Tag Archives: Teaching

Catholic Liberal Education

It is interesting to hear these people, parents and teachers, talk about Catholic liberal education:

For years, beginning long before we became Catholic, we began to homeschool our children (which also meant homeschooling ourselves). After several years we got connected and involved with an educational program called Classical Conversations founded by Leigh Bortins. It is an excellent program, and I would encourage anyone interested in homeschooling to take a close look at what it has to offer. It is not Catholic, but it is basically Christian, and in many ways basically orthodox for Catholics. I also had the privilege of writing the first draft of the science chapter in Leigh Bortin’s book The Question. And I spent a year with Andrew Kern of Circe Institute studying Homer, Plato, Shakespeare and more. Kern is another significant voice in the classical education movement. As a family we are committed to the idea of a Christian classical education for our children and ourselves. In short, we know something about what a classical approach to education offers, and how it is a kind of corrective, even a profound and radical challenge, to the prevalence of the typical anti-human modern education of our society.

The kind of education discussed in the video above follows the classical education model — at least it has a similar mindset. In fact, I believe one can say that a truly Catholic, a truly classical, and a truly liberal education are all the same if understood from a biblically and anthropologically truthful understanding.

I wish there was Catholic Classical Education in our area — whether for homeschooling like the Classical Conversations program, or a more formal brick & mortar school. The local Catholic schools in our area, though having the reputation of being a little bit better quality than the local government schools, are definitely not classical — and therefore not nearly as Catholic as they believe themselves to be. Actually, at their core they are modernist with some Catholic veneer. Our eldest went for two years at the local Catholic high school and it was a bust. I feel sorry, in a sense, for the faculty and administration at that school. They are products of our modern Catholic culture, meaning they are modernist and American before they are Catholic.

They also are inheritors of the post Vatican II reality. Take away all the nuns and religious who used to be the teachers (because the draining of religious from the Church) and you now have to hire “professionals,” which leads the double whammy of much higher salaries, and therefore higher tuitions, and modernist thinking. In that sense, these Catholic schools too often represent the anti-human educational philosophy more than they realize. Into those schools come students from any family who can afford to pay, which means they are no longer serving the local Catholic community, most of whom cannot afford the tuition. This produces a student body of only about half Catholic. And of the Catholics, only about a third actually believe the tenets of the Church. (Hopefully the numbers are better in your area.) This situation has produced a “Catholic education” system that is not truly Catholic, certainly not classical, basically a poorer education than its reputation warrants.

God bless the folks in the video above who recognize the need for truly Catholic education, and the blessings that follow.

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Teaching like Saint Paul

My wife and I chose to homeschool our children. This immediately placed upon us the need to have a plan on how we would do this. Consequently we faced the question of what method or approach should we chose. We ended up with what is commonly called Christian Classical Education, an approach we think is best, but we have been open to other ideas, and have tried to enter into a dialectical process with other homeschoolers and educators on this topic. We also looked to the Bible to see what we might find there, and to Saint Paul, one of the Church’s greatest evangelists and theologians, we naturally turned.

I published a version of this essay several years ago. I feel it is worth republishing again, with slight modifications.

Bartolomeo_Montagna_-_Saint_Paul_-_Google_Art_Project

I doubt if Saint Paul ever developed a detailed educational foundation or curriculum or program in the way that we might today. He may have thought about the right approach in some formal way as he spread the Gospel, but he certainly didn’t lay one out in his letters.  And I doubt he ever founded a school (of course, if he did I doubt he would have used the word “classical” in its name). But still, as I ponder what Christian Classical Education is or might be, I wonder what Paul would contribute towards a philosophy of education. Without trying to turn this into an overwhelming project for which I am unprepared, I want to briefly look at only two verses from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. He writes in Philippians 4:8-9:

(ESV) Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

(RSVCE) Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

(KJV) Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

[Note: I’m providing three common translations to help give a broad sense of the passage.]

Consider St. Paul’s list:

  • What is true
  • What is honorable/honest
  • What is just
  • What is pure
  • What is lovely
  • What is commendable/gracious/of good report
  • What is excellent/virtuous
  • What is worthy of praise

What do we do with such a list? (Imagine going to your local school board and proposing that the district’s curriculum be revamped to begin with this list. Ha! I dare you.)

