The great poet Dante had his own idea of the ideal republic or city that transcends this world. Like Socrates, he esteemed that that life worth living must include a contemplative gaze in the direction of a better place. The king or political head of the Catholic Christian state must, he thought, be able to see beyond the limited horizons of this present existence. Thus Dante spoke in his Purgatorio (XVI, 95-96) of “…a ruler, one that could and should glimpse the true City or at least the tower.”
Dr. Senior seemed to have glimpsed that tower. It was in reference to this figure of the tower that he wrote a most memorable description of medieval education through the liberal arts. Many of you have probably read this passage of The Death of Christian Culture (chapter 6) more than once since the day it was first published.
There is a famous picture, writes John Senior, coming down to us in different versions from the Middle Ages, illustrating education. It depicts a several-storied tower into which the schoolboy with his satchel and his tablet enters on the ground floor, greeted by the stern magister, who has merry eyes, a big stick called a baculum, and a book called the Donatus from its author, the fourth-century grammarian. Next, through the window of the second story, we see the boy progress to Aristotle’s Logic, and at the third window up to Cicero’s Rhetoric.
The point this passage of The Death of Christian Culture makes is that, in contrast to the modern university, this older vision of liberal education is characterized by a true integration of knowledge (thus the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program) and a vertical progression of the liberal arts.
[The] liberal arts, continues Senior, differ from one another vertically. You rise from one to the other, not by a horizontal extension, but a vertical ascent to a different level of understanding that includes the lower ones, analogous to the relation of part to whole.
A little further along in the chapter he draws the conclusion of this view of education, beginning with a question:
What is the integer? If a student forgets everything he learned at school or college, he had best remember this one question. It will be on the very final examination that his own conscience will make at the last hour of his life: In the pursuit of horizons—of horizontal things—have you failed to raise your eyes and mind and heart up to the stars, to the reason for things, and beyond, as Dante says at the top of the tower of his poem:
To the love which moves the sun
And all the other stars?
I am sure we will be pondering this very question in the days to come. In any case, whatever else John Senior may have been, he was first of all, for most of us, an extraordinary university professor, one who, in defiance of the prevailing trends in higher education, proposed to his students the Perennial Philosophy, the doctrine, which, according to Etienne Gilson, “has the unfortunate destiny ever to bury its would-be undertakers”. Together with Doctors Quinn and Nelick, he brought to the University of Kansas, for a few years at least, that great conversation of the perennial wisdom, shared by a cohort of authors, from Homer to Saint Augustine, from Cicero to Dostoevsky, whose thoughts and deeds are recorded in the Great Books, which were the only curriculum of the IHP. Thus the tower of the university—at least as described in this integrated vision of education—pointed in some way to the tower of the heavenly Jerusalem, to the City of God and beyond.
So, the story we are retracing began with a special program of studies at a Midwestern state university, the University of Kansas. But it all led to much more. There is the “tower”, you see—but then there is the rest of the city. There are the liberal arts, but then there is the panorama of all that constitutes civilization in its noblest sense. The unique educational career of John Senior was destined to introduce him into many other areas of influence. As the Great Books were read and the great ideas discussed, the need to consider this integrated knowledge of the university within the greater context of an integrated culture was felt. And for John Senior that meant the truly Catholic city, such as it once existed—imperfectly, but really--in Europe. This line of thought found its way eventually into the two books John Senior is best known for, The Death of Christian Culture and The Restoration of Christian Culture. Although he never referenced it to my knowledge, there is a short text of Pope Saint Pius X that I think Dr. Senior would have readily recognized as a most happy expression of the truth considered in the two books. In a letter to the French episcopate in 1925 the pontiff wrote these words:
No, civilization is no longer something to be invented, nor is a new city to be built in the clouds. That city has existed; it still exists; it is Christian civilization, it is the Catholic city. All that has to be done is to reestablish it and restore it unceasingly on its natural and divine foundations…omnia instaurare in Christo (Lettre on the Sillon, August 25, 1910).
However, rather than pretending to build even this Catholic city mentioned by Pope Pius X, John Senior, in his very humble way, thought merely to start—or, better, to restore a Catholic village somewhere. In the third chapter of his Restoration of Christian Culture he outlines in this sense some of the main features of what he calls the “Catholic Agenda”, recommending E.F. Schumacher’s book, Small Is Beautiful and Hilaire Belloc’s The Restoration of Property among other possible sources of inspiration. There appears here the idea of a return to the land and to a saner way of life that might happen in such a village. Today there seems to be, in fact, an ever increasing desire among many Americans to accomplish this return to the land. Many of the people I meet, who, although they were never students of John Senior, have become interested in his work, fall into this category. As a matter of fact, in the very neighborhood of Clear Creek Abbey you might be surprised to find the beginnings of such a village. You might encounter a truly “un-modern” house or two, along with other signs of the reemergence of rural mirth and manners, to quote a line from the poet Goldsmith.
Now a most important part of this catholic agenda contemplated by John Senior as a bulwark of Christian culture and society was the monastic life. In preparing a program for this John Senior Colloquium I thought very much about a lecture on “The Spirit of the Rule” and on the monastic adventure that several of the students of the Integrated Humanities Program embarked upon, leading eventually to the establishment of this very monastery. However, better than any lecture, the very fact of your being at the monastery and, perhaps, participating in some of the Divine Office and Holy Mass, is no doubt the best possible education in the matter. In the fifth chapter of Restoration Senior describes a visit to Fontgombault Abbey in France, where some of us became monks many years ago.
