Robin Hood Days 2019

Life isn’t all beer and skittles,” wrote Thomas Hughes in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, “but beer and skittles, or something better of the same sort, must form a good part of every Englishman’s education.” The things that often best define a society are the things done when unconstrained by the necessities of society. Leisure is the basis of culture, to borrow Josef Pieper’s title, and what people do in their leisure time is, therefore, central to self-identity and to the quality of life. Education can, by this principle, be either enhanced or undone when school is out. Amusements and activities are a vital aspect of formation, and thus the “beer and skittles” of life have a serious part to play in a serious education.

In Hughes’ words:

Don’t let reformers of any sort think that they are going really to lay hold of the working boys and young men of England by any educational grapnel whatever, which isn’t some bona fide equivalent for the games of the old country… something to put in the place of the back-swording and wrestling and racing; something to try the muscles of men’s bodies, and the endurance of their hearts, and to make them rejoice in their strength. In all the new-fangled comprehensive plans which I see, this is all left out…

Every year at Gregory the Great Academy, there is an event called Robin Hood Days, where the students and faculty process with bows, belts, knives, and flags under the greenwood tree where all live together as merry men for several days. After setting up elaborate campsites, an outdoor kitchen, and a chapel, the boys feast on pit-roasted meats washed down with birch beer as they compete in a series of woodland skittles: archery tournaments, knife and axe throwing, whittling, wrestling, quarterstaff bouts, fire-starting races, and old Native American relay games.

All this may sound unusual for boys of our times to be doing, but to experience it is the most natural thing in the world. Laughter, songs, climbing trees, fires, food and drink, stories, games, hearty cheers, the occasional bloody nose, the ever-accompanying helping hand up, communal prayer, conversation beneath the stars. This is leisure, and it is profoundly educational. Hughes was right — beer and skittles, or their betters, must form a good part of any education.

Headmaster’s Orientation Talk 2019

The founding headmaster of this school is a man named Alan Hicks and he was a serious intellectual, a student from the Integrated Humanities Program at Kansas University, a student of John Senior, who some of you may or may not have heard of, but who you should learn about some day because if Alan Hicks is the father of our school, John Senior is really the grandfather of our school.  But that’s another story for another time.  Right now we are talking about Alan Hicks, the first headmaster of our school, that serious intellectual with glasses.  He once gave a description of this school, our school, your school, that I would like to share with you.  Better yet, let’s see if you can guess what he said: Anyone?

OK, I’ll make it a bit easier for you: I’ll give you a few choices:

  1. A school is a place where morality and philosophy and rugby are taught.
  2. A school is a place where one learns to love what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful.
  3. A school is a place where students have a good time.

So which one is it?

Well, the right answer is the the last one, C: “A school is a place where students have a good time.”  What Mr. Hicks actually said was, “I want St. Gregory’s to be a place where students have a really good time.”  Is anyone surprised or even shocked that he would say that?  Another teacher and former headmaster of our school, Howard Clark, (who was also a student of John Senior — that grandfather of our school I mentioned to you earlier, that someday you should get to know) echoing Alan Hicks phrase, was fond of saying, with mock seriousness,

“Boys, have a good time, all the time.”

Now this may sound silly and foolish to you: but I wish to propose that in the guise of foolishness we are looking at deep wisdom here.   Gregory the Great Academy is a place where you should have a good time, a really good time  – and learn how to do that all the time.

About a year ago, I spoke to a recent graduate of the Academy, and he told me that when he was a student here he always went to bed with a sense of completion and happiness because he had done so many good things that day.  It didn’t matter whether it was a weekday or weekend, just by going about his day starting with chapel in the morning, chores, breakfast and conversation, classes, sports, study hall, free time for fun or more conversation, and then night prayer, he found himself entering into and participating in a rich world of actions and events and ideas that brought him both happiness and joy.

