The Catholic Thing
Life, and That in Abundance Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 09 May 2012

There’s recently been an attempt at my college to revise our mission statement, to affirm our belief in the unity of faith and reason and, while remaining open to people of all faiths or of no faith, to foster the sense that the highest aim of the education we offer is to assist students as they discern God’s plan for their lives.

A predictable flurry of opposition has emerged. It has taken three forms. Some people oppose the statement because the faculty was not sufficiently consulted. Others oppose it because they believe that faith is inversely proportional to intellectual life. But most of the opponents said they felt left out, shunted aside, because, as non-Catholics, they could not fully endorse every clause in the statement.

I’d respond to the first group with a shrug. I don’t know that it is the duty of a faculty to determine a college’s mission, as opposed, in our case, to the Dominicans whose apostolate the college is, or the thousands of alumni, or the students currently enrolled, or the Catholic community of the local diocese, or the universal Church. Be that as it may, I suppose the faculty should be consulted. 

To the second group, I’d say that if indeed faith produces ninnies, they happen to have names like Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Bach, Kierkegaard, Gödel, Dostoyevsky – what luck that we don’t have ninnies like them around here! No, the people in this second group, the bigots, don’t surprise me. How can they? I am a Catholic in academe.

It’s the third group that puzzles. They say they wish to be welcomed to the heart of the college, but they would forbid the existence of the very thing to which the college might welcome them. They do not say, “Help me to understand what is most important to you, that I might join.” They do not say, “Although I cannot affirm all that you affirm, show me what I can do to assist you in your mission.” They say, “You must not define yourselves publicly in such a way as to make me feel that I do not participate fully in what you are about.”

And that, of course, is an act of ingratitude. I tried to suggest as much, as gently as I could, writing, “It is one thing not to be invited to a feast; it is another thing to require there to be no feast, because one would not wish to attend it.”

The responses to that puzzled me even more. What feast could I be talking about?

       The Crucifixion by Hélène Lagrand (2011)

Yes, I see now that they didn’t get the scriptural allusion. But it is hard, even on our campus, to miss the feasting. We have many students – not the majority, but maybe all the more conspicuous for that – who shine with the glow of faith, hope, and charity.

You can see it in their eyes, in their frank and innocent smiling. You can see in them a life that hasn’t been scorched by the dreary hedonism of the day. They go to Mass, they sing, they volunteer with children – they have Someone to live for. You can notice it among the faculty themselves. Those who are most joyful, right across all the departments, are those whose joy has been given them from above. 

Sure, I know plenty of believers who are dour or difficult. Old Adam persists. But if I’m searching for joy, even in the midst of troubles and grief, I will not find it among people whose deficient faith fixes a grim little ceiling above the soul of man. 

Don’t suppose that I am speaking only of emotions here. Joy is also an intellectual delight. The last thing that a secular college can be is in fact a college, because there is nothing substantial that can make colleagues out of a large group of people competing for students and for funding, and who recognize no ultimate goal for the life of the mind. Biology is biology, and literature is literature. 

Yet at the same time as the faculty at my school were shouldering their pikes, a prospective student came to visit and to ask me about us. She wishes to pursue both biology and literature, and not because each one happens to be a hobby. She saw both disciplines as pointing toward the same end. 

It would be redundant here to say that she was a young woman of devout faith. What wouldn’t be redundant, because somehow people seem to miss it entirely, is to say that she too shone with that glow that I find nowhere else but in – how to put it? – Jerusalem.

Why doesn’t everyone see this? Envy is partly to blame, a deliberate wish to turn every joy sour. “He’s a smart man, sure,” says Mr. Wise, “but when it comes to that stuff he’s a weakling, not able to face up to the facts of life, like me.” “Oh, they make a great show of rejoicing,” says Ms. Jaundice, “but you’re bound to feel good when you think you’re better than everybody else.” “It beats me how they could go for all that,” sniffs Mr. Fadsley, surfing the television.

Yet partly it is our own fault. We should mount a regular gaudium militans, as joyful soldiers and soldiers of joy. What prevents us but human regard, that miserly sin against merriment? Would it embarrass us to march in procession through the neighborhood streets on Corpus Christi, singing hymns? 

Yes, it would, just as it embarrasses us to invite our wayside neighbors to Mass. I feel that hesitation, that shyness. It needs to be overcome, and if it takes numbers, well then, the more the merrier. Jesus was nailed naked to the Cross for all to see in his bitter grief. It can hardly hurt us, then, to show a little glow in the heart to bring people closer to His Resurrection.

