A boy sits, head canting to the right, his mud-touched shoulder pressed against the wooden moulding that caps the pew end. The light from the altar partly reveals a face at rest from the day’s furious activity. He has striven, and acted, and now can only be in the presence of another. The student’s hands curl absently on an unopened chapbook, but his eyes never lose their golden mark. It calls to mind the story of the peasant at adoration.
“What do you say to Him?” asked the French priest, John Vianney.
“Nothing,” replied the working man. “I look at Him, and He looks at me.”
Men Fully Alive
What sort of man is fully alive? The kind of man who knows how to be, and how to be actively present to the other. The intentional practice of being alive to the world goes by several names, but we shall call it encounter. Encounter is an attitude of mind and heart that goes out of its way to see and to be present to the other, whether that other be our fellow man, nature, culture, or society. It is also a ladder leading up the chain of being to Him who is His own being. Finally, it is a means of returning to the world, of seeing it as it is, and of acting within it with a naturalness that respects life’s own logic while also understanding its source and end.
Encounter is an attitude of mind and heart that goes out of its way to see and to be present to the other, whether that other be our fellow man, nature, culture, or society.
I would like to explore what it means to encounter our fellow man, the world of nature, culture, and society with a naturalness that also anticipates the encounter with God. We will then try to discover what sort of education could facilitate such an encounter. Finally, we will consider those elements of a Heights education that are compatible with this way of encounter. This approach depends upon and proceeds from the recovery of two fundamental realities.
The first is the reality that whatever has being has goodness, that being is goodness, however limited and marred.
The second is the reality that human beings are personal, that, even in the joy of independence, we are not self-sufficient.
The world is full of interesting people. Interest is our response to the goodness we perceive in the other. It is easy to fall into the habit of analyzing and categorizing those around us until we no longer see people, only examples of worldviews with which we agree or disagree. When we forget about the goodness that pervades all being, we easily fall into a habit of keeping the world at bay. We may even think that we are compromising or endangering ourselves if we enjoy the goodness in a person or thing that we perceive to depart in some way from truth or goodness. Without the perspective that being is essentially good, we are in danger of making a virtue out of a stubborn refusal to engage with most people.
We need not fear the goodness in others. A fully-alive man is robust enough to stay united to truth, and true to himself, even while he strives to meet all others in friendship. We might think that because friendship seeks equality, we can only seek friendship with those who believe precisely as we believe, and who act precisely as we act. But the goodness of being, its diffusion throughout creation, and its infinite dependence on the One who is Being-Being-itself, establishes a certain equality among all people, even among all created beings. We might think that because friendship seeks unity, we can only enjoy friendship with those who share our philosophical, moral, or political vision: but the goodness of being enables us to unite ourselves to any goodness—no matter how fragmented—we find in the other. After all, we ourselves are fragments, imperfectly realized embodiments of goodness. The eager embrace of goodness, truth, and beauty, and the honest admission of our desire for whatever is delightful, can be a means of transforming the world around us, a gaze that perceives in water the pregnant reality of wine—and draws it forth.
When we forget about the goodness that pervades all being, we easily fall into a habit of keeping the world at bay.
Obstacles abound to this transformative gaze of encounter. Do you still see the stars when you look up—if you look up—at night? Are you ever struck by an oak leaf’s distinctive, sturdy character or by its dogged fidelity to its peculiar form? Are you still delighted by the varying greens of summer trees, by the feel of wind on your skin, by the sounds of insects at night? Do the birds surprise you with their distinctive modes of flight? When you stand in a mountain forest, do you perceive a mysterious unity among the trees, the leaf-carpet soil, the dells and divots, the high canopy, the lonely, quiet air? Or is it only sometimes, for fleeting bittersweet moments, that you see the magic your child-self saw, and remember that you have forgotten? Is there an invisible film between you and the world?
