Opening Ceremony 2020

Good morning gentlemen and welcome back to Gregory the Great Academy!

I want to begin this year by telling you all what I said to the faculty about a month ago. So I thank them in advance for listening to this twice. Given the constraints of this year of Covid-19, we are going to have to hunker down at the school more than is usual for us. We will have to do more things at school, on campus, and on our own property. But I don’t see that as an altogether bad thing. It may in fact be a very good thing. I’ve heard the frustration over the years that we are sometimes doing too much, we’re too busy, we’re trying to be too many places at the same time. That may well be true.

So I propose that we embrace this opportunity to do less things, do more local things, and do them better. And as we embrace this discipline of enforced isolation, as we explore the possibilities of doing things more on the home front, I think we may also have the opportunity to explore more deeply what is essential to our education. What is truly essential? What is the essence?

This word “essential” has been bandied about much of late in the context of the new COVID World that has come upon us in order to designate just who are the essential workers and of course who are the inessential.

Well, by opening our doors wide this year, we have declared to all of your parents and to you that what we do here is essential. Most schools, I would have to say, are not essential. But some schools are. I believe that this school is one of those schools. This school is essential.

And my hope is that this year will afford us the opportunity to deepen our understanding of what is most truly essential in our education.

As radical leftists rampage through the big cities tearing down statues and setting other people’s property on fire, our call is to embrace the challenge of becoming true radicals – righteous radicals who are emboldened by Christ and his saints to go to the roots of who we are and of what we as a school ought to be doing. The word radical comes from the latin word radix, which means roos. So a righteous radical goes to the root of things, not to tear things up by the roots but to plant himself ever more deeply in the soil of the Real.

We seem to be living in a strange time. Is it an extraordinary time. I don’t know. There have been many extraordinary times in history. To me, this seems like it may very well be one of those. You feel something of the flavor of momentous change in the air, change that is by no means all for the good.

In such circumstances, it seems obvious that there is a pressing need to be strongly rooted in the things that are most true, those “dearest freshness deep down things” whatsoever those may be, that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins speaks of in a poem many of you know.

I don’t wish to be too apocalyptic here but as the adverse forces of our culture buffet us this way and that, there is a need now more than ever for those who have the knowledge and the ability and indeed the grace to gather closer to the center so that the center can hold them in place.

As I speak of gathering closer to the center as torrential winds blow us this way and that I am thinking about lines from a poem by the great Irishman William Butler Yeats called “The Second Coming”. It’s a bit of a terrifying poem. Listen:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats is saying that the world is like a falcon that can no longer hear the call of his falconer, it is a world where anarchy is loosed, causing things to fall apart, allowing innocence to be drowned. And all because man has lost his center. And a man without a center, he says, even the good men, lack intensity, lack passion, lack conviction – in a word, the man of today is weak. And he’s weak because he lacks conviction. What does that mean to lack conviction? It means he’s not convinced of anything, because he has no real knowledge and experience of the center of reality, a knowledge that could root him and guide him through the storm.

So what about us? Where do we find the center here? How do we become men who are convinced of the Good, convinced of the Truth and convinced of Beauty so that we can weather the storm and help others to weather it? Where at Gregory the Great Academy do we find our center?

Music and poetry are at the center; these are at the essence of what we do here for music and poetry form the heart of man both for good and for ill. Let’s take this opportunity to explore this mystery deeper to help us to better understand and to experience the power of the muses. And let’s take this year to carry on and breath new life into one of the greatest treasures and traditions of our academy – our musical culture – by fostering an in-house musical tradition. The same goes for poetry. One of the surprise fruits of last year’s distance learning program was Mrs. Beebe’s sonnet class and the discovery that so many of our boys could learn to write profound and beautiful poetry. Let’s be a school of poets who know how to write sonnets and ballads. Let’s be a school of bards who learn as many folk songs as we can and even start writing our own folk songs.

