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.

Mission Prayer of Gregory the Great Academy

Every morning, the faculty gathers in the chapel to pray for the mission of the Academy, reciting a prayer composed for this specific purpose. The Mission Prayer of Gregory the Great Academy invokes the guidance, wisdom, and blessing of St. Gregory the Great, together with all of our patron saints, as every day begins with the happy challenge of providing a beautiful, life-changing education to our students. Please read the prayer below and feel free to join the faculty in reciting it every morning at 8:30 am.

Pope Gregory the Great,
our Holy Father among the Saints,
you lived in times that seemed the end of the age.
While Christian culture continues to collapse
under new barbarians and invaders,
we look to you for strength and solace
as we take up the same defense that you took up:
the art of education.

Through the liberal arts, music, and the Benedictine rule,
you rose to lead the Church through turmoil.
Give us the humility and the bravery
to carry on your work to win souls for Christ the King.
Teach us to love all that we do fearlessly
and to wield the power of love with mercy and might.
Open our eyes to see angels in those lost to captivity,
to see comrades in lowly beggars,
and be, as you were, servants to the servants of God.

O Doctor of Desire,
guide us in giving an education of love:
the zeal for goodness, truth, and beauty,
the love of learning, and the desire for God.
Bid the Holy Spirit alight on our shoulders
even as He alighted on yours,
that He may whisper in our ears
and enkindle in us that fire,
that light, that love, that dispels darkness,
making our hearts leap up with yearning for God.

Bring us to that eternal symposium,
to that dialogue of wonder and delight
that leads on to wisdom and beatitude.
You taught that the greatness of contemplation
is given to none but those who love.
Enlighten our minds and hearts
that we may enlighten those of our students
with the inspiration that touches the mind
and by touching, lifts it up,
repressing temporal thoughts,
inflaming it with eternal desires,
hearing the hidden word,
and conceiving the speech
of the Holy Spirit in the heart.

Let us cultivate desire as we cultivate the virtues.
Make us educators that lead with light.
Help us engage the heart, to love our students,
and to love one another in the friendship of Christ.
Give us eyes for beauty, minds for truth, and desire for goodness.
Grant us prudence in judgment,
compassion in correction,
diligence in labor,
and joy in sacrifice.
Bring laughter and wonder to our students
that they may grow like great rooted trees,
grounded in wisdom and grasping the stars.

As the world pines for the restoration of faith,
we invoke your patronage, Holy Father Gregory,
great priest, great pope, great teacher,
but great lover first and foremost.
For this we call you great,
and hearken to your words,
“Where love exists, it works great things.”
St. Gregory the Great, hear our prayer.
Make us great in love.

Let us pray.

Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.
Mary, Help of Christians, pray for us.
St. Joseph the Wonder Worker, pray for us.
St. Nicholas, Helper of the Poor, pray for us.
St. George, Model of Chivalry, pray for us.
St. Benedict, Father of Duty, pray for us.
St. Francis, Jongleur of God, pray for us.
St. Julian, Clown of God, pray for us.
St. John Bosco, Saver of Souls, pray for us.
St. Sebastian, Champion of Athletes, pray for us.
St. Patrick, Missionary Heart, pray for us.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Angelic Doctor, pray for us.
St. Gregory the Great, Musical Teacher, pray for us.

May the Divine assistance remain always with us,
and may the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.


Can We Drop the Ascension Story?

Can We Drop the Ascension Story?
by Sean Fitzpatrick

The Ascension of Jesus Christ, related in the Gospels of Mark and Luke and referred to throughout the New Testament, can be taken as something of an awkward anecdote. “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight,” (Acts 1:9). There is something about the Ascension that is inconceivable, even for a miracle—something that is almost too fabulous about the idea and image of Jesus “flying.” For those who stumble over the Ascension, there is often an aspect of mythical fantasy or primitive whimsy involved in accepting such a thing. Can people really take seriously the account of a Man floating into the clouds? Is the Ascension worth the risk of alienating those influenced by a cynical realism? This is the Faith, after all, not a fairy tale. Can we drop this story of Christ soaring through the sky?
C. S. Lewis takes on this very question in Miracles:

Can we then simply drop the Ascension story? The answer is that we can do so only if we regard the Resurrection appearances as those of a ghost or hallucination. For a phantom can just fade away; but an objective entity must go somewhere—something must happen to it. And if the Risen Body were not objective, then all of us (Christian or not) must invent some explanation for the disappearance of the corpse. And all Christians must explain why God sent or permitted a ‘vision’ or ‘ghost’ whose behaviour seems almost exclusively directed to convincing the disciples that it was not a vision or a ghost but a really corporeal being. If it were a vision then it was the most systematically deceptive and lying vision on record. But if it were real, then something happened to it after it ceased to appear. You cannot take away the Ascension without putting something else in its place.

