The parched eviscerate soil
Gapes at the vanity of toil…
If education is not to be a matter of merely filling buckets which happen to be empty, as the poet Yeats once put it, but of lighting fires that have gone out, how are we to set them blazing again? Where is the kindling wood? And who’s got the match with which to light the fire?
Perhaps the wood is already within, just waiting to be ignited. Plato certainly thought so, having shown us in the Meno how Socrates, in the very act of soliciting the slave boy to unearth all that he does not know—i.e., the truth about geometry—reveals the very thing hidden away in the dark cave of his memory. If that is so, then maybe the meaning of life really does lie deep down, planted by God Himself beneath both mind and will.
But is that possible? That the veritable pearl beyond price should prove to be something none of us can kill, that it defines at the deepest level who we are? In other words, we can no more divest ourselves of desire for a meaning we’ve already been given than we can jump out of our skin. I’m pretty sure Chesterton would have agreed with Plato. “At the back of his brain,” wrote an admiring critic of his work, “there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at his own existence.” So the whole point of his life, all those wonderful words he wrote, was nothing other than an attempt, performed over and over, to bring to the surface “this submerged sunrise of wonder.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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What a great line that is. And wonder, let’s not forget, is the beginning of wisdom. “For it is owing to their wonder,” wrote Aristotle, “that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.” Not only does it begin that way, but all along the way, and indeed at the very end of the way when philosophy has done its work, the wonder remains.
And if old Aristotle were not enough to make the point, let us give Einstein a shot. “He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe,” he declared, “is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” A perfect bull’s-eye, I’d say. And when the pause that not only refreshes but makes us stand rapt in awe happens over and over, what then? Can we then call it a habit? Let Sofia Cavalletti, co-founder of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, answer the question:
When wonder becomes a fundamental attitude of our spirit, it will confer a religious character to our whole life, because it makes us live with the consciousness of being plunged into an unfathomable and incommensurable reality.
And what’s this “religious” stuff about? Well, what else is it but the unfolding of an etymology implicit in the word itself (i.e., re-ligare), which means a lifetime spent in binding oneself back to a point of origin, a source that can only be God. An entire life, as it were, suffused with a wonderment that will carry one finally out of this world and safely back to Him.
However, I’m giving Chesterton the last word here. “The world,” he insisted, “will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.” Even infants, he noted, much as Signora Cavalletti would later argue, routinely feast upon a banquet of wonders. In an early essay, he describes “the gravity which dwells in the eyes of a baby of three months old. It is the gravity of astonishment at the universe, and astonishment at the universe is not mysticism, but a transcendent common sense.”
So, the wonder is there, however deeply it may lie dormant, however atrophied the state in which it appears. But it will still need someone to kick-start it into life, to repristinate the springs of longing. Isn’t that what educators are for? But something seems to have happened to dry up the source, to staunch the flow that leads the child into a state of wonderment and wisdom. I see it in a number of my students all the time, and it gives me pause.
Even among the pious, who are wonderfully in evidence on the campus where I teach, I am never quite sure that the deposit has not somehow been depleted. That the golden sunrise on which Chesterton drew his joy and inspiration remains, for far too many of my students, sadly submerged.
I really don’t know what to do about it. Or if there is anything anyone can do about it. When I come across, for instance, an account like the following from Albert Camus, describing what life at age eighteen was like for him, even as I am profoundly moved by his passion for life, wanting all my students to follow ardently along, I am yet mortified to think of all those young people who seem not only not to have that passion, but not even to mind its absence at all.
I remember that when I was eighteen years old, it seemed to me that the very hours of sleep deprived me of life. I had a furious and eager thirst for everything that awaited me, people I didn’t know, words I had not yet said, works, books, men. And I could not give any of that up. I am not sure that I have changed.
Whatever happened to that furious and eager thirst that drove Camus but, alas, not my students? Is recovery possible? And not—let me be honest here—for my students only. The malaise appears to have infected the young everywhere. What has caused this dying of the light?
Let me tell you what I think, what I’ve lately discovered among the young. If there is one common denominator that defines them all, it is the fact that nearly every blessed boy and girl was, not so long ago, forced into a state of unnatural exile during the Covid lockdown. And, thus, they were subjected to the isolating effects of the masking madness that followed—leveling the peaks they might otherwise have wanted to climb, leaving them in a state of boredom and ennui.
How does one re-enter the real world after having spent years immured in a Covid coffin? Again, I don’t know. But I think that in trying to come up with an answer, we’d better leave room for God, whose grace, says the poet Hopkins, “rides time like a river.” It does not skim the surface, nor hover above the flux, but plunges deep down to the very bottom of the sea.
He is not the God of surprises for nothing. But He will need to pull more than one rabbit out of His hat to work His magic. If He is to lift the cloud that hangs over the spirit, He will have to send much rain to water these roots.