughtfully sucked my long pipe. Then, taking the curved stem from between my teeth I indicated the fire. “Ought’n it to be put out?” I said. From where he lounged in the shadows, one of the half-dozen or so others nearby me said: “well, I’ll be heading off to round up the kids in a bit.” The kids in question were the various visiting summer students, high schoolers who had been dropped off, awkward and uncertain, at the small college campus. In the distance, the more enthusiastic of them—those who actually wanted to be here—could still be faintly heard singing snatches of the old Irish folk tunes, which only a short while ago were being roared out around the great fire. The speaker, a fellow worker at the college during the sultry New England summer, rose and went sighing off into the night.

The other who remained were strangers. They had been offered supper and a place to sleep, an offer received with thanks. These five or six young men and women were pilgrims on their way to the shrine of the Virgin in Washington— a motley bunch, but thrown together by God’s good graces. I was introduced to several of them, and when they joined the larger company around the bonfire had laughed at their terribly bad jokes. Since then, I have entirely forgotten their names.

It may be, however, that my remembering their names is of very little consequence, for what occurred next sealed between their company and myself a bond more significant, more lasting, than a mere acquaintance. For seeing that I was intent on remaining by the fireside for a little while longer, as I tended the coals and added a few sticks to the low flame, one of the strangers—their leader—went off to where they had stowed their packs and returned with a collection of volumes under his arm, bound in worn leather. These he distributed to each of the small company, who thumbed through worn pages familiar with use, until a final place had been marked. In the glow of the fire the rim of the leader’s glasses glinted as he turned to me.

 

“We’re going to pray the Night Office. Would you care to join us?”

“Alright,” I said. “Thank you.”

 

Then in that place, under the course of the constellations with the Bear at the azimuth, we sang the ancient prayers of the people of God, and though the Psalm tones were unfamiliar, the words I knew from memory. Salva Nos, Domine vigilantes, custodi nos dormientes. Their voices rose, mine trailing behind a little, and as we sang I suddenly had an intimation of that awful and beautiful doctrine of my religion— I mean a sight, however hidden in the vast dark mirror of the world, of the Communion of Saints. Here was a conjunctive presence, a joining-with, a union and enactment of the great prayer of the whole Church that spills forth from the offering of her tremendous lover, sicut unguentum in capite, quod descendit in barbam Aaron.

 

So there I stood, peering over someone’s shoulder at a shared breviary, the words barely visible in the dying embers of the fire, and with this stranger I chanted an ancient hymn to the Mother of God, sounding those archaic words of long travail: in hac lacriumarum vale. And I felt that I was not among strangers, but among friends.

In his Commentary on the Psalms St. Augustine writes, “we sigh in our pilgrimage; we shall rejoice in the city. But we find companions in this pilgrimage, who have already seen this city herself; who summon us to run towards her.” In this life our steps grow long; our heads wearily nod through what seems a trackless wood of action and habit and the endless necessity of reparation. And yet…who would deny that there are chance meetings in life, rare company to keep? You may very well welcome a stranger into your midst who returns to you a gift greater and more precious than whatever meager fare you offer him, though only met in passing. Such meetings mirror our own state: we are also, while on this middle-earth, strangers and sojourners.

 

The last of the fire had died down to ashes. The stars glinted overhead. The time was late and the company needed to disperse. I walked slowly across the campus, up the dormitory stairs, and with the last words of the Salve Regina running through my mind, I lay down and fell fast asleep.

 

Then I awoke in the morning, and the strangers had departed.

 

In Defense of Nonsense: A Plea

It is tempting to ask what the planners of the revised Standard Core Curriculum were thinking when they devised its content. That might, however, exceed the planners’ capacities. As it is, even normally progressive members of the nation’s professoriate have voiced stern alarums about the repercussions that the proposed Curriculum may entail for the future of America’s youth—who are already, as we know, such bright young things when taken in the aggregate.

After all, the new Core Curriculum proposal—an effort of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in conjunction with the Achieve Foundation—is a rather curious affair. More than anything, it is designed to be functional, practical, productive of students who can contribute to the building of a brighter future by acquiring those skills needed to boost the GDP. The reign of the toaster-makers has come into its own.