And then about this list St. Paul says to think about these things.

To think. In the minds of our modern educators, and most of the rest of us, thinking is almost tantamount to doing nothing. Ever see someone thinking? What are they doing? On the outside they are often quite still, maybe staring into the distance. In effect, they are doing nothing. And yet, they are doing a great deal. Now if they are not thinking alone, not staring placidly off into space, then they are probably in dialogue with someone. But a true dialogue can seem to be unfocused and wandering, which is also antithetical to teaching in the modern sense.

Our modern education system is partially based on a sense of urgency–we cannot afford to waste time with thinking when we have so much knowledge to get into those little brains. We have become slaves to the bullet-pointed list. It is a system that must swap dialogue with lecture. The material must be covered, we cannot slow down, and then slow down some more. But this modern system denies the existence of the human soul and its mysterious needs and movements. Is that what we want?

Paul says to think about these things.

What is thinking? I know nothing about the brain as a subject of scientific study. I know there are chemicals and electrical impulses involved, but more than that? I know nothing. However, I gather thinking is a mystery of our minds, of our humanity. I use the word mystery because I doubt science can ever, truly plumb the depths and workings of thinking. Thinking is a mystery because it is a force of great power that seems to have no substance, no true existence, no way to completely contain it and control it as a totality. We can guide it, use it, encourage it, welcome it, and share it, sometimes even fear it, but we cannot entirely subdue it. To think is to ponder, to wonder, to suppose, to engage, to meditate. More importantly, thinking is to take an idea into oneself, into one’s soul, and turn it over and over and make it one’s own, or to reject it in favor of another.

So then we ponder and wonder, suppose and engage, meditate and bring into our souls

  • What is true
  • What is honorable/honest
  • What is just
  • What is pure
  • What is lovely
  • What is commendable/gracious/of good report
  • What is excellent/virtuous
  • What is worthy of praise

Can you think of any better education? I can’t.

Paul could have left it there, but he goes on. He writes, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me…” Don’t pass over this. Consider that Paul is able to confidently write that the Philippians have directly experienced him in such a way that they have:

  • learned from Paul
  • received from Paul
  • heard from Paul
  • seen in Paul

This list is somewhat cryptic, but I think we can get a glimpse into how Paul was a teacher. First the Philippians learned from Paul. He saw himself as a teacher. He had intention. He knew what he wanted to teach them. And he taught them thoroughly enough, with enough feedback, to know that they learned. He is confident of that. Then he says they have received. This implies a giving, a handing over, and a taking in. There was something that he left with them, something they now have. He can write to them because he knows they have what he gave. In this sense they are more like Paul than they were before. One of the primary goals of the classical educator is that his pupils will one day become his colleagues. The Philippians are now colleagues of Paul; they have something that Paul has, something he gave them and they received.

Third he says they heard from him. Teaching often involves speaking and hearing, but sometimes we forget what a gift is language. If you are like me then you love Paul’s letters, but you would really love to hear him speak, to ask him questions, to sit at his feet, to get into a deep dialogue with him over beers. Paul engaged their minds as God intended, as their minds were designed to function, by using language. We sometimes hear that apocryphal story of St. Francis exhorting his followers to preach Christ at all times and, when necessary, use words. There’s a valuable lesson in that story, but Paul was not afraid to use words right up front. Preaching Christ requires using words. Speaking to another also requires presence. Paul was with the Philippians, in person, in the flesh; they heard his voice, knew its sound, picked up on nuances of meaning in the subtleties of his voice and body language. To hear in this way, that is, to listen to ideas spoken, is a profoundly human experience. We do not know if the Philippians heard Paul because he formally preached to them, or lectured them, or led them in Socratic dialogue, or engaged in casual conversation, but they heard.

Finally, and this may be the most important, they saw. Paul presented himself as an example. He lived what he taught. Or better yet, he embodied the logos. The Gospel, the good news of Christ, the content that Paul taught, handed over, and spoke, was also visible in his life and actions. Paul could rightly say, “look at me.” The best teachers embody the logos.

Can we find more about how Paul taught? Yes, I’m sure we can. But just from these two verses we get something of great depth. We find that Paul, with confidence, can say the Philippians

  • learned from Paul
  • received from Paul
  • heard from Paul
  • saw in Paul

And what did they learn?

