The Secret to Beautiful Liturgy: Leave it to the Kids!

O Lord our Lord, how admirable is thy name in the whole earth! For thy magnificence is elevated above the heavens. Out of the mouth of infants and of sucklings thou hast perfected praise…

Recently I attended a simple daily Mass along with 60 students in grades 6-12. Let’s see, that places them somewhere between the ages of 11 and 18. So given that there were only 70 people in the church – students and a handful of adults- I would say that the average age of the congregation was somewhere between 15 and 16.

Sometimes people prepare for a big event through careful planning. We say to one another “this is going to be a special event and naturally everyone will want to see it.” Therefore we practice and we stage dress-rehearsals.

We are careful to market the event and distribute flyers. Maybe we even sell tickets.

And then it passes like any other special  event. Everyone says “what a great experience…but what a lot of work! It sure would be tough to do that every week!”

But, strangely, we sometimes find ourselves in the middle of something big, something extraordinary…and surprisingly it is something that happened with absolutely no fanfare. We were not prepared for it because there was no advance marketing, no announcements, no flyers, no tickets-and consequently (and not surprisingly) no audience or crowd of witnesses.

And this simple daily mass with these ‘children’ was just such an event.

Somewhere during the Mass I found myself thinking: What is going on here? This is absolutely beautiful! I don’t think these kids are even aware of what they are accomplishing!

And what was it that they were accomplishing?

They were accomplishing, in an unassuming and unostentatious manner, the very thing that every Church Musician, every Liturgist, every Pastor, every Bishop…nay even the Fathers at the Second Vatican council wanted to accomplish when they wrote Sacrosanctum Concilium.

They were accomplishing full and active participation in the sacred liturgy.  They were accomplishing this through beauty! And as the choir was practically coextensive with the congregation, I found myself thinking,

“Wow, look here! Here at last is a liturgy in which the full and actual participation of the faithful is being accomplished! Such a thing was not simply a whimsical dream of the council fathers after all! Quick, call the bishop, call the Vatican, call the pope and tell them all that… it is possible!”

Because as we all know, this is the express wish of the council fathers when  they said

Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious and active participation in the ceremonies which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy )

Granted that active participation does not mean the same thing as actual participation, nonetheless these kids were demonstrating active participation to the greatest extent that I can imagine.

Let me give you a quick overview of what happened.

As it was a simple daily Mass, the students chanted the Kyrie (from the Gregorian setting Mass XVII). So singable, so lovely! What is it about Gregorian chant anyway? The words are melded so perfectly with the melody that the two become one… like body and soul.

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Have you ever heard a crowd of 60 youngsters singing Gregorian chant? And singing it beautifully and singing it from habit?  They sang it gently while allowing for the natural rising and falling and swelling and diminishing to dispose the soul in the perfect attitude that the prayer itself calls for.

I don’t know how the Holy Trinity could refuse when invoked by voices in such a way!

And then they sang the Gloria!

Now as a parish organist and music director, understand that, I am a paid professional.

I take it as one of my primary duties to do my level best in coaxing the congregation at my church to sing the Gloria every Sunday at five different masses with hundreds of people in attendance.

One day I dream of introducing the Gregorian Gloria VIII (aka Missa de Angelis) to our parish, but for the time being we are required to sing the recent Mass of Kevin Keil (The Mass of Saint Francis Cabrini). And a parish music director must be sensitive to the fact that singing music in Latin, Gregorian chant no less, might in fact excite a stampede in protest. How can anyone ever be expected to sing music in a language which one doesn’t speak or understand?

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But as far as I am concerned the Gloria from the Missa De Angelis is in fact a perfect Gloria. there really is no need to sing any other. It is easy. It is tuneful and memorable. The rhythm and melody match the words perfectly and the soul is aroused towards the worship of God!

And these sixty students, these sixty youngsters with ordinary voices, these sixty joyful hearts sang the Gloria without batting an eye. Not even the youngest student present raised his hand to say “but I don’t understand Latin! How can you expect me to sing this?”

At the offertory they sang the lovely Marian hymn Ave Maris Stella.

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I have always loved this hymn to Mary the star of the sea. She is the one to whom we must always appeal as we sail through the storms in our lives (or should I say the storm of life?). This hymn has many beautiful verses and is therefore quickly and easily learned by just about anyone.

Next they sang  the Sanctus  from Mass XVII. With its soothing descending intonation there follows an immediate spirit-lifting symmetrical ascension. A perfect preface for the Eucharistic prayer. The final Hosanna soars aloft but then glides down for a graceful landing on the word “excelsis.”

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For many of these students, especially the younger, the chant was new. For all of them it was never rehearsed. I suppose the older students knew it from having sung it at many previous school Masses, but the way the music is passed from the older students to the younger seems almost magical. The power of emulation! But that’s the way it is with those Gregorian Mass settings…you hear them once and can join in the second time. Even if you are just, say 11 or 12.

I love the Agnus Dei. All of the settings, of course, have some repetition – yet some variation. Poignant and ethereal, the chant communicates the pleading of the words. The melody said the same thing “Lamb of God….have mercy..”

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That of course gives the full meaning of “bis orat qui cantat” (he prays twice who sings!).

Now after the students received communion they sang the quintessentially appropriate communion chant Ave Verum Corpus.

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I don’t think there really could be a more fitting chant for communion. Hail true body, born of the virgin Mary! As this chant proceeds solemnly and reminds us of the passion, it ends with the triplex direct invocation of Jesus. The first two are identical-and therefore the second builds in intensity preparing for the soaring third invocation “O Jesus Son of Mary!”

Mass ended with the the rousing Viadana Exultate Iusti. To hear their voices blossom forth into polyphony with the upbeat, fast-paced, exultant tones was a perfect conclusion as we prepared to step out into the rain of that bleak February morning.

