Richard Meloche
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Dr. Richard Meloche serves as the president of the Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture.

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On the Merits of Rural Living

Much of who we are, what we do, and how we express ourselves as Catholics is tied inextricably to our ancient, but mostly forgotten, agrarian heritage.  One cannot read the Bible, for example, without soon stumbling onto a reference about the land, or farming, or animal husbandry: God is our shepherd (Ps. 23); His chosen people are sheep (Ps. 79); Jesus Christ is the spotless Lamb (1 Pt. 1:19); and the Church is a rich field (1 Cor. 3:9).  In fact, the entire narrative of salvation of history – from blessing to blessing, as the Catechism puts it – is bookended by an agrarian reference. The garden, miserably kept and cultivated by the first “tiller,” Adam, is finally restored and regenerated by the new “tiller,” Jesus Christ, who, we are told in the Book of Revelation, reaps a superabundant harvest at the end of time (cf. Rev. 14:17f).

This rich agrarian imagery is subsequently taken up by Sacred Tradition.  Many – if not most – of our great teachers and preachers, mystics and martyrs, artists and architects, utilize similar bucolic language.  Following the Master Teacher, they often use simple agrarian imagery to express and convey complex supernatural truths.  To give but one example, think how commonly the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) is adorned in our churches, altars, paintings, and prose.

In addition, these rural roots were also once employed to help Christians sanctify time.  Each season throughout the year (Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter) the Church would celebrate the “Ember days” – three days of fasting and prayer.   The “Winter” ember days (after the feast of St. Lucia, Dec. 13th) were ordered to a successful seeding of the fields; the Spring ember days were dedicated to a fruitful growing season; the fasting of the Summer ember days was offered for a bountiful harvest; and finally the faithful beseeched the Good Lord with particular devotion during the Fall ember days for the successful fermentation of both grain and grape.

I write all of this as a lamentation of sorts.  It is not accidental to our Catholic faith that Jesus Christ, the Holy Scriptures, Sacred Tradition, and historical Catholic practices utilized agrarian motifs.  It is a part of who we are as Catholics, and sadly, much of this imagery and symbolism is lost to us.  Such imagery can help form our understanding of the mysteries of the Catholic faith and help us live lives of authenticity, intentionality, and joy.  It is thus not by accident that the Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture hosts annually its Martinmas Celebration.  Each year, around the feast of St. Martin of Tours (Nov. 11), folks from across the Diocese are invited to experience the simplicity and joy of peasant rural life.  We gather in fields or on farms and experience first-hand the robust agrarian imagery that runs throughout Catholic thought and life.

This year is no different.  We will all be gathering together on Sat., Nov. 12th to experience a traditional (yet elegant) harvest feast out on pasture while listening to a lively discussion on the merits (and difficulties) of rural living.  Br. Joseph Marie from Clear Creek Abbey, Mr. Brandon Sheard, a traditional butcher, and Mr. Ross McKnight, who raises ducks to make foie gras, will be exploring the theoretical importance and practical difficulties of striving for self-sufficiency in the modern-technological age.   The conversation will be supported and augmented with an abundance of good wine and locally sourced and raised meats and cheeses.  It ought to be a night to satisfy both the intellect and body and give participants a richer – more profound – understanding of our “earthy” Catholic faith.  Do consider joining us!

The Metaphysics of Beauty

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s main character in The Idiot famously claims that “beauty will save the world.” Ever since its publication in 1869, and increasingly in recent years, this enigmatic phrase has been used to express an enduring hope in the possibility of restoring an authentic Christian culture in an modern, increasingly secular society. But is this hope well founded? How can beauty go about saving a world that is so obviously marred and almost entirely defined by its ugliness and brutality?

Thankfully, Dostoevsky proposes a ready answer to this perplexing problem. In the same novel, he introduces an intriguing character named Ippolit, a young man dying of tuberculosis. In one particular scene, Ippolit, reflecting upon his encounter with the painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by the famous German-Swiss artist Hans Holbein, comments:

It seems to me that painters are usually in the habit of portraying Christ, both on the cross and taken down from the cross, as still having a share of extraordinary beauty in his face; they seek to preserve this beauty for him in his most horrible suffering. But in [this] picture there is not a word about beauty; this is in the fullest sense the corpse of a man who had endured infinite suffering in the cross…. [I]t is nature alone…. Nature appears to the viewer of this painting in the shape of some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, strange though it is — in the shape of some huge machine of the most modern construction, which is senselessly seized, crushed, and swallowed up, blankly, and unfeelingly, a great and priceless being — such being as by himself was worth the whole nature and all its laws, the whole earth, which was perhaps created solely for the appearance of this being alone! ... The people who surrounded the dead man, none of whom is in the painting, must have felt horrible anguish and confusion on that evening, which at once smashed all their hopes and almost all their beliefs.

