Today is our last day of school this week, as we break for what Abraham Lincoln (and George Washington before him) proclaimed as a national day of Thanksgiving in 1863. While we gladly join the rest of our country in observing the holiday on Thursday, our reasons for doing so are not particularly ones of patriotism or politeness (though they are not not those things, either); as Christians, we observe Thanksgiving for the purpose of worshiping God, for we cannot be thankful for something without offering thanks to Someone.
G.K. Chesterton wrote that, “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” This is wisdom we would do well to heed, for as the Internet meme goes, “Only in America do people trample others for Black Friday sales exactly one day after being thankful for everything we have.”
But I digress.
When I think of giving thanks, four varieties come to mind:
1) Token thankfulness, wherein we choose if we will be thankful (or not). The postmodern philosopher Bart Simpson once prayed, “Dear God we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” Here, we feel no obligation to be thankful, so we only go through the motions for the purpose of making the point.
2) Courteous thankfulness, wherein we choose to be thankful (even when we’re not). I think of writing the obligatory thank you note for that fruitcake received at Christmas; no one’s ever glad to receive a fruitcake, but if we’ve been raised with manners, we’ll do our best to muster up gratitude because, well, that’s what courteous people do.
3) Relative thankfulness, wherein we choose why we will be thankful (but always on our terms). This is where we rank what qualifies in our minds as being thank-worthy (usually the good stuff) and jettison anything not matching our particular desire for it (usually the tough stuff). God is good, but only when he’s good to us.
4) Desperate thankfulness, wherein we cannot choose to be anything but thankful (always). The response of the grateful leper in Luke 17:11-19 is an example of such desperation. Luke records that, “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.” Jesus had not only restored his body; he had also restored his life, as the man was now able to return to his family and re-enter society. He had nothing to offer Jesus except his thanks, he was so desperate.
As we think about our students, our classical Christian teaching calls us and them to cultivate the gift of gratitude in all we do. St. Ambrose said that, “No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.” St. Augustine wrote that the Christian life was to be “a hallelujah from head to toe, the praise of God saturating our lives.”
Finally, King David filled the Psalms – the Church’s ancient hymnbook – with calls for desperate thankfulness instead of any other token, courteous, or relative versions. His simple and direct admonition: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 107:1).
Thus and so may we give thanks – maybe even desperately – on Thursday, but also by God’s grace, always.
“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12:28
(Pictures are from yesterday’s K4,Kindergarten, and 1st grade annual Thanksgiving Feast.)
It could be argued that music is the greatest of God’s languages – as simple or as complex as needed to convey meaning and emotion. Whether the lone voice of a mother singing comfort over her newborn baby or the Monteverdi Choir thundering praise in the “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel’s Messiah, music – particularly vocal music – is a most intimate, most powerful expression of our humanity.
But just as our humanity does not develop overnight, neither does its musicality. As an athlete should begin when young, so, too, should a chorister. Children are naturally musical, but sadly, we too often neglect their development in becoming more so, or are too impatient with their progress as they go.
Which brings us to last night. If you were with us for our first-ever concert at Petra, you probably did not experience the absolute tenderness of a mother singing to her child, nor did you likely feel the overwhelming passion of the Monteverdi Choir interpreting Handel. But you did hear sounds of daughters whose voices may one day serenade their own children. And you did hear sons whose voices may one day soar in singing praise to God.
Under the very capable direction of Mrs. Heidi Hornung (with apt accompaniment by so many talented faculty, students, and friends), our choristers earned our appreciation for their efforts, and they deserve our hope and help to continue growing into the musical men and women God would have them become.
I was proud of our Schola Cantorum – our “school of singers” – and thank you for your support of Petra’s fine arts. More to come, to be sure.
Ordinary things sing God’s praise constantly—we just lack the ears to hear what they say. And the only way we can hear them is if we first start trying to see the beauty of ordinary things.
When we develop the habit of looking for ordinary beauty, three significant things happen to our souls.