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The priest processed out led by the altar boys. The final note of the Exultate Iusti reverberated throughout the church and then there was a profound silence.

I looked around discretely from time to time to see if the kids were aware of what they had done. Yes- I know they knew what they had done, as far as youth knows…but were they really aware of the profound beauty that they had cooperated in producing? Were they fully aware of their cooperation in so sublime an act of worship?

By the appearance of their youthful and carefree expressions I don’t think so. For them it was an ordinary experience – another school Mass. But in my hidden tears I knew it was nothing of the sort.

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

Open Letter to My Daughter(s)

Is there anyone who was not profoundly touched by the flurry of open letters that loving parents wrote to their daughters concerning the recent election of our new president? (for example here and here and here)

Ms. Sallie Krawcheck consoles her daughter after the election thus,

Dear Kitty,

You cried the morning after the election. You got angry later that afternoon. And the next day, you told me that maybe the outcome was a good thing, because it made you want to accomplish something important with your life. And to be successful despite the obstacles that remain for women in politics and in business and in…you know, life. In some ways, it feels like it’s getting harder, doesn’t it?….

I find this sort of open communication especially poignant. And I am quite certain that Kitty was enthusiastic about her mother sharing her feelings with the world at large.

If there is one thing I know about young people it is that they do like everyone to know how they are feeling. While preserving the intimacy that is found in a face-to-face discussion, or a personal note, the open letter provides an opportunity to employ this intimate interpersonal communication as a MANIFESTO to the entire world! Wonderful!

As it is a brand new year, I too, will adopt the same method in discussing a matter that is near and dear to my heart, and which I know is sacred to the feelings of my own children, especially my daughters. I too shall “pen” an open letter! It is high time to talk seriously about a sensitive matter, time to talk about an embarrassing subject, a subject  so universally misunderstood, so painfully obtained, so essential yet so entirely impractical in the modern world. And what is this subject?

It is liberal education.

Granted that not all of my daughters, due to their young age, have suffered the trials and tribulations of attaining a liberal education, I will address them all as if they have already completed their respective educations.

While I appreciate the idea of writing an intimate open letter to a daughter, as the father of nine daughters,  I would expect a somewhat greater latitude in the tolerance extended to me in writing a single letter to my daughters en masse. The task of writing nine such intimate open letters is just a little daunting for one whose communication skills are minimal!

“Dear Rose and Sarah and Margaret and Anna and Mary and Christine and Lucy and Cecilia and Gracie,

I am sorry that you live in a world where an authentic Liberal education is not the norm. I am sorry that the beauty and necessity of such an education is not obvious to everyone you meet. It can be frustrating to have to always be defending and explaining liberal education to almost everyone, can’t it?

You have spent years studying Latin,  chanting forms, memorizing principal parts and acquiring vocabulary. You can spot a passive periphrastic and parse a gerund. You know all about the supine (mirabile dictu!) and the ablative absolute.

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You have gone to considerable pains in acquiring the fundamentals of Greek. Maybe you have had some personal misgivings about the six principal parts in Greek! Why can’t there just be four for heaven’s sake!?

But now you can chant the fist lines of the Odyssey!

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That is pretty “cool.” Who doesn’t want to do that?

And you can follow it up with the Aeneid!

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How does one explain why this is worthwhile to anyone who doesn’t grasp its significance already? How can you share the beauty of Virgilian dactylic hexameter or the beauty of his chiasms, senechdoches, metonomys, syncheses and anastrophes to those who were not fortunate enough to encounter them for themselves? Maybe there are some who place no value in such beauty?!

Maybe in a moment of frustration when others do not see why these things are beautiful you blurt out “If you don’t already know, then I can’t explain it to you” like Will Kane in High Noon!

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Maybe there are times when you feel sad because you are unable to share beauty with others and you felt something like Odysseus when his heart melted at the song of the minstrel and,

“tears wet his cheeks beneath his eyelids. And as a woman wails and flings herself about her dear husband, who has fallen in front of his city and his people, seeking to ward off from his city and his children the pitiless day; and as she beholds him dying and gasping for breath, she clings to him and shrieks aloud, while the foe behind her smite her back and shoulders with their spears, and lead her away to captivity to bear toil and woe,  while with most pitiful grief her cheeks are wasted: even so did Odysseus let fall pitiful tears from beneath his brows.”

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It’s ok to cry from time to time! There is no shame in crying or weeping or groaning. Aeneas also groaned heavily from time to time.

Extemplo Aeneae solvuntur frigore membra:
ingemit, et duplicis tendens ad sidera palmas
talia voce refert:

At once the limbs of Aeneas are relaxed  with cold; he groans and stretching both palms to the stars he says such things with voice…

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It’s ok to groan.

The collapse of language and of syntax and of Grammar in our culture is certainly something to groan heavily over. The utter collapse of the knowledge of the grammar that is common to every language is something far more profoundly terrible than a dozen or so shattered ships on the Mediterranean sea. And if Aeneas raised both his palms to heaven merely about a terrible storm brought about by Juno and her pawn, that windy god Aeolus, then certainly you my daughters can raise your palms to heaven and groan heavily about the complete negligence of grammar in our society!

And what about triangles and squares and pentagons and circles and cubes and spheres and dodecahedrons? Such beautiful realities are rarely studied in our time for their own sake, but reduced like everything else to the level of their utility.

Who is there today that loves them as they ought? Who is there to marvel at the properties of, say, parallelograms on the same base and within the same parallels?  Who is there who will appreciate unique construction of the hexagon inscribed in a circle?

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Who is there  to say in the face of death, like Archimedes,

Don’t disturb my  circles!

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No one really cares about these things any more. No one, mind you, except for God, and his Angels, and you my dear daughters.

