Interpretation Inception!

Salvete! It’s officially fall, and starting to get chilly outside here in Front Royal, but in classes we’re still going full speed.

In theology class, we’ve moved past the Creation account and on through the stories of Cain and Abel and then Noah. As we read the biblical texts themselves, Professor Jenislawski also has us read selections from biblical commentaries by a host of brilliant authors, mostly Catholic but occasionally Jewish as well. He often reminds us that the Jews have been interpreting and studying the Old Testament even longer than we have, and they often have interesting insights, particularly with regard to ancient Hebrew languages, idioms, practices, and customs. However, he also reminds us that the Old Testament can only be fully understood in light of the New, and Scripture can only be fully understood in light of Tradition, so Catholic scholars can often see the big picture and the salvific implications of the Old Testament better. For instance, alongside the Cain and Abel story, we read parts of John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which discusses the culture of death, and shows that its origin lies in the first murder of brother by brother. I’m extremely grateful to be studying Scripture under the guidance of so many great saints and scholars who have been grappling with the hard questions for so many centuries. It really gives me a sense of security knowing that I can learn to understand and interpret Scripture, but without being entirely lost or running the risk of wildly misinterpreting an important teaching. This also means I’m starting to get excited about the exegesis we all have to (or get to!) write later on in the semester!

Interpretation is important in more than just theology though. In literature, we’ve been reading some of the late-medieval mystery and morality plays that were performed to help educate the laity in catechetical matters and celebrate important feast days in the Church. We started with the Second Shepherds’ Play, which is a humorous, partly slapstick retelling of the story of the angel coming to the shepherds and announcing the birth of Christ. The play starts with a personal and comedic portrayal of the shepherds in the fields, and a sheep-thief named Mak who steals a sheep and, with his wife’s help, hides it in their house disguised as a baby. On the surface, the scene where the shepherds arrive and discover their sheep swaddled up in a cradle is a ridiculous one, and hardly seems to have much moral bearing. However, it is a hilariously inverted manger-scene, which may serve the purpose of showing how “topsy-turvy” the world had been turned by sin, until Jesus was born to set it straight again. Or, it may be humor used as bait, to get people to pay attention before the moral lesson is depicted. Our class discussed both possibilities, and even though we might not ever know exactly what the anonymous author intended, we can still enjoy the play’s humor and its serious side. This morning, we discussed another anonymously-authored play, Everyman, which shows the human process of repentance, death, and salvation, with different physical and spiritual “possessions” — good deeds, worldly goods, beauty, fellowship, etc. — represented by characters. It’s a more serious, less literary play than the Second Shepherds’ Play, but still requires a discerning eye to catch the full implications of the words. It illustrates the general feeling about justification in England at the time, which was largely a negative view, and emphasized good works much more than faith, which turned out to be problematic later on. Dr Reinhard is a good guide for literary interpretation, allowing us to voice our thoughts first, and then suggesting the ideas of other scholars and his own opinion to help us see all the various interpretive options. We’ve also begun working on papers in his class, interpreting some aspect of either Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or the Canterbury Tales, so it’s a little bit like an exegesis for secular literature!

In history too, most of us are beginning work on papers. Our assignment for Dr Shannon’s class is to read one of a few different classic articles by secular historians on either the Renaissance (which we’re finishing up studying) or the Reformation (which we’re about to start). We have to read the article and then compare and contrast the viewpoint it presents with the views of Catholic historians. Both secular and Catholic historians are attempting to interpret primary sources and give a clear picture of what was happening at that time period, but often the interpretation is very different depending on whether the historian takes anything supernatural into account, or simply ignores God’s role in history. In a way, I guess this history paper will be sort of an exegesis of two or more exegeses, interpreting the interpretations! This sounds challenging, but is meant to help us learn better how to understand historical writing and think critically about facts as well as opinions. I’m excited to get started, and see if I can succeed in discerning which arguments are better, and where knowledge of Christianity really helps in writing about history.

So, it’s all about interpretation around here! Hopefully you’re able to interpret my interpretation of this week’s classes. :) Valete until next week!

The Renaissance: The Mean between Medieval and Modern

Hello again! It’s been another week full of exciting challenges here at Christendom. The semester is really ramping up, and we’re diving into all kinds of deep issues before we turn to midterms and papers in October.