Thus it is that we discover a plan of education that is stripped of all anachronistic superfluities. Literature is out. History, much effaced by the comfortably nebulous heading of Social Studies, is also out. Incoming high schoolers no longer need fear Shakespeare’s fearsome verbiage: what will matter henceforth are the skills of calculation, computing, and quantifying. The watchword of this proposed Core Curriculum is Fact: Fact concrete, Fact immediate, Fact unquestioning, Fact compliant. Dickens’s Thomas Gradgrind, if he could weep, would be weeping with joy. All nonsense has been vanquished.

But let us not be hasty to applaud the new Curriculum: it has a hollow bottom. Quash the capacity for moral imagination in a child, and strange aberrations make their appearance. The Jabberwocky is banished; Aslan is shorn and made a tabby; Tom, Huck, and Sid take a nasty turn, and what is the result? That tendency towards habitual action that a child gradually develops will remain, but his actions will not be directed towards any fixed object, nor will have any lodestar by which to regulate his life. 

Nature will revolt and the desire for nonsense will return, but neither will be anywhere near the optimal conditions of human flourishing. The cloying sensuality of what passes for childhood reading is an early symptom of this failure in contemporary education, a failure which will be aggravated tenfold by the implementation of such a curriculum as has been proposed and, indeed, implemented by nearly all of our nation’s fifty states— with the valiant exception of Indiana. 

What, then, is to be proposed as a solution to such circumstances? How can the formation of a child’s moral sensibilities be developed such that they grow up to be responsible adults? Stories were once the central medium by which the inclination towards the good was nourished. And a good story is like a good sword: both have a point. But today our children are given safety scissors: watery, morally uncertain and ideologically-laced fictions. 

What I would like to tentatively propose, therefore, as one means to counter-balance this dramatic truncation of personal formation encountered in our public schools—miniature versions of Eliot’s Waste Land—is to encourage, in whatever way possible, the reading or, better yet, the hearing, of narratives with definitive moral content. John Senior’s Good Books list would be one way to start. The recommendations of classically-inclined private schools or homeschooling groups is another. Bring on Tom Sawyer; bring on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; and by all means, let the little children encounter some version of Homer at some point. Above all, however, don’t neglect the Jabberwocky. A little nonsense in always needed, even in our preeminently factual age.

Sede Vacante

While waiting for the train on the cold morning of February 28th, the following poem began to take shape. It seemed to me that the uncertain skies that day paralleled the uncertain time that lies ahead for the Church before the election of the next Pontiff.

 

Sede Vacante

 

Dawn paints the heavens

Marian blue

Splashed with grey-white clouds

That dither indecisively

Between the joy-filled brightness of thanksgiving

And the stark somberness of sorrow

 

Across an ocean

A basilica stands

Like a hearth

Where no fire burns,

Devoid of warmth, light, comfort, or cheer;

The chair of Peter is empty.

Christian Culture

Modernity might be defined as the age when mankind tried to do without God for the first time. The effect on culture has been extraordinarily stimulating. From the Renaissance and Reformation, through the Baroque reaction, the Enlightenment and Romanticism, and the Modernist reaction, Western culture has flourished.

Now however the impetus seems to have gone. Now that God has been so effectively removed from our society and culture, there seems to be no point in getting worked up about anything, no point in getting out of bed, so to speak. And the art and culture that is being produced is singularly tired and uninteresting. Postmodernism is the end of the line. So where next? Back the way we came?

In theology the current fashion – “Radical Orthodoxy” – is to see the whole modern experiment as just that, an experiment, which is now finished, and we can return to the certainties and security of the medieval, with its culmination in Thomas Aquinas. In poetry this produced Dante, probably the greatest poet of all time. But is this really possible in a relativist environment hostile to such certainties and security?

In fact it might be the environment most conducive to it. When the state no longer takes any view as to what moral or spiritual truth is, and allows its citizens full freedom of conscience. The medieval conflict between the temporal and the spiritual power which produced both corrupt Kings and corrupt Popes is over. The only danger is that that relativism should not become a dictatorship, restricting views with which it disagrees.

And the art that might be produced would be Christian, but not overtly so. Christianity would once again become the basic assumption, within which a person lives their life, and produces their goods. And Western culture would once again return to its Classical and Christian roots, and find there the energy and enthusiasm that it seems to have lost in cynicism and irony and disillusion.