The Effects of Ordinary Beauty
First, we become increasingly more aware of the things around us. When we develop the habit of looking for ordinary beauty, we focus on things outside ourselves. We begin to notice things we usually take for granted. This develops in us a habit of being aware of and caring for things that others usually overlook—whether inanimate objects or unnoticed people.
Secondly, the pursuit of ordinary beauty increases our gratitude toward God. The more we see the rich grace of scrambled eggs, softs sheets, and clean floors, the more we see the lovingkindness of the God who gave us these things. Ordinary things sing praise to God—and if we are willing to listen, they teach us how to sing in gratitude as well.
In a poem about ordinary beauty, Anne Sexton writes how she so often overlooks the abundance of good things that fill her life each morning. She concludes with conviction,
All this is God,
Right here in my pea-green house
And I mean,
Though often forget,
To give thanks,
To faint down by the kitchen table
In a prayer of rejoicing
As the holy birds at the kitchen window
Peck into their marriage of seeds” (“Welcome Morning”, ll. 17-26)
Sexton’s sudden awareness of the ordinary beauty around her gives her the desire to praise God, to join the “holy birds” in thanksgiving.
Finally, the more we pursue ordinary beauty, the more our love for others grows. As our gratitude toward God increases and our vision of ordinary beauty expands, so grows our desire to share the beauty we see with others. We replicate the beauty we are grateful for by finding ways to give it to other people. We set the table with care and precision. We share the toothsome crumb of homemade bread by taking a loaf to our neighbors. We take half a minute to pray with and comfort someone in pain.
We strive to pass on the sacramental goodness of the ordinary to others because we love them. We love them because we have come to love the ordinary. And we love the ordinary because it has taught us so much about God’s love for us.
But the blessings of ordinary beauty don’t stop here. The disciplined habit of looking for ordinary beauty not only teaches us how to love God better, but also how to love our neighbor and our world better. Giving more time and attention to the things around us forces our ego to move from the center of our world to the periphery.
True to the central irony of the gospel, by learning to see the beauty in other things, we ourselves grow more beautiful. Perhaps it is only by abandoning our quest for personal beauty that we can one day realize that we have indeed grown truly beautiful.
Our culture is obsessed with beauty, yet knows very little about it. We spend countless hours and dollars to acquire and maintain physical beauty. And while beauty of face and body is a true form of beauty, it is also one of the most difficult to cultivate and certainly the least fulfilling.
There are far more beneficial forms of beauty worth pursuing: one of the most rewarding is the beauty of the ordinary.
The Extraordinary Glory of Ordinary Beauty
Ordinary beauty refers to the glory to be found in everyday things. We can see this glory in three particular aspects of ordinary things.
First, they are glorious simply because they exist. Elaine Scarry, a Harvard professor of aesthetics, argues that “Beauty always takes place in the particular, and if there are no particulars, the chances of seeing it go down” (On Beauty and Being Just, 18). Ordinary things are beautiful, first of all, because they are particular things. They simply are. And furthermore, they have been given to you.
The Apostle Paul once wrote, “What do you have that you did not receive?” And the answer is: Nothing. Everything has been given. All is gift, but this is especially true of ordinary things.
Think about all the ordinary things in your life: buttered toast, lilac bushes, goldfinches, warm showers, hot coffee, notes from friends. Where do these things come from? Ultimately, from God. Why do these things come to you? Because God is your Father, and He loves you. Marvel in that reality.
Ordinary things are glorious also because they are so abundant. This is the marvelous grace of the ordinary: that God gives us so much of it. Every day begins with a sunrise and ends with sunset, and in between is filled with hundreds of ordinary things—God’s good gifts of love to us. The problem is that we don’t see them very well.
Writing about our all-too-common blindness to the glory of the ordinary, G.K. Chesterton argues that God can delight in repetition and monotony because He has the eternal ability to see the beauty of the ordinary. He writes,
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old and our Father is younger than we.” (Orthodoxy, 66).
