Head and Heart and Brains (…and Words)

Zombie attack

“Calculating,” my colleague said, looking at me with a warm smile. “Whatever Professor Carpenter ends up saying, she chooses her words very carefully.” I felt myself smirk. Whether I liked the monicker depended on whether I remembered a moment when my heart had been there while I used words – or not.

I don’t know why I’m good with words, but I am. My mind leans that way, always has, even when my best friend had to tell me what the hell was happening in seventh grade grammar class. “You’d just doodle on the worksheet and shade in all the words perfectly,” she recalled to me recently, exasperated even in retrospect. I think I was classy: I was always kind enough to wait for her to teach me what I’d ignored.

That bent of mind makes me a poor study when it comes to actually teaching others how to write. I want my students to have had nine years of grammar like I did, a love for beautiful writing like I do, and an ability to absorb the lessons of good writing implicitly like I do. They have absolutely none of those things. I fret about that as a professor, worrying over both their illiteracy and my struggle to sympathize with it.

Words are a knife-edge, and with them we can carve a beautiful face or dismember like a surgeon. Words are powerful. And they are most powerful when they neatly come to a point.

See what I just did there with knives and edges and shit? Yeah, I’m clever as hell. It’s actually almost bad writing: it’s too well-ordered around its little metaphor, and threatens to mean too little because its symbolizes too much. What I mean is this: words are imprecise, and there are two ways to ruin them by forcing them into precision. The first is to remove everything distracting from a sentence. “Thou shalt not use a metaphor or a metaphorical verb.” Yeah, well: that’s boring, not precise. The second method is to use an image until it has died a horrible death of strangulation. “I have the perfect metaphor for this and I will explain each aspect of it to you.” Congratulations: it’s not a metaphor anymore.

But I’m not sure I’m being helpful in that paragraph. I know what I’m talking about, but do you? Have I made myself clear? And that’s the thing, imaginary reader: imagining you in a way that helps me write for real people.

This is where we return to the heart. Perhaps it is simply strange, but I write best when I have an idea of the emotional impact of a phrase. I speak best like that too. Words have feelings as well as meanings (or rather, meaning provokes feelings, and therefore so do words). When I hold that in mind, my writing is infinitely more effective. Again, I might well be odd. I always threaten to forget the heart. Words are almost like geometry for me: shapes whose proof is found in each other. They are interrelated sets of relations cohering together. I’m good at that, good at seeing the forms and relating them, and I don’t need to feel anything to be effective at that. I can even be cruel, calculating in the negative sense. I can build a beautiful but empty cathedral.

If I am angry, my words are cut glass.

For me, then, to feel is to grasp the shape of meaning in a way that can actually welcome others. Readers, listeners. And it softens me, soothes the edges of my creativity. I am first a creature of form, and the temptation is to forget splendor.

Many writers strike me in the inverse: immensity of conviction without a supporting structure. Words poured all against one another in a mess of paints. Restraint and grammar have all but vanished, making the sentences weird and long – or almost angrily terse. Academic writing, for all its insufferably boring contortions, is also like this. Meaning gets all lost in the face of word-using. Nobody remembers grammar here, either, even if they’ve also forgotten feeling.

Academic writing is horrible. Mostly the sentences are too long.

Having a heart for an imaginary reader seems to be a key point of departure in either affliction, the one of the heart or the brain. There in the imaginary reader, after all, it is necessary to imagine someone who is intelligent but not an expert, who needs something reasonable and clear. And if that someone has a heart, then he or she feels the impact of words. Can be moved or can resist. The reader doesn’t end up looking like one person, and the writer doesn’t end up with one solution.

So I should perhaps teach my students how to imagine a reader.

Oh God. How do I do that?


Scholarly Ambition

The Leeds Library

If there is anything that I chomp at the bit over, it is scholarship. I want to learn, to write. And I’m bored easily, so sitting still with the knowledge I do have leaves me impatient and restless. I’ve been reading a colleague’s work. It makes me so happy.