Ippolit’s response to the painting of the dead Christ draws into clear focus the crisis under consideration and suggests, at least indirectly, a response. Modern culture is very much like the painting by Holbein. The effects of sin upon our world have distorted and disfigured — so it seems — every inch of it; just as every inch of Christ’s body, in Holbein’s painting, is defaced. Like Ippolit, we perceive only a disfigured and dismantled “corpse;” a dead thing, where once existed a living, virial, life-giving and beautiful culture. Faced with such ugliness, advanced and magnified by technology (aka the “machines” referenced by Ippolit), it becomes difficult to see the truth of things; to see the beauty that is beyond and hidden within the fallen created world.

Importantly, not all who gaze upon Holbein’s dead Christ see what Ippolit sees, namely, fallen “nature alone.” Through the gift of faith, some can — with some effort — contemplate the painting and see beyond the suffering and scandal — the mere destruction of a body — and see the sublime love that moved Christ to die such an ignoble death. This capacity to see rightly — to be able to see the hidden beauty that animates and moves all things, even sin and suffering — must be developed and cultivated. We must be taught “how to look” and thus receive the saving power of beauty in the midst of sin and suffering.

This raises the question: how does one begin to look rightly? How is it possible to discern and experience the truly beautiful in a sinful and dreadful world? It would seem that the first thing that must be done is to acknowledge that there exist counterfeit forms of ‘beauty.’ A ‘beauty’ which, according to Josef Ratzinger, “is deceptive and false.” Such false forms of beauty aim merely to “dazzle” and “lock … [man] entirely into himself … with the desire for power, possession and pleasure.” In contrast, Ratzinger argues that authentic beauty always draws man out of himself and awakens in him the longing for the “Ineffable” (cf. Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty,” Aug. 2002). In other words, true beauty always leads outward and upward, to some good beyond the beholder, while false forms of beauty merely tantalize and entice man to remain within himself.

Once we grasp this important distinction and resist falling prey to false forms of beauty that merely “delight the eyes,” we can then begin to see beauty and experience its salvific power. Looking rightly requires more than the use of our aesthetic senses (principally sight and hearing, since the other senses are too deeply immersed in matter). We must implore the use of our intellects. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the beautiful is “that which pleases when known.” In contrast to that which is simply experienced unreflectively, the truly beautiful must be understood. We must use our cognitive power to discern three essential elements of a thing in order to experience its beauty. We must actually do work in order to enjoy the beautiful.

The first thing that must be done is that we must intellectually grasp a thing’s “integrity.” Everything that is beautiful has an organic wholeness or an interior unity that is pleasing when perceived and understood. Imagine, for example, gazing upon a magnificent Southern Live Oak (Quercus virginiana). Such a species of tree, with its twisting and sprawling array of enormous branches, has an interior unity, a grandeur in its totality. Its branches and leaves are an integral part of a splendid whole. If that tree were to be coppiced (trimmed down to its trunk), its integrity would be spoiled and its beauty destroyed. Perceiving and understanding a thing’s wholeness is an essential element of a thing’s beauty.

Secondly, we must train ourselves to see a thing’s relation both to God and to other things. St. Thomas calls this the discernment of “right proportion.” The truly beautiful is always rightly proportioned to God and to others. This is why we can gaze upon the life of Mother Theresa, for example, and exclaim with confidence that there was a beautiful woman! Her life exhibited a proper relation to her Creator and to the poor souls she encountered in her ministry. In contrast, think of the disproportioned life of the drunkard or the womanizer. They relate proportionally neither to God nor to His creatures and thus live a truly disproportioned and ugly life.

Lastly, in order to see correctly, we must be able to discern the intelligibility of things. Everything beautiful has a certain “claritas,” or splendor of form. This splendor of form radiates through a thing’s matter and makes it intelligible to the viewer. For example, we can gaze upon a handsomely constructed wooden chair and understand immediately its purpose. Its form clearly communicates to us what we should do with the thing. We ought to sit in a chair. The clarity of purpose is easily discernible by a thing which is truly beautiful. Again, in contrast, much of modern abstract art lacks such intelligibility. One could gaze for hours at a painting by Kandinsky (not recommended) and have no idea what you are looking at. It lacks intelligibility or claritasand is thus deemed, rightfully so, ugly.