We often ignore the ordinary precisely because it is so commonplace. But Chesterton argues that the very abundance of ordinary things makes them quite extraordinary. The grace and glory of the ordinary is the fact that God gives us so much goodness in each ordinary thing—and then gives us so many ordinary things so often. We grow tired of the ordinary not because it is not beautiful, but because we are sinners and our delight and gratitude grow weak so quickly.
The third way that ordinary things are glorious—and therefore beautiful—is by their testimony to God’s constant (and therefore ordinary) faithfulness. Ordinary things are sacramental proof of God’s constant fatherly favor. The cracked crust and soft crumb of a warm slice of bread is proof of the loaf’s goodness. But when we have cultivated the ability to see the loaf as a gift, the loaf becomes more than a simple loaf. It becomes sacramental: it is itself and it points us to see the goodness of God Himself.
Just as the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper are simply bread and wine (and beautiful in their simplicity), they are also the body and blood of Christ (whether by symbol or by substance). They are themselves, but they are also more than themselves. The eyes of faith can look at ordinary bread and wine and see Christ. The same eyes can look at buttered toast and see a loving Father.
This vision of Christ in ordinary things is waiting for us in hundreds of things throughout each day, each morning. We can see God in our scrambled eggs and smoked bacon, in the juice and squeeze of fresh fruit, in the rumble and toss of a spring storm.
Ordinary things sing God’s praise constantly—we just lack the ears to hear what they say. And the only way we can hear them is if we first start trying to see the beauty of ordinary things.
(The following is Mr. Dunham’s address from our first Reformation/All Saints’ Day Feast.)
I’d like to tell you a Little Mr. Dunham story. Imagine when Mr. Dunham was a boy of about 5 – quite a bit shorter, quite a bit skinnier, probably still wearing a suit and tie. He grew up in the middle of the United States on a farm in rural Illinois. And he loved Thanksgiving. He loved Thanksgiving because of the food – turkey and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, just like we’re having today; but he also loved Thanksgiving because he got to see family, sometimes family he didn’t even know he had! Yes, late on Thanksgiving morning, Little Mr. Dunham would stand at the door and excitedly wait for car after car to pull in the driveway and park, each one letting out dozens of cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents who came for the feast at Little Mr. Dunham’s family’s farm.
Now, as many of you know, this is the first Feast of its kind at Petra. Not only is feasting referenced throughout the Scriptures, but Christian history places feasting as the central demonstration and expression of gratitude toward God and the joy that comes from celebrating his Providence – that is, his provision – in our lives. This is what Thanksgiving is all about! Today at our feast, however, we want to observe two significant days in the history of the Church – Reformation Day and All Saints’ Day – and I’d like to tell you a little about each of them.
Almost 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, a troubled Catholic priest named Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses (or statements) critiquing certain church practices to the church door at Wittenberg, Germany. The door of the Castle Church served as the official university bulletin board and was regularly used for this kind of announcement – in this case, a public discussion on the practice of indulgences, or paying money to purchase a “free pass” for one’s sins instead of repenting of them. However, as there had been growing unrest among many church people over these and other church matters, when Luther’s criticisms were published by way of the newly invented printing press, the spark ignited a raging fire of debate about what the Bible says about salvation and quickly spread through many countries of Europe. This was the beginning of what we now call the Protestant Reformation.