My poor students are subjected to my restlessness. I assign them books I want to read in my work. I’m always changing the books when I teach a course again. I never offer them something at their actual reading level. “It’s important to get used to not understanding everything and still reading,” I insist. We read Irenaeus, Michael Gorman, Max Scheler, Basil the Great. I’ve learned to pare down the length of the reading unto strategic minimalism so they don’t get overwhelmed. However much that slows our pace, I don’t particularly care. I want them to walk with me through live questions. It is for their sake, but I doubt I’d be so damn determined if I didn’t need it so much too.

We have no teaching or research assistance at a place like this. Every year, some senior walks through my door asking me a question. (Why is it always a senior?) We talk about it. Then I ask, “Do you want to study this with me?” And we do. I pull out articles, excerpt from books. We talk about them. I’ve helped students study philosophies of time, of mind; Max Scheler; music.

They could ask me to study the death of God and I’d eagerly agree.

I’ve told my classes, with every seriousness, that they have inspired and are helping me to write my next book. (So ambitious, another book.) One that will attempt to understand what it means for Christianity to be a tradition. A tradition that encounters a world it has never yet faced. This strange world, California, and its profound post-Christianity. To have known Christianity and to leave it aside: Christianity has never known such a challenge. How can the Church be herself, yet flexible enough to greet the newness of her situation?

So I play them music. Lots of music. I am convinced music is a key answer, offers itself up as a fertile analogy. I’m not about to insist theology must become music. We need to learn from it so that theology might understand itself better. As the Fathers borrowed from Plato, so I want to borrow from music. (And everything else.)

What Hans Urs von Balthasar wanted theological aesthetics to be was an absolutely serious form of theology. He thought of beauty as that necessary quality of the real without which theology would only narrow and harm itself. Beauty does something. It opens doors that otherwise wouldn’t even be seen.

I am weary of “theological aesthetics” that spend themselves in pretty comparisons between theology and the arts. “Look here: theology and the arts are kin!” Yes, they are. And so what? I could do much of what is currently done in the field – my field – with “pure” philosophy, especially phenomenology. Where is beauty doing what the logic of the truth and the desire for the good cannot? It is no wonder that theological aesthetics threatens to be a corner of theology that speaks only to itself. Those elsewhere need not attend to the voices if, really, they offer nothing.

I want a theological aesthetics that does something. I think music shows us something everything else can at best only gesture toward. I want to explain this.

And why the hell do I think I can offer such an explanation? I’m not sure I do. I only speak with the assurance that it must be done. Someone must do it. I’ll at least be willing to fail. I’ll have to learn music, but I find myself oddly unfazed by the task. Maybe I refuse to comprehend it, or ache so deeply to be challenged that I’ve found something just impossible enough to soothe.

Imagine such a heart, though. The one that won’t accept a lesser demand. It is hard not be impatient and restless. Lonely to always lead with expertise.

Lonely to always be explaining simple, simple things. Of course I must; of course it’s good. My faculty colleagues don’t know what an ecumenical council is and it is good that they do now. But there’s a certain sadness in it, too. The fissure at the very center of my book: how to hold the depths when barely at the margins. How to understand what it is to watch my beloved Church in some way die, living only with the hope of the resurrection.

She does die. What else is it to watch the Brothers literally die away, or to be the only Catholic in a room? Conscripting Catholics – as I was, in a way – is but a superficial stemming of blood. Catholics will still experience the questions. What is it to mourn these deaths? To wonder how to love as they are endured? To care about how to keep the earth prepared for when the seed finishes dying, then presses through, alive?

I suppose it is this: what’s it mean for a note to endure while it dies?

Without f*cking Hegel, or Heidegger, or Rilke. (Well. Maybe Rilke.)

I want to know. Brother Charles told me I have a voracious appetite. I do. I like that. Plus “voracious” always reminds me of velociraptors for some reason. They’re even better.

