Life, and That in Abundance

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. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.