First off, in literature we’ve been working our way through highlights of the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. It’s a collection of tales told by various characters on their way to Canterbury for a pilgrimage, written in Middle English verse. This is particularly exciting because it’s the first work we’ve gotten to read in literature classes that hasn’t had to be translated. Our edition has a modernized paraphrase on the facing pages, but Dr Reinhard declared on the first day that we wouldn’t be reading any modern English aloud in class, and so we learned to pronounce Middle English and read it that way. The language has certainly changed since then, but it’s similar enough that the meaning is usually clear, and the poetry has a rhyme scheme and rhythm that can’t be adapted to modern English very easily, so I’m glad we’ve been “forced” to read the original! We started with the Knight’s Tale, a story about two men who fall in love with the same lady and have to go through various trials and then battle for her hand. The tale has an appeal to almost anyone on the surface because it’s a chivalric romance, but it also explores philosophical questions about fate, destiny, fortune, and free will. The characters in it even refer to the philosophy of Boethius on numerous occasions, showing that Chaucer was writing for those who were educated and intended to convey more than one level of meaning. After the Knight’s Tale, we quickly moved through the Pardoner’s Tale and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, both interesting stories with underlying morals, but also displaying a lot of subtler characteristics. The Pardoner’s Tale is a warning against greed, drunkenness, and oath-swearing, but also uses the Pardoner himself to symbolize all human vices. Chaucer, through him, shows us what all our faults would look like if they were outwardly visible, so to speak. The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is a humorous story about chickens who discuss philosophy and medicine, but it also has undertones which seem to be Chaucer’s way of warning people of his time period to be watchful and not to speak out unnecessarily, since the political situation in those years was unstable and dangerous for people with strong opinions. Overall, Chaucer’s writing is extremely nuanced and full of symbolism, wit, and humor. It’s a shame we have to move through it as quickly as we do, but already I have a deep enough appreciation of Chaucer’s writing to get a general sense of how his style functioned, and also what his time period was like.

Speaking of time periods, in history we’ve been studying the Renaissance, which was a cultural movement that began in Italy around the 13th and 14th centuries and spread to other parts of Europe over time. It was essentially a rediscovery of classical literature, art, and architecture, and a movement to imitate them in the current time. This meant a massive cultural shift, which affected history for several centuries, and shaped much of what our world is like today. Philosophers, who had turned to Aristotle throughout the Middle Ages, now turned to other ancient thinkers, including Plato and Cicero. Rhetoric and eloquence were emphasized more than in ages past, and realism was emphasized in art. Proportions and mathematical perfection were desired in architecture, just as they had been in the Greco-Roman era, and the Gothic churches of the preceding centuries started to be shunned as barbaric and ugly. Learned society as a whole shifted toward thinking of people as individuals first and foremost, rather than focusing more on people as parts of a whole. An idea called humanism pervaded the new culture, in which man was seen as being so powerful and glorified that, in some people’s eyes, he could do anything. This was a difficult time for Christianity in some ways, because we Christians know that men aren’t all-powerful and we are heavily dependent on each other; Christian community often calls for humility and stepping aside from positions of authority to let the Church’s teachings reign. At the same time, however, lots of beautiful religious art, from paintings to cathedrals, arose from the classical revival. Just today we started getting into the political situation of England and France at this time, and discussing the Hundred Years’ War and its effects on western culture, from religion to politics to language. The whole time period is an interesting and dynamic one, and I’m excited to study more about it!

Lastly, in Political Science, we’re nearing the end of our studies of Aristotle, and about to begin Thomas Aquinas. In the last few books of Aristotle’s Politics which we’ve read, the philosopher has discussed all the various forms of government – monarchy, aristocracy, polity, democracy, oligarchy, and kingship – and the merits and weaknesses of each. He concludes that the best ideal government is the monarchy, which he defines as the rule of one man whose excellence surpasses all the others in the community. However, Aristotle realizes that there often isn’t such a man, and that other circumstances may make a monarchy unattainable, and so he says that the next best thing is an aristocracy (the rule of a few excellent men), and if that is unattainable then the best practically possible government is a polity or constitutional government, which is rule by the many who are wise, and who submit to the rule of stable law. The other three forms of government are what he considers the bad counterparts of these good types, in which the one, few, or many rule not for the common good but for their own interest. After discussing all of this, he details the type of geographical location, population, size, and layout the ideal polis, or city-state, should have. Aristotle likes to discuss ideals, but he also is careful to take into account human nature and the tendencies that the world has experienced in the past, so his view of politics in general is a pretty good balance of desirability and practicality. Still, he didn’t have the light of divine revelation, so some of his policies are known to us to be unjust, such as the exposing of deformed infants in order to keep the population to the right number, or the owning of slaves. This is why studying the views of Thomas Aquinas will be especially important, since he’ll bring in the Christian element to further perfect the classical ideas. Elsewhere, in the Ethics, Aristotle says that virtue lies in the mean between two extremes, so we can probably conclude that the “mean” of uniting reason with faith is the virtuous and most excellent way!

This week has inspired me to think a lot about the synthesis of pagan ideas and Christian morality, especially as manifested in the Renaissance, but also in our own time. In a way, Christendom College has kept a piece of the Renaissance alive, but making sure it’s the pro-Christian side of the Renaissance. We study Plato and Aristotle and Cicero, but perfect and fulfill them with Aquinas and Augustine and other great Christian thinkers. We use both faith and reason, since God made both for man’s good. It really is a formation of the whole mind and soul, developing both natural and supernatural gifts of all kinds. It also made me feel a little sad for all those philosophers who came so close to understanding Christian beliefs, but never had revelation. I’m grateful to live in the time I do now, since we have training for both reason and faith, and have plenty of great thinkers in both fields to build on, giving us the tools we need to be virtuous and well-balanced, and “Restore all things in Christ.”

And on that inspiring note, I’ll see you next week!

"In the Beginning", the End, and the Meaning of Life

Welcome back! As usual it’s been a crazy, busy week, so hang on tight while I speed through it!