And who knows? May it be that perhaps one day, one day when you shall have families of your own that maybe….maybe your children will also love the very ideas that God has concerning the mathematical realities that He has created; Eternal truths concerning mathematical realities that only you and anyone else who has tasted them will appreciate.

Tonight I looked up at bright Venus, and thought of you. I have long forgotten my Ptolemy now, and my Copernicus, and my Tycho Brahe, and my Kepler, and my Galileo, and my Newton. But I did not forget that there is a beautiful cosmic order outside of myself that I did not create, and about which I can do nothing except to know. You know these things now better than I do. Your study of Astronomy, as brief as it was has opened the book of the heavens  for you.

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I wish I was as eloquent as Demosthenes! I could then speak fittingly and compellingly and persuasively about the beauty of liberal education. I never practiced Rhetoric like he did, filling my mouth with pebbles and struggling to speak articulately in spite of them.

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If I had done that perhaps I could now describe with fitting eloquence the beauty of the human mind which is worthy of cultivation for its own sake.

We spend a great deal of time and money cultivating the small plots of earth on which we live with flowers and herbs and annuals and perennials, how much more worthy to spend just a portion of our earthly time cultivating our minds with the truth and perennial wisdom of the ages. And that is what you have done.

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Ah! The glories of the word! The logos! Man is given the gift of speaking the word. He is in the image and likeness of God Himself, The Divine Poet, who also spoke The Word. Albeit it takes us a few more words than it did Him to express even our most meager thoughts.

You have spent years now learning and practicing your minds in Logic. I have long since forgotten how to identify syllogisms in any one of the four figures, nor can I distinguish a Bocardo from a Darapti from a  Celarent … but with a little refresher I know that you could explain it all again to me.

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You have not just occupied the best part of your thinking years practicing to varying degrees the arts of the Trivium and the Quadrivium….but now you have entered into the very secrets of Philosophy that Hugh of Saint Victor talks about.

And why are there secrets of philosophy? Well they are secrets not because anyone is intentionally hiding them. No, they are secrets because very few appear to know them. And even sadder, very few appear to want to know them. And still fewer there are who appear to know where the answers are to be found. Where are the answers to the most significant questions?; where are the answers to questions like, what is motion and what is time? What is life and what is the soul? What is man? What is friendship and what is the state? What is the good? and What is God?

But you have heeded the advice of the seven wise men of ancient Greece when they said

“Know thyself”

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and you have heeded the words of Socrates when he said

“The un-examined life is not worth living.”

and you have hearkened to the warnings of the great Heraclitus when he said

“We ought not to act and speak as though we were asleep.”

and when he warned you not to be like the many, for

“The majority of people have no understanding of the things with which they daily meet, nor, when instructed, do they have any right knowledge of them, although to themselves they seem to have.”

No, you have listened to the wisdom of the ages and have attuned yourselves to Wisdom. And you have progressed very far indeed.

None of us there are who are perfect. All of us struggle to understand to varying degrees.

But I am very proud of you for the efforts that you have made to expand your souls to the extent that you have.

Now there is also the entire matter of “the beautiful” which you, oh my daughters, have not neglected. You have as far as possible tried to cultivate your own hearts in the appreciation of the beauty that comes not so much through the liberal but rather through the fine arts.

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And this is no easy task in a culture in which the ugly is ascendant. Your love for beauty is manifest- whether it is the beauty in music and dance, or beauty in art and architecture, or beauty in poetry or beauty in graceful behavior or the beauty that can be found everywhere only by those who have eyes to see it.

You have not just realized that liberal education involves the formation of the mind, but you have understood that it involves the formation of the heart as well. There are some who, perhaps coming to an appreciation of the life of the mind a little late, have excelled in the liberal arts and philosophy but have not trained their tastes and sensibilities in the beautiful.

Over many years from your earliest youth you have acclimated your hearts to the beautiful, and consequently you have made your own souls lovely homes for the reception of the true and the good!

And what is the end of all this?

True, liberal education is not all by itself the sum total of what a human being needs to be happy. It is also true that a liberal education appears to never be fully possessed by anyone you meet. It might sometimes appear to you that the liberally educated human being is like one of those “limits” that Calculus speaks of, some kind of asymptote always approached but never quite reached.

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But this should not disturb you. We all know about the imperfections involved in human nature ever since Adam’s happy fault.

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But through your efforts, through your liberal education, you have disposed yourselves towards the workings of grace. You have disposed your hearts towards the worship of God in spirit and in truth.

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And this is the end to which all of our efforts find a happy conclusion. This is the natural end of a liberal education as strange as it may seem in the midst of a Geometry or Latin exam.

I am very proud of you, dear daughters, and I love you.


Posted in beauty, catholic education, classical education, education, Fine Arts, Grammar, Homer, Liberal Arts, Seven Fine Arts, Uncategorized, Virgil, Wisdom | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

In Hac Die Laetissima! Christmas Dinner 2016

Ah, Christmas Dinner…which I now post only at the request of two dear friends and former students of mine. They suggested that it also might be a way to cheer up the atmosphere of since the last pre-election post was a bit on the darker side.

So Merry Christmas! And nothing says Christmas dinner better than a bone-in rib roast!

We will let the pictures tell the story.

I acquired this beautiful rib roast from a reputable market and the butcher graciously tied the bones back in.  Those bones are scheduled for a delicious beef broth tomorrow.


Rubbed some olive oil,  salt and pepper into it and then tied the Rosemary sprigs on top.


after twenty minutes at 450 degrees then at 250 for a couple hours it came out looking splendid.


Looks a little ‘done’ in the photo- but the roast was juicy and rare to medium-rare on the inside.

Then of course all the other preparation of the table by various unseen hands- I never quite know how this all gets done….