Sports are at the center. The joy of using the body effectively to do wonderful things on the sports field both with teammates and alone. The intensity and joy of battle. These early existential confrontations on the soccer field and the rugby pitch that call one to courageous action, often for the first time in one’s life. The slow painful but satisfying knowledge that hard work builds strength, ability, and character. And perhaps best of all the sheer joy of learning to play a game well. All of this is central to our education.

The farm is a new plank that is also central. Bringing boys into contact with the realities of pigs and chickens and let’s hope sheep, goats, and cattle up ahead, roots our students on a daily basis in chores that are tied to the earth, tied to the land, and teaches them something profound about the very act of eating: that our lives are dependent on the sacrifice of many other lives. Learning to understand, participate in, and honor this sacrifice and the animals who make it – is a profound and necessary education.

And now what of academics? Are academics central to our education? I certainly hope so. But at the same time I think what makes our school extraordinary and transformative is that we understand that academics is only one of the many educational endeavors that is essential. Our school is not confined to desks and classrooms. Far from it. But what does happen in the classroom? What are we trying to achieve there? As your teachers we are trying to lead or to charm or to surprise the minds and imaginations of our students into a state of wakefulness and liveliness. We do not simply want to pack your minds with as many truths as we can fit into one class period. That kind of learning will only be disgorged onto the next exam and soon forgotten. What we want is for students to come to experience the power and profundity and joy of discovering for themselves that there is truth in history, in stories, in nature, in the very workings of the mind, in the wonderful ways that one’s mind becomes stretched and refined by writing sonnets, working out Euclidean props, and struggling to articulate ideas in speech and on paper.

Prayer is central to our education. I think to myself all the time that our school is ideal for developing the inner life of young men – because prayer forms the rhythm of every day and every activity in this place but also because here boys are given the first opportunity of their lives to begin to form their own life of prayer outside the orbit of their family. They are given a new space, new voices, new ideas, new prayers, and new liturgies with which to encounter God communally and personally.

And there is much more we could include here. What about juggling performance and craft guilds? And what of camping trips and trips to Europe? What role do they play? Are these central? I say yes. They too are essential and thus central.

At this point you may be wondering how many centers there can be. If something has too many centers, then it has no center at all. So am I speaking nonsense here?

An image that could make sense of my claim would be the image of a wheel and all of these planks that I am calling central as spokes leading from the outer rim into the center.

So with this image I think we can truly say that all of these activities that we pursue here are central, are essential because they lead us and our students to what is the true essence and center of all – to Christ.

The great Church father Saint Irenaeus wrote that “The glory of God is man alive”. Sometimes it is translated “the glory of God is the living man”. What this means is that Man glorifies God by living his life to the fullest extent and he can only live fully as man if he is formed according to the image of his maker, the image of Christ. This sentence (“The glory of God is man alive”) gives us a pithy expression of our mission. For our mission as educators is to work with one another and with God to bring ourselves and our students more fully alive through participation in the resplendent form and being of Christ. And we lead our students to encounter this font of Life through music, poetry, sport, history, literature, logic, mathematics, chores, caring for animals, juggling, and many many other essential things.

Yeats writes that the center cannot hold. He is wrong there. For the center is God who is like us a man and he can hold us if we allow ourselves to be held. If we wish to be men who are passionately and intensely good, men who can stand up to the winds of this age and even help others to stand with us, men who are true explorers and adventurers of the world God has made, let us begin here and now by learning to plant ourselves ever more deeply in the truth and beauty and goodness of God.

-Luke Culley, Headmaster

To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns

Address given at the Robbie Burns Supper

Gregory the Great Academy, 2020

by Dr. John McCarthy

The ancient poets often employ the theme of νόστος: homecoming. I came to Saint Gregory’s in the winter of 2006 in the middle of the year. John Burger picked me up from the airport. There was a snow. I didn’t know anyone here, nor did I really know anyone who had come here. I was wearing my letterman from my old high school. I had long hair, not the kind of 90’s grunge band hair you sometimes our young alumni wear, but more like That 70’s Show, except I would try to frill it out. It seemed a good style at the time, and in justice, it was fairly reflective of my character.

