Three Reasons Why Catholic Classical Education is a Tough Sell

Genuine Catholic education appears to be a product which doesn’t sell itself.

That was a bit of a surprise for me when I was a freshly minted teacher. Naturally, I thought that an excellent school would flourish immediately. Word about the school would spread like an uncontrollable grass fire in the American South West or a brush fire through the Gamba grass in Australia! Before long the only problem such a school would face would be that of managing a lengthy waiting list of future students.

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In my role as an admissions officer, I still daydream about contemptuously swatting away envelopes stuffed with cash from desperate parents seeking preferment for their dear children!

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Someday I want to demonstrate my contempt for these paltry monetary seductions like Sir Thomas More did in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For all Seasons. So far I have never had the opportunity to prove my virtue in the same way.

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I remember the naive optimism that a generous benefactor inspired in my breast when he enthusiastically endorsed me in building a small school devoted to Catholic classical education. He exclaimed,

Build it and they will come!

Well, I suppose “they” did come. But not quite with the force of the plural in that personal pronoun. It was more like “Build it and he will come” and “Build it and she will come.” “Build it and over the course of many, many years they will continuously trickle in.”

I have never seen a stampede.

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Now I want to disavow any feeling of resentment or sour grapes here. I am not the least bit bitter. Sure, I will admit just a snippet of disappointment when I reflect on various schools that appear to offer an excellent Catholic classical education and yet appear to meet with something less than the kind of viral success that I think they deserve. But this mere smidgen of disappointment does not stymie my continued zeal for the cause.

No sir! I am still perfectly ready to entertain the illusion that we are at the very springtime of a new era in education.

Soon there will be a small Catholic classical school in every neighborhood!

But in the meantime, I have carefully reflected upon the causes that make Catholic classical education a tough sell in today’s educational market. Not surprisingly there appear to be only three!

1. Catholic education is a tough sell because it is Catholic.

The first reason why Catholic classical education is a tough sell is precisely because it is Catholic.  And to the extent that a school is Catholic, to that same extent it is a tough sell.

What is it about Catholicism that doesn’t appeal to people?

Maybe the cross?

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No matter which way you slice it, Catholicism is about the cross. And the cross is a sign of contradiction. Evidently, Catholics are supposed to concern themselves with building the City of God. Catholics are supposed to live in the world without being of the world.

Now if this is not a tough sell then what is?

Sure, you might argue that students at a Catholic school will be more joyful should they embrace this vision, but being counter-cultural is always a little tough, especially for youngsters.

So good luck trying to keep all those kids smiling as you enforce a reasonably modest dress code and yank away their Smartphones and iPods during school hours.

2. Catholic Classical Education is a tough sell because it is Classical

Classical education is code for liberal education.

Liberal education has always been a tough sell because it is about timeless perennial truth which  does not appear to be good for much in the short run.

Liberal education is about perfecting the person as a human being. It is not about producing a doctor or an electrician or someone who will be an efficient and productive addition to the workforce.

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“But it does produce good workers!” you respond.

Nonetheless, producing good workers is not the goal at which liberal education primarily aims.

Liberal education considers all else secondary to the goal of first perfecting the student as a human being.

In short, if one views education as primarily serving a practical or utilitarian end, then liberal education just doesn’t have an appeal.

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3. Catholic classical education is a tough sell because it is education.

The third reason why Catholic classical education is a tough sell is because it is education.

Education is a long incremental process in which the results may not be seen for years.

Education is a mysterious inward spiritual thing and is often quite expensive.

There is no guaranteed product. Sometimes education does not seem “to take” in this or that student.

Education depends largely on the one that is being educated and to a lesser extent on those imparting the education – although the latter are enormously significant.

As a teacher, I will not denigrate or minimize my own significance in the formation of the minds of students. But experience has taught me too well the words of Our Lord when he says in Matthew,

and do not be called teachers…

No matter how hard I try, I cannot seem to make the students think or make them learn. To my endless frustration, the student’s own free will appears to have something to do with his learning.

It follows that the students themselves must be sold on the concept of genuine Catholic education before they learn.

Imagine that! Not only do we need to sell the idea of Catholic classical education to intelligent and experienced parents but we also need to sell it to their relatively uneducated children!

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So there you have it. No wonder schools that concern themselves with Catholic classical education are ordinarily so small.

But when we consider the value of the product we understand how worthwhile the enterprise is.

The real effect of a Catholic liberal education is seen only in the long run. It is seen in those who hold on to their Faith over a lifetime. It is seen in the future children of our present students. It is seen after twenty and thirty years when our students have settled down as active citizens in a free republic. Or perhaps it is seen when they are serving the Church as ordained priests or consecrated religious.

