A Summer Tale Print
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 14 July 2008

Before Karol Wojtyla became John Paul II, he had a philosopher friend in Poland who was an atheist when he sat at his desk, but somehow came to believe in God whenever he would go walking in the High Tatras Mountains. Romantic philosophers and ecologists have tried to draw out universal conclusions from experiences of this kind. And they are probably right to try. But in the strange byways of grace, it is hard to say what this sort of thing means, especially since the philosopher always seemed to return his old ways once he arrived back home.

I can attest, however, that this is not a universal phenomenon. In fact, quite the contrary. I was just in the High Tatras myself today, on the Slovak side. I’ve hiked there four years in a row now with the students and faculty of the Slovak Summer Seminar on the Free Society, which involves some of the regular columnists of The Catholic Thing, Michael Novak and Hadley Arkes, as well as such notables as Fr. Derek Cross, Brian Anderson, and Russell Hittinger. We go up to the mountain, so to speak, after almost two weeks of intense lectures, discussions, and time spent together casually at meals, in pursuit of greater understanding of what a better social order might look like and in the light shed on this vast subject by the Christian tradition.

The students are a mix of Americans and Central and Eastern Europeans – mostly Slovaks, but depending on the year, we may also have Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and Bulgarians. Except for the Slovaks – and by no means even all of them – faculty and students start out with little common experience, often do not even understand each others’ English very well. Yet by the end of two weeks, there is always a palpable sadness in parting, something like the final scenes in The Lord of the Rings when the mission is accomplished and the members of the fellowship set out for the four corners of the globe, some never to see one another again. As Professor Arkes – ever wise on such matters – explains it, “We just like being with one another.”

Friends of mine take specially prepared vacations in the summer and can’t wait to go off someplace to “do nothing,” as they often say. I am not much attracted to doing nothing, and usually feel best when I’m working hard at something I like. But I have no objection to anyone getting away from the daily grind, even deliberately trying to do nothing, because nature abhors a vacuum and will inject something unexpected and valuable into the most unlikely times and places. Still, there are days when we are trying to keep the seminar moving when I almost think it would be better not to spend summertime further wrestling with eternal and temporal things. Almost, but never quite, because something happens in the course of those days that is always transformative, perhaps not for everyone, but quite nearly so.

In most graduate studies, you do not spend such concentrated time in and out of the classroom with a small group of people with equally intense interests. Also, in the usual classrooms, there are grades to earn, professional development to be worried over, and goals to be reached. Our seminar participates in a similar search for knowledge and capability, but in the most disinterested way: no one is there pursuing anything other than understanding itself.

I often notice during the seminar that it seems like a Saturday afternoon, whatever the actual day of the week. It’s all time when the immediate pressures of life have receded and you almost feel yourself touching a timeless realm. I’ve had the same feeling a few times at retreats, but never in any learning setting except for the seminar. Perhaps this is what also attracts the vast numbers of people who will turn out this week for World Youth Day (see related story in News).

There have to be grades and courses and degrees in the world, because study inevitably bumps up against the practical side of life. But I wonder if one main reason that so many university programs seem to have slipped into careerism is that they have moved away from this special leisure in which we really try to grasp truth for the sake of the truth, when the truth becomes capable of grasping us for once and reminding us that not everything we do is best pursued by sticking to clear, practical ends.

Anyway, I fly home tomorrow and will no doubt have to “do nothing” for a few days before I’ll be capable of doing something again. The faculty always want to talk during the seminar about whether we are spending our time wisely and achieving anything worth our effort and the generosity of our donors. But that kind of reflection is part of the living nature of the work. By the end of the program, it comes to an end in the realization that, as Michael Novak has said of his own participation, “I can’t do anything else.” It’s not exactly a vacation and certainly is not a rest. But something has been achieved through us and when we start planning next year, somehow we simply look forward to doing it all over again.

Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His latest book is “The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.”

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