As I said, when I got here it was storming, and there were only few boys on campus, and we had some free time. So Michael McGrath, more commonly known as Griz, led us on an expedition where we spent twenty-five minutes trudging through the snow, fifteen minutes repairing a dilapidated fort, barely got a fire going that was not enough to give more than your hands a few seconds of the feeling of warmth, had some nasty cowboy coffee, and trudged through the snow home. They thought it was a great time. I thought there must be something wrong with them.

Growing up in the New Mexico desert, I was cold almost all the time. I thought I would start varsity rugby for sure. I had never played rugby before, but I considered myself tough, and I had played a couple varsity sports at my old high school. I thought I would have a fairly easy time making varsity rugby. I had heard I had to be able to tackle if I wanted to play on A-side, so I thought I would give it a go in one my first practices. Back then, our strategy wasn’t as sophisticated as your boys’ is now. We would just find clever ways to get the ball to Steve Taylor, who did the team’s best impression of Achilles, and we won a lot of games that way. Well in one of my first practices, I tried to tackle Steve, and he give me a stiff arm in the nose. I could hear the cartilage in my nose cracking. I thought if I told Mr. van Beek, it might be an excuse to get out of the rest of practice. It wasn’t.

I missed home. Although I initially was not particularly fond of any of the activities that went on here, I could not help but like the other boys. They were so different than my friends at home. Our conversations were different. They cared about their own excellence, they cared about honor, and duty, legacy, and what was beautiful. So, I stuck it out. It was an adventure, it was a challenge, and it was in a way an awakening.

In my first folk music class, we stood over in that corner and Brendan Landell taught us “A Man’s a Man.” Whenever I hear that song now, all those feelings from that winter come and wash over me like a great wave. I can almost smell the refectory. In some sense, I have my nostos. I feel, if only for a fleeting moment, at home.

When I was reflecting on how I would give this toast, I came across something that quite surprised me. Abraham Lincoln gave an immortal memory toast. I read that Lincoln said,

If it were not for Robert Burns, I would not have won the war… Burns never touched sentiment without carrying it to its ultimate expression and leaving nothing further to be said… I cannot frame a toast to Burns. I can say nothing worthy of his generous heart and transcending genius. Thinking of what he has said, I cannot say anything which seems worth saying.

Our greatest statesman attributes his greatest success to reading a playful poet. There is an old quarrel between the philosophers and poets. The philosopher refers to the poet as that “yelping bitch shrieking at her master,” and the poet returns in kind calling the philosopher “great in the empty eloquence of fools.” Socrates, our emblematic philosopher, advocates that we should exile the bard from our city. The bard has no place among our men, and man is a political animal. If the bard has no place in the city, then the bard is intrinsically disordered. If a carousing philanderer like Roberts Burns enrolled here at Gregory the Great Academy, we would promptly kick him out of our little community here.

In The Republic, Socrates says,

[The poet] resembles [the painter] in that his creations are inferior in respect to reality; and the fact that his appeal is to the inferior part of the soul and not to the best part is another point of resemblance. And so we may say that we should be justified in not admitting him into a well-ordered community, because he stimulates and fosters this element in the soul, and by strengthening it tends to destroy the rational part, just as when in a state one puts bad men in power and turns the city over to them and ruins the better sort. Precisely in the same manner we shall say that the poet sets up in each individual soul a vicious constitution by fashioning phantoms far removed from reality, and by currying favor with the senseless element that cannot distinguish the greater from the less.

The poet, especially a humanist poet like Homer or Burns, is far removed from the primary realities. He is attentive to the bottom end of the divided line or, as Burns would have it, he writes on “trifles, bagatelles, nonsense, or, to fill up a corner, e’en put down a laugh at full length.” Like the painter, he creates an image of the worldly realities, and only from a certain perspective. If the poet truly knew something about good and bad human action, then poets should be put in charge of the state. But what poet has ever made his community great?

What is worse, Socrates claims, the poet arouses and strengthens the bestial part of the soul, that lusty part of us which indulges in weeping and complaining, or buffoonery. We praise a poet as good who puts us in a state in which we would be ashamed to be seen otherwise. The irascible, impulsive Hamlet is no model of contemplative serenity, nor is Burns’ own Tam o’ Shanter.