There is a modern novel called the Unbearable Lightness of Being that is about the strange predicament of modern man, where man experiences in himself a lightness of being but not in a good way.  Not light as in “Let there be light – and there was light.”  But light as in “Bud Lite.”  The kind of lightness of being where one doesn’t even feel that one is real anymore: Man has become something so being-less, so insubstantial, that he is not sure whether he even exists or not, and has vague fears that he will float or fade away.  Living a life that is not rooted in what is real: in what is good, in what is beautiful, and in what is true, is actually unbearable: it leads to this feeling of fading away; it leads to boredom, sadness, and anxiety.  But we don’t want you to go down that road. We don’t want anyone floating away out the second or third floor windows.  No, we want boys with density, substance, and character.  And why?  Because we want boys and eventually men who are happy, who have gained a deep and abiding sense of joy in the gift of their existence.

Plato, the wisest of the ancient Greeks, thought that the only way you could explain why people choose to be bad, to be evil, and thus to become less who they are, less really human, and thus less happy, was due to ignorance.  If people truly knew the good, had experience of it, they would always choose it, he believed.  There is a good deal of truth in Plato’s view.  And I think the world today is starving for those realities that will make them good, make them happy – realities that they in fact do not know because they have not truly experienced them.

The hope of our school is that you will experience many good things here  – that in fact your days will be filled with them – and that in giving yourself to these goods, you will learn what and who in fact you are.

Our hope for you here is that by giving yourself to this education, you will learn to be a maker and a builder by making useful and beautiful things out of leather, wood, and clay.  You will learn what it feels like to create and to see anew common things of the world once you have become a creator of them.

You will learn to be a farmer by learning not only how to eat food, but how to grow and care for food (like chickens, eggs, and bacon), and then how to prepare it.  All of this will teach you how to truly enjoy the depth and mystery of food and to participate in the sacred ceremony of eating.

You will learn to be a musician, a singer, and perhaps even a poet: one who can give voice to beauty and the mystery of life through words, music, and song.

You will learn to be an athlete: a kind of warrior of the playing field.  One who learns the discipline of strength, agility, quick-thinking, endurance, and sacrifice for the sake of a common goal.

You will learn to be a juggler: one who can bring gratuitous joy to friends and family with the deft manipulation of ball, clubs, diabolos, devilsticks, and unicycles; you may even learn through this art, how to survive without money in a foreign country.

You will learn to be a philosopher which means a lover of wisdom: one who is not a know-it-all, but one who, through listening and reading and thinking and writing, has begun to see and love and to interpret the order of truth by which all things are made.

And most important of all, by giving yourselves freely to all this goodness, truth, and beauty, in the smallest and the greatest of deeds, you will learn to become a child and son of God, a good son of our good Father in heaven, a man who puts himself confidently and lovingly in God’s hands because he has learned to know and to trust and to love God and all that God is calling him to.

This, I believe is how one goes about having a good time, a really good time, all the time.   Welcome to Gregory the Great Academy.

Headmaster’s Address – 2019

Headmaster’s Address 2019 – by Luke Culley

Reverend Fathers, Faculty, Families, Students, Alumni, and Graduates:

Several months ago, in my senior Humanities class, one of these seniors asked me: “Why are we reading this stuff? It is all so unrealistic.” The stuff we were reading at the time was Beowulf. Beowulf is an Anglo Saxon epic about a warrior who, as a young man, comes to the aid of the Great people by fighting and killing the ogre-like Grendel, who feasts on human flesh. When Beowulf is an old man, he gives his life for his own people by fighting and killing a fire breathing dragon. Why do we read stuff like that? It is after all unrealistic, in that Grendel and the fire-breathing dragon never existed and, in my students’ estimation, never could exist. How is reading Beowulf different than playing dungeons and dragons? Maybe fun, but ultimately an irrelevant waste of time. Stuff and nonsense. But is it?