I want to be able to write. I am, naturally, and there’s more freedom for it than people might think. Still, there is that awful solitude. I’m not yet sure how to integrate it into my experience as a scholar. I do not persist under the illusion that it would be all that different at some other institution. “Humans is humans,” I like to tell my students. (I torture the English so they remember it.) There’d be more time for writing at another place. That’s assured. But it’s really the solitude of inhabiting the massive unknown of the Catholic Church that hurts. Not the time. (Sometimes the time.)

And I do worry that my ambition will be interpreted as eagerness to leave. I don’t want that for more than one reason, most of all because it isn’t true.

I simply don’t know what to do with how it feels to be where I am sometimes. I don’t know how to describe the hurt in softly explaining that there have been more than three popes since the opening of the 20th century. It’s not a pain at their ignorance – well, sometimes it is – so much as it is a pain of distance. Of not sharing the very small things. The details that are a way of life. I work always to make them known, but I think I get to say that it can be exhausting and solitary. It’s true.

I worry that it’s the secret curse of ambition. Of wanting too much. And of bearing a melancholy, reflective disposition.

I don’t really know what I’m after here, or what to do. It is true that I’d never write as much from St. Mary’s. It would be a sacrifice for my students, and a freely offered one. I’m not quite sure it’s that. I’m early in my career, a young scholar. There’s immense vulnerability in it. Doors may or may not open depending on what I do. And I don’t know, always. What to do. And who around me could I ask? It makes me grateful for the spaces I am allowed simply to exist as myself rather than some kind of constant educationally Catholic presence. I haven’t yet figured out how to hold all that together, to understand the plenitude of being along with the pieces of my life that inevitably lack.

It’s a human problem, really. A problem stitched into being human. That’s not an answer, and it doesn’t soothe. It expands and shares it, is all. This thing I’m trying to say.

Humans is humans.

On being a professor at a small college.

“Welcome to our fancy committee meeting at our famous institution, everyone. Where do we throw our money next?” – how I imagine the meetings go at research-1 universities

I have been at Saint Mary’s all of two years, but it took me about two weeks of being here to figure out that most of our faculty are quite talented, could move on to anywhere, and chose not to. They chose this place and these students. They’re not “stuck” at all.

That was the rumor. In grad school. That professors who never left the small place where they began either weren’t talented enough or somehow got too distracted. No professor I knew said that outright. (Okay, a few did.) Mostly the impression was given through career advice that included, “You’ll start off at a small place. Then you can move on.”

Meanwhile, at an actual small place, all kinds of perfectly skilled people didn’t want to move on. I’m sure our location in California helps, but if that were the only thing Saint Mary’s had going for it, we would have significantly more faculty transitions than we do.

I always wonder why.

My faculty elders feel a certain ownership of the place, have thrown in their lots with it. They complain about how certain things are not as good as the old days, and it warms me up inside because it means they care about being something specific. No one who doesn’t care tells stories of lament.

There is definitely a certain type of academic who finds their way to a place like this. Someone who cares in certain ways. Without realizing it, departments seem to select a kind of temperament: an academic willing to care passionately about students, a sociable and interactive sort, a scholar with genuine people skills (so rare!). Someone who doesn’t need a million things and accolades to be happy. Not that every professor is universally gifted at all those traits. I am profoundly shy, for example. It is simply that as a faculty, we’re far more articulate and friendly than many academics I’ve known. I wouldn’t go so far as to call us “cuddly”… But kind of, yes.

Or I’m projecting that onto us. I’m definitely a softy, and students definitely like to tackle me with hugs to watch me scowl and pretend I hate everything.

Students expect a certain degree of attention, interaction, and involvement from their professors. Unless the professor is willing to intimidate them away – some do, and I kind of admire them – students want a chance to write multiple drafts of a paper to feel prepared. They are significantly more willing to walk into an office and speak with their professor. They are accustomed to running into professors on campus – where is there to hide anyway? Indeed, so many faculty are willing to give the time that students assume it’s standard. They can be so aggravatingly entitled sometimes. Students who transfer in sometimes become resentful and assure the others that faculty are not nearly as available elsewhere.