I was the happy recipient of several nicer bottles of wine this Christmas, and so I chose a bottle of 2014 “Decoy” Sonoma county Cabernet. Lush and fruity, rich tannins, oaky…yum! The kids drank some sparkly drink of one sort or another.

The asparagus was cooked to a perfect “al dente” texture. Still just a little crunch to the bite and very fresh tasting. It’s so easy to overcook asparagus.


And some crunchy beans with walnuts bacon and brown sugar. Delicious!



Whoops,I forgot to mention the scalloped potatoes! I don’t know how Stephanie manages to make that sauce- but it was creamy and cheesy and the potatoes were cooked just right.


And these lovely home made buttery rolls.


After dinner we dug into a box of Enstrom Almond Toffee which my father sends every year just in time. It is now a Langley family tradition. Goes wonderfully with tea and coffee.

Merry Christmas!

Posted in Dinner, Feasts, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Deliver Us From Evil

Our Father who art in heaven…

God is still in heaven and everything that happens is still within His all-powerful and omniscient grasp. Nothing escapes His notice and everything happens according to His Divine will even if it be only according to His permissive will. It is he who finally rules the nations as the Psalmist cries out ,

Let people confess to thee, O God: let all people give praise to thee. Let the nations be glad and rejoice: for thou judgest the people with justice, and directest the nations upon earth.

Everything that happens plays out as it was already decreed in His master plan. The results of the American 2016 election are no exception! He, as a loving father, has already decreed the election results and has arranged everything for the best for us His children.

Hallowed be thy name…

May the name of God be held holy in all hearts but especially in the hearts of those who prevail in political office. May all those in public service honor that name upon which they implicitly or explicitly took oaths when they began their public service. May the name of God continue to be the bedrock upon which elected leaders establish their service.

May those candidates for public office prevail who cherish the name of God. May those candidates prevail who will work to protect the right for the citizens they represent to invoke and praise that name not just in their homes, schools and churches but also in the marketplace and public square. May those candidates prevail who cherish religious liberty!

Thy Kingdom Come… 

Put not your trust in princes: In the children of men, in whom there is no salvation.

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We do not deceive ourselves with the thought that this or that public official will solve every problem. We do, nonetheless, entertain the hope that our political leaders will work towards the establishment of justice and the promotion of the common good. We at least refrain from supporting those candidates who place obstacles and barriers to the establishment of the kingdom of God.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…

The will of God is always done. We ask only that we perform it willingly and consciously. We pray that those candidates will prevail who will be instrumental in cooperating with God’s merciful will. That they will be instruments of God’s mercy to the poor and downtrodden. We pray that our political leaders will not be unknowing instruments of God’s wrath to punish us for our collective sins. For each political leader is a minister of God’s will knowingly or unknowingly.

For he is God’s minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.

Give us this day our daily bread…

We pray for leaders who will advance just and fair laws, human industry and the dignity of human labor. Unlike those politicians that from time immemorial promise “panes et circenses” (bread and circuses) to cull favor among their constituency, we beg for leaders who understand and encourage policies that allow us to earn our own bread through dignified human labor.

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Keeping in mind the words of Saint Paul:

For also when we were with you, this we declared to you: that, if any man will not work, neither let him eat.

May those candidates prevail who understand the proper role of government in protecting the right for every citizen to engage in suitable daily work.

And Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…

We acknowledge the enormity of our sins and realize that we do not deserve God-fearing and wise political leaders. But we beg forgiveness and pray to God in the words of David,

The Lord is compassionate and merciful: long-suffering and plenteous in mercy.

He will not always be angry: nor will he threaten for ever.

He hath not dealt with us according to our sins: nor rewarded us according to our iniquities

with us according to our sins: nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.

For according to the height of the heaven above the earth: he hath strengthened his mercy towards them that fear him.

As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our iniquities from us.

As a father hath compassion on his children, so hath the Lord compassion on them that fear him:

And lead us not into temptation…

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We pray that we may not give into the temptation of crippling despair in the face of political leaders who appear to be incapable of promoting the kingdom of God. We pray for leaders who will not transgress righteous behavior and impartial justice because of their desire for human respect and widespread adulation.

But deliver us from evil…

Finally we pray that we be delivered from evil. May those candidates who seek public office and who do not acknowledge God’s holy will be defeated. May public officials who promote policies and laws contrary to the natural law be replaced with those who will advance the Kingdom of God.

May we be delivered from the leaders we deserve because of our own sins. May we be delivered from the ill consequences of electing bad leaders. May their plans fail and may their tenure in public office be ineffective.



Posted in Lord's Prayer, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Learning in Election Time

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In a sermon delivered in the Fall of 1939 titled Learning in Wartime , C.S. Lewis asserts,

every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to Heaven or to hell to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology

Now I can only guess about the anxiety and feelings of dread that Lewis was addressing among the student body at Oxford at that time. Bombs had not yet dropped on London as they would a year later during the German Blitzkrieg of 1940. I don’t know how his sermon was received at St Mary’s Church that particular evening in the Fall of ’39,  but I regret to say that my own sense for self-preservation would probably have precluded me from sticking around to the end of it should the bombs have started dropping a little earlier.

Nonetheless, I wonder if he might have delivered the same sermon during the 2016 election season here in the United States?

Granted there must be a difference between the feelings of those who faced possible enlistment, and consequently imminent death, and the feelings of a people whose presidential candidates are – shall we say – not ideal. Nonetheless, I think it is safe to say that C.S. Lewis would surely be empathetic with the terrible dread and anxiety of present-day thinking Americans, a dread arising from the direct confrontation with the possible collapse of Graeco-Roman-Judaeo-Christian culture.