Before answering this question let us take a brief glance over some of the curriculum of Gregory the Great Academy to see what other stuff we serve up to our students throughout their time here. In literature class, the freshmen read about that merriest of all fighters – Robin Hood, who thought it great joy to get to know a stranger by challenging him to some cudgel play before allowing him to cross over a stream. The sophomores spend half of the year embroiled in the most famous battle of all time contemplating the godlike brooding mind of that greatest of all pagan heroes Achilles, – following in the bloody wake of Diomedes, Ajax, and Hector as they fight before the great city of Troy all for the sake of Helen – the most beautiful woman in the world. Juniors spend several months reading the Odyssey – the epic story about a man returning home to his kinsmen, his palace, and most importantly his wife, Penelope – a story that is full of fairytale-esque adventures with beautiful enchantresses, one-eyed giants, utopian dreamers, and drug addicts – a tale that culminates in a bloodbath where Odysseus joins forces with his son Telemachus and cleanses his own hall by fighting and killing all the men who have been loitering there for years despoiling his goods and his land, and dishonoring his wife and his family. It is a hard but happy ending. Seniors read the Aeneid, about the refugee from Troy, who must wander for years, denying himself the love of a beautiful and noble woman, before he reaches the far off ever-receding land the gods are calling him to. Upon arriving, he must fight (for six long and bloody books) many battles against terrible foes in order to gain a foothold and found his city. They read The Song of Roland that sings of a fierce laughing knight who is more valiant than he is wise, who holds his life like a plaything, and slays Saracens for pleasure and for the love of God and his emperor Charlemagne. It’s all pretty good stuff. And though these tales are not realistic, they are rooted in reality.

You may have noticed a common theme here: we read a lot of books about men fighting one another. Men who fight monsters, men who fight for a beautiful woman, men who fight to get home and then restore order in their home, men who fight for God, and men who fight for the fun of it? So why is that?

Could it be that to be a man one must learn to fight? And that fighting is one of the chief virtues of a man? I dare say that it is, and it is a virtue that is sorely needed especially by Christian men today. That is a reality, a hard and harsh reality. And sometimes the unrealistic (or poetic) is the best vehicle to bring us to the truth and the goodness and even the beauty of such hard realities.

Teach my hands for war and my fingers for battle. Sings David the giant-slaying shepherd-turned-king, whom God called “close to my own heart.” If David is close to God’s own heart then is God a warrior, and a trainer of warriors? How can this be? What sort of warrior and what sort of war are we talking about here? Maybe a priest can tell us.

A priest from the Saint Elijah Congregation visited our school only a few weeks ago and when he visited my classroom, he was taken by a sketch from one of the seniors behind me today of a crusader knight holding up the bloody head of a defeated Saracen. His face lit up with joy and he said, “This is great. It is so good you allow them to read stories about the crusades and encourage them to make these kinds of pictures.” Not what you might expect from a priest of God. Fr. Highton, our visitor, is the head of an order that is devoted to preaching the Gospel to the tribes and peoples who have never heard the Gospel before. He has missions in India, in Laos, and in Africa – and was, in fact, coming to our school not only to model his school in the Himalayan Mountains after our own but also to encourage our young men to come and join him in the missionary field. He told our students that every priest in his order takes a 4th vow – a vow of parrhesia. Parrhesia was the virtue most prized by the ancient Greeks: roughly it translates to courage in speaking the fullness of the truth. Their vow is to speak the truth God prompts in their hearts no matter what the consequences, “even if they cut us to pieces,” were his exact words.

A student asked Fr. Highton if his work was dangerous and difficult. He replied: “It’s not a picnic. Do not expect to come to a circle of ladies drinking afternoon tea. Every day is difficult and an adventure. When I wake up in the morning, I have no idea what the day will bring.” He made it clear that to engage in this work, one must have the heart of a warrior and told the class about a book that he considered seminal to his effort as a missionary: it is called The Christian Duty to Fight by Antonio Caponetto. He ended his talk by saying that “all men are not called to be missionaries in the way that God has called him, but that all men are required to be “epic.” There is a secret hidden in each one of us that only God can bring forth and that secret is the heroic path God calls us to.”

And sometimes that call might seem to demand unrealistic things, as Fr. Highton well knows, but the (seemingly) unrealistic should never deter us from following God’s commands. We must strive to be like Saint Peter and dare to walk on water, knowing that God rejoices in the unrealistic—or more precisely, he rejoices in overcoming everything that restricts our entering into the really real.

