4th week of Epiphany

Last time I discussed the significance of two events: Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ. Both these events bring us not only into the people of God but into the family of God. And as adopted sons and daughters in the family of God, we have a different way of living. To take one example, we have a different understanding of authority. This is the subject of our talk today.

The first thing to understand is that authority is inescapable. People will use authority rightly or wrongly, but we can’t avoid having people in positions of authority. In the same way, people can submit to authority rightly or wrongly, or submit to good or bad authorities, but they will always be submitting to some kind of authority. This is because God built authority into the world, and by right of being the Creator, He is the ultimate and highest authority in it. We, however, as fallen sinners, don’t usually like authority, denying it, misusing it, or rebelling against it.  

Jesus came to restore true authority. After having risen from the dead and before ascending into heaven, Jesus tells his disciples: “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go [a]therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [b]Amen.”

(That “making disciples” bit is what we’re doing here, by the way.) Jesus models for us what true authority looks like. Even though he’s the “King of Kings,” he serves others. He is also not ruled by bad authorities, either from those who claim false authority (Herod, Pilot, pharisees, etc.) or even from his own passions.

What if someone says, “Nobody rules me. I do whatever I want. I am the master of fate and the maker of my destiny. I am invincible!”? What if a child throws a fit and shrieks and convulses on the ground because their authority was canceled out by their parents’ authority? What if a toddler won’t listen to his teacher? What if a high school student huffs and puffs and argues with her parents because they can’t go to the party or event everyone else is going to? What if the state makes a law that infringes on the rights of its citizens?

In each of these cases, we see how sin is either a misuse of authority or a rebellion against it. We are born knowing how to grab things that aren’t ours, bonking our neighbor of the head if we don’t get the toy that was “ours.” And we are born submitting to our sense of authority. In the examples above, we see that our desires, passions, “affections” can be just as bad as other external masters. In other words, we can submit to our bad desires and be held captive by our emotions.  

Freeing us from the tyranny of our bad desires and passions is what school is supposed to be about. We cultivate habits and desires that receives right authority, respects that authority, and does not submit to the tyrants in the external world (bullies) or to the tyrants inside our hearts (sinful desires). This is actually the true purpose of education, and the mental exercises of knowledge and skill in each varying subject (Maths, Grammar, Latin, etc.) are designed to serve that end: to be truly free. So says our Lord: veritas vos liberabit, and “the Truth shall set you free.”

2nd week of Epiphany

When I was a boy, I found my name kind of annoying. It was different. It had punctuation in it. And everybody seemed to get it wrong or make fun of it. “Devin O-donkey.” “Devin O-doil.” “Devin O-you get the picture.” I got over it. But it was until later that I really began to appreciate my name. I found that the O’Donnell’s were Aristocracy; they were a royal tribe, kings who ruled the northwestern point of Ireland. They had a castle. And the stories that came with this name made me glad to be in this family.

The reason why names and family matter are simple. It involves your identity. Who you are. Who are your people. Consider how popular the search for ancestry through DNA testing has become. People want to where they come from. “Our ancestors were the Maya.” Or, “We come from Icelandic peasant farmers.” Or, “Look, honey, we are descended from a long and prestigious line of headhunters from Papua New Guinea!” Because we have lost meaning in our world, the question of identity and family is a very important question for us today.

One of the best ways to see how the gospel answers this question is to consider the last two weeks on the Church calendar. The Sunday before last was Epiphany, which marks the revelation of Christ to the gentiles. Yesterday was the feast day of the Baptism of our Lord, where Jesus goes to John to be baptized in the river Jordan and God reveals Himself.

Let me take each one of these and break it down.

In Epiphany we celebrate the 3 Magi who travel from the East in search of “he was to be born King of the Jews.” They worship the Christ child and bring him gifts. This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah. The remarkable thing about this is that most of us are the gentiles. We weren’t present at Mount Sinai when God made a covenant there with Israel. But in Epiphany we are included in the people of God.  

The Baptism of our Lord takes this even further. Why did Jesus have to be baptized? Baptism involves identity. It places you in a family. Although John’s was a baptism of repentance, Jesus was identifying himself with a fallen human race in order to redeem them. In Luke chapter 3, right after the Baptism of Christ is recorded we find another genealogy of Jesus. But instead of tracing his lineage back to Abraham, which is what Matthew does, Luke goes back to the beginning: Jesus is a “son of Adam.” Paul says that “just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin,and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5). Jesus becomes our representative head, renewing humanity and showing us a new way to live and inviting us into a new family.  

What do these things mean for us? It means that God doesn’t just participate in our life. We participate in His life. He has made us for Himself. These two events, Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ, bring us not only into the people of God but into the family of God. And that means that we have a different way of living. A different understanding of authority. We’ll talk about that next time.

How Much is the World Too Much With Us

It’s sometimes easy to smile cynically at the Romantics of the nineteenth century, to dismiss their desire to receive the “greatest delight which the fields and woods minister.” But there were plenty who even over a century ago felt the need to slow down, to go into the woods, “live deliberately,” and “drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms.” The unbridled desire for things has a cost in any epoch. And when those desires are misguided, it is actually worse, as Boethius suggests, if one should obtain the object of his desire.