The value of a genuine Catholic liberal education is seen in the interior beauty of those who have devoted a relatively small part of their lives to the formation of their souls in beauty, goodness, and truth. No matter how few there are who undertake such a pursuit, they are the leaven that the world needs.

Posted in catholic education, classical education, liberal education | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

How to Choose the Right Catholic High School for Your Children

I suppose twenty-eight years involved in small Catholic schools qualifies me as an experienced educator. Or at least it has provided me with plenty of experience in listening to parents and their children on the subject of “How to Choose a School.” Or perhaps “How Not to Choose a School.”

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Experience might bring some wisdom about things but it sure does bring a great deal of pain. Like Agamemnon’s war prize, Cassandra, I find myself similarly cursed with a sort of knowledge of the future which brings no good because it is not believed until the events themselves have come to pass.

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As we learn from Herodotus,

It is the most hateful thing for a person to have much knowledge and no power.

How often do I hear the words of a parent regretting this or that educational choice made ten years earlier, but the unfortunate consequences of which have only recently played out. One parent laments,

I wish I had not sent her to that school.

And another,

I only wish I had known about a better school when my kids were still young enough to attend.


The school was so good when I attended it, I assumed it was the same now!

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The correct choice of a school is difficult. And, unfortunately,  the consequences of a bad choice are difficult to undo.

The most common criteria that I hear from parents for choosing a school are something like the following (divided into spoken and unspoken criteria):

Common Spoken Criteria for Choosing a High School

1. I want my child to be happy, so I want her to make the choice of where to attend school.

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2. My child likes sports, so we are looking for a school with a wide variety of athletic offerings.

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3. My child wants to be an artist so we are looking for a school with a strong graphic arts program.

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4. My child wants to be a doctor so she is particularly interested in AP chemistry and Biology offerings.

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5. My husband went to St. John’s (which has a proud tradition of over 120 years!) and I went to St. Gertrude’s, so our sons will go to St. John’s and our daughters will attend St. Gertrude’s.

6. We think that technology in the classroom is important.

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7. My child learns in his own special way, so we are seeking a school which is able to accommodate his way of learning.

Common Unspoken Criteria for Choosing a High School

1. I want my child to attend a school which will benefit my own self image among my own colleagues and social peer groups.

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2. I want my child to attend a school which either reflects my own socio-economic class or which might even place my child in contact with a more affluent class.

3. Although being a Catholic is important to me, the main concern that I have for my son is that he will be successful.

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For what it is worth, I will offer ten criteria for choosing a high school that I think are a little more substantive.

Ten Criteria for Choosing the Right High School

  1. The school explicitly proposes the formation of the mind as its chief mission.
  2. The school claims to know how the formation of the mind is achieved through a non-elective course of studies.
  3. The school holds Theology as the Queen of the Sciences.Image result for theology queen of the sciences
  4. The school curriculum is essentially different from the secular high school curriculum, even in math and science.  Image result for common core
  5. The entire reading list is excellent. There is not a single work that students are compelled to read which is objectionable, senseless, or even simply mediocre.Image result for catcher in the rye
  6. The school day and schedule allows for a regular participation in the sacramental life of the Church.
  7. The school actively promotes the pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
  8. The faculty appears to be educated with the same education that the school aims to impart.
  9. After spending a day visiting classes a parent would himself like to attend the school.
  10. The school community, board, faculty, parents and students support the vision of the school.

Now I am certain that you can think of some other criteria that are important as well, but these ten rise to my mind quickly. No school is perfect, but a parent needs to select a school for his children based on solid principles. This is the kind of choice which he is not likely to regret later.

Posted in catholic education, classical education, education | Tagged , , , , | 19 Comments

Newsflash: Just Because You Know What Virtue is Does Not Mean You are Virtuous.

Now I know that there are many of you who are just naturally charitable.  You easily empathize with the suffering of others and you have a spontaneous instinct to do anything you can to help others carry their crosses and lighten their burdens.

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Whether sheltering and feeding the rest of us in our travels, lending money to us in times of need, visiting us when we are sick, befriending us in times of trouble and comforting us in our sorrow, you are prepared for all good works without counting the cost.

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What’s more, you cheerfully look for ways to be more charitable. You most certainly do not recognize your own charity, nor do you keep a record of your charitable actions.

This does not describe me. Set me down as one who calculates the cost and counts the liabilities incurred by every single reluctant and grudgingly performed “good deed.” Like water from the rock, some of us actually do have difficulty squeezing genuinely selfless actions from our stony hearts.

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Nonetheless, I do love to learn about virtue. For example, I love thinking about the definition of virtue that Saint Augustine gives when he says,

Virtue is a good quality of the mind, by which we live righteously, of which no one can make bad use, which God works in us, without us.

That is a great definition of virtue and I enjoy knowing it very much. Let me tell you why.