You’ve got to have an ease with and affection for students if you want to survive at a place like this. They’re literally in our faces, bumping into us in hallways.

We have no freaking space. Our library is small. Faculty regularly share offices – including senior faculty. We have the one cafeteria, mildly expanded over time. It reminds me of Hogwarts by its size and age, the long tables and the old art. Somehow three thousand undergraduate students wander around our campus anyway.

The place is like a small town. It has all the strengths and weaknesses a small town has. Most people know most people, nobody much minds sharing except for when they don’t, and we have our own little internal language. Rumors abound swiftly and insanely. Once my students watched me give a paper in which I challenged a nun’s theology. That quickly became the time Professor Carpenter totally destroyed a nun. And I swear the next time a student tells me what all the other TRS 097 classes are doing, I’m failing that student. Maybe all of them.

“My friend, in her class they get to bring their Bibles to the exam. And notes.”

“That’s nice.”

“They have to memorize dates, though.”

“Hmm. Interesting, huh? How you don’t have to do that.”

We’re not the best at everything. As a college, I mean. Nobody can pretend we’re the most amazing ever and strut around like an idiot peacock, fancy and preening. But there’s sincere pride in a long history of excellent education, a long history of being very good against all kinds of odds. We typically punch above our weight, though unevenly. Pretty much everything in Performing Arts literally kicks the world’s ass right now. And I want to steal science’s best students into theology. Or at least borrow them for a minor, dammit.

We cost too much. Faculty have the heart to actively worry about it.

We discuss the classroom all the time. Faculty regularly trade successes and failure, everyone trying to figure out what the hell our students know and don’t know. Or why they do the things they do. We do all the grading, and I can never decide if I’m proud of that or if I want to burn everything and give everyone a B. Sometimes I wish I had a Teaching Assistant/Slave to do all that while I do something fancy and scholarly. Still, I like the blue collar academic chip on my shoulder that I get to carry around.

I doubt that at many places other than this I could be so open about struggling with mental illness, and still feel valued and safe. No one wants to drop me from the tenure line. My work for the college is very good, if I may say so myself, and while this is a community that can be as inhumanly academic as any other, for the most part it’s human too. They let me be imperfect and yet very good at my job. I also highly doubt that at many places I could lose my cool at a very, very important committee meeting in front of my own provost and live to tell the tale. And even be appreciated for it.

That still bewilders me.

Scholars can be vindictive and manipulative as hell. You have no idea. I’m telling you, you have no idea. It can be all Game of Thrones in the Academy. I don’t know why I haven’t been punished more for refusing to play the game. I suspect part of it is my damn soft and sincere affection for human beings. Somehow I get away with being pals with departments that have no love for each other. I also suspect it’s something about the place.

Sometimes I think I’m beginning to understand why people would care enough to stay. Why they’d freely accept a situation that will make scholarship harder.

I have a colleague who is downright paranoid about the possibility that some other college will snatch me away. He mutters about it to himself almost anytime we talk. I just smile. It’s not as if some places haven’t begun to test the waters with me. It would be tricky to acknowledge more than that. All I know so far is that I start to think, “But would I see Brother Charles ever again? And what about Paul? And would the students be as irreverent? And there’s Michael, and…”

And everything that isn’t things and accolades. Everything that makes a college real.

So I just smile.

Allowing another’s faith to be.

By Andre Kohn

By Andre Kohn

We sat in a darkened church just before Easter Vigil. I was with a young family, good friends of mine. Their four-year-old girl twitched next to me, teetering toward an oddly polite version of desperately bored. I leaned back in the pew and cocked my head at her: “What do you think Jesus was like as a child?”

This particular child scowled at me, smooth face suddenly stark and stern. “I don’t know.”

“Well, I wonder about it,” I said, unfazed. “I think he played games, had fun. Like you.”