I admit it. Having been a teacher for about 27 years now, I can’t think of a time when the study of Latin and Greek and Euclidean geometry seemed more insignificant. I can’t remember a time when teaching the liberal arts, the seven arts of the Quadrivium and the Trivium seemed, well…more trivial.

As Lewis asks his students,

why should we – indeed how can we – continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?

Yea, learning the liberal arts at the present time is in fact quite like fiddling while Rome burns! No, even more, it is not like fiddling… it is  fiddling.

Twenty-seven years ago I suppose I was thinking there was still enough time to spread liberal education throughout the land. There was still enough time, that is, to stop and put to rout the forces of modern barbarism.

I told myself that even a handful of classically minded teachers could affect the entire nation. If 12 apostles could spread Christ’s gospel throughout the world, then certainly several hundred liberally educated teachers could transform a single nation!

Student by student, family by family, what with the laws of exponential expansion and the magic of liberal education, I would participate in making small ripples which, though parochial as they were, would in a matter of a decade or so increase to a tsunami-sized deluge, transforming and disposing the hearts and minds of thousands and even millions towards an enthusiastic embrace of  Western Civilization!

Oh well, twenty-seven years later here we are. Standing on the brink of collapse. So much for hic, haec, hoc and qui, quae, quod!

What is the point of learning now? My efforts and those of a great many others do not appear to have transformed the culture. What a colossal waste of time to teach students how to conjugate a verb and decline a noun.

Arma virumque cano….whatever!

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But I ask myself “What would C.S. Lewis do?” “How would he respond to my despair?”

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Well I think I know. He would say,  No! This way of thinking is nothing but Tomfoolery!  As if the primary purpose of pursuing a liberal education was to transform the culture in the first place! Hogwash! Yes, maybe liberal education is part of a solution for those who wish to transform the culture, but how insulting it is to assert that this is the purpose of such an education.

He would go on to point out that the present calamity that is the U.S. election of 2016 “creates no absolutely new situation”, as neither did World War II.

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life”. Life has never been normal.

When precisely, I ask, is a person supposed to pursue the excellence of soul for which he was created? We are not like the insects who as Lewis says, first seek

the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on the scaffold, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae.

Like Archimedes in his beleaguered Syracuse and Boethius in his cell and Thomas More on the scaffold and James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham and the noble Spartans who resisted the Barbarian at Thermopylae, we should not cease from the practice of truth, beauty, and goodness just because our own civilization appears to be collapsing.

Posted in catholic education, classical education, Liberal Arts, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

I have often repeated the words of a wise teacher, who has now passed on from this dusty earth straight to heaven. (nonetheless I will still continue to send prayers up for his soul in grateful memory of the benefits I received from him.)

He said, “One can’t trust a thinker who lacks the ability to work with his hands.”

of perhaps he said,

“Beware of the thinker who has no experience with his hands.”

I like this second one better. Whether he said it precisely like that or said something else with even greater eloquence I cannot say. But the fact of the matter is that I have always attributed the idea to him, and he cannot deny it anymore.

Educators and intellectuals who have no ability to work with their hands in some practical way are to be suspected! I don’t say that those folks should be bodily banished or cast out or shunned completely. I merely assert that the ideas of philosophers and theologians who have not planted their feet firmly on the earth and who have never imposed order and form into things like wood, tile, and brick, (who have never even constructed say a wooden box or even a pair of saw horses!) will thereby merit a closer scrutiny than the ideas of thinkers who have some manual experience!

And this is, of course, why university and college professors and high-school teachers and students, and really just anyone who is of the academic persuasion, are granted an annual summer break which always appears appallingly long to the rest of the world.

In other words, lengthy summer vacations are necessary for teachers and thinkers.

Summer vacation provides a time for fledgling philosophers, like my students and me, to re-ground our teeming intellects in the raw ingredients, the base matter, the hard tactile “stuff” from which we might, as from a sturdy platform, soar to new and greater intellectual heights!

Now all this is especially true for the teacher at a prestigious secondary school devoted to imparting a liberal education to its students.

Summer is a time for gaining “manual experience.” And this summer I have tried to do that in at least two ways.

The first way is by playing the organ, many of which have three manuals mind you! And a pedal board to boot!

Here is a grainy photo of my organ and its three manuals!


The king of instruments! The instrument most preferred by our Holy Mother the Church in all of her liturgical worship only excepting the human voice. But enough about this. Suffice it to say that every church organist ought to be granted a generous time allowance for private practice.

The second way I gained manual experience this summer was by actually using my hands to tear apart my kitchen; tearing down old dry wall, tearing down ceiling joists, tearing down cement, tearing down wire and pipe!

All this tearing down in order to recapture the kitchen space before it was besieged by the bourgeois renovators of the 1980s and 90s. All this tearing down in order to restore the original forms and integrity of the original kitchen before it was beset by the ugly but efficient forms of a more pragmatic yet less transcendent age.

The whole theme of tearing down in order to build back up is of course central to the Christian life. As Our Lord said in John,

Amen, amen I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone. But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.

and again in Matthew we read,

And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

In both passages I take it that Our Lord is very clearly affirming the idea that in order for there to be a building up, there must first be a tearing down.

For the home renovator, there must be demolition before there can be new construction.

My main attempt was to recover the original ceiling which was at least a foot and a half above the dropped ceiling that was installed probably in order to make the space more efficient.  Efficiency is more often than not something which is opposed to beauty, as my wife’s father used to say. Now I know that there are some of you that think efficiency should be held on a pedestal and worshiped. But not so did John Schmitt thus think!

I think it is safe to say that John Schmitt thought that the banner of “efficiency” is the hobgoblin of little minds, and probably a mantra originating from those in the pink insulation and vinyl replacement window business.

Here is a montage of the kitchen ceiling before we ripped it down.