Recovering Encounter in Nature
There are some practical methods of recovering our vision of the world. One method, suggested by naturalist Rachel Carson, is to look at a thing and ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I never see it again?” Another is to attend to the levels of perfection in nature. Every being, whether living or non-living, is good, but within each order of being there are numerous degrees of goodness, not to mention a distribution of perfections among beings that are “equal.” I love to see the grim humor in a spider-woman gobbling up her diminutive husband, the vast age of a thick and moss-covered tree whose spreading arms reveal it to be more ancient than the surrounding forest, the cheerful determination in a bird-song against a brisk morning breeze. Why are there chipmunks and squirrels? Moths and butterflies? The world is charged with personality.
Still another method for recovering sight is paying attention to the unity of variety in nature. A mountain forest’s many members—tall pines, steep-sloped hills, understory brush, birds, spiders, chipmunks—do not exist as mere individuals, in total isolation of self. Theirs is an individuality that anticipates others. Indeed, like the various member of a body, the members of the mountain wood constitute an orderly society, a whole idea. The world is charged with harmony.
Our Minds Fully Alive
As life comes only from life, so, in the world of man, the life of the mind is nurtured by healthy minds. Nothing so stirs the heart of the encounter with a heart already stirred. As a rational animal, man needs the environment of culture. A heart fully alive seeks increasing refinement; it begins to appreciate flaming torches of humanity that have been preserved, for all time, in great works. A healthy mind no more expects to completely form itself than it expects to create itself from nothing. But a healthy mind seeks simpler things as well. We would not call a man’s vision healthy which took in only the towering cedar but did not delight in gray squirrels scampering up it. Just so, a healthy mind also delights in popular and common art well done. It says that commonness as a point in its favor, another way of being united to all men. It sees its popularity as an indication that it may well contain universally tangible realities: adventure, intrigue, wonder, romance—the kind that all healthy people delight in experiencing. Finally, going still further, a fully alive mind searches, without compromise, for the good in imperfect and bent things. It seeks out friendship wherever it can be found, to whatever extent it can be found, and so embraces as much of popular culture, and as many people, as it can in prudence, even being willing to wade through some swamps to recover gems. A mind fully alive does not circle the wagons, nor always hold its nose, but is strong enough to sometimes “eat and drink with sinners.”
Armed with these insights, return back to the encounter with people, this time in society as a whole. A healthy mind seeks to encounter both the refined and the more common, the high and the low, and everything in between. A healthy man has a common touch. He has observed the world of men, like the world of nature, is composed of many different kinds of beings, each with his own vital role to play. He does not see the world as composed of “perfects” at the top and the unwashed at the bottom, of winners and losers, but instead sees in society something like a whole body. The key insights here are those with which we can begin: that being is a mode of goodness, and that personal beings are inherently relational. A mind fully alive is awake to the fact that, in their very design, human beings anticipate each other, just as other members of the forest society anticipate each other. This realization, though distinct from the grace of charity, predisposes us to love our men, to be zealous for justice for all people in society, and to acquire an authentic and healthy sense of equality, one based on the variegated distribution of the unity of being, and on the realization that all people, rich and poor, depend on each other. This extends to the imperfect and broken as well, for if anything were entirely depraved, if its being were entirely twisted, it would cease to dwell in this vibrant world of dynamic, living beings. Everything and everyone has a purpose; everyone, good and bad, is necessary.
Educating for Encounter
What sort of education can nurture this vision and enable an encounter with all that is good in the world? Here are some of the elements of this education for life: It directs the mind to attend to created reality first, approaching it, as Aristotle did, with the commonsensical assumption that the beings in creation have specific natures, and that the mind’s primary duty is to see reality clearly, not to impose systems of thought upon it. Pursuant to this end, a premium is placed on observation and on attentiveness to actual things, remembering that the senses put the mind in contact with the world, yet without leaving a student trapped on the level of matter. It refines a student’s mind, not primarily by teaching it systems, but by equipping it with a good store of true principles, reliable methods, and real or literary contact with variegated realities and strange, specific contours of actual beings. It passes onto him whatever has stood the test of time, which also enables him to select the best of what is current, and, going further, to draw forth a good from the imperfect, to recognize a good intention, and help guide it toward its real end. This education turns his mind outward towards service, for the sense of reality built on families and communities, rather than reality as an aggregation of atoms that are either sufficient onto themselves, or which must be turned, by force, toward some collective end devised by mere human thought. It helps a man to find heroism and fulfillment in service, and joy in the realization, through relationship, of the good of each individual being.
