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.
by Sarah McClaflin, 6th grade teacher
Be still, my soul. Four simple words:
“Be” – we exist because God created us for a specific purpose His own glory
“Still” – a state of contentment and rest, not fretting or looking for an alternative
“My” – that which we are responsible for and can manage, remembering that we cannot change the actions or motives of anyone else
“Soul” – the inner being that is constantly offering counsel that we listen to more than any other advisor
Kenneth Osbeck relays in his book 101 Hymn Stories that the familiar hymn, “Be Still, My Soul” originated in the seventeenth century in Germany during a movement known as the Pietistic Revival. Leading this time of revival in Berlin, Philip Jacob Spencer encouraged singing, which led to a great revival of hymnody in the country.
One of the most prominent hymn writers of the time was Katharine von Schlegel. Born in Germany in 1697 at the tail end of the Reformation Movement, it is no surprise she was a member of the Lutheran church. As the Pietistic Revival itself was characterized, the lyrics which flowed from the heart of von Schlegel were also characterized by “genuine piety, depth of feeling, rich Christian experience, and faithfulness in Scriptural expression.” This is clearly portrayed in the lyrics of “Be Still, My Soul.”
I am so thankful for the translation work of Jane Borthwick over one hundred years ago, as she made the outpouring of von Schlegal’s heart accessible to my own. Heading into a new school year with a new headmaster, new families, new fears, old hurts, a larger building, and numerous other unknowns, I’ve been meditating on the lyrics of this beloved hymn.
Anticipating changes with a still soul has always been a challenge for me. I fight the temptation to take up the worry, anxiety, and even exhausting enthusiasm that relentlessly knocks at the door of my heart.
Last year I had the opportunity to incorporate two new foundational curriculum changes (math and history) in my classroom. During this process, I often battled thoughts that ranged from, “I can’t make this or that work!” to “I am physically and mentally exhausted. Where will the strength and enthusiasm come to teach today?” The comforting phrase, “. . . leave to thy God to order and provide” became a constant reminder to press on, ask for help and guidance, focus on the next right response, and grow in my faith.
This coming year ushers in our new headmaster. The extensive search and interview process that the board and administration conducted last year was definitely full of unknowns and lofty expectations. As a staff member, I began to wonder if our school would continue to function as it had or if radical change was going to be implemented. What would that mean for me as a teacher and my children as students? What about the Petra community? Would the new headmaster understand what it is like to lose a leader who loved us so well? Would he or she embrace that, even though we know it is time to move forward, there is still a feeling of loss associated with the past?
As worry and fear would begin to build in my heart, the Lord would bring to mind the beginning of the second verse of this old hymn: “Be still, my soul, thy God doth undertake to guide the future as He has the past.” Then, when the staff first met Craig Dunham, I found myself in awe at how the Lord had perfectly prepared this particular individual to lead our school with purpose, humility, and wisdom. Here was a man who, in spite of his own fears and hurts, clearly continued to love – the Lord, his family, other people, and the work God has given him to do. When he accepted the position, there was great relief and anticipation about what this coming year will bring.
As we prepare for this coming school year, I’m still doing some individual heart searching with the following questions: Is my soul still and at peace, or am I fretting and unsettled? Do I regularly remember that the Lord is on my side or do I think I am fighting these battles alone? Am I leaving to my God to order and provide or am I insisting on my own way? Is my confidence in myself or in Almighty God?
Other questions: Am I running to Jesus to soothe the hurt in my heart or do I forget that He longs to comfort and assure me? Am I remembering that the suffering I may be experiencing right now is temporary and that as a believer in Jesus Christ I have a unique future hope? Do I know with confidence that God is who He says He is and His existence is not dependent on my belief or actions?
In the lyrics of each stanza of “Be Still, My Soul,” the author acknowledges that life is filled with things unknown, disappointment, grief, sorrow, change, and pain. Yet for the believer in Jesus Christ, all of this is eclipsed by the hope and confidence that we have in future glory. And still, we have a present task here and now, for each day brings choices and decisions to make. Some may seem significant – purchasing a home or caring for an aging parent; others may seem less so – stopping to pick up a forgotten item at the grocery store or helping with homework Regardless, each one is an opportunity to trust in an all-powerful, all-knowing, faithful, loving God to bring resolution rather than relying on ourselves to try to do so alone.