Now let’s get the hammer out and start taking off all that dry wall! Rip it down! Cut it into small pieces and hide the remains in black plastic trash-bags! Always a mess! Who invented dry wall anyway? I hate drywall.

If you look carefully you will see that above the ceiling joists are the old thin flat strips of wood or “lath” from which the old horsehair plaster had already been stripped. That old wooden lath is a far more noble substance than drywall. One becomes aware of the fact that there used to be artisans who could mix and apply horsehair plaster and achieve a real interior wall with some integrity and substance. No one applies wooden lath and horse hair plaster to achieve some short term effect. No, those plasterers were thinking long term!

Well, after working for days, carefully removing those long ceiling joists one by one, pulling out nails, removing the lath and vacuuming the dust of a 100 years out of crannies and interstices, it was time to start thinking about a new lighting plan. And of course reinstalling the scary 220 outlet that goes to my fancy “dual fuel” oven. I did not take any photos of the work we did to move the gas line in the basement.

Interestingly, you will note that the upstairs oak flooring is nailed directly to the 2×8 ceiling joists! Now I really don’t understand why the builder back in the 1920s would do such a thing. One simply does not lay down a quality wood floor directly on joists. One always applies it to a sub-floor. I suspect that my builder was trying to get the job done quickly and had probably run out of sub flooring materials. Oh well.

Now let’s get the cold-chisel out and a hammer and start uncovering the chimney behind the wall. This was much more difficult than I expected given the inch thick mud/concrete layer covering the old brick! Good thing I had some help.

Those builders back in the 1920s thought nothing at all of covering brick with cement. I suppose they had their complete fill of brick and probably were all too happy to cover it up. On the other hand, I am still wondering if that cement also acts for some other useful end aside from hiding the brick.

Summer vacation is also all about the multiple trips to places like Lowe’s and Home Depot where one can just stand looking upwards at lighting fixtures for hours. After about 45 minutes of gazing ceiling-ward my neck cramps and forces me to come to a decision.


I didn’t like any of them. But finally I saw these!

We installed two of the bell shaped pendant lights above the sink and five of the jar-shaped ones strategically around the ceiling. The new filament bulbs are expensive but very nice. Our kitchen now has a warm yellowish glow with all the lights on. As you can see, we started installing the bead board as well. I found a beautiful white pine 1x4x8 bead-board at Lowe’s which has nary a knot in it.

Actually I am kind of amazed at how nice the wood is and to be perfectly honest…I am not quite certain that it really is pine. Seems harder than the pine I am used to. Douglas Fir? I don’t know. Someday I hope to be a master in the field of lumber species recognition.


Now I should say that it took me exactly 30 seconds, trying to nail the bead-board up with some 1.2″ silver finish nails and a hammer, to determine that I needed a to buy a pneumatic air gun! 0805161406

I’ve never owned a nail gun before or even a compressor. These are the kinds of tools that everyone needs to own. I wish someone had told me to get one twenty years ago!

As a matter of fact if you don’t have one go get one right now! No more bending nails. No more denting the wood with incompetently aimed hammer strokes. No more incessant pounding and holding nails in one’s teeth!

No sir! The pneumatic nail gun will simply revolutionize your hammering experience and bring some joy back into your life!

Am I the very last person to have realized this? I don’t know.

As you can see, after we removed the dropped ceiling there were a couple of challenges to face in the form of some unsightly plumbing fixtures that had been installed after the dropped ceiling…or perhaps because they were the reason that a dropped ceiling had been installed. Fortunately I had a plumber come and move a couple of the water lines including one that had been dripping very slowly for the last ten or so years. But there was simply nothing that we could do with the 6″ PVC drain and trap. There was no re-routing option.


At first we were all for just leaving the pipes exposed and maybe painting them red or some prominent color. Then we thought that perhaps we should wrap them in rope-a very hip idea. Finally, we decided that we just had to sacrifice some of our newly discovered vertical space and employ a “dropped box” to hide the pipes. The following pictures show the “box” in various stages of completion (although it is still not complete!)

IMG_6973 0819161447a


kitchen ceiling

You can see some simultaneous green board work in the background. The secret to obtaining a really smooth finish with dry wall and Spackle must always include multiple coats and generous sanding between every coat. But alas! I am just not willing to do all that sanding. I am not willing to abide the endless and insidious dust that it creates. (i.e. actually the dust is not “created” but is rather a byproduct of the sanding). Instead, I opt for the moist-sponge-method whereby all the bumps and irregularities in the dry wall are scrubbed off. And then this process of applying and scrubbing and applying a scrubbing just goes on forever.

I have never been satisfied with my own dry wall technique…nor that of anybody else for that matter. I hate drywall.

One interesting detail of this work came with the whole issue of installing a range hood for my oven. I had fortunately kept the original “range-master”  range hood in my garage for about five years, but I was really not certain how to hang it. But after an entire morning of thought and some lucky electrical circumstances ….voila!

Now of course the question is: How will I complete the duct work between the range hood and the pipe leading outside? Well, stay tuned! I happen to have a very special friend who is going to help me through that process with a nifty custom crafted stainless steel duct/pipe system that will be exposed- and in fact will be a very interesting conversation piece when it is finished!

And so even though there is still work to do, I am ready to get back into the classroom. My students will know that they are in a class of a teacher who is not afraid to rip cabinets from the walls. My thoughts and teaching will be above suspicion because I spent my summer vacation working with my hands!

Posted in beauty, liberal education works, Sacred Music, slavery, summer vacation, Work | Tagged , , , , | 18 Comments

The Ability for Large Discourse

Today we shall content ourselves with a purely intellectual discourse.


Because you and I, my dear reader, both possess the ability for large discourse! And as we all know, reaching way back to the vestiges and remnants of learning from our bygone philosophical days,

“every ability desires its own act.”