Hence to “see” the beautiful, we must be able to understand a thing’s integrity, right proportion, and intelligibility. As mentioned, this takes some intellectual effort. In discerning these essential elements within things — even things that have become corrupted and distorted through sin — we begin to train ourselves not only to see and delight in authentic beauty, but, more essentially, we begin to move beyond the beauty of the created order and perceive the utmost integral, proportioned, and intelligible good, namely God Himself. Beauty properly understood is transcendent. It moves us to Beauty itself. And it is this Beauty, contemplated and adored, that has the power to save us and the whole world.

Faith of Our Fathers: Bl. Alcuin of York

In tribute to our patron and in honor of his feast day on May 19, I would like to reflect on what philosophic wisdom Bl. Alcuin of York has to offer as we ponder the mystery of the human person. Unlike many of the Fathers whom we have already turned to in this series, little secondary literature has been written on Alcuin and almost none has been penned detailing his anthropology. Thankfully a large body of his writing has been preserved that we can draw from, much of which are personal letters written to friends. I recently came across one such letter that Alcuin penned in the summer of 798 AD. The letter is addressed to “his sweetest and most truly beloved lord” Emperor Charlemagne, and it is obvious from the context that Alcuin is responding to an earlier letter that he had received from Charlemagne. In this letter you find typical platitudes shared among friends, some interesting replies to various astronomical queries by Charlemagne and a unique request for Alcuin to quickly compose some music for his use. It is this latter request for music that I would like to consider, since I believe it touches upon Alcuin’s vision of the human person. To understand this seemingly odd request for music, a brief historical sketch of the Battle of Bornhoved is in order, since it is the immediate backdrop of the exchange of letters between Alcuin and Charlemagne. The historian C. S. Jaegar recounts that in early spring of 798 AD, the Saxons – sore about a number of harsh edicts and a string of embarrassing military defeats – seized and murdered a few of Charlemagne’s diplomats. In outrage, Charlemagne responded by leading a destructive and harsh campaign keen on finally subduing the unruly and defiant ‘Northerners’. Charlemagne amassed his army and burned and killed his way north, finally pinning the Saxon army on the banks of the Schwentine River. There, Charlemagne and his men slaughtered some 4,000 Saxons, turning the waters of the Schwentine red with blood. Those who fled were hunted down and slaughtered; no mercy was granted to the wounded; it was a decisive and complete routing for Charlemagne and the Franks. It is precisely in this military context, namely the “clashing weapons and raucous blare of trumpets,” that Charlemagne asks his friend for a “sweet and gentle musical refrain.” Alcuin’s letter suggests that Charlemagne’s immediate request is on behalf of his soldiers – affectionately referred to as “his boys” – who, having returned from the killing frenzy, needed the lull of music to temper their raging passions. One can easily imagine the soldiers returning to camp from the battlefield, the stench of death still on them and the pleas for mercy not-granted still ringing in their ears, needing somehow to make the transition from savage warrior to well-mannered Christian. The trauma and violence of the battle did not make such a transition easy. Alcuin’s response also leaves open the interpretative possibility that Charlemagne wished not only the “fierceness of the boys” to be “softened by song,” but his own conscience needed soothing as well. I believe that this request and Alcuin’s willingness to rearrange his busy schedule in order to compose a musical arrangement reveals three essential and perennial truths about the nature of the human person. The first truth made manifest in this exchange is the disordered lust for power (what Augustine calls the libido dominandi) that adversely affects all persons, including Charlemagne. As a result of original sin, the intellect is no longer content on placing itself under the rightful authority of God and His Church, but now the mind seeks opportunities to exercise undue – or what Alcuin calls “savage” – authority over others. In this context Alcuin is aware that Charlemagne’s brutal conquest of Saxony is not a result of a mind animated by “wholesome counsel.” Rather, Charlemagne’s mind is “rasped with anger” and seeks not the “prudent … middle path” or the “wise temperance [that] should rule and govern all things.” This rebellious tendency of the mind adversely motivated Charlemagne in his quest for power and control, and, if we are being honest, we see the same tendencies of rebellion in our own relationships: both human and divine. The second truth concerning human nature communicated in Alcuin’s letter is that man is much more than an immaterial being with a mind. He is a composite thing – a hybrid of sorts – consisting of a mind and a body. This body is often motivated by certain vehement passions or emotions that can cause us to act in ways contrary to how one ought to act. Charlemagne’s “boys,” upon returning from battle, are unable to temper their military ferocity. Skirmishes and fights must have been boiling over into the camp as enkindled passions – instead of reasoned acts – influenced their interactions with one another. Most of us have not been required to manage the trauma of war, but we all have experienced the discomfiture and divisiveness of unchecked and unruly emotions or passions in our lives. The third and final lesson about the human person to be garnered from Alcuin’s letter is that real friendships are an absolute necessity for virtuous living. Charlemagne reaches out to his friend and mentor in his time of need, and Alcuin responds: “I shall … proceed to carry out faithfully and all urgency what your sweetest authority has deigned to demand of me.” Alcuin is clear that his willingness to complete the task requested is not due to either political loyalty or fear but a result of the “sacred law of friendship” that compels him to “to keep the soul of a friend intact.” In other words, a friend, according to Alcuin, is someone who desires and strives for the authentic happiness of the other. In fact, Alcuin defines a friend as a “custodian of the soul.” Such a definition implies a relationship of necessity. A friend accordingly is essential (he/she is not merely useful or pleasant) for the full flourishing of the individual, both bodily and spiritually. What I find particularly interesting in all of this is that both Alcuin and Charlemagne seem to suggest that music – and the creation of music in particular – is a unique cure to the disorders of the mind and the emotions and an effective conduit for the cultivation of friendships. It seems that music can “soothe the ungentle mind” by the logistical harmony of music. Hearing or playing or composing *good* music reorients the mind to the logic of creation, which in turn allows the mind to rest in its proper place thus nullifying the lust for power. Similarly, music by its very “sweetness” is also capable of “dampening swelling rage.” Disordered passions are ordered, suggests Alcuin, not by words, which have their limit, but by music which softens hearts and restores peace in the soul. Lastly, notice how it is a discussion about music that is the very context for the correspondence between these two great friends. Their mutual love for music and their appreciation for its medicinal power causes them to bind themselves ever more closely to one another in filial piety. In our own modern day, we are often besieged with the same “swelling rage and … idle mind” that inflicted poor Charlemagne and his boys. Couple this with the seemingly universal absence of authentic friendships and modern man is poorly equipped to arrive at that happiness that we all so desperately seek. Perhaps now then is time for a cultural renewal in the musical arts. A concentrated effort to revive in our homes and schools inspiring music that calms the passions, informs the mind and binds us all together in lasting friendships.