All Saints’ Day is a holy day that the Orthodox church traces back to church father John Chrysostom in the 4th century as a recognition of saints – many of whom were martyrs – celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Pope Boniface IV, who consecrated the Parthenon at Rome to Mary and the martyrs, initiated the practice in the Catholic church in 609 A.D. before Pope Gregory III officially established the holy day on November 1 in the mid-eighth century. Historically, Catholic churches have thought of “saints” as those officially canonized or “made” saints by the church, but in the Orthodox church, as well as in many Protestant denominations today, All Saints’ Day is celebrated as a remembrance of departed Christians from any time and place – those whom Hebrews 12:1 calls a “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding the Church universal. Thus, All Saints’ Day is a day in which we honor faithful believers who have died, but also those by whom we are sitting even now! For as in one of the verses of the hymn that our choir will soon sing:
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
The supremacy of the Scriptures and the fellowship of the saints – this living truth and this “one in thee, for all are thine” reality – is what we celebrate today at our Reformation and All Saints Feast. Whether we are Orthodox or Catholic or Protestant, we can and choose to gather in unity at Petra to share this meal together. Why? Because we are together! We are part of God’s family because…
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God,
begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God,
begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made;
who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven,
and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man;
and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate;
He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures,
and ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father;
and He shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead;
whose kingdom shall have no end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life,
Who proceeds from the Father and the Son;
Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified;
Who spoke by the prophets; and we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
These truths (and our unity as saints surrounding them) are what we celebrate today. Thanks be to God!
One of the books I’ve been reading of late is journalist Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World (and How They Got That Way). In it, Ripley chronicles the lives of three different American students – one from Oklahoma, one from Minnesota, and one from Pennsylvania – who spend a year of high school overseas in Finland, South Korea, and Poland, respectively. Ripley uses these students’ stories to put flesh on her facts from international research that suggests the right kind of rigor, parents who focus on the right things, and students who have bought into the promise of learning all matter a great deal in educating for a civilized society.
While I commend the book and its observations on rigor and results, I found the content on pages 107-109 most interesting. In this section (subtitled “The Geography of Parenting”), Ripley discusses research concerning the role and importance of family in a student’s academic success. She writes:
(Scientist) Andreas Schleicher noticed after the first PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test in 2000 that a student’s home environment dramatically affected scores. He wanted to know more about how families shaped education, so he tried to get all the participating countries to agree to survey parents…By 2009, Schleicher and his colleagues had managed to convince thirteen countries and regions to include parents in the PISA. Five thousand of the students who took the PISA test brought home a special survey for their parents. The survey asked how they had raised their children and participated in their education, starting from when they were very young.
That parents affected their children’s learning was not in doubt; the question was, how?
Strange patterns emerged. For example, parents who volunteered in their kids’ extracurricular activities had children who performed worse in reading, on average, than parents who did not volunteer, even after controlling for other factors like socioeconomic background. Out of thirteen very different places, there were only two (Denmark and New Zealand) in which parental volunteering had any positive impact on scores at all, and it was small.
Ripley was incredulous:
How could this be? Weren’t the parents who volunteered in the school community showing their children how much they valued education? Weren’t the mothers who chaperoned field trips and fathers who brought orange slices to soccer games the ones with the most time and energy to devote to their children? The data was baffling. Yet other research within the United States revealed the same mysterious dynamic: volunteering in children’s schools and attending school events seemed to have little effect on how much kids learned.
So what parental action actually had effect? Ripley continues with her findings, which again should come as no surprise:
By contrast, other parental efforts yielded big returns, the survey suggested. When children were young, parents who read to them every day or almost every day had kids who performed much better in reading, all around the world, by the time they were fifteen. It sounded like a public-service cliche: Read to your kids. Could it be that simple?
But what about after fifteen? Again, there should be no shock:
As kids got older, the parental involvement that seemed to matter most was different but related. All over the world, parents who discussed movies, books, and current affairs with their kids had teenagers who performed better in reading. Here again, parents who engaged their kids in conversation about things larger than themselves were essentially teaching their kids to become thinking adults. Unlike volunteering in schools, those kinds of parental efforts delivered clear and convincing results, even across different countries and different income levels. Research from within the United States echoed these findings. What parents did with children at home seemed to matter more than what parents did to help out at school.
Uh-oh. There go all our parent volunteers! Perhaps, but honestly, if it’s a choice between volunteering at school or reading books and discussing ideas with your student(s) at home, then so be it. The point is this: educating our kids has more to do with how we as parents interact with them, and less to do with signing up to be seen doing so.