Every ability desires its own act… I like that! Am I the first one to say that? And with such eloquent brevity?

Probably not. I must be merely parroting Aristotle or Aquinas again, as I am wont to do.

The nice thing about parroting the wisdom of others is that, after a fair amount of time has passed, and after one has engaged in enough consistent parroting, one is apt to forget that all of one’s borrowed wisdom is borrowed.

To be perfectly honest sometimes I actually feel quite intelligent!

But let us return to our purely intellectual discourse that we intend to have – and by now you are probably wondering what “the ability for large discourse” is.

“What is the ability for large discourse?” you ask, and “who says we have such an ability?”

Good questions! And here is the answer to the second.

Who says?

Shakespeare says!

And he says through the mouth of none other than that incomparable brooder, Hamlet.

What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused.

I have emboldened the appropriate words for you to see the more easily.

And so the point is settled.  You and I have a god-like ability for large discourse; we have an ability for looking before and after. We have something called reason, and Hamlet has done nothing other than to tell us precisely what this thing is; he has, against all odds, defined the distinctively human thing that distinguishes man from the beasts.

And by golly, let’s not let this ability fust in us unused!

Let’s go ahead and engage in some of that large discourse right now!

We shall do so with no apology. We shall not attempt to persuade anyone of the usefulness of the enterprise. We shall not make an attempt to sweeten our discourse with honeyed speech. There will be no effort to lure you, the reader, in to the discussion; no catchy lead in, no clever rhetorical hook, so to speak.

I think we are all above that now, don’t you?

If a thing is interesting in itself then we may just let the thing speak for itself. Let us not engage in the silly enterprise of trying to coax one another to see that something is interesting if it is already interesting. How childish!

And further, if a person cannot engage in large discourse, looking before and after, from time without making apologies then what’s the use?

Every other creature gets to do what it was made to do without defending itself. Take a mountain for instance. Do you hear it making apologies for what it does???

No you don’t. The last thing you would ever expect to hear from a mountain is an apology of any kind!

Oh yes, but you are thinking,

“of course mountains don’t make long apologies for what they do, because mountains don’t do anything. They just sit there!”

You are quite mistaken!

Even though Mountains appear to be just sitting there (which is in fact doing something, that’s what I am doing right now, for example!) you should be aware that mountains are really doing a great deal more than just sitting there. Obviously you did not read this. Shame on you!

Now let’s get on with it. Let’s begin our large discourse! And what could be more appropriate than to engage in large discourse about the very word large!

Would it surprise you to know that Hamlet’s use of the word “large” (in the passage above) can be understood in at least six different ways?!?

Let us enunciate these ways briefly and perhaps we shall find an occasion to speak about them at greater length as the muse instructs (or, if you prefer, you might just go ahead and read about it from the very text itself, by that quintessential philophical mind Duane Berquist, right here! Otherwise, if you prefer secondary sources stay right here.)

And before we distinguish the six ways, in which Hamlet intended us to understand the word large, in his marvelous definition of reason, I think it would be fitting if we all took a moment to revel in the fact that six senses of the word large is a rather large number when it comes to the senses of a word, and we should clap our hands at the very fact that in distinguishing these senses we are engaging in large discourse already!

Ok here we go. When Hamlet says that reason is the ability for large discourse, here is what we should understand.

Large discourse can be large in the sense that it is about the large.

So for example suppose I say something like the whole is greater than the part. Is it not obvious to everyone that I have made a very large statement? Just think about that for a while.

How many kinds of wholes can you distinguish? And guess what…every kind of whole is greater than its own part. We could go on for ever trading examples of the truth of this large statement. That would be fun. Maybe fodder for a future post! I can’t wait.

What about this? What if I make a statement about a very large (or important) thing? What if I say something about the largest thing there is, namely, God? Nothing is bigger than God and consequently when I say something true about him I am therefore making a very large statement. Right? I think so! Similarly, we might engage in reasonable discourse about other large things. Like the purpose of life, the soul, angels, the state, virtue…and may I even say reason itself? In other words “large discourse” is not small talk!

Now, let’s see, is there a third way that our ability for large discourse can be large? What about in its limits? Just as every line has two endpoints (no apology to you modern geometers who falsely insist that lines are infinite!), so does our reason.

Our reason has a beginning, a very large one. You see ordinarily when we set forth a proposition, like “I know boys, and I can tell you that boys can be a load of trouble!”

Image result for dickens boys

That statement is no small thing. That statement is probably based on a very wide experience of boys. A very large experience.

And similarly, at the other end of our reason, when we consider a large truth we might understand very many things that fall under this truth, so to speak. So for example when God considers Himself he understands ALL THINGS!

Now here is a fifth way that our ability for large discourse can be large. have you ever read a lengthy blog post? Granted that this blog post is not exactly like a longer proposition in the Elements of Euclid, nonetheless anytime someone makes               an argument that takes a long time, I think that qualifies as large discourse. But all the more so when the discourse is bound together with continuous syllogisms (or witty jokes?).

Finally, the ability for large discourse can be large in the sense that reason is able to make connections between things which are very far apart. In other words reason is able to cover large distances. Imagine uttering a statement like “God is my rock!”

Now who on earth, but someone with reason, would ever think of seeing a connection between God Himself,  the almighty, omniscient, all loving Being, and a rock!?! To make such a connection requires covering a very large distance…an infinitely large distance!

And so, there we have it! Reason is the ability for large discourse.

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Summer Somnolence

My inner sense tells me that it might be a good time to start thinking again.

You see, the end of July is precisely the heart of the season when the mind of the academic, the mind of a teacher, and the mind of the student (although more so the student!) is most apt to fall into a hazy intellectual summer somnolence. Gradually lulled into a mental slumber throughout June, the mind is not able to withstand the daily incremental rise in temperatures, the incessant summer sunshine, the dripping wet humidity, the somniferous chirping of birds and the song of the cicada.