In theology, we’ve delved into Genesis, and read the first chapter or so, up through the creation of man and woman. On this tiny part of the Bible alone, there’s probably enough commentary from saints, Church Fathers, and scholars to fill, well, a bible! We read just a little of it, including excerpts from Augustine and Jerome’s comments, plus an essay by St Edith Stein on the separate vocations of man and woman. This is a topic that is particularly important and controversial in today’s society, so I’m really grateful for the chance to learn more about it. Our world tends to fall into one (or both) of two extremes: oppression of women as lesser than men, or a mistaken form of feminism which often ends up disrespecting both sexes by saying they are the same. The Church’s teaching, which is based on many parts of the Bible including the Creation story, is, as usual, a wise “middle path” which affirms the dignity and God-given nature of both men and women, but also affirms that the two are different and have unique gifts and callings that complement each other. We read in the commentaries that this complementarity used to be perfect, but after the Fall, the ideas of subordination and discrimination crept in, distorting the original relationship. Reading the Creation account can help guide us to a better understanding of how things were supposed to be, and help us live out our complimentary vocations. The picture of Creation and humanity portrayed in the very beginning of Genesis is a beautiful and fascinating one, and I look forward to learning more about it and everything else the Bible has to offer!

In my class on St Augustine’s Confessions, we’ve also read through the beginning, where Augustine talks about his infancy and what he knows of it from his nurses and parents, and now we’re starting on his boyhood. As a child Augustine was educated in classical literature and rhetoric, since his parents hoped he would be able to rise to a high station, and a career in public speaking was the best way to do that in Augustine’s time. Although Augustine berates his early education because of its pagan material and worldly focus on fame and fortune, his writing is full of rhetorical devices he learned there, which he uses both to strengthen his points and to make the words beautiful. We’ve been learning the names of various rhetorical devices and pointing them out as we go through the text. Polyptoton, anaphora, and homoioteleuton (a fancy word for rhyme) are a few different sound-repetition patterns that Augustine liked to use for emphasis, which tend to give his writing a lilting, poetic sound and make the phrasing memorable. Just the other day we got to translate possibly his most famous sentence: “You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” (If you think that sounds gorgeous in English, wait till you read the Latin someday!)

In philosophy we’ve been studying another aspect of man, his end. End in this case means “goal” or “purpose”, so essentially, we’ve been studying the meaning of life! God tells us what the meaning of life is through revelation, but ancient thinkers were able to come to a pretty good understanding of it with natural reason alone, so we’ve been reading more of Aristotle’s Ethics to find out how he did that, and hopefully to do it along with him. Aristotle concludes that man’s end is happiness (meaning complete flourishing, living the truly good life), and now we’re reading about what exactly happiness is. Aristotle says that it can’t be simply a state of being that comes about by chance, nor can it be brought about by pleasure, wealth, or anything else of the world, since all those things can easily change or disappear. Happiness, he says, if it is truly good, must be something reasonably permanent. He eventually concludes that it must be an activity of the soul; in fact, it must be the best and highest activity of the soul, otherwise it wouldn’t be the end. Since reason is the highest part of man’s soul, and the thing most proper to him, then happiness must be using reason well. The final conclusion is that happiness is using reason in accord with virtue. He says that outside situations can help or hinder this condition, but ultimately true flourishing for a man is something internal, which he himself controls. This resonates perfectly with what the saints’ lives show us: that happiness comes from being good, and acting in accord with what God wills, since that is acting virtuously. If we seek out pleasures outside of God, then our hearts will be restless, as St Augustine noted. Instead, we should rest in Him, and then we will flourish, as the people God meant us to be.

On that note, I hope you’re all flourishing, and that you will continue to do so until next week! Valete omnes!

The Good, the Bad, and the All-too-Fast Motion of History

Greetings from week two!

So far the semester is moving rapidly, and already there’s probably more happening than I can talk about in one blog post, but I’ll do my best to give you the highlights!

In literature this morning, we finished discussing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The poem is really packed with rich symbolism and a complex structure for how short it is, and many of us (myself and Dr Reinhard included) think it’s far too short, as was our allotted class time for discussing it! The poet clearly had certain complex moral points he wanted to emphasize and illustrate through the relatively simple story of a knight and his unusual quest, and to dig deep enough to see all of it would probably take a whole semester. Dr Reinhard was only able to help us see a few key points in the one fifty-minute class, but the main one he emphasized is that the poem is both an example and a study of the romantic, chivalric society that the Arthurian legends take place in. It shows the pros and cons of such a society through the story of Sir Gawain, but eventually (as all truly good literature does, either explicitly or implicitly) leaves the reader thinking about the higher and more important truths of Christianity. Fortunately, Dr Reinhard (like all the professors here) is happy to discuss things with students outside of class, so he offered to discuss more of the details with anyone who wanted to come to his office hours or make an appointment for another time. Hopefully I’ll find the time to do that myself!