  • What is true
  • What is honorable/honest
  • What is just
  • What is pure
  • What is lovely
  • What is commendable/gracious/of good report
  • What is excellent/virtuous
  • What is worthy of praise

From this alone we can know that Paul was a master teacher in the fullest Christian Classical model. How this will look in your own teaching will be unique, but there is no better foundation that I can find.

And then Paul writes:

“…practice these things…”

Paul both taught in person and was writing to the Philippians with an Ideal Type in mind, that is the complete or perfect Christian, that is Christ. Christ is the logos. We are Christians and therefore seek to embody the logos in our lives. It is not enough to merely find the idea of the Ideal Type good or fascinating or excellent. One must put it into practice. To practice is to work and persevere at imitation, it is a form of becoming. To imitate is to behold, to embrace, to take into one’s being and seek to embody the Ideal Type in one’s life and actions. True knowledge is, in this sense, incarnational. It has a form. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” To put on Christ implies that when others look at us they see Christ. Ideas have consequences. Others will know us by our fruits, which are visible signs of an inner reality. Are we putting into practice these things?

David Hicks wrote: “To produce a man or woman whose life conforms to the Ideal in every detail is education’s supremely moral aim.” (Norms and Nobility, p. 47) Is this not also the passion of Paul, that the Philippians live’s would conform to the Ideal of Christ in every detail? And how are the Philippians to do this?

“…practice these things…”

Now, if you haven’t noticed, I have not defined what Christian Classical Education is or how to do it. Partly this is tactical; I don’t have a clear answer. On the other hand I will offer a quote from Andrew Kern:

Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty so that the student is better able to know and enjoy God.

I cannot think of a better, more fundamental description of what a Christian Classical Education is all about. There is a lot in there, and a lot of room for developing strategies of teaching, but if this is what we are aiming for, if this is what we are building on, if this is our longing, then consider again the words of Saint Paul:

(ESV) Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

(RSVCE) Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

(KJV) Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

Do that and the God of peace will be with you.

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Homeschooling and the World

We homeschool. This puts in a strange place within our society — a good place I believe, but not always understood. I wrote this piece below, in a slightly different form, several years ago (before we entered the Catholic Church) in response to a tendency I see within the homeschooling world, and which I feel is still relevant today.

There is a trend within the subculture of homeschooling* that is based, in large part, upon separation from society at large. This makes some sense. Homeschoolers are often defined, to a large degree, as people who want to pull their children out of mainstream society and protect them from “the world.” Certainly not all homeschoolers are this way, and I hope we are not, but it has some appeal given the many troubles this world presents.

Recently we attended a Christian homeschooling conference. As you might imagine we saw all kinds of Christians, from the young hip couple with their cool glasses and lattes to the families with 6+ children all wearing 19th century prairie outfits. The conference had numerous speakers and work sessions. One of the keynote speakers struck me as the kind of homeschooling parent I don’t want to be. I don’t mean to be unduly harsh, and I only heard the one talk (or I should say over-the-top performing-preacher show talk), but I was encouraged by his talk to more clearly define an aspect of why we homeschool and why some of our reasons stand in contradiction to his.

He began by lauding his father for taking his family to an island away from “the world” and homeschooling them. In other words, our keynote speaker was raised on an island cut off from the taint and spoilage of the wider world. He went on to say that that was a great thing and we should not be afraid to separate our children from the world on “islands” where they can be protected and safe. If you are like me you might be chafing at this idea, but it is not unwarranted, and I want to give the idea its due.

This world we live in is most certainly full of may horrible things — war, famine, crime, and all kinds of ugliness. There are also many competing ideas that challenge one’s own beliefs. A Christian parent who is interested in their children knowing God as they themselves know God may want to protect their children from those competing ideas for as long as possible. The same goes for any parent who has a worldview to which they cling. I can understand the desire to keep one’s children away from the corrosive influence of the world. To do so feels like being responsible, and in some cases it certainly is. So I know where our keynote speaker is coming from. I know that feeling. But there is more to the picture.