Saint Thomas Aquinas demonstrates how this definition is excellent because it is complete. Why is it complete?

Why? Because it contains all of Aristotle’s four causes!

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You remember those four causes right? Why, of course– the form, the matter, the maker, and the purpose.

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First, virtue is a “good habit.” That is what it is. Good habit is the “form” of virtue just like the shape is the form of a statue.

Second, although virtue is not made out of any specific kind of matter like plastic, wood or metal, virtue does exist in the mind just like the shape of a statue exists in marble.

So we will say, without stretching the meaning too far,  that the phrase “of the mind” is adequate to hold the place of the material cause of virtue.

Third, the words “by which we live righteously” give us the purpose or end of virtue. The purpose of virtue is to enable us to live excellently. Moreover,  the very word virtue comes from the Latin word which means excellence.

Finally, what is the “making cause” of virtue (more sophisticated philosophers call it the efficient cause)?

Well, according to St Augustine’s definition, God is the cause of our virtue. He “works virtue in us, without us.” This is especially the case with the three Theological virtues which we receive at Baptism–Faith, Hope and Charity.

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But when it comes to the natural virtues (like Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude), we can justly be said to acquire those on our own. We ourselves can produce virtue by repeated good acts.

Now my point is this. I really enjoy thinking about virtue. I enjoy thinking about what it is and explaining it to others. But does this make me virtuous? If only that were the case!

One far wiser and brighter than myself might descend even a little further and divide all the virtues into intellectual virtues and moral virtues. Perhaps he could enumerate all the virtues in each category and even define each according to its respective causes. I would love to be able to do this!

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But would that make me virtuous? I wish!

I happen to know St. Thomas Aquinas’ teaching on the nine effects of charity. Here they are- I will write these with both eyes closed:

The Nine Effects of Charity

  1. If one is charitable, he is endowed with spiritual life because charity is none other than God’s union with the soul. And just as the soul is the life of the body, so is God the Life of the soul.
  2. Charity enables us to observe the Commandments, because Christ says If any one love Me, he will keep My word (i.e. commandments).
  3. Charity is a bulwark against adversity. For the lover, no mountain is too high to climb, no dragon is too dreadful to slay, no obstacle is too difficult to overcome for the sake of one’s beloved. The same goes for those who love God!Image result for knight slaying dragon renaissance
  4. Charity bestows happiness on us. For eternal happiness is only promised to those who have charity.
  5. Our sins are remitted through charity, for “charity covereth a multitude of sins” and in Proverbs it says “charity covereth all offenses.”
  6. By charity, our hearts are illumined because in Sirach we read, “Ye that fear the Lord, love Him, and your hearts  shall be enlightened.”
  7. Charity produces perfect joy because by charity we are united with the cause of perfect joy. Because we read in John, “Whoever remains in charity remains in God and God in him.”
  8. Charity bestows perfect peace because by charity we abide in God and St. Augustine says in his Confessions, “You made us for You, Lord, and our heart is not at rest until it rests in You.”
  9. And finally charity bestows great dignity on us because Our Lord says to those who love Him “I no longer call you slaves/servants… but friends.”

There! That was easy. I bet I could do those backwards. Nonetheless, although it gives me great delight to think about each one of these, I am struck by the sad fact that in knowing the nine effects of charity I am still not charitable!

How can this be? I count myself as one of the lucky few who through some attention to my liberal education can explain Aristotle’s four causes. I can define virtue completely. I can teach and explain what charity is and its nine effects…and yet I am still not virtuous, nor have I received any awards for my noteworthy charity.

The Apostle warns about the difference between knowledge and virtue when he says,

If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing…

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And of course Newman, the Apostle of Liberal Education, famously repeats this sentiment saying,

Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian…

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But at least I can say this: Although the liberally educated person may not himself be virtuous, he is at least able to love virtue. One cannot love something which one does not know. The liberally educated person is able to know what charity is and its effects and therefore he is at least able to love charity.

Although knowledge is not the same as virtue, I dare hope that he who has the knowledge of what charity is will at least, insofar as his knowledge goes, have a greater disposition to possessing the virtue itself.

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Posted in Aquinas, Augustine, liberal education, Newman, Sacred Doctrine | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Do Your Children Know the Ten Commandments?

Every couple of years I have the opportunity to teach a course on the Ten Commandments to High School seniors and juniors. I always try to start the course with a one-question pop quiz that looks like this:

  1. Write down the Ten Commandments.  (Don’t worry about writing them in order.)

Of course, a few students do write them all correctly and even in the order in which they are set forth in The Catechism of the Catholic Church. But usually students will forget one or another. I have not kept a record but “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” appears to me to be the most frequently forgotten commandment.