In both political science and philosophy, we’re also studying some of those transcendental truths, but from the viewpoint of natural reason. In fact, my homework for both classes lately has been almost exactly the same, since in both we’ve been reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. So far, Aristotle has been pondering the existence of good, and how to define good, and whether there is some highest good, or Ultimate End, toward which all actions aim. Even though it usually seems obvious in day-to-day life what “good” means, especially with the light of Revelation to guide us in what moral goodness is, it’s actually difficult to completely answer the question, “What is good?” because good in one situation might not be the same as good in another situation, and yet we mean the same thing by “good” any time we say it. In ethics, it’s important to know what good is in order to learn to do it and thereby achieve the ultimate good for human life. In political science, it’s important to know for the same reason, but more specifically because the political community’s job is to help all its members reach the ultimate good. Needless to say, both classes have been full of lively discussion lately, and it should be exciting to learn more.

Finally, my first history class was today! Dr Shannon’s family emergencies are, thankfully, resolved (although I’m sure prayers would still be helpful!) We started off today by reviewing once again why we study history here at Christendom, and are even required to take four semesters of it, when some of the other Catholic liberal arts colleges purposefully leave it out of their curricula. Dr Shannon explained that they do this because, as the ancient Greek philosophers would have said, history is always changing, but the transcendental truths stay the same. Studying the absolutes, in their view, is important, and anything as fluid as history is far less useful. However, Dr Shannon referenced Dr Carroll’s (Christendom’s founder’s) motto: “Truth exists. The Incarnation happened.” It seems like a kind of non sequitur, he pointed out, but those two statements are actually two of the most important facts anyone can believe. They are also a challenge: the first to relativists and skeptics, and the second to all non-Christians. The first, Dr Shannon noted, was believed by all of the ancient philosophers— after all, they were always studying transcendental truths. The second, however, would have been harder for them to accept, since to them, it would make no sense for God to become man. Honestly, in a way, it really doesn’t make any sense for God to become man. But we know that it happened, and that event, Dr Shannon said, was the most important in all of history. Jesus was a part of history, and to understand Him, we have to study everything that came before and led up to His coming, and then everything after as well, because we have to see what he left us and how it all developed. In short, the Incarnation having happened makes all of history worth studying!

So, it’s been an amazing, eye-opening week, and I’m sure the next week will be another one. Thanks for reading, and I hope you come again!

Aaaand… We’re Back!

Salvete! We’re finally back from a wonderful three-month summer break! At least, three classes of us are back, while the seniors of last year have moved on, and there are around 122 freshmen who have never experienced Christendom College before! This year I’ll be documenting the sophomore portion of the core curriculum as my classmates and I progress through our second year. (If you want to read about what the freshmen are doing, start with my first post from a year ago, or use the archive of last year’s posts!)

As you may know, sophomores at Christendom still typically take six classes in the core curriculum, and we’ll declare our majors at the end of the year. Literature of Western Civilization III, History of Western Civilization III, Introduction to the Old Testament (Theology 201), Ethics (Philosophy 201), and Political Theory (Political Science 201) are the required 200-level courses, plus a foreign language. Since I’ve already finished Latin 202 (like many others who took Latin in high school), I’ve technically fulfilled my language requirement already, so I can go ahead and take an upper-level course to get a little ahead on my major or minor. I chose a new class taught by Dr Andrew Beer called St Augustine, Rhetorician, which focuses primarily on Augustine’s Confessions. It can be taken for credit in classics, theology, philosophy, history, or literature, so I’ll probably put it toward my prospective literature major or history minor.

Speaking of St Augustine, I attended the first session of that class on Tuesday, and was highly impressed. I definitely enjoyed reading the Confessions by St Augustine last semester in history, and it’s amazing how studying just this one man and one of his major works of literature really can enlighten you in so many areas. In our first class all we did was learn a little about his life and background, but already the class sounds exciting as well as useful. Dr Beer told us that as a large part of our final grade, we get to come up with our own project to do—a research paper, an artistic translation, a philosophical analysis, etc—on any 100 lines or so of the Confessions. We also will be doing recitations from the work in Latin. If first impressions count for anything, I think it’ll be a challenging but ultimately very rewarding class!

My first Ethics class with Dr John Cuddeback was yesterday as well, and in it, after the usual run-through of the syllabus and class policies, we delved right in. Dr Cuddeback had us imagine being asked what we want to do with our lives, and then think about how different people have extremely different answers to that question. He asked us whether we thought there was any standard by which we could judge a person’s answer to the question, which ultimately led us to consider how we know that there is a standard of good and evil, and if so, what it is. Of course, we all know that there is because of Divine Revelation, but philosophy is about arriving at the truth, or as much of it as we can, through human reason. As usual, the discussion made us think deeply, and it will probably keep us thinking all semester. We didn’t arrive at a conclusion because, as Dr Cuddeback assured us, it was a far more tricky question than what it first looked like. However, we did come to see that if there is no standard, there is no way to even begin to study ethics, since ethics is all about the goodness of human actions. I’m excited to keep wrestling with this question and hopefully reach a logical conclusion as the weeks move on!

Today, I had my first political science class, with Dr Bracy Bersnak. I didn’t really know what to expect, since I hadn’t taken college PoliSci before, but as Dr Bersnak explained today, political theory is the philosophy of politics. Every different political theory, he said, answers three questions: 1. What is the best type of political community? 2. What is happiness or human flourishing? and 3. What is the relationship between politics and human flourishing? He explained briefly how the ancient classical political theorists had a few different answers to these questions, but couldn’t fully answer them without Revelation. Then Aquinas, who had Revelation, answered them more fully, but afterwards modern political philosophers began to answer them incorrectly, leading eventually to many of the problems we have in our society today. This class looks as if it will be one of the most immediately practical classes at Christendom, since we students are Catholics entering into the adult world, and hoping to be good citizens and good voters, and, in some cases, maybe even good statesmen. I’m looking forward to learning more in this class too, possibly more than in all the others!