In fact, a Heights education embodies many of these qualities. From the Valley onward, the boys observe nature and are immersed in it. Sports and the arts nurture friendships that cross the boundaries of clique and tribe, making everyone a little more rounded, and establishing the ideal of a warrior poet with a natural manner. Our students are exposed to the best of classical and medieval thought, and to much in modern liberal thought that builds on the synthesis of Greek, Roman, and Christian wisdom and tradition of the West. A liberal arts approach aims at shaping men who are fully human, who are roundly educated, who have an ideal of knowledge that, in principle, embraces all of reality rather than one that reduces everything to the terms of a useful system.
A student formed in this way can learn anything, including any speciality, but he learns to see specialized knowledge as one particular instance of a wider world of truth. Likewise, a student formed in this way—provided he has sufficient contact with wider society, is aware of his own limitations, and does not confuse mere refinement with goodness—can be uniquely suited to help bring the various elements of society into a unity. Whether he is a bussinessman, a doctor, a scientist, a writer, an actor, an artist, an athlete, a politician, or a man who works with his hands, he comes at life with an expectation of finding some good everywhere. All of these natural goods depend on a constant spiritual nourishment and a rich spiritual formation, without which—even equipped with the most sophisticated tools—nature cannot reach its ultimate ends, nor ever be true to itself. The transformative gaze is a Eucharistic gaze, a sense of the world as gift, and of life as an encounter with a Hidden One.
Obstacles to Encounter
There are many obstacles—and possible objections—to this attitude of encounter, not the least of which is the reality of evil, “the mystery of iniquity,” which is more than just bent or imperfect being, but rather the conniving, organized, aggressive privation of being. Some will also object, if only privately, to the idea that there is much to be gained from “common” things. The buses and subways of the world, many people secretly believe, are better left untraveled. Finally, we might wonder if such an encounter is not really code-language for compromise and watering down the truth.
Full responses are not possible in this space, but I will content myself to refer to the life of a particular carpenter with whom I am acquainted. This fellow preferred the stench of sheep and straw to the perfume of physical perfection and marveled aloud at the blinding ignorance of the well-educated and the well-to-do. He ate with sinful people, and we may presume he rather enjoyed their company, because they rather enjoyed his. He was so optimistic as to say that whoever is not against you is for you. Yet, he was no starry-eyed, blinkered fool. He spoke clearly about the active presence of real evil in the human heart and will, and of an evil so black that its very nature is to lie. Yet he also said, in perfect justice, “they know not what they do.” Perhaps he meant not that human beings never deliberately choose what they know is evil, but that the choice is rarely so absolute as to indicate a true, open-eyed, and complete embrace of evil. Perhaps man is often caught in the wicked horns of a false dilemma, a choice between two real goods that the human heart—so beautiful, so good, so simple—erroneously fears cannot be reconciled. With this perspective, it is possible to see how some goodness remains in every living being. If we choose to see things with this carpenter’s perspective, then we can see how it is that “whenever we encouanter anoter person in love, we learn something new about God” (Pope Francis 2013, Evangelii Gaudium).
Let us return to that boy slumping against the pew end in the cool dark of The Heights chapel. What are my hopes for this boy? That he grow. That he be truly alive, not in an imaginary world molded to his own liking, but in this world with its particular circumstances. I see in him the doctor who treats the whole person, and regards his patient as more than an organic machine. I see in him the CEO who remembers that cubicle workers must also live, eat, marry, and raise children. I see him in the future hot shot next Netflix writer who, though rubbing shoulders with colleagues whose vision is, perhaps, more carnal, has the creativity and purity of vision that allows him to contribute some good to a plot, some depth to a character, even, sometimes, to nudge a story more in the direction of the truly satisfactory. I see in him the politician who can step away from the false dilemmas of contemporary politics and craft truly human legislation. So many hopes depend on this boy fully alive. If, making the most of his life and his education, he embraces the way of encounter, I believe those hopes will be realized.