Alcuin & the Power of Music

On May 19th the Church formally recognized and duly honored our beloved patron, Bl. Alcuin of York. In a fitting act of veneration, I choice to mark the date by reclining at the end day with a glass of scotch and reading one of the many letters penned by Blessed Alcuin. I happened upon a letter that Alcuin wrote to Emperor Charlemagne in the summer of 798 AD, unpoetically referred to as Epistle 149 in his canon of literature. The letter is quite intriguing on two accounts: (1) its historical background and, (2) Alcuin’s rather odd insistence on the medicinal—almost miraculous—qualities of music. The historical backdrop of the letter is the brutal battle of Bornhӧved. Charlemagne and his army had tracked down and pinned a rebellious Saxon militia against the banks of the Schwentine river and in a disproportionate fit of rage Charlemagne ordered that all 4000 ‘northerners’ be cut down and dispatched. No mercy was granted to the captured, and those that fled were hunted down and slaughtered. It was a decisive, complete, and absolutely bloody routing in favor of Charlemagne and the Franks. This killing frenzy, however, appears to have had a negative impact on Charlemagne and “his boys.” One can easily imagine the soldiers returning to camp from the battlefield, the stench of death still on them and the pleas for mercy not-granted still ringing in their ears, needing somehow to make the transition from savage warrior to well-mannered Christian. The gratuitous brutality of this skirmish did not make such a transition easy, not even for battle-hardened soldiers. Thus, at the behest of Charlemagne, Alcuin is requested to compose some music to “mollify the savage impulses” of the men. Music is understood to be a unique cure or balm that heals the disorders of the mind and the emotions. Alcuin writes that music can “soothe the ungentle mind.” Similarly, music by its very “sweetness” is also capable of “dampening swelling rage.” Disordered passions and agitated intellects are ordered, suggests Alcuin, not by words which have their limit, but by music which softens hearts and restores peace in the soul. I admit that at first blush I found this recourse to music to be a tad…trite. Admittingly, I am not a musician and have never spent any time cultivating a musical aesthetic. Upon a quick survey of the tradition, however, you find everyone from Plato to Bloom making the similar claim. Music—that is, good music—is the perennial elixir for the troubled soul. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many of us are filled with anger, agitation, unrest, illogic, and prone to fits of passionate outburst. We live in a musically impoverished and tainted culture. Perhaps what we need then is an intentional and habitual return to some “sweet melodies” to calm and heal us. Blessed Alcuin, pray for us.