Theology this semester is on the Old Testament, which is important for many reasons. Professor Eric Jenislawski explained to my class yesterday that he wants us to come out of this semester being comfortable with reading the Bible, rather than feeling lost and overwhelmed by the Old Testament. Though he didn’t mention this point, I think this class will also be valuable for apologetics, because it will help us Catholics give scriptural evidence for our beliefs, and also break the stereotype among Protestants that we never read the Bible. In fact, Scripture is emphasized in many aspects of the core curriculum and in the campus life at Christendom, so this class should help all of us gain even more knowledge of how best to make Sacred Scripture a part of our lives. Scripture, of course, is mostly important because it is the Word of God, and therefore (as our chaplain reminded us in an address just last night) it is extremely important to read and meditate on the Bible as part of a daily prayer routine.

Lastly, I’ll mention literature! This morning I had my first class with Dr Ben Reinhard, who started off by having us remember what the first two semesters of core literature were about. Lit 101, of course, was on Greek epics and tragedies, and then 102 was more of a mix, with the Roman Aeneid, the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, and the Italian Divine Comedy. He had us try to decipher why this coming semester is on the works it’s on: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and a number of other works, including Paradise Lost and Swift’s A Modest Proposal. It seems as if the line between the 102 bunch of literature and the 201 bunch is a little arbitrary, until, he reminded us, we look at the dates. 201 covers roughly 1400-1750, an era of much poetry and literature concerning chivalry and courtly love. This is partly because of the end of the crusades, when the knights were suddenly left without conquests in the East to pursue, but still needed something honorable to turn their minds toward. It also has to do with the fact that Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her daughter Marie, were suddenly two very powerful figures in European government, which was unusual for women at the time. The literature reflects these changes, and places women in more prominent positions, making them more detailed and important characters. This literature is also from the time when there was plenty of good literature in middle or modern English, so we’re studying things that mostly haven’t had to be translated. Overall, I think it sounds like an extremely interesting semester, and I’m looking forward to learning about the stories and lyric poetry that came after the epics.

So, in conclusion, this semester is another exciting-looking one, full of all kinds of mysteries to be uncovered. I can’t wait to dig deeper into everything, and to share it all with you!

Valete!

(P.S. My history class with Dr Shannon was cancelled today because he had a family emergency. Please keep him in your prayers, and stay tuned to hear about history next week!)

Ave Atque Vale (Hello and Goodbye, a title stolen from a Catullus poem)

Hello, one more time! This is the last day of classes, and the last Core Knowledge post of the year. Everything in this school year has come to a peaceful conclusion and finished true to the comedic style: on a higher note than where it began.

In literature, we started the year with Homer’s epics, and studied Greek tragedies and then the great Roman epic, the Aeneid, at the beginning of this semester. These works were truly great in themselves, reaching the upper limit of purely natural goodness and literary genius. Then, we studied Beowulf, a semi-Christian work, which showed the transition of a culture from paganism to Christianity. Finally, we studied the Divine Comedy, that great Christian epic by Dante. From the center of the earth in the deepest pit of hell all the way to Dante’s indescribable experience of the Beatific Vision, the Comedy has been the best fulfillment possible of all the epics we studied throughout the year. This is the excellence of human genius with the added supernatural element of Christianity, depicting the greatest journey that ever happens to man: his climb to salvation. As we hurried to finish the last few cantos of Paradiso this morning, I thought about how perfect it is to be finishing this journey of the first year of college in the place where we should finish life: in heaven, contemplating God.

Latin class has also reflected this pattern to some extent. We’ve studied a variety of pagan and Christian works over the course of the year, and learned many writing styles from different time periods in Latin’s long and rich history. After studying Caesar, Vergil, and the lives of the saints, we studied Catullus’ poetry and Christian hymns, and concluded the year this morning by reading the opening chapters of St Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine begins by contemplating his own existence and God’s existence, and, with remarkable subtlety of language which is even more evident in Latin than in translation, he ponders how God can fill all of His creation, and yet creation cannot contain Him, and how we are inside of Him and totally dependent on Him, and yet somehow He is in us too. Like Dante’s combined joy and bewilderment at seeing Heaven, Augustine (and his readers!) are in awe and yet full of peaceful joy, contemplating what we can never fully understand.

Yesterday in history we finished our second semester tying the whole time period together, from 30 A.D. to the end of the High Middle Ages. Between the beginning of the scholastic year and now, we’ve covered the history of the Western world and of salvation from creation, to the Fall, to the Incarnation, all the way to the period of most flourishing and influence for the Church. The broad picture of the Church’s importance in literally holding civilization together throughout the last two thousand years, and the extreme importance of the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans in forming a world and culture that was ready to support such a Church in its inception, is painted much more clearly for me than it ever was before. I am exceedingly grateful to be attending a college that teaches history as part of the core curriculum, since everything really does make more sense when you can see where it fits into God’s plan and the story of the world.