Occasionally in place of one of the commandments a student will substitute another precept “thou shalt not judge,” or “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Or even, in a desperate guess, “Be nice to everyone.”

It might not surprise you that the majority of students are not able to write them all down. And you will not see me casting stones, because I remember being somewhat foggy about the commandments as well!

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The decisive benefit that accrues to the highschool teacher is the opportunity for clearing the fog away-especially about fundamental things like the commandments.

Happy is the teacher to whom this task is assigned!

As a matter of fact, I feel just a little like the blessed subject of the first psalm when David cries out,

Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilence. But his will is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he shall meditate day and night.

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Now perhaps I do not meditate on the commandments “day and night,” but I figure that my students and I are making a fairly good start towards that goal by discussing them for 45 minutes four times a week.

If you didn’t already know, the commandments, or the “decalogue” as they are sometimes called, turn out to be of extraordinary significance. For example consider this:

Containing a summary of the entire natural law, the Ten Commandments embrace the complete moral code by which a human being may obtain happiness.

Think about it. How many books about ethics and right moral behavior are there?

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How many authors have written about success and happiness?

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The Ten Commandments scarcely fill a page and yet manage to encompass the entire moral life. Any author who wishes to write on the subject must perforce content himself with merely extrapolating or exemplifying the precepts contained in the commandments. There are no new moral principles by which a man should live than the ones already given to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

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This is why Moses called the commandments “wisdom” in Deuteronomy when he said,

For this is your wisdom, and understanding in the sight of nations, that hearing all these precepts, they may say: Behold a wise and understanding people, a great nation.

Happiness is consequent upon the orderliness of our lives and especially consequent upon the orderliness of our loves. When we love well, we find happiness. But this implies that we not only love the right things, but that we also love those things in the right order. When we do this we find peace.

As St. Augustine says,

Peace is the tranquility of order

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The commandments happen to be a set of laws that have been handed down to us in an order that is absolutely magnificent, nay, even Divine!

After all God, who is Wisdom, did not deliver his commandments to Moses in any old manner. No, according to Solomon, who speaks about Wisdom under the guise of a beautiful woman, Wisdom

…reacheth therefore from end to end mightily, and ordereth all things sweetly. Her have I loved, and have sought her out from my youth, and have desired to take her for my spouse, and I became a lover of her beauty.

Let me give you an example.

We all know that the commandments were written on two stone tablets because we read in Deuteronomy:

And he shewed you his covenant, which he commanded you to do, and the ten words that he wrote in two tables of stone.

And of course we all know the reason for this, right? Why of course, one tablet, the first, contains the commandments which address our relation to God Himself, and the other contains the precepts concerning our relations with our neighbor.

Now this consideration alone provides us with a rich soil for meditation. But what about the order of the commandments on each tablet? What about the order of the first three commandments for instance?

St. Thomas, teaches that there is an order.

In his little work (his “Opuscula”) on the Commandments St Thomas writes (commenting on the third commandment),

For we are first commanded to adore God in our hearts, and the Commandment is to worship one God: “You shall not have strange gods before Me.” In the Second Commandment we are told to reverence God by word: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” The Third commands us to reverence God by act. It is: “Remember that you keep holy the Sabbath day”. God wished that a certain day be set aside on which men direct their minds to the service of the Lord.

In other words we are to love God in our hearts (or thoughts), and in our words and in our deeds. I just love that order!

And this is just the beginning. This is just the tip of the iceberg. One already wonders, “Is there a similar order among the commandments on the second tablet?” Aren’t you dying to know?

As far as the usefulness of the ten commandments, I should think that this point is pretty clear. Does anyone want the secret to happiness?

Well then, if a happy life and a happy eternity are something to be valued, then so is an intimate knowledge of the commandments! Wisdom about God and his works is very useful. Wisdom about what God wants from us is also very useful. Studying the commandments gives us this wisdom. For Wisdom

……teacheth the knowledge of God, and is the chooser of his works. And if riches be desired in life, what is richer than wisdom, which maketh all things?

Posted in Aquinas, Augustine, Decalogue, Sacred Doctrine, Wisdom | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Pagan Greeks Saw Easter Coming 500 Years Before It Happened!

Sorrow! Sorrow!

Very few days pass but that we don’t hear of some new sorrow. A job is lost, a troubled marriage…a near relation passes away, serious illness falls, dashing promises and hopes…a calamity strikes affecting the national interest…a friend loses his track and ceases to practice the Faith.

And, of course, the Christian is beset with a consciousness of his own daily sins and failings.

Herodotus relates that a certain tribe among the ancient Thracians celebrated births and deaths in an unusual way.

When a child is born all its kindred sit round about it in a circle and weep for the woes it will have to undergo now that it is come into the world, making mention of every ill that falls to the lot of humankind; when, on the other hand, a man has died, they bury him with laughter and rejoicings, and say that now he is free from a host of sufferings, and enjoys the completest happiness.