The concept of “the world” is a big deal in Christian teaching. Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world. John the Apostle said “Do not love the world nor the things in the world.” Paul the Apostle said “do not be conformed to this world.” There is a lot more to be said, and I do not intend to unpack the biblical concept of “the world” here, but most Christians know there is this thing called the world which they must avoid in some way. Christian homeschoolers might see pulling their kids out of public school as pulling them out of the world. Christian families who move to the country far from urban areas may believe they are removing themselves from the world in some meaningful way. Certainly to raise one’s family on an island would feel like the world is far away and one’s family is safe.

However, when John says “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world,” we see that the world is not so much a physical entity as it is a heart condition or a spirit. Also, when Jesus said, “While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world,” it appears his intention was not fleeing the world but to bring it light. Elsewhere in scripture Christ followers are called to be light in the world and salt of the earth. And when we read that “God so loved the world that he gave us His son,” we get the idea that our stance towards the world may not be so simple. We may not be able to separate ourselves from the world as easily as we think for “lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life” comes with us wherever we go, even to an island. Also, we cannot be light or salt to the world if we decide to have nothing to do with the world. And we certainly cannot love the world as God loves the world if our stance is to flee the world which, as we have seen, may not be so easy anyway.

At that homeschoolers conference it became clear that the world could be seen most clearly in such things as 1) cities, 2) public schools, 3) government, and 4) anything other than far right politics. If one didn’t know better one could conclude that homeschooling is all about 1) getting out of the city to the country – a kind of “back to the garden” idea, 2) avoiding any kind of public education, including any education or activities that has public monies attached to it, such as a city funded soccer league, 3) having nothing to do with government or public service unless it is to defend against liberals who want to impose laws on homeschooling, and 4) assuming a political stance and championing the values of such organizations as the Christian Coalition. I may be taking a somewhat extreme critical view here, but I honestly don’t think so. This is what I see coming from much of the Christian homeschool subculture and from our keynote speaker.

But those reasons are not our reasons.

One of the great blessings of Christian truth is the incredible freedom we have. As we love God and His values we find ourselves marveling at this world He created. This world of His includes all that we find, including the incredible variety of humanity and human creativity. We might and should grieve at the evil we see in the world, but we should also love the world. We should love the cities and the arts and the culture and the governments. Wisdom dictates that we do not love folly or evil or rebellion against God. On the other hand this world is full of God’s creative work, it is His sovereignty manifest in all things everywhere, and this world is full of the people He loves – which includes all people. We have the freedom to engage in this world head on. We also have the opportunity to be light and salt. This opportunity is a great privilege. As a parent I can choose to model light and salt, or I can model the act of withdrawal.

Another great blessing is that because I know God is sovereign I can engage in this world without fear. I can live in the city or in the country, work in private business, ministry, government, or public schools, listen to Christian or secular music, visit art galleries and museums, watch popular movies, and even drink, smoke, play cards and occasionally cuss, without fear. If Jesus is my example then I can eat dinner with the most worldly people. If Paul’s theology is correct then I can eat meat sacrificed to idols. Wisdom, and the pursuit of holiness will dictate how I live, and so will my consideration the weaker brother (and I too am a weaker brother), so I may choose not to do some or most of these things at times, or ever, but there is no need for fear. But I must say that having no fear is not the same as not being scared. A man may say he is not scared of the world, and that may be true, but he may still live in fear of the world. To take one’s family away from the world and live on an island because the world is a bad place is to live in fear of the world.

We are to fear God, not the world. Our battles are not with flesh and blood, but against evil spiritual powers — sin and Satan. And it is God who fights our battles. Our greatest weapons are faith, love, and prayer.

There is another kind of separation — the separation through ideology and stereotypes. On our keynote speaker’s website promoting his daily radio program he touts the following: “There are no psychiatrists, professional counsellors [sic], bureaucrats, and seminary professors. But you will find fathers, mothers, grandparents, pastors, and friends.” Other than spelling counselors wrong this quote says a lot. There is an attitude within some quarters of Christianity that sees psychiatrists, professional counselors, bureaucrats, and seminary professors — along with scientists, social workers, and anyone from Hollywood — as being other than fathers, mothers, grandparents, pastors, and friends. Not only is this a wrongly prejudiced perspective more indicative of a passionate narrow-mindedness than of wisdom, it is also a perspective indicative of fear. There has always been a class of persons who claim victim status though they are not victims in a meaningful sense. This class is also easily manipulated by those who point to the educated, or those in government, or big city dwellers, or those in the entertainment industry, as the victimizers. Some politicians can be quite good at doing this, and so are many preachers. Our keynote speaker not only claims the victim status but uses his talents to fan the flames of fear. Fear thrives in the world of stereotypes. And just like the religious leader who prays to God, thanking God that he is not like other people, we can all fall prey to a profound blindness. What we see in Jesus is someone hanging out with the sinners. We see someone not only reaching out to everyone, but doing so without fear, and not drawing lines between himself and the rest of humanity. And, ironically, it is the religious leaders — the upstanding citizens, moral agents, family lovers, Bible teachers — who criticized Jesus for just such activities.