Philosophy too has settled out into what I can only call a beautiful conclusion. Last semester laid down the foundations for studying philosophy, teaching us the history, terminology, and logical skills necessary to begin to become philosophers. This semester taught us what is necessary to begin to become ourselves. It taught us what becomes us as humans. It taught us, or at least taught me, a way of thinking that completes and strengthens my religious beliefs about the body and soul, and fills in all the logical chinks in the apologetic arguments I had heard before. From Aristotle’s Physics to the Summa Contra Gentiles, the complex terminology and syllogisms were well worth the end results. We finished the year reading The Hungry Soul by Leon R Kass, a modern book which goes back to traditional philosophical principles and explores what a human’s anatomy, and especially the way humans eat, says about who man is. After all the intense studying we did this semester about vegetative, sensitive, and rational powers, the book provided an interesting and extremely helpful practical application of those studies, and reinforced the things Dr Cuddeback said about how much our outward actions both express and affect our internal dispositions. The truth about humanity, that our bodies and souls are really and truly linked and need each other to make us fully human, means that everything from TV to table manners, manna to medicine, is extremely important. Philosophy alone in the past year was worth all the studying and time and effort that goes into the college life.

Introduction to Scientific Thought ended yesterday with one more test, covering the last few topics we learned about, namely the histories of chemistry, geology, and biology. We focused particularly on Darwin at the end of our studies, reading an excerpt from The Origin of Species. Although the Catholic Church, as well as many scientists, rejects aspects of Darwinian theories, studying Darwin’s reasoning and examples was interesting and helped shed some light on the confusion that often occurs in science today. Darwin proposed a theory that all species evolved from a common progenitor, including man. It is an interesting and rather convincing idea on the surface, but it remains unproven, despite being preached as truth to most science students today. However, aspects of it are also perfectly compatible with Catholic beliefs, and have not been disproven. Just like the Galileo case, this is a situation in which the Church is often mistaken to be against scientific progress, so studying it is essential to evangelization. Having taken statistics last semester, I am now done with the math and science credits I have to take here at Christendom, and don’t plan to take any more (since language is more my forte) but for the scientifically and mathematically minded, there are classes in physics, algebra, calculus, and more. Christendom College wants to form the whole person, and that includes providing math and science classes for those who are brave enough to take them! I have been blessed to be challenged and strengthened in the areas of math and science this year, and to have developed a greater appreciation for the wonder of every aspect of God’s creation.

And finally, theology! This year has been a year of some review for most of us, but I feel safe saying that everyone has had their eyes opened to some point of doctrine or morality that we didn’t know before. We concluded our study of the sacraments this week and then had our last class this morning, on indulgences. In just two semesters, we’ve covered revelation, grace, morality, the commandments, the sacraments, the virtues and vices, the Trinity, Christ’s two natures, sin, redemption, and everything else of importance to salvation. This puts all new students, regardless of background, on the same page as far as catechesis, and prepares us all to study scripture next year, and apologetics and other areas of theology after that. I am grateful to have been able to study theology, which, as we learned today, gives you a partial indulgence! Not only will putting what I’ve learned about morality and doctrine into practice be helpful for salvation, but simply studying for the final will get me to heaven faster!

So, the year began on a high note, and ended on an even higher one, with everything in some way or another focusing in on salvation and eternal life. Christ has risen, and God is good. I am extremely thankful for this year at Christendom, and for being able to share what I’m learning, at least a little bit, with all of you who read this blog. Thank you all for reading it, and have a great summer! I hope some of you will be joining me as a student on the other side of it. If so, I wish you as good a freshman year as mine was. Valete, one last time!

Endings and Eternal Bliss

Salvete once again! It’s our last full week of classes before finals, so loose ends are all being tied up, final tests and papers are due, and everyone is looking ahead to exams and then summer!

In Latin, we just finished reading Cicero’s “First Oration against Catiline”. It’s a rousing speech given in the Roman Senate by a master of rhetoric against a traitor to the Roman Republic, and not something you’d want to be the object of! The speech is famous around campus as “the Dr McGuire speech” since he is known for reciting it in Latin from memory, complete with shouting and picking out one student to be Catiline. (I’m told he does it at the Experience Christendom Summer Program if you’re interested in hearing it!) However, Dr Beer was able to guide us through understanding what it means, and helping us to notice the way Cicero made use of Latin grammar structure (with the verb normally at the end, following all the direct objects if there are several) to build each sentence up to a climax and emphasize the most important and menacing words in the sentence. In a good English translation, the speech is alright, but there’s nothing like reading Cicero in the original!