…[W]e were standing with our suitcases in the dust before a massive stone wall with high towers and roofs exactly as travelers stood a thousand years ago here by the lovely Creuse where the hermit Pierre de l’Etoile prayed, died and was buried…And then, without transition, as in dreams (but this is absolutely not a dream; this is the point, that it is all real) I am in the care, it almost seems the arms, of a zealous, smiling, slightly aging angel, greeting me with such affection, right out of the Rule, so solicitous of me I might have thought, if I didn’t know better, that I was Christ! The Rule is not a book. It is a fact at Fontgombault.
Except for the stone walls—which we do not have, but which we are beginning to build—the very same scene could take place here at Clear Creek Abbey. Not a single point of monastic observance, that is to say not a single custom or rule has been changed in our way of life since the time John Senior made that memorable visit to Fontgombault Abbey across the Atlantic. We still practice exactly the same life as at the abbey that founded us.
The point is not to brag about the monks of Clear Creek, but rather to underscore the fact that John Senior succeeded—with the help of many others, it is true, but this really came from out of his own heart—he succeeded through the vocations of his former students in bringing a somewhat neglected form of monastic life, as he had experienced it at Fontgombault, to America. He once said in a lecture before the students of the Integrated Humanities Program, that if the whole program led to nothing else but to a couple of vocations to the monastic life it would have been well worth it.
A little further along in the same chapter five of Restoration cited above, Senior continues his description of his visit to the French abbey, speaking in particular of the Guest-master at Fontgombault:
And there he is like one of Fra Angelico’s angels, with a certain sweet reserve as if he knew some secret I was about to discover to my great good and delight, all exactly as St. Benedict specified and which I had always thought to be some ideal Republic like Plato’s and never, not even in the Middle Ages and certainly not a present, reality.
And so it was that John Senior looked upon the “spirit of the Rule” as the ‘secret soul’ as it were of this great thing he contemplated and referred to as Christian Culture.
We must not exaggerate, however, this happy picture; we must not overemphasize the luminous portions of the landscape, failing to recognize the drama that marked this Catholic life and legacy of the great teacher who was John Senior. He describes in poignant pages—almost as a helpless witness-- the dark onslaught of the perennial heresy against the Christian culture of the Western world and against the Church herself. It seemed that the errors he had escaped upon entering the Catholic fold had chillingly sneaked into the City of God like some diabolical Trojan horse, that the negation of all that is true and good and beautiful had all of a sudden reappeared, “smiling in the sanctuary”. There is, in fact, a persistent bent of mind that seems to span the intellectual history of modern times. The founder of our monastic family of Solesmes, Dom Prosper Gueranger, called it (as did churchmen in his time, in the 19th century) “naturalism”. Saint Pius X, speaking more or less of the same reality, termed it “modernism”. In more recent times we have heard it named “relativism” and “secularism”. This is no mere skirmish on the sidelines of history, but is about total warfare. The Church is up against a kind of synthesis of all the heresies and errors of past ages rolled into one.
Now as we look back upon the whole system in one glance as it were, wrote the saintly Pope Pius X, no one will be surprised when we define it as the synthesis of all heresies. (Pascendi, DZ 2109)
John Senior took stock of what was at stake, and the fight certainly took its toll on him.
If we once knew the energetic and enthusiastic John Senior of the first years after his conversion, we have also known the worn and somewhat discouraged figure of later years. In a letter to one of the American monks at Fontgombault in the late seventies he was already speaking—referring to the Integrated Humanities Program and his growing concerns about so many things, quoting Shakespeare as he often did—of the “winter of our discontent”. The anguish of it all eventually caused his health to decline.
In John Senior’s mind the synthesis of the very best that the Western world ever produced was crystallized in the Latin Mass (Tridentine rite). The fight for Christian culture centered on restoring this great liturgical rite. He lived to see a certain vindication in this area, but not the more complete restoration we have seen since the beginning of the pontificate of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. The dramatic story of what has been called the “crisis of the Church” after the Second Vatican Council, the “Dark Night of the Church” as Senior termed it, is an ongoing saga, one that cannot be documented here. But this story certainly conditioned much of John Senior’s own spiritual itinerary, as I am sure we will see in some of the lectures to follow.
“The one perfectly divine thing,” quipped the English Catholic jester already cited, “the one glimpse of God’s paradise on earth, is to fight a losing battle—and not lose it.” One of the great—and quite surprising—inspirations of the whole Integrated Humanities Program was the significance attributed to—of all persons—Dom Quixote de la Mancha. English professors and the man-in-the-street alike tend to see in this character born of the fertile imagination of the Miguel Cervantes, an amusing madman, who, having read too many stories about the chivalrous deeds of yore and lost himself in an ideal past. On the contrary, John Senior intuited a sort of superior wisdom there. In the context of the challenge facing the university students of the late-twentieth century, the Knight of the Woeful Countenance came to symbolize the unequal but glorious combat of every human being against the ineluctable hegemony of technology and dehumanizing standardization. I believe that, despite the bitterness of the fight, John Senior never lost that kind of “hope against all hope”, that quixotic valor that I would call wonder unconquered. As many of you well know, the motto of the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program was Nascantur in admiration, let them be born in wonder.
But I promised merely to open the door. The rest is up to you. I would simply like to express the wish that everyone here might find his or her way to the top of the “seven-storied tower” as least for a few moments, during this John Senior Colloquium. May Our Lady of the Assumption, whose feast we will be celebrating in just a few days, assist you in this noble endeavor, and may Saint Benedict teach us all to “prefer nothing to the love of Christ”. Of course, we also hope to take something “practical” away from the Colloquium, as life on earth cannot long remain on such heights. Someone once summed this up remarkably well, I think:
Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.
May our enduring love and appreciation of John Senior help us all in this humble and exalted task.
I thank you for your kind attention.