Where does this leave us? Our confusion, like so much in Christianity, is to make the wrong distinctions and then fall into the pit of false religion and self-righteousness. We confuse the world with superficial distinctions as “psychiatrists, professional counselors, bureaucrats, and seminary professors” rather than with a heart rooted in “lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life.” The world, in this bad spiritual sense, is as much alive and thriving within Christianity as it is anywhere else. When it comes to worldliness there is often no distinction between the Hollywood movie star and the megachurch pastor. In fact we bring the world with us wherever we go, wherever there is humanity, even into the nuclear family unit (a modern entity that, arguably, is the source of many problems in comparison to the traditional large extended family living and working together — but this is not the place to dive into that subject). Only through the grace of God do we have any hope to be free of the world — and that freedom can come to a professional counselor/psychiatrist working for a government agency while moonlighting at a seminary and living downtown in the biggest city as it can come to the man barricading his family against the evils of the world in some distant wilderness. Grace be to God for our hope and freedom.

But what about my charge as a parent? It is one thing to be an adult confronting the ugliness of this world, it is another for a child. As a parent I must protect my children when appropriate. I must also guide them in wisdom. I would rather my children face into the harshness of reality, guided by my example, sometimes stumbling and struggling, but learning to see themselves for who they truly are and learning to love others where they are. I also want my children to grow up without fear. If we can walk through this life together, confronting the variety of human experience and choice, and do so hand in hand, I think my children might have a decent chance of knowing good from evil, of learning humbleness, of appreciating all that God has created, and learning that goodness comes not so much from trying to avoid the stain of the world as turning to God in genuine repentance. We have come to realize that fleeing the world and taking one’s family to an island, even if those actions are clothed in the finest Christian robes of piety, could very well be an act of rebellion against God. Not necessarily, but could be.

This is one reason we homeschool, and we do so within a city context, and we listen to all kinds of music and study all kinds of art, and we are interested in politics beyond narrow “Christian” agendas, and we appreciate MLK and Gandhi, and we appreciate revised histories when they offer clarity and truth, and we don’t believe one can homeschool true faith into any child, for faith is ultimately a gift of the Holy Spirit. And we also don’t think we’ve got it all right. All we can do is move forward in humbleness (which also is a gift), looking to God for grace and mercy, and seeking goodness the best we can.


* Like many different elements of our society, homeschoolers represent a kind of subculture. However, it would be incorrect to think of it as a single or homogeneous subculture. At best it is a subculture of subcultures, and may be better described as an eclectic group of families that have a rather unique similarity regardless, and sometimes in spite, of their many dissimilarities.

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Modern Times: Camille Paglia & Jordan B Peterson

This is one of the most interesting and intense conversations I have ever witnessed. Jordan Peterson has received a significant amount of attention of late for his views, and in particular for an interview he did on television. Camille Paglia has been well known for years and is frequently outspoken on a number of topics. Both are absolutely brilliant and provocative. This video is easily worth its nearly two hours running time.

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Remembering a teacher

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My daughter Wilder Rose speaking of her music teacher and the joys he gave her, and her sorrow of losing such a good and fine teacher.

A couple of weeks ago my kids music teacher died. He was a brilliant, generous, uniquely gifted man who was loved by many people and many families in and beyond our town. He was primarily a percussionist who played in various bands, played many other instruments than drums, taught numerous students over the years, and also handbuilt wooden canoes.