As we approach the beginning of another school year, we will encounter multiple opportunities each day to choose to be still and know that God is God (Psalm 46:10). In our stillness, we can meditate on God’s faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23), rejoice in His blessing (Philippians 4:4-8), remember who we serve and the indescribable gifts He has already given (James 1:17; John 3:16), and anticipate the future with hope and confidence (I Timothy 4:10; Philippians 1:6). We are children of God – blessed, chosen, sealed, adopted, forgiven, and loved (Ephesians 1; Romans 8).
These truths, kept in the forefront of our minds and on the turf of our hearts, will sustain. In the midst of new procedures, old habits, malfunctioning technology, and inspiring lectures, these ancient words remain, and we can continue to draw new strength from them.
by Sam Koenen, Academic Dean
One evening this summer, I sat on my front porch and began a short volume of poetry by Wendell Berry. The first poem was only three lines long, but its powerful image forced me to stop reading and to think about its implications.
Though this poem consists of a single image, it contains many wise lessons that all of us—teachers, students, and parents—can seek to apply as the new school year approaches.
Suppose we did our work
like the snow, quietly, quietly,
leaving nothing out.”
The poem’s single metaphor is an exhortation for us to work as the snow works. By contemplating what it means for snow to “work”, we can draw four lessons from Berry’s exhortation.
1) Work with consistency. Berry’s snow falls quietly, without rushing and without anxiety. Its consistent, step-by-step efforts eventually blanket the landscape completely. This time of year, it is common for students to start worrying about the next nine months of books and papers, math problems and science labs, projects and deadlines—and for some, the looming horror of the junior thesis.
Teachers often experience a similar anxiety, wondering how they will be able to prep all the assignments their students are worrying about, as well as attend sports games, teacher training meetings, be home with their families, and serve in their churches—all at the same time.
Berry’s poem encourages us to remember the wisdom of consistency. The nine months’ of work we are worrying about comes to us a single day at a time. When we focus on the work we have today, our work isn’t so overwhelming and our anxiety settles down. The snow doesn’t spend time fretting about the amount of ground it has to cover in complete and precise detail. It just starts working flake-by-flake, and eventually it completes its task.
2) Work with contentment. The snow accepts the landscape it’s been given. It doesn’t complain about the challenging sharp corners and vertical surfaces it will struggle to cover. The snow simply does the best it can with what it has in the time it has been given.
Several times this year, both students and teachers will be given assignments that tax them, assignments full of sharp corners. Instead of wasting time in worry or complaint, let us commit now in the ease of summer to simply knuckle down and do the work we’ve been given. Let us trust that as we work (and pray about our work), we will find all the resources, energy, and wits we need to complete our work well. Let us commit now simply to do our best with what we have and trust God to provide what we lack.
3) Work with charity. The snow also teaches us to be utterly charitable in our work. Snow covers everything and leaves nothing out. It is considerate of every part of the landscape. The snow also works in a way that blesses others. It gains nothing from its work, but creates beauty and comfort in the emptiness of winter.
It is easy to forget that our work should always be marked with charity. All true Christian endeavors seek both to glorify God and to bless our neighbor. As the first day of school approaches, let us pray that God will fill us with love for each other, so that as we write lesson plans or papers, as we hear lessons or give them, as we discuss and learn and teach and spend our days together in Petra’s hallways, all our work will bless those around us—leaving nothing and no one out.
4) Work with hope. Finally, the snow teaches us to labor in the faith that our efforts will not be in vain. The snow of winter provides the ground water needed for the plants of spring. But it never sees the fruits of its labor. It has no immediate reward, no instant gratification for its work. In fact, the snow has passed away by the time its work comes to fruition.
So it often is with schoolwork, especially at a classical, Christian school. Mid-year, students are tempted to ask, “What’s the point? Where’s the payoff for all my blood, toil, tears, and sweat?” They don’t see an immediate purpose to the work they are doing (aside from the ability to quote Churchill in their angst). But the reason the payoff isn’t visible is because they aren’t looking far enough down the road. Growth in an oak tree can be measured only over many years. And it takes a long series of faithful, patient waterings to produce this growth.
When students look for an immediate payoff, they have forgotten that they are very much like trees (Ps. 1), and the work their teachers have given is water for their roots and sunlight for their leaves. Through the grace of God, their Petra education is growing their souls, nourishing their hearts, and fertilizing the soil of their roots so their thinking can go deep.
When we—students, parents, and teachers—begin to question the point of our work at Petra this year (as will inevitably happen), let us remember that we all labor in the dawn of everlasting results.
And remembering this, let us turn and begin our work again, “quietly, quietly, leaving nothing out.”
by Craig Dunham, Headmaster
Here in Bozeman of late, one might lose sight of (or even forget for a moment) the beautiful scenery surrounding our fair Verona due to the smoke from the wildfires to our west. Granted, smoke is better than fire, but the result (at least with regard to all things respiratory) is basically the same. As Petra Humanities teacher Thomas Banks posted on his Facebook page, “In Bozeman today we are all smokers. Solidarity.”