The collective soporific forces of summer overwhelm the senses, and every human body must succumb to the need for shade and rest.

And as the body goes, so too goes the mind. Didn’t someone once say,

Ubi corpus est ibi mens!(?)

Or perhaps that is just another one of those “ubi…ibi” statements that it is very well to commit to memory early in life to save oneself the later trouble of thinking through tough logical connections.

At any rate, I do sometimes grumble at the soul-body connection that appears to be at the heart of so many human difficulties. You know, as Our Lord said somewhere towards the end of Matthew,

vigilate et orate ut non intretis in temptationem spiritus quidem promptus est caro autem infirma.

Or was that Shakespeare?

Nonetheless, the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak.

Why couldn’t it have been otherwise? Why not,

“The spirit is willing and guess what… SO IS THE FLESH!”?

That’s the way I would have designed things if I were the Creator.

Oh, wait a second…now that I think of it, that was the way things were supposed to have been. That was reportedly the way it was with Adam before the unfortunate thing happened about which I would prefer not to speak here.

But just think about it. When Adam wanted to get up in the morning, the dialogue between his soul and his body was probably something like:

Adam’s Spirit: I think its time to wake up and get out of bed to face another day of naming all those animals, plants, rocks, minerals, insects, and what not.

Adam’s Flesh: ABSOLUTELY! Let’s do this! I can hardly wait!

Spirit: But first let’s do some jumping jacks and push ups!

Flesh: Oh Boy! I love push ups and jumping jacks!!! How about a five-mile run as well?

Spirit: Easy does it Flesh. Let’s not over do it. Remember, we need to have a healthy breakfast and then we can do our run later in the evening.

Flesh: Quite right, quite right. You’re absolutely in charge! I wouldn’t want to do anything unreasonable!

Spirit: That a boy, flesh! And remember “all things in moderation!”

Flesh: Yes, I know you have instructed me well in those wise words since the very beginning. And I just love them. Nothing too much or too little. I especially hate excess!

At any rate, summer is a perilous time, to be sure! It is a time of sleepy forgetfulness for both teachers and students, and it is well-known that July is the time when one’s stock of knowledge decreases by at least 20-25%. Just think of that! In four years one would literally forget everything he knows were it not for putting up a valiant struggle for at least 9 months of each year in that blessed institution which we call school.

Ah, the classroom! The place of alleged intellectual stimulation and progress and awakening. Ah, the lectures. The mostly one-sided intellectual discourse, in which apparently every great teacher must excel.

There is nothing quite like the exhilaration that a teacher feels when confronted with a classroom of sleepy compliant students, knowing that for the next hour one has a captive audience to which he can talk, shout, and lecture and make manifest the scintillatingly interesting subtleties of his own magnificent mind!


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The Close of Another Year: A Dialogue

Lion: You seem a little down lately, Ox. What’s the matter?

Ox: Do I? I guess I am a little dispirited. I hope it’s not obvious to everyone.

Lion: Well, you have been lying around in the grass for the last several days sleeping, and when you do move you mope and lumber about lethargically, with more than your usual vacant stare. Seems like the only energy you have is for eating.

Ox: Well I have just been thinking about how sad the end of the academic year is. Everything ends and then one is left with an empty feeling. The students leave. The halls and classrooms are empty. The silence is pervasive. No discussions. No arguments. No intellectual progress.

Lion: Of course, Ox! It’s Summer break and it happens every year.

Ox: I think it’s a waste of time. And it’s counter productive. Just when the students start making sense, just when they are beginning to make progress, just when-after so many false starts and so much stubborn resistance – they finally begin to show signs of intellectual life…wham!….the year ends and everyone goes home for three months. And then what? We begin the whole process again the next year. What an idiotic system!

Lion: Summer vacation is loved and cherished by everyone but you. Those poor students worked so hard. They deserve a break! It was precisely the thought of this long summer vacation that kept their hearts cheerful back in the cold days of February. For the last nine months those poor students fended off despair-a despair occasioned by all the Algebra, Latin, and History assignments given them by merciless teachers-they kept their hope alive through the frequent recourse to the world of imagination. And what did they imagine? They imagined weeks and weeks of fishing and biking and canoeing and sailing and climbing trees and going to the beach! They imagined discussing life while reclining in Adirondack chairs with cups of cold lemonade.

Dozing away blissfully in a hammock between two birch trees.

Swinging gently this way and that under the clear blue sky listening to nothing but the songs of the Blue Jay, Gold Finch, and Cicada. Ah Summer!

Ox: Ha! You really believe that?! Kids don’t do those things anymore. They spend all their time in front of screens playing games or talking about nothing on social media. Humpf! What a lot of nonsense. Climbing trees….fishing….as if!

Lion: Ox, you are too negative. So what if they do spend a little time playing computer games? That’s not so bad is it?

Ox: Not so bad? Well if the wholesale collapse of western civilization doesn’t bother you then I guess not. Lion, you need to wake up!

Lion: Me wake up? You’re the one that has been sleeping this past week.

Ox: Well that’s because I am temporarily depressed. And it is only because I have a clearer vision than you about the true state of affairs. Just give me a little time to shake off my annual end of the year disappointment. Soon it will be July, and then August and the September and then…

Lion: And then what?

Ox: And then we shall have those students back in school where they belong!

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Resurrexit! 2016

Happy Easter 2016!


Pontificis, a blend of Grenache and Syrah-a bold match for the Ham!


The classic side- asparagus married to Hollandaise!


quartered red potatoes of course!


The “master carved” ham with a clove garnish.


all on one plate with a big buttery warm puffy roll.


Finally-a very simple “fool” made from fresh blackberries and whipped cream.


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