Sure, Petra needs plenty of parental volunteer help (particularly when we’re a week out from our first feast next Friday, October 30, with food prep and service opportunities still to fill), but we’ll get it. When you sign up to help (and thank you in advance for doing so), give some thought to what you signed up for when you brought child(ren) into the world. As parents, we are called to read with them, to discuss with them, and to give them the gift of time spent together. Indeed, rigor and results are important, but neither more so than their relationship – now and always – with us.
by Craig Dunham, Headmaster
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Colossians 3:16
We sing a lot at Petra, and not just in choir or only at the elementary level. While there is plenty of music going on in our K4-6th grade classrooms each day (not to mention in our 1st-3rd grade violin program, or on Friday mornings as part of our elementary Great Assembly), our 7th-12th grade students gather for ten minutes of daily morning prayer and song, so named “matins” for the medieval tradition of corporate prayer and singing, scripture reading and response, and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and various ancient creeds.
In addition to the morning music, we usually also offer a musical blessing together before lunch in the form of the “Doxology” or “Gloria Patri.” And, since music is one of the “four ways” of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) of classical Christian education, at some point in the months or years to come, I hope we can work in some “evensong” to end each day as well. (We also have plans for more formally-developed choirs and orchestras, but that’s another post.)
As a classical Christian school, we want our students singing ancient songs and participating in traditional liturgies that have been important to Christians for millennia. Sadly, few churches even reference many of these anymore (let alone use them), so ours is not only an attempt at morning prayer but musical preservation. In addition to several traditional hymns to date, we’ve included service music like “Venite,” which is a musical chant of Psalm 95; “Kyrie Eleison,” which the students have learned to sing in a beautiful three-part round; and (currently) “Dona Nobis Pacem,” with three different parts sung in harmony. There is no accompaniment and no sheet music; students learn by ear and attempt to blend their voices with those of others as we focus together at the start of our day.
Earlier this week, we gathered all of our Petra students into the gymnasium to take an all-school picture. Everyone did a nice job assembling themselves (which is no small task for 198 K4-12th grade students), but after the picture was taken, it seemed a great opportunity since we were all together to have everyone sing “Kyrie.” Perhaps the best way to explain the result is to quote one of Mrs. Snyder’s first graders, who excitedly told her on the way back to class that “everybody’s singing sounded like beautiful opera!”
While I’m unaware of this first grade student’s actual experience with opera, indeed (and with a little help from the live acoustics of our gymnasium), the students’ singing was beautiful. But even better than that one moment has been that all this week I’ve heard first graders, fifth graders, and freshmen (among others), whistling while they work and humming in the hallways these ancient songs of the faith.
What started out as joyful noise is metamorphosing into joyful music. As students learn these and other songs, we trust this venerable music will stay with and sustain them in good times and bad, just as it has done for so many saints before.
“Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.” Ps. 95:1
Translations: “Venite” (“Come.”); “Kyrie Eleison” (“Lord, have mercy.”); “Dona Nobis Pacem” (“Grant us peace.”)
Photos courtesy of Ashley Dawn Photography
by Craig Dunham, Headmaster
Having lived in Montana for all of three months now, and having spent the summer hiking and camping mostly around Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley, last weekend was my first opportunity to see more of the Treasure State, as I drove to Great Falls to watch our varsity Griffins play volleyball.
If you’ve made the three-hour drive from Bozeman through Helena to Great Falls, I don’t have to tell you how beautiful it is. If you haven’t, I’m not sure I can adequately describe the vastness of scale, the contrast of colors, or the teeming of the Missouri River through the canyons it carved. I thought about having one of my daughters snap a few pictures with my iPhone, but we all know the limitations of trying to capture God’s grandeur in a viewfinder; it’s not a matter of finding the views, but fitting them that is always the trick.
Just as reading the book is always better than seeing the movie, experiencing the sight is always better than trying to take a picture of it. Personally, I’ve stopped trying to capture life in pictures, and instead just take ones that are good enough to trigger those I took in my mind. Life is more easily experienced than described, which is frustrating when experiencing something you want to share but can’t (or at least can’t adequately).