“The world is too much with us,” writes Wordsworth. “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” It is hard to imagine he wrote this over a century ago; no loud cartoons, no ads flooding daily existence, no shopping malls, no Netflix series, no credit card debt. Yet the cost was real even then. “We have given our hearts away.” And if we are to teach our children anything it is that the human creature is more than a consumer. A life where getting and spending is the highest good quickly becomes a hollow and vacuous life, and school as schola is the medicine.

We are all familiar with the psalmist’s reminder to “Be still and know that I am God.” But we perhaps too familiar with it to grasp the fullest sense of that imperative. We have not merely lost leisure; we have forgotten our very need for it. If we are indeed too comfortable with the call to “be still,” then the Latin might render it a new verse entirely: vacate et videte quoniam ego sum Deus (Psalm 45:10). There is probably more to be said about St. Jerome’s choice in using these verbs, but the English derivatives “vacate” and “vacation” should be plain enough. Striking perhaps, but this vacation is not the sort that we find at Disney World or at Six Flags.

Joseph Pieper renders psalmists command thus: “Have leisure and know that I am God.” Leisure, then, is not present in the debaucheries of the frat party. Nor is it found in the riotous elations of the Gatsby mansion. And if any moral interpretation is to be gleaned from the life and works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is that leisure is not the same as pleasure. There is a true leisure and a false leisure. A life in restless pursuit of the American dream might be convenient, entertaining, and pleasurable; but this does not mean it is the good life. Even if we set our wills to achieving the Dream, we would be as “boats against the current” of infinite desire. This is why the full realization of failure to satisfy one’s own longings hardens and congeals into that modern disillusionment that was shared by Fitzgerald and his ex-patriot friends. There may be happy moments at the Gatsby mansion, but be assured in the end, it is not the eudaimonia that Aristotle uses to describe the abiding beatitude and lasting blessedness of a virtuous life.

Being human means that we are easily lead astray, and often times by our competing passions and desires. The Stoical chemotherapy is to then kill those passions. The hedonist indulges them. Plato speaks of the chariot of the soul and how difficult it is to progress when the lead horses are incompatible. For the man whose desires are distracted, the soul can seem to be drawn and quartered by these unequally yoked horses, pulling at the seamless joints of the tripartite soul. Recall that Plato describes the soul as a city of many members, and it is the primary goal of his Republic to draw out this analogy: that a just state is as a just soul (Plato, Republic, 368D). Most people understand that we can desire the wrong thing, but we tend to forget this also means we desire too much of the lesser goods surrounding us.

One of those goods that should be ordered higher in our educational programs is the attention given to Nature. Remember being outside? “They Used to Call It ‘Air,’” writes Esolen. Recall that “Method 1” of the Ten Ways to the Destroy the Imagination of Your Child is to “Keep Your Children Indoors as Much as Possible.” This is the other cost that Wordsworth warns about. It’s not only that we “lay waste our powers,” but that another kind of loss takes place: we retreat from the real world. Not the world that invites our “getting and spending” but the world of God’s creation, the green world of gratuity that makes no artificial demands upon us. In thoughtlessly consuming, “little we see in nature that is ours.” Our commitments as consumers and our inordinate desires lead us to Augustine’s inquietum and to the disintegration of the soul.

Many have lamented the increasing alienation of modern man to Nature. In Last Child in the Woods, journalist and bestselling author Richard Louv notes the emergence of what he calls “nature deficiency disorder” (10). Louv explains the cost of our contemporary indoor life, the therapy that affords, and the “Spiritual Necessity of Nature for the Young” (293). But again, all this we could have gleaned if we had popularly taken heed of the Romantics. Some have wrongly imagined that schola promotes loneliness or naval gazing. True leisure, however, lifts our gaze away from self and focuses our eyes to behold the other that is found in Nature and Neighbor (and supremely in God). This is yet another important question to consider in the classroom or in the home. Does our school or home promote a regard for the natural world? Does the course or pedagogy orient the student towards wonder at the created order? Does your contemplation of Spring, for instance, lead to the analogous contemplation of the Annunciation and the Incarnation, as it did for Hopkins?

A final thought. Yes, I am aware that if you are reading this, you are most likely inside, on the computer or tablet, and open to the indefatigable interruptions of the Net. But this is only a proof of my words. Go outside. Learn with your students there, “under the open sky, and list to Nature’s teachings.” Then we might not have to forfeit our Christianity to have sight of Proteus rising from the sea, or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn. 

Devin O’Donnell

Aims of Education

The other day I was talking with a teacher about the aims of education. She reflected on how we should be preparing our students for more than just getting into college. I remarked that one the goals of education is to raise the pupil above the level of just being a consumer, above a materialistic existence of buying and getting and consuming. It reminded me of a few old posts I wrote that speak to these ideas. Hope you enjoy!

Devin O’Donnell