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Life must have been pretty difficult for those ancient Thracians.

But sorrow is universal, as the Psalmist testifies…or rather sings!

I have laboured in my groanings, every night I will wash my bed: I will water my couch with my tears.

and keeps on singing,

My tears have been my food day and night, While they continually say unto me, Where is thy God?

Our lives carry on in their allotted paths, beating out their own rhythms and music and certainly moments and prolonged stretches of happiness but punctuated every now and again with the refrain of sorrow, the song of sorrow.

If that sorrow is not our own it is that of another whom we love, and therefore it is our own.

Behind all the smiles, under the surface of the laughter is the sure refrain of sorrow and tears and pain. None but the young, or those who are sleeping, could be unaware of this.

Time, the incomparable and inexorable teacher, teaches one lesson consistently. It is this: The Song of Sorrow.

But those who are fortunate enough to have been nurtured in the hopeful climes of the West, who have basked their minds and hearts in the rays of the Mediterranean sun, who have suckled their souls on the milk of pagan poets…they know that the song of sorrow does not end with sorrow.

Aeschylus chants through his chorus of elderly Athenians,

αἴλινον αἴλινον εἰπέ, τὸ δ᾽ εὖ νικάτω. 

Sing a  song of sorrow, a song of sorrow, but the good prevails!

Aeschylus, the great pagan poet who set the stage for tragedy for all future generations, saw a glimpse of Easter joy five hundred years before Christ conquered death. Aeschylus knew, through a glass darkly, that an Easter Joy prevails and crowns the Lent of life.

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The Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (by antonamasia, The Apostle of Liberal Education) saw more clearly than anyone how the oracles of nature prepare the Christian mind for the Gospel of grace.

Newman  in his Apologia, writes about the influence of the ancients in his life,

their teaching, magnificent in themselves, came like music to my inward earpagan literature, philosophy, and mythology, properly understood, were but a preparation for the Gospel. The Greek poets and sages were in a certain sense prophets; for “thoughts beyond their thought to those high bards were given.”

When I read the bard Aeschylus it is clear to me that God inspired him with thoughts beyond his thoughts; thoughts about man’s fallen state, his life of suffering, the natural law…and God. They are Pre-Evangelists. They are “oracles of nature and of truth“.

Aeschylus’ chief role is not primarily that of an instructor. No, he makes us feel the things about which he instructs. He orients our hearts rightly about those things, as is the aim of any good poet.

We are all like the watchman in Agamemnon,

I pray the gods to quit me of my toils,  to close the watch I keep, this livelong year; for as a watch-dog lying, not at rest, propped on one arm, upon the palace-roof of Atreus’ race, too long, too well I know the starry conclave of the midnight sky… And if at whiles, for the lost balm of sleep,  I medicine my soul with melody  of trill or song-anon to tears I turn,  Wailing the woe that broods upon this home…

And we learn that the meaning of our suffering is not suffering, but the meaning of suffering is truth!

Zeus has led us on to know, the Helmsman lays it down as law that we must suffer, suffer into truth.

or, as another translator has it,

Tis Zeus alone who shows the perfect way of knowledge: He hath ruled, men shall learn wisdom, by affliction schooled.

And St. Paul teaches the fullness of this in Hebrews when he says,

For whom the Lord loveth, he chastiseth; and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. Persevere under discipline. God dealeth with you as with his sons; for what son is there, whom the father doth not correct?

and a little later

Now all chastisement for the present indeed seemeth not to bring with it joy, but sorrow: but afterwards it will yield, to them that are exercised by it, the most peaceable fruit of justice.

Aeschylus’ Orestaia begins as a song of sorrow but ends not only with justice but the very establishment of the first tribunal of Justice in Athens. The law of revenge is abolished and the ancient Furies, the terrible avengers, are transformed into Eumenides, the kindly ones.

The student of nature knows that sorrow is the school of wisdom. The disciple of grace knows that sorrow is the school of Joy.

Nature is a reflection and sign, a sacrament of sorts, of the invisible things of grace.

To those who are inattentive to nature and grace, life must be nothing but a song of sorrow.

But to those who embrace this sorrow life is a song that ends in triumph!

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Resurrection by Carl Schmitt, c.1940, Campion Hall, Oxford University






Posted in aeschylus, Carl Schmitt, classical education, Easter, Fine Arts, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Feasting and Easter


There is nothing like the feeling attendant on the one who, although perhaps he has not scrupulously fulfilled every detail of his Lenten promises, approaches the Easter Morning brunch table and finds this…

and this!

and Egg Strada!


And of course some Brut sparkling beverage of one sort or another! In this case a very reasonably priced Don Simon from our local Whole Foods.