“I don’t know,” she said again, displeased with me. She hung on her mom as she watched me, one arm around her mother’s neck while she leaned her whole body weight in the other direction. This is simply what one does with moms.

I smiled, not quite sure what bothered her. Perhaps it was the impossibility of knowing concrete facts about Jesus’ childhood, or the lack of stories about it, or some kind of preternatural sensitivity to historical verisimilitudes, or that it was getting kind of late. I didn’t mind. I love talking to children about almost anything, especially religion. They really do think about things with all their hearts. And I really do take them very seriously.

“So,” I tried again, “What do you think Jesus was like as an adult?”

“I don’t know,” she groused, tone sharp. Her mother tenderly scolded her. This is not how one speaks to adults.

I raised my eyebrows. “Why do you think it’s so hard to know?”

The young girl twined her hands around her mother’s neck to leverage herself up over her mother’s lap. Her mother gently steered her daughter’s thin frame, folding her away from disaster without a second thought. The child released her mom and sat down – laid down, really – half on the pew, half on her mother’s lap. “I don’t know,” she said again, softer.

I waited.

“It’s just hard,” she said, staring at the ceiling of the church. “Jesus is pretend.”

Out of the girl’s line of sight, I saw her mother twitch at the words. She wants her daughter to know Jesus is real, wants this very much. And it is hard, answering a child’s questions about infinite things. It is hard, repeating the words we ourselves barely understand. How is one supposed to raise anyone among mysteries anyway?

I stared at the empty tabernacle – it was Easter Vigil, remember – and thought carefully over her words. This, especially, is what I love about other people. Trying to imagine what they mean on their own terms. I could see the young girl’s mother frowning, trying to think of what to say too. It’s hard, trying to know that.

“Yes,” I said after a moment. “Jesus is so hard to picture. We can’t see him, so we have to imagine him. So it’s like pretend.”

Her mom’s face lit up. “Yes, that’s right. But he’s always with us, too.”

The girl twisted around and crawled over her mother’s lap to slump against her dad at an awkward angle. She shifted immediately, back to using her mom as a swing set. I took this as agreement.

“He’s hard to picture,” the child said.

I grinned and folded my arms. “Yes, but in the Mass he’s very near to us. We meet him in the Eucharist. We get to see him.”

The little girl did not respond – too busy working on some new impossible way to sit – but I didn’t expect her to. Nor did I expect her to understand a word I’d said. It should be like that, I think. Or I should say that it is like that, the world we’re in: people saying things we don’t even realize we don’t understand. But that doesn’t mean the words don’t sit with us. Or that the strangeness of it doesn’t follow us. These ways of speaking, the ones we don’t get, are friends that walk with us in the dark. Right next to the words we do understand.

Because knowledge, real knowledge, has a certain infinity to it. And faith only makes it more infinite. This is why it is okay if someone doesn’t understand – as long as we never treat them like they never will. It’s why it’s okay that we also don’t know, can’t know – as long as we don’t act as if we never will.

God is the one who walks among the words we do and don’t understand.

On Power. Or: How To Teach Students By Persecuting Them

Dietrich von Hildebrand

Dietrich von Hildebrand

I prowled the classroom, glancing at my department chair, who was there to evaluate me. “Okay. So who’s going to stop me?” Dead silence from my students. I waited a beat, studying their faces. “What’s wrong?” After another stretch of quiet, a student offered me a hesitant, “We’re scared of you.”

I laughed. “Really? You know me by now. I’m a marshmallow. You’ll be okay, I promise. Now, try and stop me from torturing you!”

The task was both simple and complex: we had been reading Dietrich von Hildebrand’s memoirs of his intellectual and moral struggle against National Socialism in the 1920’s and 30’s (recently collected in My Battle Against Hitler), a struggle that eventually earned him a death sentence in absentia. Von Hildebrand was a Catholic philosopher who ended up at Fordham in New York, having escaped the Nazis. The task for them in the class was to use von Hildebrand to argue in response to me and my evil professor plans, a dim reflection of von Hildebrand’s situation. Thus they themselves faced a terrible imaginary fate. My malevolent scheme was to pretend that I was convinced one of them had stolen a copy of my exam, and that in a fit of rage I was determined to punish all of them for it or else have the guilty party confess. Everyone would fail unless I got my way or unless they endured a series of torturous assignments that might give them a better grade. Maybe. They couldn’t be sure.