St. Thomas & the Cure for Modern Malaise

Ever since his canonization, a mere 50 years after his earthly passing, the Church has routinely advanced and promoted the precious wisdom of the “Common Doctor.” A quick study of magisterial pronouncements makes it quite clear that the Church routinely encourages Thomistic thought precisely at times of acute cultural woe. Why is this the case? I would argue it is because the thought of St. Thomas is perceived by Holy Mother Church to be a powerful medicinal agent—an elixir of sorts—that, at once, soothes, binds, and restores health. Take, for example, Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Studorium Ducem promulgated in 1923; at which time the cultural body was in a feverish height of immorality—decadence, licentiousness, greed, the so-called “Roaring 20s”—all precipitated by a mostly economic migration from rural lands to urban factories. Surprisingly, the Church’s solution to this cultural problem was to encourage a revival of Thomistic thought: “Go to St. Thomas!” She declared. By prescribing a good dose of St. Thomas, She was addressing the problem at its root, as good doctors are known to do. Man uprooted from his native soil and transplanted in the urban landscape lost his capacity to think clearly and thus act morally. He severed himself from reality and immersed himself in artificiality. The wind, sky, and soil were soon replaced with concrete, neon lights, and conditioned air. With no immediate contact with reality he no longer wondered, and without wonder there was no wisdom, and without wisdom there was no virtue, and without virtue there was only cultural malaise. The Church in Her motherly care thus prescribed to all men of good will the philosopher of the ‘real’—St. Thomas Aquinas. To read St. Thomas is to immerse oneself in reality, in being, in ‘esse’. And being so immersed in reality, the senses are awakened; the mind, in turn, is strengthened; virtue is ultimately pursued; and culture—one Thomist at a time—is restored. Of course, our own culture is suffering from an even greater distancing from reality. We are now in what economists call the third industrial revolution: the complete digitalization of manufacturing. We have moved from factories to fiber-optics—with all reality being mediated through technology. In this season of disorder and malaise, it is thus perhaps high time for another dose of St. Thomas!

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Faith of Our Fathers: Introduction

