Tom Bombadil is singing in the fields, gathering flowers for his wife, Goldberry.
A few days ago I announced that I’d be leaving Providence College, where I have taught for twenty-seven years, to teach instead at that sane and sweet haven of faith and reason, Thomas More College, in New Hampshire.
I still have much to say about the school I am leaving, but right now I wish to hold before the imagination of the reader The Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture, the vision, already begun to be realized, of the president of Thomas More College, William Fahey.
Grace builds upon nature, as Thomas Aquinas teaches us, and we can draw a few conclusions from that dictum. The first is that if the natural has been denied or depraved or reduced to rubble, the evangelist must set about rebuilding that foundation. You can preach to a heroin addict, but you must at the same time be re-forming him, so that he will be addicted to heroin no more, and will instead be an ordinary human being who can breathe freely with a sound mind and a sound body.
The second is that nature is our ally. She is not omnipotent. Tolkien’s figure of uncorrupted nature, Tom Bombadil, though he is not tempted by the rings of power, is not sufficient to destroy the evil. But we do not require that nature be omnipotent. We require only that she be herself.
Consider how many of our political conflicts are predicated upon denying nature, or upon embracing the unnatural and perverse. Any farmer’s kid could tell you the difference between a cow and a bull, but we pretend for political purposes that it is all a matter of perception. Our grandparents did not have ultrasounds, so they wondered about the sex of a child before it was born. We are more sophisticated now. We wonder about it after.
What we say about nature we may say also about culture, by analogy. It is natural for human beings to dwell in a culture; it is natural and good for them to revere their forebears, to remember the deeds of heroes, to cherish works of beauty and truth that have been bequeathed to them, to order their days by feasts that elevate them above their own time, and to bend their knees together in prayer to God who has blessed them.
In man there is no nature without culture, and all cultures build upon human nature. Any division between them is factitious: as if you could talk about the nature of the wolf as separate from the pack.
Now, we are fallen creatures, and our cultures also are fallen; and in our time, we risk falling beneath fallenness itself, falling into the void. Never in the history of man has there been a people without culture, without any strong memory of what has come before them: without folk art and music, without the common lived experience of poetry, without heroes that everyone honors, and without the communion of worship.
We are wealthy enough to survive without those things, but no wealth can replace them. We may love mammon, but mammon will not love us back.
So at Thomas More College we will take on the double and doubly rewarding task of renewing a specifically Catholic culture by first working to renew the thing itself, culture.
Let me illustrate. Many young people have never watched one film from the golden age of that art form. Imagine then, every weekend, as part of an educational program, The Informant, You Can’t Take It With You, It Happened One Night, How Green Was My Valley, Foreign Correspondent, I Remember Mama; or maybe we could focus on a single artist, and watch the opera omnia Francisci Capreae.
Imagine that we open the doors also to homeschoolers and young Catholic children in the area, and to interested neighbors in the community.
At the school I’m leaving, young men and women do not date, and we give them little to do that is wholesome and readily available. Imagine then dances in a great ballroom built just for such a thing; and imagine that the young people learn to dance as their grandparents may have done, with innocence and the natural attraction that boys and girls are meant to have for one another.
Imagine that you get people from the community who can play the fiddle, attracted despite themselves to the beauty of what is normal. People used to play musical instruments, for the pleasure and mirth of it, and not for pursuing a career.
Imagine a place for regular concerts, big and small, “professional” and amateur, by people with gray hair or by little ones with cowlicks or braids. All of the arts have gone sour; poetry, the first and highest art of man, has degenerated into political posturing, in verse without form and meter.
But at Thomas More College, students are instructed in the art itself; so imagine a group of young Catholics landing on the beachhead of a revival of the art, its restoration to its own history and its characteristic beauties. Imagine poetry readings, not “slams” or shouting matches; imagine young people reciting, for audiences who have never heard the like, dramatic monologues by Browning or Tennyson; imagine people who were born in New Hampshire hearing, for the first time in their lives, the narrative poetry of Robert Frost performed by youngsters who have learned to love it.
Imagine exhibitions by the Audubon Society, lectures on classical sculpture and sacred architecture, Bach chorales, reenactments of the oratory of Daniel Webster, displays by collectors of coins and other memorabilia – imagine memory returning, culture returning, all the things that you would have to move heaven and earth to accomplish behind the barred gates of the typical college today.
And remember that it leads, not to the sanctuary of the Temple, but to the precincts; and that is not a bad place to begin.