A year ago we purchased a traditional drum kit for our son who was 6 years old at the time. We began looking for a drum teacher. This man came highly recommended. We had some worries because our son is young and prone to fidgetiness (some might say he’s a touch ADHD). However, this teacher was perfect for our son, working with his natural tendencies, and helping him discover the music within him. Then he offered to add our daughter for just a few dollars more. So we bought her a guitar. Our daughter is deeply musical and sings, plays piano and fiddle, and has great natural gifts in music. But as she began guitar something beautiful began to happen. Suddenly her musically talent blossomed like it had not before.

This man, a musician, husband, and wonderful teacher, gave my children, and our family, the gift of himself. After he died we cried and cried, and then we began to discover just how much he meant to so many other people in our community. Today we went to a memorial geared more towards his students, who are mostly kids. There was a drum circle, sharing, tears, laughter, and good fellowship.

The world needs more teachers like him. His loss, as is the loss of any human being’s life, is very significant, but our community also lost a special teacher. We also lost a wonderful musician.

As a Christian I know that this life is not the end. I know that death is the severing of one’s soul from one’s body, and that someday they shall be reunited. The memorial only addressed this sense of continuation in terms of us remembering him and carrying with us what he put into us through his teaching and his person–which is no small thing. But I realize that our society today adds to the natural difficulty of dealing with the tragedy and sorrow of death the lack of deeper knowledge of God’s goodness and the ultimate end in which we are made share.

I pray for his soul. I pray that God will have mercy on him, and bestow His graces upon his soul, if only for the generosity, kindness, and love he showed my kids.

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Excellent deep dive lecture series on Vatican II; what it was, and what it means

This is one of the best (probably the best) series of lectures on Vatican II that I have come across.

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St. Mary Catholic Church Sanctuary Project: Thoughts Towards an Understanding of the Proper Placement of the High Altar and Tabernacle in the Church Sanctuary

Context: This is a paper I wrote to explore the re-establishment of the tabernacle and high altar in its rightful place in the sanctuary for a particular Catholic church in Eugene, Oregon. I wrote it for myself, but then gave it to a friend who has passed it along to our parish priest. I don’t know if he has read it. In one way it is an argument, but it’s really a means for me to teach myself about this subject and related church architecture concerns. I welcome feedback as to its content. I could be very off-base, or factually wrong at points. It’s very long for a blog post, but it is originally a paper after all. All inaccuracies are my own.

 

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[Note: Most of the images in this document are taken from the Internet without attribution. My apologies to their creators.]

Introduction

This paper is a personal exploration of how the location of the high altar and tabernacle at St. Mary Catholic Church in Eugene, Oregon fits into the mission and core values of the parish, and how moving the high altar and tabernacle back to the center of the sanctuary might contribute to the fulfillment of the Church’s mission and better align with its core values.

We must also recognize the topic itself is not without controversy. Any discussion of proper liturgy and church design is loaded with recent historical baggage and fraught with competing perspectives. This is neither an unemotional nor a non “political” topic. Nor is it without legitimate debate (far beyond the boundaries of this paper). This paper seeks to avoid the debate and merely argue one perspective.

We might also consider these words from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) in his book “The Spirit of the Liturgy:”

Ultimately, it is the very life of man, man himself as living righteously, that is the true worship of God, but life only becomes real life when it receives its form from looking toward god. Cult exists in order to communicate this vision and to give life in such a way that glory is given to God.

Thus our first focus is on Christ and living righteously, and secondarily on Church architecture and specifics of liturgy. Our unity as the Church must first be based in love: our mutual love for Christ and our love for each other. Nonetheless, God has built within us both the calling for and the necessity of “cult,” and He has created us with a nature that we all universally share. Questions of proper worship are both a natural outpouring of our nature and ourselves before God, and have been with us since the beginning of creation. Let us seek right worship, and may that seeking not become a source of disunity.

St. Mary’s (full name: St. Mary, Our Lady of the Presentation, Catholic Church) is an important Church in the Eugene/Springfield metro area. This is true not only because it represents the oldest and most centrally located Catholic parish in the city of Eugene, but also because the church building itself is the most visibly recognizable Catholic structure in the area. Thus it plays a unique role in calling Catholics to worship and proclaiming the Gospel to the community. The building stands as a Catholic witness to the community. This witness is perhaps even more important to the members of the parish who are buffeted on all sides by challenges to their faith.