Solidarity, indeed. We’re all affected by the smoke – some more than others (young children, older adults, and those with asthma perhaps the most) – as we all breathe, and in doing so, we all know something’s not been quite right of late in Gallatin Valley.
This, of course, makes for the most timely of metaphors. Born into a world created good by God, ours is an atmosphere and ontology tainted by the “smoke” of original sin. Though redeemed if we are Christians, we nevertheless live not-yet-restored lives as what theologian Francis Schaeffer labeled “glorious ruins” – still glorious because we bear the image of God, yet temporarily ruined by the effects of choosing (past and present) apart from Him.
All this shrouds our human experience of what Aristotle called “the transcendentals” of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty; and yet, it does not negate their existence. The parallel is obvious: regardless of the smoke, living in Bozeman and heading northeast of town will run us into the Bridgers because, well, there they are, and have been since God created them. Likewise, living in this world – fallen as it is – will run us into God’s Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, because there they are, remnants of His creation and wonderfully incarnated in the person of Jesus the Christ.
So how do we see and discover – yea, even experience! – what is there? The answer is less dependent on us than we think. For just as we can do little but pray for the westerly winds to blow smoke out of the Gallatin Valley, so, too, can we do little but pray for the Spirit of God to blow sin out of the valleys of our own hearts. Let us pray this same simple way for our children, that as they begin school at Petra in two-and-a-half weeks, God’s Spirit would blow out the smoke of sin from their hearts and grant them a clearer picture of Himself through all that they learn.
Oh, the view! May this weekend be one in which the blue, big skies of Bozeman once again meet the familiar peaks of the Bridgers. And, may this upcoming school year be one in which our students (and we as their parents) once again meet the God of all that is True, Good, and Beautiful in the world.
by Craig Dunham, Headmaster
Writing in his essay, “Of Education,” poet and polemicist John Milton sums up well the goal of learning:
“The end then of Learning is to repair the ruines of our first Parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the neerest by possessing our souls of true vertue,
which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection.”
Repairing the ruins; regaining to know God right – and then loving, imitating, and being like Him because we know Him; possessing souls of true virtue; being united to faith and thereby experiencing the highest of perfections. This is what true learning looks like…and what classical and Christian education is!
Lofty goals, to be sure, yet ones we trust, by God’s grace, that our faculty and families will embrace and imbibe in this, our 20th academic year of Petra Academy. Toward that end, I would like to invite you to our Parent Orientation on Wednesday, September 2, from 7-9 p.m. to learn more about our shared pursuit this coming school year. Upper School students may attend Orientation as part of the program; however, please make other plans for kids 12-and-under so as to get the most from the experience.
Because the beginning of a school year can feel overwhelming, we are working on a series of “helps” – everything from hands-on Chalkable training to thinking more classically and Christianly about daily life – especially for Petra parents. We look forward to announcing these at Parent Orientation on September 2, but until then, would direct you to our list of article and book recommendations under our new Parents tab to perhaps build some enthusiasm.
We look forward to our new school year starting Tuesday, September 8th. May this year – Petra’s 20th! – be a year in which our students “regain to know God aright” in their studies, activities, and very lives. Thank you, parents, for entrusting us with the privilege of assisting you in pursuing this glorious goal.
by Craig Dunham, Headmaster
As you plan to join us at Petra Academy this fall, you will be part of a new chapter that God is writing in the history of our school. It will be a new year (Petra’s 20th, no less), with new faces (at least 20 of them, pushing us over 200 total students for 2015-16), and with a new Headmaster (who moved his family 20 hours to be with you in Bozeman).
A new chapter, indeed!
Whether we recognize it or not, the concept of “chapter” is an important construct, for it is how we’ve come to experience others’ stories as well as our own. Nicholas Dames, a teacher in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, writes in an article, “The Chapter: A History,” in The New Yorker,
“Books have been written or arranged in chapters for over two millennia now, although that fact has never received the attention it deserves from historians of the written word. Perhaps the sheer longevity of the concept has rendered it invisible… we simply expect chapters to be there, breaking up our reading, giving us the permission to pause or stop.”
Summer is a chapter break (a much welcomed one, at that!) and a time to pause, to stop…but not to end. God – the Author of our faith – is always authoring new chapters in our lives; in fact, without meaning to be too cliché, history is indeed His Story of the world’s redemption.