Lewis draws attention to the physical importance of the Resurrection, pointing out that the Ascension, like the Resurrection, required a Body—a point that cannot be dropped. While the Ascension of Christ is a moment of spiritual transcendence that may be difficult to relate or react to, it is also a material mystery. In other words, the Ascension is as much about the body as it is about the soul. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in Dogma and Preaching, “The expression of our belief that in Christ human nature, the humanity in which we all share, has entered into the inner life of God in a new and hitherto unheard-of way. It means that man has found an everlasting place in God.” The whole purpose of the miracle of the Ascension is that it points out the way for all flesh. It was a physical miracle involving a physical body that illustrated a relationship that is supernatural and eternal: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The Ascension confirms and completes the Resurrection in a way that goes beyond mere symbolism. It has a tangible dimension as it deals with a tangible body. The body of Christ disappeared from the tomb and then reappeared before disappearing again forty days later. It did more than just vanish, however. It was moved. It went somewhere and, even now, is somewhere. It is this second disappearance that gives modern sensibilities some pause, for it is in a way stranger than the first. There is a kind of gravity in the idea of a man rising from the dead. There is a kind of levity in the idea of a man rising into the sky. That such spiritual physicality can arouse human incredulity and challenge the scientific thinker is precisely the point. Miracles are as factual and physical as they are spiritual, and their breaking with the bands of nature must be held as a matter of faith and as a matter of fact. G. K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy:

I conclude that miracles do happen. I am forced to it by a conspiracy of facts: the fact that the men who encounter elves or angels are not the mystics and the morbid dreamers, but fishermen, farmers, and all men at once coarse and cautious; the fact that we all know men who testify to spiritualistic incidents but are not spiritualists, the fact that science itself admits such things more and more every day. Science will even admit the Ascension if you call it Levitation, and will very likely admit the Resurrection when it has thought of another word for it.

Chesterton agrees—the miracle of the Ascension cannot be simply dropped so long as man is material. The promise of extraordinary exaltation and supernatural splendor is not simply a matter of spiritual consequence, but a matter of physical consequence as well. Though Jesus’ body was glorified at the moment of the Resurrection beyond the normal experience of nature, He retained a body that was still in some veiled way like the body He had. There was certainly a different bodily relation that Jesus possessed with things like time and space, yet He was not outside of them. Though He did come and go at times like a specter, Jesus was sure to show His disciples that He was not spectral, as Lewis noted. He proffered His hands to His friends to touch and hold, for their eyes to see and believe. He ate and drank with them. He was flesh and blood. There was clear and careful intention in ascertaining these physical facts for the sake of the spiritual fact that was soon to follow.

From Annunciation to Ascension, there is a concrete side to the Incarnation that is harder to accept than the mystical character of Our Lord’s miracles. As Our Lady showed, however, it requires faith to hold that with God nothing is impossible, even though some things might seem implausible. Though the modern mind may struggle to believe the story of a Man ascending into a heaven somewhere on high where, as the Son of God, He sits on a celestial seat at the right hand of God the Father, this is the challenge of reconciling faith with facts. The support of reason is present given the common sense involved in communicating a physical promise to physical creatures, but there must always be something obscure in the realm of faith.

The Ascension of Jesus Christ is not simply a glorious finale of the story of human salvation, but a glorious beginning. In His departure from earth, Our Lord came to man as never before. By the mystery of the Ascension, Jesus gave his Church a miraculous sign that He is not far, and that the human body that houses the human spirit is something that belongs with God. As Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote concerning the significance of Our Lord’s bodily Ascension, “[Christ’s] intercession consists in this, that He perpetually exhibits himself before the eternal Father in the humanity which He had assumed for our salvation: and as long as He ceases not to offer Himself, He opens the way for our redemption into eternal life.”

Even though logicians (and theologians, for that matter) can demonstrate that heaven cannot be reached by a flight through the clouds, it does not render the Ascension account embarrassing or isolating. People need solid symbols and signs. They need to connect an ever-present, infinite God to the ever-present, infinite sky. The way of redemption exists for people living in the world, not for disembodied souls. It is outward yet inward, with defined margins and divine mysteries. Man requires bodily things to draw him to the divine. He needs incarnations just as he needed the Incarnation. The Word Made Flesh, therefore, operates in ways consistent with the principle of accord between the physical and spiritual, and this is the reason why we cannot simply drop the Ascension story.