In literature too we’ve reached a climax; we’re finally done with Purgatory and have entered Paradise! Dante’s final Canticle in the Divine Comedy is a little hard to understand, since it deals with a state of being that none of us can possibly imagine. However, it does shed light on theological points, such as the fact that everyone in heaven is perfectly happy, and yet everyone exists in heaven in a different state of blessedness. This fact confuses Dante’s character, and sparks a discussion in the story, which was continued in class by us students and Dr Stanford. One helpful illustration is thinking of every person as a glass, and each person’s glass is full to the brim in heaven so that no one can possibly be more happy than they are, and yet each person’s glass is a different size. Whether you’re the size of a thimble or a gallon jug doesn’t matter to you, since you’re perfectly happy. Dante does an excellent job of showing people in different “parts” of heaven (shown in Dante’s character’s vision as different heavenly bodies such as the moon and planets) all as perfectly happy, and professing that they could not possibly be more full of joy or love of God. They have reached the final end of man, their own fullest potential for bliss.

The year itself is coming to a close, and I think the image of being different-sized glasses is helpful for us students too. Every class here this year has helped me develop in almost every area, especially in learning to reason logically and in learning about the Faith. Learning more about the faith makes the glass grow bigger, so you have a greater responsibility to live well, but also a potential for a greater happiness. Those who never get to take theology or never read Dante will still be able to go to heaven and be perfectly happy, but the more we learn, the more there is for God to use to work through us. I think I was a thimble before I came, and now maybe I’m a shot glass… Or just a slightly bigger thimble. But either way, I’ve grown, and so will you if you come here!

Valete until next week!

Nearing the End: Heaven and Home

Christos anesti! (Greek for Christ is risen!) We’re back from Easter break, and ready for one last month—or less!— of our year at Christendom!

In literature, we’re nearing the end of Dante’s Purgatorio. Dante’s character has reached the top of the mountain and finds himself in earthly paradise, the Garden of Eden. Dr Stanford pointed out this morning that all through Inferno and Purgatorio up to this point, Dante has had to ask permission from Vergil (who symbolizes right reason) before stopping to talk to anyone he sees, or going to one place or another, but once he has reached the garden, he doesn’t have to anymore. Vergil declares him his own master, since now his will has been purged, and it’s impossible for him to want to do anything but what is best. This is the fulfillment of human perfection, as we know from theology, and this is the state we, like Dante, have to reach before entering heaven. After reading the first two canticles, I’m excited to start Paradiso, and finish off my first year of college reading about what heaven is like!

In philosophy too we sort of talked about heaven, since we were learning about the final cause, or end, of man. We had already learned about the formal cause (soul) and material cause (body), and so the next important cause to learn was the final, the whole reason we exist and what we are made to achieve. In other words, we learned what the meaning of life is! Turns out, it’s to understand God, which is what we’ll do in heaven much better than on earth. Both faith and reason back this claim up, and St Thomas Aquinas demonstrates it with a number of logical facts in his Summa contra Gentiles. Now we’re finished with all the powers of the soul, and all the most important parts of Philosophy of Human Nature. However, I’m sure the last few weeks will still be interesting, and leave us all looking forward to taking Ethics in the fall.

In theology, we’ve finished the Commandments and moved on to the sacraments. So far we’ve covered the three sacraments which leave indelible marks on the soul: baptism, confirmation, and Holy Orders. I think it’s fascinating that Jesus chose to use ordinary substances that were already meaningful and useful to humans, such as water, bread, wine, and oil, combined them with simple words, and gave them the power to confer grace, God’s own life, on people. The idea that a symbolic washing can actually wash the soul, and leave it marked as a Christian and a member of the Church forever, is very beautiful, and it ties in well with what we’ve learned in philosophy— that man is a body-soul composite, and has to use both in order to get to heaven.

Near the end of the year, everything seems to be converging on the one thing that is most important—heaven! We’re all looking forward to going home for the summer, but more importantly to going Home forever. Three months without exams and papers may not be paradise really, but it sounds a little like it! ;) Actually, I think we freshmen will be a little sad to leave Christendom for so long, but the break will give us a rest and get us ready to start another great year next August. Meanwhile, we’ll make the most of every day in these last three weeks.

Happy Easter!

A New Science, a New Poetry Meter, and a New Liturgical Season!

Hello, everyone! I hope you’re having a great Holy Week!

The semester is winding down a bit, but there’s still lots more to come in the last few weeks. In Latin, we’re been reading and translating some liturgical hymns, such as the Stabat Mater and Pange Lingua. These poems are different from any we’ve studied before, because the meters are based on patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables rather than long and short syllables. This is the type of meter used for most English poetry. Also, these hymns are the first poems we’ve studied that rhyme, since rhyming wasn’t used in the earlier days of Latin. To make this even more awesome, these hymns are ones that are traditionally sung for the Triduum liturgies, so it’s the perfect time of year for learning them!

In science we’ve moved on from astronomers and started learning about the early days of chemistry. We’ve read some of Lavoisier’s writings, and learned about early ideas of atomic structure. Just yesterday we got to the discovery of the periodic table of elements, and the first people who experimented with radioactivity. Although this was going back to astronomy a bit, Dr Townsend also mentioned the “blood moon”, or total lunar eclipse, which happened early Tuesday morning. Unfortunately it was too cloudy here to really observe it, but it was a good reminder of what astronomy really is: observation of the skies and their phenomena. If it weren’t for the clouds, our campus is a really great place to observe the sky, since the small town doesn’t cause much light pollution.