Of course, while Socrates has criticisms for a poet, he won’t refrain from claiming to know the mark of a good poet. In the Symposium, after a long winter night of heavy drinking, Socrates is portrayed as closing an argument with tragic poet, Agathon, and the comic poet, Aristophanes, just as dawn is breaking. As his interlocuters drift off to sleep, Socrates finishes off the last touch of his argument that a true poet must be able to write both tragedy and comedy.

While Socrates wishes to exile Homer, he readily admits a worn copy of The Iliad will not fail to leave his bedside. It is natural for human beings to take delight in imitation. Man is the most imitative of all animals. Everyone is drawn to music and poetics, perhaps especially the philosopher. All people, especially the young, are drawn more or less to some sort of music and therefore poetry (which is a sign that music itself is good). Most of us would agree that often this music is harmful to the soul. This means that some sorts of music should dispose you to act well.

While the poet may be removed from the most divine realities, he is not removed from the human realities. This means poetic education is particularly proportioned to the beginner. Aristotle claims that the young are not fitting students of ethics because they do have enough experience and they are too controlled by their emotions. Poetry can develop this experience. As a student here, The Iliad was the most important book. And Achilles was in my time the most important hero.

The good is not, as Socrates would have it, an abstract ethereal reality. For men, the good is always concrete. What do I mean by that? No one desires the definition of the good, but what is signified by the definition. Rather we desire instances of good things in a particular context within the realm of space and time. Human beings do not experience what is just, what is moderate, and what is human on a purely rational level. Rather our life is filled with layered patterns of consciousness. When I think, I am also imagining. I sense, I feel emotion, I remember. All at once. In this life, we cannot separate our higher faculties from our lower.

In this way, poetry, which appeals to all these faculties, reflects life. It for this reason that many people have drawn such a strong connection between poetry and noesis: awakening. Themes and concepts proper to a humanities education intrinsically involve the emotions. Music can move a student to feel—and feel genuinely—about war, friendship, adventure, heroes, laughter, love, loss, and death. Such themes are proper to the humanities. To some extent, it habituates a person how to feel about such things. Hence Socrates also says,

Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful…[It may impart into the listener] true taste.

Because music is particularly attached to the memory, and because music is beautiful, folk music lends itself to reflection these folk themes: love, death, etc.

Our fathers admitted music into education, not on the ground either of its necessity or utility, for it is not necessary, nor indeed useful in the same manner as reading and writing… [t]here remains, then, the use of music for intellectual enjoyment in leisure.

In the final analysis, Plato places a great value on the bard. Still, there is a great quarrel between the philosopher and the poet because the poet is extremely dangerous. Like philosophy, poetry can almost completely consume a soul. Like many of us, I have spent decades in thought and conversation trying to recollect, understand, and express what happened to us boys in those few days we had together at the Academy. Like most of us, I have found all attempts to do so woefully inadequate.

There is no true nostos, or homecoming. We cannot return to those golden days of youth where view, word, note, and embrace felt fraught with meaning. “The beautiful changes, but in such kind ways.” Our journey is more like that of Aeneas, dutifully and sorrowfully leading away from where he came from to something ultimately better, but perhaps not in a way he can personally experience in his own life.

If the love of human word and deed is not seen as a step on a ladder of loves leading to what is eternally beautiful, then the love of poetry is a perversion. So, Plato, leave the door open for the poet to take his proper place in our community, to help prepare us for immortal delight.

To the immortal memory of Robert Burns, a bard for our Academy.

Teacher, Teach Thyself

by Sean Fitzpatrick

One of the tragic results of the triple choke-hold demagoguery, diversity, and the almighty dollar have on the American classroom is that teaching is becoming less of an interpersonal art and more of an impersonal programming session. Teachers can certainly combat, and hopefully reverse, this crisis by offering students the truth of their subjects through the truth of who they are as teachers—when they teach themselves.