Homemade danish!


I love Easter.

And what about dinner?

In 2015 I wrote,

Easter is a red meat celebration. And what food could be more indicative of Christ’s Resurrection from the dark tomb than Beef Wellington – in which a delicious thick succulent tenderloin is hidden inside a beautiful puff pastry phyllo dough crust baked to a golden brown?



Now two years later, I have to say that my sentiments are no different.

This particular Easter dish is worth waiting a whole forty days for! I don’t know how my wife did it, but the beef was tender and juicy and even able to be cut with the fork.

Scrumptious asparagus and fingerling potatoes. I would not describe myself as a gourmand, but I can think of very few things which I enjoy more than hollandaise sauce on asparagus!


Happy Easter!

Posted in Easter, Feasts | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Did you know that our Lord’s death was a miracle?

After suffering such a terrible passion, I must confess I never thought our Lord’s death was something out of the ordinary course of nature. The question in my mind was why did Jesus not die sooner than he did?

The terrible scourging, the crown of thorns, the loss of blood, the painful march to Golgotha, hanging on the cross for three hours having been nailed through one’s hands and feet – considered all together, these are enough to make any one wonder how Jesus survived as long as he did!

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Now consider what a miracle is.

A miracle is a wondrous deed which demonstrates the action of God.  St. Thomas Aquinas writes,

Those effects are rightly to be termed miracles which are wrought by Divine power apart from the order usually observed in nature.

 What precisely was the miracle associated with Our Lord’s death on the cross?

Well consider what St. Mark reports about one of the centurions who saw Jesus die.

“And the centurion who stood over against Him, seeing that crying out in this manner, He had given up the ghost, said: Indeed, this man was the Son of God.”

Seeing that Jesus cried out in a loud voice, the centurion realizes that “This man was the son of God.” Interesting isn’t it?

Perhaps you, like I, have been in the habit of thinking that the centurion was moved to this realization because of the other many things reported to have happened in the other gospels surrounding the death of Jesus (e.g. an earthquake, rocks splitting, the dead coming out of their tombs).


But St. Mark’s account demonstrates that the simple act of our Lord crying out in a loud voice was enough to convert the centurion.

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The centurion surely had witnessed many deaths. Perhaps he had been a witness to many crucifixions. But when he witnessed the moment of our Lord’s  death he exclaims

Indeed, this man was the Son of God!

St. Thomas writes,

In order for Christ to show that the Passion inflicted by violence did not take away His life, He preserved the strength of His bodily nature, so that at the last moment He was able to cry out with a loud voice: and hence His death should be computed among His other miracles.

You and I, in similar circumstances, would gradually die. The life would slip out of us by degrees and at the end we might give up the ghost with a last sigh or groan or moan.

Not so our Lord!

And Jesus having crying out with a loud voice, gave up the ghost

Our Lord, because he was God, was able to retain all of his strength until the end. And he was able to determine the precise moment of his death. Again,  St. Thomas,

For as of His own will His bodily nature kept its vigor to the end, so likewise, when He willed, He suddenly succumbed to the injury inflicted.

This brings out the truth of what Jesus said in the Gospel of John,

No man taketh it away from me: but I lay it down of myself, and I have power to lay it down: and I have power to take it up again.

It is Jesus who died. It was by his own power that died. He truly laid down his life and it might be said truly that no man took his life away from him.

Posted in Aquinas, Easter, The Passion, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Father let this chalice pass from me

Classical Catholic Education

The Fourth century saint and doctor of the church, St. Hilary of Poitiers, has a lovely insight – or perhaps I should say – a somewhat different take on Our Lord’s prayer in the garden.

And going a little further, he fell upon his face, praying, and saying: My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.

Saint Hilary “the Hammer of the Arians” does not interpret the passage in the usual way. Granted that Sacred Scripture is manifold in its meaning as St. Augustine points out in his De Doctrina Christiana

The usual way to interpret the passage (which is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke but not in John!) is that this prayer demonstrates that Christ was not only true God but he was also true man.

True, there are many passages in Scripture where…

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Did Jesus Really Become Sorrowful?

See, O Lord, and consider, for I am become vile… O all ye that pass by the way, attend, and see if there be any sorrow like to my sorrow:

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Thus Jeremiah laments at the time of the Babylonian captivity, nonetheless, we Christians, hear his words prophetically – as if uttered by Our Lord Himself on the cross.

“Is there any sorrow like to my sorrow”?

The answer, of course, is no! There is no sorrow like unto the sorrow of Our Lord.

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St. Thomas Aquinas considers the question “Whether the pain of Christ’s passion was greater than all other pains?”

To make a long story short he says, basically, “Yes, it was.”