Interesting conversations almost always begin with a bold, polemic statement. So, allow me to begin this series by stating an obvious but seldom admitted observation: our modern age is motivated by an irrational faith in the ‘new’. If it is new it is presumed as somehow being better by mere dint of fact of its relative novelty. As proof of my claim, take for example the latest craze for the newest technology—the 2.0 is unreflectively deemed superior by virtue of its release date.In saner times, the value of an object was weighed by its age and endurance. The reliable ‘test of time’ was held to be the best judge of the particular merit and value of a thing. If a thing still proved to be relevant after generational use – then heck, it must be good. This was most surely the thinking of Bl. Alcuin of York (b. circa 735 a.d.). When Alcuin was appointed the minister of education for the newly established Holy Roman Empire, he was charged by Emperor Charlemagne to intellectually invigorate an entire nation that had fallen into a mental stupor. Centuries before, when the barbarian hordes had invaded Rome, they did their best to destroy all that was good, true and beautiful, including the many and various monasteries that populated the land. These monasteries, with their vast libraries and learned and holy men, were the centers of learning (colleges/universities did not exist), and when these were blotted-out the acumen of the people, understandably, atrophied. Importantly, in order to reverse course, Alcuin did not implement the latest educational fad but, instead, turned to the past in order to positively affect the future. He knew that certain pedagogies had proven most effective in forming good habits of the mind and he also knew the specific body of knowledge that the great thinkers of old had arduously studied and learned. With this knowledge in hand he implemented his reforms. He ordered a very simple ‘program’ of manuscriptual transcription (aka the copying of old books). He insisted that every ancient text that had survived the centuries of neglect be painstakingly replicated—letter by letter and word by word. By doing so he was advancing both a proven educational pedagogy, viz. copy work and, simultaneously introducing the copyist to the proven wisdom of the ancients. As a result of Alcuin’s strategic turning to the past an educational, and in turn a cultural, renaissance was begun. His efforts resulted in what historians call the Carolingian Renaissance: an intense and long period of unparalleled human flourishing. All of this to say that there is not only precedence in our Catholic tradition in looking to the past to positively affect the future, but there is proven wisdom and utility in doing so. The past has much to teach us if we but simply have the humility to turn to our forebears and seek in earnest their aged—and time-tested—counsel. Hence, this series will be devoted to explicitly turning to the wisdom of the many and varied voices of our Catholic heritage. We will be looking not only to the intellectual giants, such as Augustine, Aquinas, Newman, and Thérèse, but to more obscure, and often forgotten members of our Catholic family, like Alcuin of York and John Damascene. More specifically, this series will be plumbing the wisdom of our tradition on a particular theme, namely the mystery of the human person. We have chosen to explore this theme of the human person on account of the growing confusion concerning the nature of man and the subsequent increased threat to human life and dignity. Twenty-five years ago, Pope St. John Paul II worried that various new scientific and technological advancements would lead to sinister legislation and profound popular norms that would undermine the very truth and goodness of persons. This is more true now than in 1995 when JP II penned Evangelium Vitae. Take for example that almost a quarter of all Americans (22%) believe that man is no more than a sack of randomly organized cells (cf. 2019 Gallup survey on Creationism), and just under half of all Americans (40%) believe that there is a range of possible gender identities that are in no way implicitly tied to one’s biological sex (cf. 2019 PRRI survey on Transgenderism). These mistaken and tragic views on the nature of the human person, no matter how well intentioned, need the illuminating and purifying light of the Gospel and sacred Tradition. It is ultimately the mystery of the Incarnation—the God-Man, Jesus Christ—that fully reveals man to himself (cf. Gadium et Spes, 22) And what does Christ reveal about human nature? The Incarnation (Lat.: in + caro, literally ‘to be made flesh’) reveals, first and foremost, the utterly unique and extraordinary place that man occupies in the vastness and beauty of the created cosmos. Out of an unfathomable love God chose to unite Himself to man. Furthermore, as the Catechism informs us, man is also quite special on account of four qualities that he singularly possesses, namely: (1) that he is made in the imago Dei – the image of God; (2) that he is – what the philosophers call – hylemorphic, that is, in his own nature he unites the spiritual (angelic) and the material (bestial) worlds; (3) that he is created “male and female”; and lastly (4) that God established him in “friendship” with Himself (CCC, n. 355). These are profound truths that when deeply understood and truly appropriated effect not only how we see ourselves but how we relate to others and to God. Thus the necessity of turning to our tradition to help us plumb this very essential and important mystery: the mystery of the human person. Throughout the year we will be enlisting a bevy of learned contributors to help us enter more deeply into the mystery of man. They will be turning back to our shared intellectual patrimony in order to shed light on particular thinkers who have written profoundly and/or eloquently on the nature of the human person. The contributors will assist us in understanding what exactly the ancient authors are saying and help us ponder anew how the truths conveyed thereby can positively influence our own understanding and interactions with the modern world. In addition to the merry faculty of the Alcuin institute (Dr. Christine Myers, Dcn. Harrison Garlick, Mr. Joey Spencer, Eli Stone, and Mason Beecroft) we are pleased to announce that Dr. Donald Prudlo, the new Warren Professor of Catholic Studies from TU, will also be contributing to the series. In the opening quote of this essay Bl. Alcuin analogously refers education to feasting. The learning of grammar, writes Alcuin, is like the consumption of apples: not particularly enjoyable, but necessarily good for you. The study of Holy Writ, alternatively, is likened to the eating of honey: palatable, sweet and utterly satisfying. “Ancient learning,” however, according to Alcuin is akin to drinking “old wine”: deep, flavorful, and intoxicating. Like the consumption of old wine, the learning of ancient truths, transmits a depth and a richness that is unrivaled by the new. In this series we thus invite you to turn away from the new (at least for a while) and to drink deeply from the fermented treasury of our ancient past. Enjoy!