G. K. Chesterton once said with honest irony, “Education is the period during which you are being instructed by somebody you do not know, about something you do not want to know,” which is precisely what education should not be. Denouncing those who systematize and stagnate education in this way, Catholic professor John Senior wrote in his unpublished work, The Restoration of Innocence: An Idea of a School:

They often say derisively, ‘He teaches himself instead of the subject.’ But he is the subject. If there is reason for derision it isn’t such teaching but the failure (usually the vanity) of the teacher. Every teacher teaches himself. And every student studies himself. Leonardo da Vinci said Narcissus contemplating the reflection of his own beauty in the mirror of a pool was the perfect artist—the perfect student, too, who sees in the mirror of language and nature a reflection of himself, discovering himself through what he thinks and feels. The anesthetic boy reflecting what the teacher says, rather than his own sensitive, emotional, volitional and intellectual experience, is as vain as the actor-teacher putting on an empty show.

If teachers are to teach effectively, they must, as Senior put it, teach themselves. It is a well-worn adage that teachers can only give what they have, and what they have most intimately are their own selves. No power-point presentation can come close to the power of a person willing to reveal his life and loves in the context of a subject he is passionate about. With such teachers—and many have had them and remember them best—students advance with eagerness and energy towards their individual perfection, discovering themselves through a teacher’s sharing of himself. In this approach, the importance of personal experiences that augment and enliven the subject matter to create human connections cannot be emphasized enough.

Education is an encounter and engagement with things good, true, and beautiful in the context of natural human interactions for the sake of human happiness. As an action exercised by one human being upon and with another, education has far more to do with friendship and faith than with career-oriented, politically correct lesson plans and talking points. Education can never be automated or prepackaged. It requires a dynamic relationship, and relationships require human presence and dynamics, together with an open heart, an open mind, a good will, a knowledge of things, and facility in conversation.

Subjects and academic rigors there must be, of course, but the mode of approach is central to any meaningful education. In following the ordinary principles of human interaction, teachers can be extraordinary educators, and the same can be said for students—especially once both come to the realization that they must teach and learn universal truths through their particular perspectives. For example, students of C. S. Lewis’ The Four Loves will be far keener and more disposed to learn hearing how their teacher fell in love than with the text alone. Teachers must be personal if they intend to teach people. Human beings find other human beings interesting, and teachers must be human when they teach if they are to form human beings. Furthermore, as Senior says, teachers should draw their students towards the material as people themselves, not as programs following a closed system, urging them to reflect inwardly and speak outwardly.

True education is more than the mere memorization of information or the assimilation of facts. It is a cultivation of soul that, as St. John Henry Newman says in his Idea of a University, “implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character.” The formation of character implies an active character, and that character, that subject, again as Senior posits, is the teacher and the student. The more honest a teacher is about who he is, the more honest will his students become, beholding who they themselves are in the shared light of their educator who leads them joyfully, as a flesh-and-blood person, out of the cave of shadows. Teachers who teach themselves so that students can learn who they are and through who they are establish an atmosphere of friendliness and mutual understanding—they establish rapport.

Rapport is the relationship championed by St. John Bosco wherein mutual trust and respect is nurtured in a spirit of friendship, sympathy, and cooperation. The teacher who is actually and clearly interested in helping people become better and more fulfilled will win the hearts of students. Rapport arises when this human understanding between them takes shape: that the teacher sincerely cares about the welfare of the student and the student appreciates this and acts accordingly. When rapport is established, a teacher can become a positive influence as a person upon people, and the students will strive to please those whom they love, for love is the beginning and end of rapport. And love, as Christ taught His friends, is impossible without a human connection.

Education will not be humanized until teachers and students alike first recognize that the realities they teach and learn are offered and received through themselves in an atmosphere of rapport. They should freely teach and learn the eternal truths through their own personal observations, experiences, perspectives, studies, thoughts, and queries. They should enjoy the material together as friends, talking about what they think, observe, like, and do not like. They should allow ideas to intermingle with stories instead of scripts. Conversations do not have plans. Neither do dynamic, interpersonal relationships which bring about perfection in the educational arena; namely, the perfection of a person at the hands of another person, a teacher, who is not afraid to teach himself.