All of this required them to be aware of what they had read (please, God) and to apply it to a new situation, which demands a deeper and more creative understanding. I knew this would be a challenge, and yet engaging in a way much more immediate to their own experiences. In the class before, they’d had trouble imagining Europe of the past. They couldn’t populate it with themes and places and faces.

I, being ever so wise as their observant and farsighted professor, figured out a way to help about ten minutes before class actually began. To be honest, it was a gamble. But I’ve never been able to refuse a chance at crashing hard and bursting into flames.

Right. And my boss was there. For a pre-tenure evaluation and write-up. So. Now was clearly the time to try something absolutely new.

And this new path required them to trust me. To imagine with me. To dare.

And they were afraid.

I could picture them standing at the edge of a pool, wearing floaties, shivering as I swam around and tried to get them to hop into the water. How were they supposed to know whether I’d drown them and laugh an evil laugh?

So I gently reassured them of my own past behavior, my consistent affection for them, and they began to speak. As we reviewed the easiest themes to find – inherent human dignity, being made in the image of God – I set myself to reinforcing their feelings of safety and support. Rather than playing it straight, I announced my evil self’s counter-arguments with dramatic and absurd unreality. I swiftly took up their side the moment they offered anything, and I helped them to expand their claims.

It is hard to play with ideas. There is such risk in it, especially with the unspoken power of the teacher present and expectant. Failing does not seem like an option, or at least not a good one. Thus I worked to show them that my own power over them was bent toward helping them, even while such power was explicitly on the table for our consideration.

We shuffled through von Hildebrand’s various illuminating themes, through his memories of the people he knew, the fellow Catholics who surrendered their minds to the thoughts of the day.

Aware that we had danced around the most obvious objections to the Nazis, I posed a further problem: the seniors, desperate to graduate and therefore not to fail, had formed a bloc of sympathizers. They worked to placate their depraved professor, had plans to blame someone for the stolen exam so they could be free. What, then, must the class do?

Von Hildebrand suddenly revealed himself to them as a careful dismantler of elusive rationalizations, as a man bent on unmasking lies. Beneath the stable face of National Socialism, even very early in its rise, he saw a terrifying and nihilistic will to power. He saw power without reason, without value. No value he could call real. Appeasing the beast meant offering one’s soul for consumption. Von Hildebrand couldn’t bear it, and indeed was driven from Germany because of his lectures.

The class could not safely appease their evil professor. It was clear, after all, that I wasn’t interested in them in the least. I gently assured them that I wasn’t, softened the fiction further with a small grin. Power in itself, power loved for itself, is insatiable and cruel.

At this a new silence arose. A fumbling awareness that there was a problem without a clear solution. I could see their minds racing, fighting to catch on something, anything.

I closed my eyes, lifted my chin. “I’m picturing… That everything is in black and white. Somehow. And we’re all in Victorian clothing for some reason. It’s grim.” I opened my eyes to laughter.

A student suddenly added, “And you’re wearing a hat.” Then another: “We’ve all got gloves on. And dark make-up.”

“Oh, wonderful,” I said, nodding. “Now that we’ve got it all pictured, let’s think again.”

I remember how terrifying a professor’s knowledge could be. How it seemed so vast and so unassailable. It loomed like some massive invisible mountain, glittering behind their eyes. Threat more than treasure.

So we worked together to unhinge the hungry teeth of amoral power.

A student began to insist that it was the imaginary TA who did everything. It wasn’t any of them. Just that crafty TA. She was sure of it. I liked that. It highlighted the arbitrariness of my fictional actions.