But what about the inner movements of the sensitive appetite which we call the passions? Granted that Christ suffered the greatest pain physically, did he also suffer sorrow and fear in a more intense way than anybody else?

Was the sorrow of Christ greater than all other sorrow? Is there any sorrow that is greater than our Lord’s sorrow?

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Before we answer that question, I think it is fair to ask, in what manner did Our Lord sorrow?

I know that it would appear obvious that Our Lord experienced sorrow. In St. Matthew’s passion narrative we read,

Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, “Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder.

And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy.

Then saith he unto them, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.”

How are we to understand this?

Answering, the great fourth century Doctor of the Church, Saint Hillary comments,

These words, He began to be sorrowful and very heavy, are interpreted by heretics that fear of death assailed the Son of God, being (as they allege) neither begotten from eternity, nor existing in the Father’s infinite substance, but produced out of nothing by Him who created all things; and that hence He was liable to anguish of grief, and fear of death. And He who can fear death can also die; and He who can die, though He shall exist after death, yet is not eternal through Him who begot Him in past time.

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Many would interpret the sorrow of our Lord as a fear of death. Fear and sorrow are certainly connected in so far as we fear that thing which will cause us sorrow should we encounter it and, heaven forbid, if we should have the misfortune of obtaining or possessing the object of our fear.

Hillary continues,

I suppose that there are some who offer here no other cause of His fear than His passion and death. I ask those who think thus, whether it stands with reason that He should have feared to die, who banished from the Apostles all fear of death, and exhorted them to the glory of martyrdom?

How can we suppose Him to have felt pain and grief in the sacrament of death, who rewards with life those who die for Him? And what pangs of death could He fear, who came to death of the free choice of His own power? And if His Passion was to do Him honour, how could the fear of His Passion make Him sorrowful?

I love Saint Hillary!

Our Lord was not afraid to die. It is ridiculous to assert that He, for whom the love of so many saints impelled the joyful embrace of martyrdom, was Himself afraid or sad about His own death. Our Lord was not sorrowful because he had to undergo his passion. He was not sorrowful about accomplishing his own mission.

Well then, how was it that he was sorrowful?

 Again Hillary points us in the right direction.

Since then we read that the Lord was sorrowful, let us discover the causes of His agony. He had forewarned them all that they would be offended, and Peter that he would thrice deny his Lord; and taking him and James and John, He began to be sorrowful. Therefore He was not sorrowful till He took them, but all His fear began after He had taken them; so that His agony was not for Himself, but for them whom He had taken.

Our Lord was sorrowful not on his own account but rather on account of those whom He loved.

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Saint Thomas Aquinas adds significantly to our discussion in his question about Whether Christ’s soul was passable?

One significant reason why we suffer is because we are subject, in a greater or lesser extent, to our passions. (from the Latin patior, pati, passus- to suffer.)

St. Thomas says,

We must know that the passions were in Christ otherwise than in us, in three ways. First, as regards the object, since in us these passions very often tend towards what is unlawful, but not so in Christ.

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Christ endured no appetite for something which was contrary to His reason. He was not attracted to anything sinful or unlawful.

Secondly, as regards the principle, since these passions in us frequently forestall the judgment of reason; but in Christ all movements of the sensitive appetite sprang from the disposition of the reason. Hence Augustine says that “Christ assumed these movements, in His human soul, by an unfailing dispensation, when He willed; even as He became man when He willed.”

This is important. In Christ we find the perfect order of reason that God created in Adam. Everything in Christ, with regard to his humanity, was subject to His reason as to a first principle. This is not my experience! I find myself moved in many directions long before my reason has had time to catch up and make a belated attempt to reinistill some kind of order.

He allowed the beginnings, the seed, of sorrow to manifest itself but not the full flower.

This is why Saint Jerome says,

Our Lord therefore sorrowed to prove the reality of the Man which He had taken upon Him; but that passion might bear no sway in His mind, “He began to be sorrowful” by pro-passion for it is one thing to be sorrowful, and another to be very sorrowful.

And finally Saint John Damascene confirms this by saying,

Wherefore the passions of our nature were in Christ both by nature and beyond nature. By nature, because He left His flesh to suffer the things incidental to it; beyond nature, because these natural emotions did not in Him precede the will. For in Christ nothing befell of compulsion, but all was voluntary; with His will He hungered, with His will He feared, or was sorrowful.

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Is There Such a Thing as Catholic Music?

A choir loft is a good place to get a whole view of what is going on at Mass. In fact, it is the only place in a Church where a bird’s-eye view is possible. Of course it is mostly a bird’s-eye view of the back of people’s heads. But from my lofty position as Music Director, I do get a sense for the makeup of the various congregations that come to Mass five times each weekend.