At Gregory the Great we not only learn about great warriors and the battles they waged on the pages of timeless literature, but we learn to become real literal warriors on our own fields of glory. Saint Gregory’s boys learn how to fight with their bodies and their hands. They learn how to take down a man charging at them full speed, a man who may be twice their size – this is no mean task. It requires a boy to summon that manly virtue called courage which always requires a willingness to perish in the fight. Last week we witnessed the Highlanders battle Saint Joseph’s Prep, holding their ground with confidence even when they were being severely beaten on the scoreboard at the half. In the second half, they came out roaring with a confidence born from their hard training in the snow and cold rains of Northeastern Pennsylvania.

The knowledge instilled into them during their many hours spent in this open-air classroom by the great coaches – van Beek, Snyman, Prezzia, and the brothers Kuplack finally paid off in full. They beat Saint Joseph’s Prep and then went on to defeat Cumberland Valley and win the Pennsylvania state rugby championship. That a school of 60 boys could accomplish such a victory might be the most unrealistic thing in the world. But with God, nothing is impossible. If we want to fight the good fight, to win the ultimate race, to be saints, we must get used to the unrealistic – to men fighting monsters and wars for women. It may well be the stuff dreams are made on, but it is the stuff of heaven.

In his book on Rhetoric, Aristotle calls his students to a fight even more noble than a physical fight. He says:

“It is absurd to hold that a man should be ashamed of inability to defend himself with his limbs, but not ashamed of an inability to defend himself with speech and reason; for the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs.”

Here Aristotle speaks of a kind of fight and struggle for the logos, the fight to understand, explain and defends one’s ideas in speech. Indeed, in the Ethics, Aristotle characterizes the effort to know as a kind of fight or struggle. He enjoins his readers to “strain every nerve” in their efforts to contemplate the highest truths. The attempt to come to the truth was once described by a Greek philosopher as an epic struggle: “a struggle for the whole.” This noble fight or struggle that our students begin to learn at Gregory the Great takes place not only in rhetoric class but in all of our classes. For in those very books mentioned before, we are learning not only that men must fight but also what men must fight for. We learn not merely that Odysseus must fight in order to return home, and must fight the suitors when he gets there, but we learn what it means to have a home and a faithful wife and what it means to be a good son even in the absence of one’s father. By passing with Odysseus through the many realms of inhuman or perversely human community, we learn what true human community is supposed to look like.

So what about Beowulf? Do we learn anything from him and from the unknown poet who gave us this tale? Yes, from Beowulf we learn that there are monsters we must fight and there may come a time when out of love for our people and our God, we may have to give our lives up in this fight. But one of the most practical and realistic truths we can learn from Beowulf became clearest to me after having several conversations with one of our seniors, Paul Reilly, who wrote his senior thesis on Beowulf. From Beowulf, we learn humility. Beowulf’s great strength was rooted in his constant knowledge that all of his gifts, all of his strength came from God, and that God was his source and protector.

Today we live in strange times – an age where the knowledge of the truth of man, of nature, and of God is very hard to see. We cannot go to the store and pick it up. It will not be found on a google search. No iPhone will ever lead us to it. No, this will require the long and hard effort of a lifetime. If we are to rediscover the truths of this forgotten realm – many of which are found in the books we read here, we must all become explorers, adventurers, and warriors like Beowulf, Odysseus, and Aeneas and we must be cheerful while we’re at it like Robin Hood and Roland. We will have to fight not only to understand these truths, not only to explain and defend these truths to others who do not understand or who attack them, but we must fight to live these truths ourselves.

So, my message today for our graduates is this: remember the crafts you have begun to learn on the rugby pitch, in the classroom, and in the chapel. Be bold enough to discover and listen well to wise men and wise books, be brave enough to struggle for the understanding of what you hear to be true and lovely and good, and to love it with all your heart. Be strong enough to live these truths in a world that is often arrayed against them, and to strive wisely and charitably to speak clearly and well to all you meet on the field of battle. For this battle, you will need only one thing: humility. The humility to understand that all good gifts, all power, all wisdom, all beauty, comes from God, the source of man’s good and of man’s strength to achieve it. And that, gentlemen, is why we read this stuff.