Anthony Esolen
is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is
Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Benjamin Beier, May 09, 2012
Thanks as always, Prof. Esolen, for a great column. I was arrested by the observation that human regard is a miserly sin against merriment. It is precisely this sort of regard that I see in my college and high school students. I can oblige them to sing Gaudeamus Igitur or recite memorized poems, but most of the time--despite the enthusiasm with which the task was assigned--the students deprive themselves an opportunity for delight (and instruction) because they won't give themselves wholly to the activity. That said, I know that I often fail as a teacher both to model joy and to find ways to help students overcome the desire for human regard. Does anyone have concrete ideas of ways to help students overcome this desire and to become merry in the classroom, esp. when they may not have that deep joy from being fed at The Feast?
written by Stanley Anderson, May 09, 2012
I posted a Facebook comment about an idea I was wondering about yesterday that has had no replies (yet), but when I read this column, it occurred to me that it might be connected to the subject and that you (or others) might have some thoughts or information on my question/contemplation. Here is a copy of the post:

I was contemplating something the other day. Christ said "Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid."

I've always thought (along with most people, I suppose, but tell me otherwise) it meant something like that he gives to us a kind of peace that is not the kind of peace that the world gives.

But I suddenly wondered, could he mean something like that it is the WAY or manner that he gives us that peace that is not the way or manner that the world gives us peace? In other words, perhaps the world only gives us peace only under certain conditions, but that he gives us peace under different conditions or even without conditions at all?

Or perhaps he means a bit of both -- ie, both the type of peace and his manner of giving it to us?

I haven't yet worked through that idea and what those "conditions" or lack of conditions or different conditions might be or how that would affect us in contrast to the world's way, but it was (is still) interesting to contemplate anyway.

(And does anyone know if this is something that might already have some discussion and development that I just simply haven't heard before, and if so can you point me to it?)
written by Jacob, May 09, 2012
Yes well even if you ask a modern American Catholic for spiritual help he'll be afraid that his secular friends from work might find out he actually believes the stuff!
It's one thing to not be right with "God" in their eyes, but imagine that their secular friends stopped thinking they were smart and cool!! (Some things one just can't countenance.)
written by James Danielson, May 09, 2012
Cheerful boosterism like this is encouraging, I suppose, but it doesn't account for reality--not for me, anyway. I find the Novus Ordo mass to be among the dreariest experiences I can inflict upon myself. It is without mystery, beauty, or joy. If this isn't bad enough, one is put upon to greet strangers in a phony show of Christian affection that is perfectly suited to a culture of salsemen. I cannot imagine an apologetic for the Novus Ordo mass that could get me to church on Sunday.
written by Tony Esolen, May 09, 2012
Dear Benjamin,

We all do need a great deal of loosening up, don't we? Alas, to be caught in a public display of cheerful devotion feels like being caught skinny dipping....

Dear Stan, I do believe you are on to something there. It is a different kind of peace, and it is given in a different way. That is what moved the geneticist Francis Collins to embrace the faith. He was working in a cancer ward and he saw the calm and cheerful confidence of some of his Christian patients, and he was moved by that to ask his neighbor, an evangelical Christian, to instruct him in the faith. It doesn't mean that Christians do not grieve, but even their grief is shot through with something that the world cannot give. The world, I guess, gives not peace but a truce, and a truce, as we know, is by nature unreliable and temporary.

Dear James, You haven't been to my parish, evidently. We experience mystery, beauty, and joy. I am no apologist for bad liturgies, as everyone here probably knows. But if Jesus deigns to become present in the Eucharist, I'd better not dismiss the proceedings ... Also, last year I was given the privilege of attending a Novus Ordo Mass with what is falsely called "folk music," with guitars and men belting out the verses at the top of their lungs. It was among men doing life sentences at a maximum security prison. I could have wept ...
written by Mark, May 09, 2012
@James Danielson: Two suggestions: 1. When you go to mass, participate in the mass. I mean use your priestly powers by virtue of your baptism (you were baptised as prophet, priest and king) to fully participate. 2. If it still doesn't work for you,attend the Latin Mass.
written by Randall, May 09, 2012
I am continually engaged, enlightened and enamored by the daily columns on The Catholio Thing, especially by Prof. Anthony Esolan. Thank God for this website!
written by Scott W, May 20, 2012
RE: "What feast could I be talking about?" As a former academic at Univ. Michigan, I can attest that most of the faculty and PhD students are ignorant of the most basic facts and beliefs of Catholicism. As a then-lapsed Catholic, on more than one occasion I had to correct a room full of professors who were "experts" in the history of moral and political philosophy when they made some reference to Catholic belief. A common error was to claim that the Immaculate Conception was about the birth-state of Jesus. Ouch!

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author