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At my parish, unsurprisingly, there are people from various socio-economic classes and various ethnicities. There appears to be a fairly even distribution of men and women. Although predominantly white and of Italian, Irish and Eastern European descent, our parish also has members who are Asian, African American, Jamaican and, undoubtedly, members of other ethicities as well. With regard to age I see both young and old in the pews, but there are, on average, an assortment of folks who are on the more mature side of life.

Demography is not my strong suit, but to my parochial vision I can see that our parish is not homogenous.

Now when I read Sacrosanctum Concilium , which is of course the primary governing document set forth by the Second Vatican Council concerning sacred liturgy, I am particularly mindful of the passage that reads,

In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else.

Thus, as Music Director, it is my task to choose music that encourages the full and active participation by all the people.

What is the Director of Music to do? What music should I choose that encourages all the people to engage in full and active participation?

Now, as I have said elsewhere, my procedure in choosing music is to simply choose my favorite hymns Sunday after Sunday. Naturally, I try to make my selections as appropriate for the Mass as possible depending on the time and season and what the readings and Gospel are about. Interestingly, I find that my favorite hymns appear to be appropriate for almost every Sunday of the year.

But it does strike me that the vast majority of hymns in the majority of missalettes or hymnals that are prevalent in our churches contain music that are mostly appealing to people from a specific ethnicity.

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Granted that most hymnals appear to make an attempt to contain a smattering of hymns designed to appeal individually to a variety of ethnic groups, there is a tacit admission that no one hymn is meant for everybody.  For example, every hymnal has at least a couple of “Spirituals” (e.g. There is a Balm in Gilead and Amazing Grace), and perhaps one or two Polish, Italian, or Irish hymns. Nonetheless, it is pretty obvious to me that the bulk of the music is aimed at a white Western-European crowd. I myself gravitate to English and German protestant hymns like Holy, Holy, Holy and Now Thank We all our God. But I really can’t say how my own preferences appeal to the Hispanic or Vietnamese parishioner in the pew.

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For the most part, the hymns, the Mass settings, and the whole musical experience that ordinary Catholics encounter from Sunday to Sunday is not an experience that we could call universally appealing.

Go Make a Difference might appeal to a young person whereas Holy God We Praise Thy Name might appeal to an older person.

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Lift High the Cross and A Mighty Fortress might appeal more to one, whereas You Are Mine and Shepherd Me, O God might appeal to another. I may have these all backwards, but I am certain that the person who loves Holy God is a different person than the one who loves Christ Be Our Light.

Here is the obvious question: For a Church which calls itself Catholic-which is a Greek word that means universal or whole or all embracing-ought there not be a corresponding music?

Ought there not be Catholic music?

Given the significance of music in the Mass (i.e. music is an “integral part” or pars integrans), one would think that the Catholic church would have a music peculiar to itself. One would think the Catholic church would have a unique music that excelled in catholicity, that is, one would think that the Catholic church would be known by a music that distinguished itself by the qualities of universality and all-embracingness.

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Does it seem a little strange that the musical experience of the majority of Catholics is anything but this? The musical experience is quite definitely ‘parochial’ or ‘provinical’, which are words that signify something quite the opposite of ‘catholic.’

Now, I am not saying that there is no place for a good ol’ fashioned hymn with a decidedly Anglo-Saxon or Germanic tilt. Nor am I saying that there is not a place for a “Spiritual” or perhaps even an Irish hymn on Saint Patrick’s Day.

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But shouldn’t the music at Mass be marked by a universality that characterizes the church itself?

Well, as it turns out, the church does have a music that is universal. And it is universal because it belongs precisely to no one.

It is a music that is written in a language that nobody speaks.

It is a music written by composers that are of unknown ethnicity.

It is a music that does not even appear to belong to a particular time.

It is a music that belongs equally to all because it belongs to no one except to the Church and this music is called … Gregorian Chant.

Gregorian Chant is the music of the church. Gregorian chant is catholic music in the literal meaning of the word.

No wonder that Sacrosanctum Concilium asserts,

116. The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.

Gregorian Chant is the music that is suitable par excellence to the Mass. It is completely unique and is a music that belongs unmistakably to the Catholic Church.

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I think it is safe to say that Gregorian Chant is the only music that might qualify as a possible candidate for being universal.

As a matter of fact, I would even assert that it is the only music that does not impose a specific national ethnicity on the one who sings it; Gregorian chant is not Celtic, it is not Italian, it is not Anglo, it is not German, it is not Eastern European. In my view, Gregorian Chant makes everyone equally comfortable (or uncomfortable) and that is because it does not belong to this or that tribe or family. It is the distinct music of the Catholic Church.

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Gregorian Chant is the only music that can properly (and strictly) be called Catholic music.

Posted in Music, Sacred Music, Sacrosanctum Consilium, The Mass | Tagged , , , , | 18 Comments