Luckily for me, or perhaps un-luckily, a student with whom I am very close decided to make an appearance. He sprints around on campus on a little scooter, as walking is difficult for him. He’s not at all in that class of mine. Grinning, he sped into the classroom and halted at my side.

“Alex!” I said without missing a beat. “We’re trying to figure out how to stop me from committing a terrible act of professor-ing against everyone in the class. Glad you’re here.” Alex nodded. I turned to the class. “The seniors have decided to offer up a sacrificial lamb to me, and I’ll subject that person to lectures on pythagorean number mysticism. Alex, you are that victim. You’re not even in the class.”

Giggles echoed in the room. Alex accepted his grim fate with brave grace. He kept trying to lie and say that he did it, that everything is okay now, and I kept telling him to stop it. He offered to take the punishment anyway. I scowled at him and said he was ruining everything.

Alternate realities have a way of battling each other in imaginary games. So, too, in the real world. We can sometimes see the world with vastly different imaginations. But those offered realities are not of equal value. Von Hildebrand insisted that National Socialism was a fiction, that it wasn’t even German, was laughably and ironically un-German. It wasn’t real. It could only pretend, and had to scream and punish to get others to follow along. There was no joy or play; there was no wide space made from values.

So we came to the profound crisis of von Hildebrand’s life. It wasn’t a crisis in the sense that he wasn’t sure what to do. He was very sure. He saw it clearly. He didn’t mind the cost, and his wife was at his side. It was a crisis because of what it revealed, what it unmasked. The terrible insight that offered the clear decision.

I know that underneath my gentleness there is a certain ferocity, and it surfaces in subtle and striking ways. Though diminutive and soft-spoken, I can command a classroom without raising my voice. I am fully able to intimidate. Students are aware, and seem sensitive to how I use the skill.

We talked, then, about poor Alex – who was not being helpful – and what really ought to be done, and what was really very wrong about my evil self. I had claimed that my actions were perfectly within my rights, even if I couldn’t be sure who had done what I said, even if I clearly didn’t mind accepting an accusation against a student who wasn’t in the class, even if I obviously cared nothing for the goodness their very existence demands of me. We’ve all heard stories of mean professors. My kind are famous for it. That’s what a real professor is: intellective command.

I leaned back against the board. “Is that really the case, class? Am I using my power, my very real power over you, in a way that a real professor should? No, not at all. Not in the slightest, famous stories and stereotypes be damned. I’m here to help you learn, and nothing I have done in this scenario has even remotely helped you learn anything. Perhaps you’ve learned to be afraid. What must we do as we watch Alex, as we are faced with a decision, as we are given an impossible choice between guilty freedom and our own suffering?”

I had them look at the page in which von Hildebrand recalls his response to a German census that forced its citizens to name whether they were Aryan or non-Aryan. Von Hildebrand was so furious and disgusted at the very question that he checked “non-Aryan.” The Third Reich was apoplectic, and it was good he was in Rome rather than in Germany then.

Quiet for a moment, I looked at my students. “Sometimes,” I said, voice low, “we must refuse the test itself. We must reject the very question, the very terms. ‘No, professor,’ you must say, though it might not end well. ‘You are not being a professor. We will not surrender one of us, and you must not, are never allowed, to hurt us simply because you can.’ Sometimes you’ve got to say No to the whole thing.”

I left my class with this thought, hoping that we had imagined ourselves into reality. Hoping that we had divested myself of power, and consecrated it back into my hands to be wielded for goodness and truth alone.

And, faced with a frightening impossible, would that we all had strength enough to refuse its terms.

Why I Play You Music (A Letter To My Students)

The chanson “Belle, bonne, sage” by Baude Cordier

Pay attention. This is, above all else, what I want you to learn to do. Pay attention to your experiences, which are fierce with richness you have not begun to understand.

A Jesuit named Bernard Lonergan taught me this, though I have not taught you about him. There is much that I intend for you in hidden ways, and much that I never intend to teach you at all. You will never know everything, and I will never be able to give you everything. We both need to get used to that.