Ember Days & the Restoration of the Catholic Imagination

Much of who we are, what we do, and how we express ourselves as Catholics is tied inexplicitly to our ancient, but mostly forgotten, agrarian heritage. One cannot read the bible, for example, without soon stumbling onto a reference about the land, or farming, or animal husbandry. The pages of Scripture are saturated with numerous references to shepherds and sheep, fields and vineyards, plough shears and winnowing forks. As moderns—divorced largely from the land—these bucolic biblical motifs lose much of their weight. Our imaginations—having not been vivified by actual sense experience—are unable to contribute anything to the truth conveyed. The rural metaphors and images remain mostly flat—a mere fact in the intellect. This, I would argue, is a great loss and one of the more devasting consequence of the mass flight from the fields. All is not lost, however. There is something we urbanites can readily (and easily) do to help thicken our agrarian imaginations and become reacquainted with our ancient farming past. Pre-industrialized Christians would practice something called the Ember days (Lat. quatuor anni tempora). Four times a year—following the natural agrarian calendar—the faithful would solemnly consecrate the seasons through three days of intense fasting, abstinence, and prayer (think of the practices of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday). They would pause on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at the beginning of every seasonal transition and pray for Heaven's blessings upon the earth. During the Winter Ember days, the faithful would dedicated their penance to a successful seeding. The Spring Ember days were set aside for a fruitful growing season, while the fasting of the Summer Ember days were offered for a bountiful harvest. Finally, the faithful beseeched the Good Lord with particular devotion during the Fall Ember days for the successful fermentation of both grain and grape (strong beer and wine to keep the body warm and spirits high during the cold, long evenings of Wintertide). The reintroduction of the disciplinary practices of the Ember days is a good way to reconnect with our rich agrarian heritage. By recognizing the traditional farming cycle through self-imposed penance, we remind ourselves that the food we eat is not a product of factories, lab-technicians, and box-stores, but a gift from a benevolent God—one that has been painstaking cultivated by the labor and prayers of the farmer. Such a recognition will not only help us appreciate and understand our agrarian roots but will also instantiate the mostly lost virtues of gratitude and moderation. So, why not take up the ancient penitential practice this season? This Wednesday (September 16th) marks the beginning of the Fall Ember days. Let us put down our forks and knives and take up the salutary work of penance and prayer and, in doing so, reignite the embers of our own dimmed imaginations.

Newman & “Virgilian” Education

I am oft to describe the efforts and activities of the Alcuin Institute as essentially “Virgilian.” I realize that this descriptor fails to clarify anything, but I don’t know of a better adjective to use. To be honest, I stole the word from St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, who uses it to express the charism of the early Benedictine monks. Newman categorizes the Benedictines as “Virgilian” on account of their youthful “simplicity and romance,” in contrast to others (viz. the Dominicans and Jesuits) who were keen on “elaborate undertakings,” “deep calculations,” and “sustained machinations.” In other words, the early Benedictines, according to Newman, were not so much concerned with thinking and acting, but were rather more interested in simply experiencing reality—in all of its grandeur and mystery. Newman then goes on to point out that it was specifically this poetic or Virgilian disposition of the Benedictines that healed not only the individual monks convalescing in his community, but eventually the entire ancient world. The simple and poetic presencing of reality through “prayer, penance, and toil” allowed for the maladies that were affecting the early monks and their surrounding culture to be healed, as it were, ‘naturally’. Nature, quietly and often unobservable, heals not by artificial corrections and manipulations, but through simple, tranquil, and persistent contact with reality. This, of course, is how St. Benedict and the Benedictines set about to restore the world that was, at the time, in physical and social ruins. If such a remedy worked then, why not now in the Diocese of Tulsa? The Alcuin Institute sets out to heal our equally fractured modern world, not by pursuing some mere notional knowledge about God, or advancing certain novel educational techniques, but by cultivating the foundation of wisdom, namely wonder and its accompanying qualities: admiration, enthusiasm, and delight. By quietly praying, reading, discussing, studying, and feasting (of course!), a soul—and subsequently a culture—is restored to its rightful dignity and poised to be elevated by the grace of God. St. John Henry Newman terms this kind of life as a life of “fruitful leisure.” I like that phrase (a lot) and I think it nicely summarizes all that the Alcuin Institute does. So, if you find yourself in need of some convalescing, feel free to come and join us for some good ol’fashioned “Virgilian” formation!