In history yesterday we learned about the Fourth Crusade. Professor Lane gave us a fairly detailed lecture on the matter, noting that many people misunderstand the crusades in general and this one in particular. It was a complicated and unfortunate series of events, which started out as a mission to protect Christians in the Holy Land and ended as the sack and capture of Constantinople by Venetian, French, and German crusaders. Professor Lane was very informative about the financial problems, cultural clashes, and political motivations that contributed to the disaster, and showed how there were things the crusaders certainly did wrong, but which the Church and the Pope himself had explicitly forbidden. The problems came mainly from honest confusion as well as people disobeying what the Church decreed, not from the Church herself. As a Catholic, I find it very helpful to learn history as part of a liberal arts curriculum, since the Church has always been an influential part of the shaping of the world since her beginning, and learning about controversial issues like the crusades helps to put everything into its historical context and be able to investigate the issues honestly.

Speaking of the Church, this is the third day of the holiest week of the year! We’re all on break from our last classes today until they start again on Tuesday. It’ll be a good break to let us all get caught up on sleep and relaxation before the final few weeks of the year. I wish everyone a blessed Triduum and a happy Easter!

Contradictions, Comparisons, Contrapassos, and Composites

Greetings, everyone! This is a post I’ve been looking forward to writing all week, so I’ll jump right in with literature and move on from there!

We’ve finished the Inferno and have moved on the second canticle of the Divine Comedy, Purgatorio. So far, it is a radically different experience. Purgatory is depicted as a high, steep mountain, which is very difficult to climb in the beginning and gets easier and easier as one moves closer to Heaven — the exact opposite of Hell, where everything got worse as it went down. At the top is the Garden of Eden. The souls Dante and Vergil meet as they climb the beginning stages of the mountain are souls who didn’t repent until the very end of their lives, and perhaps lived very sinful lives, but God recognizes even the tiniest last-minute repentance, and gives them the ability to be purified and enter heaven. This canticle is beautifully written, and makes use of some particularly lovely and symbolic epic similes (lengthy comparisons used in epic poetry). Contrapassos continue as well, since all the souls are still doing penance, but this time the punishments are redemptive and purifying, and the souls undergoing them have hope, continually asking for prayers rather than pity. The whole poem is a beautiful reminder of the truth that God really does forgive even the worst sins, as long as we are at least a tiny bit sorry.

In theology, we’re moving speedily through the commandments, and recently finished discussing the Catholic doctrine on just war, a major part of the 5th commandment. This is a topic of particular interest in our modern age, when wars or quasi-wars appear all the time, for all kinds of complicated reasons. As part of the discussion, we learned about how to decide if a war is just, when a Catholic may or may not participate in a war, and how to navigate the issues of civilian deaths and other evil side effects of war. We also discussed the issue of when it is justifiable to fire the first shot in a war. As usual, I found that having everything laid out clearly and in full detail, with references to the catechism paragraphs needed for further research, was extremely helpful and my understanding of Church doctrine was furthered in yet another relevant area.

I’ve saved the best subject for last, though. Dr Cuddeback’s philosophy class has had an amazing week, even more profound than usual. On Thursday, we reached the real culmination of the course, the summit and the most important puzzle piece of the whole semester. After learning about intellection, and how that immaterial part of the soul works, we started learning about how the soul relates to the body. A philosopher named Averroes once argued with St Thomas Aquinas about the human soul, and claimed that no soul could be rational. His argument, put very briefly, was that if it was rational, it had to be immortal, but if it was a soul, it was the soul of a body, which by nature would be mortal. Therefore, even the phrase “rational soul” was a contradiction in terms. But Averroes didn’t know that one does not simply win an argument with St Thomas! Thomas replied to him by basically saying that the best way to prove that a thing is possible is to show that it is actual — that is, if a thing exists, it must be possible. So the fact that humans exist shows that a rational soul must exist. This simple fact takes a lot of complex argument to really prove, but it is true, and its implications, as Dr Cuddeback has been showing us, are tremendous. If humans really are composed of a material body and a rational, immortal soul, then there must be some connection between that soul and that body. We are not, as Dr Cuddeback once put it, angels shoved inside of aardvarks. Instead, we really are body-soul composites, completely unified and connected. This means that we really will have these exact bodies for all eternity after the general resurrection, and that until the general resurrection, our souls will be sort of “floating” in heaven, unable to use any of their powers in the natural way because the body is gone. This also means that what we do with our bodies both expresses and affects what happens in our souls. Although I’ve always known that these facts were true, knowing the full “why” of the matter, or as much of it as humanity every can know, makes a dramatic difference to how I think about almost everything. As Dr Cuddeback explained yesterday, manners, entertainment, and even such mundane things as how we walk have a profound impact on our souls, and vice-versa. He gave the example of genuflecting: we genuflect over and over, every single time we go into church, partly because it is a natural sign of respect for God, but also to remind ourselves, and to really ingrain in our souls, the fact that God is present there and deserves respect. Continuously building a habit with the body can help to build a virtue in the soul as well. This is why every action we ever perform is so important, no matter how small it seems; and not realizing this fact is a big part of why so many things go wrong in the world.

So, to sum up: Everyone should come to Christendom and take Philosophy of Human Nature! I promise, finally understanding how those puzzle pieces fit together is one of the best feelings in the world, and it will truly change your life.