So pay attention. It will teach you more than any book, course, or professor can.

Music teaches us many things about paying attention. Any song, any song at all, will entice us into attention we tend not to offer to the world: all music immerses us in the secret elements of sound and silence. Especially good music.

Yes, there is good music. And bad.

But I’ll not push that point too hard. We are, all of us, rather afraid of acknowledging universal values – especially when it comes to what is beautiful. So let us leave that thought where it is, ghosting the periphery from what is really the heart.

Music is beautiful (kalon). This means it calls (kalein) us to itself with the gentle force of which only the beautiful is capable: only beauty attracts us in ways we follow willingly. Like a soft sound that turns our heads. Like a beautiful face that halts us in our steps. Like sudden sunlight through a window. We experience the intrusion of beauty without any violence: we welcome its call to move out of ourselves (ekstasis, ecstasy).

Here, students, I have all at once gestured toward Greek philosophy, Christian mysticism, and theological aesthetics. Entire worlds of thought and experience for which we do not have the time. There are many doors to many worlds. I hope that you find all of them.

We have a natural sympathy for music. We love it without questioning our love for it, and this is rare in our age. Hold on to music, then, and listen to its hold on you: the grip of felt chords, the unbidden press of memories, the touch of layered notes. Only music is able to bear more than one sound at once; only music can mimic speech without words; only music can withstand multiple measured times. And these are multiplicities that you are able to hear and know without acknowledging any of it. These are experiences you know how to make sense of without being taught.

Music is only heard in its playing. Even to remember it is not really to experience it. Unlike almost any form, music reaches us from a place of irreducible freedom: we cannot control it, though we might try to delude ourselves, because it only comes to us when it is offered and never otherwise. A painting can be examined for a small eternity, and long after its artist has died. So also with poems, books, plays. But a song will remain notes on a page, or dormant patterns of grooves, or programmed digital silence until it is played. (Perhaps dance is this way, too, but dance relies on music – even if that music rests only in the unspoken metric space of the dancers.)

What music teaches us about our attention is that our capacity is always receptive to more than one reality even if that reality appears single and entire. It teaches us that we are not the architects of most, if not all, of our reality. That this lack of control is not a threat, that we love this lack and yearn for more of it. That we can share the same experience – as when we all listen to the same song – and that it comes to us differently while remaining the same.

This bears repeating: we can receive the same thing differently, and it remains both the same and different.

We can share – identically and uniquely – at the same time.

This is fundamental to our existence, and for the most part goes on unnoticed. But I want you to notice it. Pay attention to it: the coexistence of the unrepeatable and the repeatable. The communicated and the incommunicable.

We have been talking about God together. About the Christian God, the one who – it is believed – became one of us. This is several kinds of impossible, this claim. Unless we learn from music.

The absolutely unique God became just like us. We have studied how Christians believe this accomplishes two things all at once: it affects absolutely all of us through what is never to be repeated again, and it achieves what we could not by embracing what we can. This strange coincidence of total uniqueness with comprehensive effectiveness is peculiar to Christianity, and to Christianity alone. It makes sense or nonsense of the whole religion.

How does this one man change the fate of every human being? How does his singular experience of history shift all of history? And how does his unique command of our destiny resist collapsing the rest of us into itself? We have to, somehow, be really capable of receiving what is singular without the destruction of ourselves, and we have to be really capable of receiving that unique singular without a change to it. Jesus must be the same for all, reaching all, so that God is “all in all” (1Cor 15:28), and he must be always himself while we are always ourselves.

It is music, you see. Divine freedom reaches us like music: singular and complete. Coming to us differently while remaining the same, through the capacities we already possess in order to speak words we do not know. Our very flesh becomes the instrument by which God welcomes us to what we are not: Himself.

It is simple and not at all simple. All I want you to learn, to really learn, is how to pay attention. Attend without guessing what will arrive to you. Attend without insisting what should. Attend without thinking you understand. There is music we have not heard, hidden everywhere in what we hear already.