Which brings me to Recitation Day – one of our attempts (albeit a rudimentary one) to present to parents and grandparents of our elementary students just a hint of what they are learning in their studies at Petra. To watch a child learn is as beautiful and awe-inspiring a sight as seeing the Missouri meander through the Montana mountains; unfortunately, trying to tangibly capture that sight is as great a challenge as any.
But we try. We try to give you a glimpse of how your elementary students are engaging with classical content that has stood the test of time; of how they are forming (and being formed by) a Christian worldview of that classical content; and how they are learning this classical content and Christian worldview from teachers who live joyful lives with a love of learning.
To be sure, Recitation Day is only a partial picture of all that your children or grandchildren are learning at Petra, but we hope this snapshot will be one of many you collect as your student continues through our grammar, logic, and rhetoric schools. Enjoy the views!
by Thomas Banks, Humanities & Latin Teacher
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio‘s Calling of St. Matthew has famously proven among Caravaggio scholars a subject of contention. At issue for some time has been the question of which of two figures seated in the custom house in fact represents the future apostle: the prominent bearded man at the center, visibly startled by Christ’s appearance and command, or the surly youth at the far left, shamefacedly bent over the table as though vainly attempting to avoid both the glance of the Son of Man and the light that shines behind Him?
This controversy is of course one in which a non-expert such as myself, who knows precious little of the early Baroque, does well not to venture too confidently an answer which no one solicited in the first place. This being said, I pretend to offer no certainties here, only what I hope is a piece of fairly plausible guesswork.
I believe that Matthew is the young man brooding at the table’s end. True enough, Caravaggio has painted Our Lord’s gesture of summons ambiguously, and such is the effect of the painter’s tenebrism that His eye is not more obviously fixed on one man than the other. Also, the older man appears to be pointing at himself in anxious fear, as though this itinerant rabbi (of whom all the men in the customs no doubt have heard) is about to lay upon him some awful curse or command more awful still. Even the amused snobbery of the plumed worldling attired in gold and red has something of wide-eyed trepidation in it, as though his attention has been drawn truly and for the first time to something greater than himself. The authority of the Intruder at the right is visible enough to every other character in the composition, and little is added to His commanding presence by the innocuous piety of the halo which the demands of convention have compelled our artist to trace, however faintly, about the sacred head.
But the young man is past anxiety; he is crumpled into a heap of abashed resignation, alive only with the knowledge that what he has been, he can no longer be, and what he has worshiped he now must cast aside. The empty glance of crushed devotion he offers to the few pathetic coins before his eyes is nothing so much as the look of a man intent even in defeat on not looking up to see the knowledge of his losses in the features of those around him. Somehow I am reminded of the last words of the defeated French emperor on his deathbed asking rhetorically of his attendants, “Surely we were not cowards at Sedan?”
So often merely the presence or a few pointed questions of Our Lord thus disarmed his interlocutors. His “Whence was the baptism of John, from Heaven or the sons of men?”, his “What you are about to do, do quickly.” – do not these cut to the center of His listeners far more keenly than could even the most starkly wrathful utterances of an Amos or an Ezekiel? Those who receive them have nothing left to say. He subdues them each and every one: Judas, Pilate, the Pharisees (time and time again) the woman at the well, the young aristocrat; as for this last, one wonders, could he ever again really enjoy his many possessions?
For that matter, does the young tax collector in this painting have the air of one who might yet love his worldly valuables after turning his back on a heavenly vocation? Notice that Caravaggio has painted the money on the table with no intoxicating glamour, no seductive radiance. The coins before the sinner hardly shine. But these, however commonplace their appearance, still remain for Matthew an idol of devotion, and were we not informed already of the incident’s conclusion, we might be forgiven for doubting whether he, abject as here he sits, could find within him the will to rise up as bidden, put off the mountebank, and put on the apostle. At this moment he has no love for what he is; like every votary of a counterfeit god, he has become the living image of his deity: hardened and exchangeable. “Similes illis fiant qui faciunt ea,” as the Psalmist has it; that is, “Like those who make it.”
In our natural estate of vicious imperfection, much of what makes each of us himself is that which he must leave if he would live. Truly to live – doesn’t every one of us desire it? But at what cost, and what terms of surrender? When I make up the account of those damning properties of which I must let go, how much of myself have I abandoned? I consider the words of the great Ignatian prayer: “Suscipe, Domine, universam meam libertatem. Accipe memoriam, intellectum, atque voluntatem omnem” (“Receive, O Lord, all my liberty. My memory, my understanding, and my will.”) It is not the thought only of the suffering that must attend the sacrifice of our liberty and memory and will that disquiets us. Do we not also ask, “once the offering is made, will I any longer know myself?”
None of us is more than the sum of his deeds, and when our deeds are evil we lose the ability to conceive of any version of ourselves that is not somehow twisted and corrupt. It is at this point that we are first tempted to apply the first ether to our conscience; to tell ourselves that what we are we are, and that whatever hints of greater goods might now threaten to unsettle our self-love, these need not trouble us so much that we should wish for any strong medicine to cure us of our ailments. How often have we heard it said (how often have we said it?): “I have a sense of what I really am, and can live with that reality. I make no apologies for what I have done, because any compromise with iniquity is worth the reward of self-knowledge.”
Here the egotism of Rousseau is prophetic: “Such as I was, I declared myself; sometimes low and despicable, at others, virtuous, generous and sublime; even as thou hast seen my inmost soul. Power eternal! Assemble round thy throne an innumerable throng of my fellow-mortals, let them listen to my Confessions, let them blush at my depravity, let them tremble at my sufferings; let each in his turn expose with equal sincerity the failings, the wanderings of his heart, and, if he dare, aver, I was better than that man.”
This, I think, is the battle that rages within Matthew as he stares down at the tokens of his past life. He has been avaricious, disaffected, cynical, corrupt. But he knows himself for what he is, and the familiarity of degradation holds, for a moment, its position against the overtures of the terrible strangeness of sanctity. To find himself, the sinner must lose himself, and so put on a new man whom he does not know, and whose purity can only be, to the eye of flesh, something wholly alien. Is it not so with all of us? And is not the beauty of Holiness as frightening as any Hell?
by Craig Dunham, Headmaster
One has taught at L’abri in Switzerland. One was born in Quebec but grew up in Cameroon. One has traveled to 16 countries and four different continents, but still thinks Bozeman is best.
Who are these people? They’re our teachers, of course.
At various points across this week, I spent some time reviewing and updating our faculty and staff bios before we published them on our website (we’ll update their pictures from last year next month when we have portraits taken – more on that as we get closer to October). As I was adding and editing the biographical information they submitted at orientation, I quickly realized that I’m in the presence of some extraordinary people on a daily basis.
The good news? So are your children.
All of our teachers have bachelor’s degrees; some have a master’s degree (or two) to boot. Several of our teachers graduated from their respective institutions magna cum laude. Some of our teachers have enough liberal arts training that they could teach subjects in which they have not even earned degrees…and they could do it well.
They’re learners, all of them.
As a Headmaster (or “lead teacher”), I’m daunted by the challenge of keeping up with these excellent educators, but I’m also grateful for it, as it pushes me in my own practice of learning and inspires me to improve in my own attempts at leading.
As a father, I’m grateful that these are the people my four daughters (ages 16, 15, 13, and 11) are spending time with when they’re not with Megan and me. If I’m honest, these teachers may very well shape my daughters’ affections for what is True, Good, and Beautiful as much as I will.
One reads British literature for fun. One is a lover and student of calligraphy. One could, because of her military training, drop and kill me if she wanted (yes, I said “she”), but her heart for Petra and our work together has kept me alive so far to die another day.
Who are these people?
They’re Petra, and as I trust you’ll discover, they’re what makes our school the amazing place it is.