Some historical background

Catholic missionaries first arrived in what is now the Eugene/Springfield area as early as the 1850’s. They came at the request of Catholics working in the region with the Hudson Bay Company. The first Catholic Mass ever held in the Willamette Valley was celebrated in 1839 by Fr. François Norbert Blanchet (later the first Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oregon City, now known as the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon) at the church in St. Paul. The Eugene parish was officially established in 1887. It is interesting to consider how pioneering these individuals were.

During this period the region was still very much the wild frontier. Eugene was first named Eugene City in 1850, after Eugene Skinner, who arrived in the area in 1846. Population growth continued quickly apace, and the Catholic community also grew side-by-side with the larger Protestant community.

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The first notable Catholic Church building in Eugene was at the corner of 11th and Willamette streets. The building was originally a Methodist church, then purchased and converted to a Catholic church under the direction of Fr. Francis S. Beck (pastor from 1887-1894).

As the Catholic community began to increase in size, there was the need for a larger church building, and greater facilities for a parish school and other parish activities. Property was purchased two blocks away from the original location at what is now the current location at 11th and Charnelton streets.

The current church building was completed and dedicated in October of 1927 (90 years ago as of this writing). The construction was overseen by Fr. Edwin V. O’Hara (pastor from 1920-1929, later appointed Bishop of Great Falls, MT, then Kansas City, KS).

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The current building was designed according to a modified Gothic style prevalent of American Catholic churches built during that era. The Church was designed by Joseph Jacobberger (1869–1930), a Portland Architect who designed numerous buildings for the Archdiocese of Portland.

One natural benefit of such a stylistic choice is that the language of the Gothic style speaks clearly that this is a church and not something else. Gothic is certainly not the only architectural language proper to church design, but has consistently proven to be an excellent choice. [Note: every work of architecture conveys a message, sometime multiple, competing messages if the architecture is confused.]

Another benefit is that, if church architecture is a language of theological and liturgical form, then the design of a place of worship cannot help but have a significant effect on the formation of those who worship within her walls, including St. Mary’s. Poor church architecture will inherently lead to poorly formed worshipers or, at least, create an unnecessary hurdle in their formation. A church “in the round” conveys a different theology and a different conception of “the Church” than does a basilica form.

According to Michael S. Rose (author of “Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces ─ and How We can Change Them Back Again”), a Catholic church must follow three natural laws of architecture in order to be considered truly Catholic in terms of its architectural message:

  1. A Catholic Church Must Have Permanence
  2. A Catholic Church Must Have Verticality
  3. A Catholic Church Must Have Iconography

Fortunately, St. Mary Catholic Church has all three. Though not endowed with an abundance in any of these categories, it is a church that certainly embodies the principles of traditional church architecture, which is to say it speaks the language of Catholic worship through architectural form.

It is, in fact, the only church in this region that is somewhat close in structure to a traditional basilica in form. That alone makes it a unique and special place of worship and a witness to the community.

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The aerial views shows the traditional Latin Cross plan, with a long nave crossed by a transept. This is the only church in the Eugene Springfield metro area that follows such a traditional and historically important Catholic plan, thus linking it more closely to the to the Church throughout the centuries than any other local church in terms of its architecture in the area.

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Again, no other church in this region follows this identifiably Catholic, historical, traditional, and sacred plan. This is one reason St. Mary’s can be seen as a kind of “jewel” of Catholic worship (and even evangelization) set within the surrounding area ─ a building most decidedly not secular, and therefore a “sanctuary” from the secular. Just how much our society, both Christian and non-Christian, longs for such sanctuaries from the ravages of our modern world cannot be understated.

We know that many traditional Catholic churches went through design alterations beginning in the 1960’s, including removing the high altar, shifting the tabernacle to a side location, removal of altar rails and statues, painting over murals, carpeting wood and marble floors, and more. Although St. Mary’s experienced some of these changes, the overall architecture and traditional design elements of the building itself prevented many changes that might have otherwise altered the structure from its fundamental purpose as a place properly suited to the worship of Christ, who is our king and lord.

We also know that the often repeated perception is that these kinds of recent changes reflect the so-called “spirit of Vatican II.” However, careful attention reveals that such changes have either taken the stated dictates of the council too far, or have directly contradicted them. Regardless, it is arguable that the issue today is not about rehashing well worn debates, but about growth in holiness through authentic worship, and asking what kind of church design best supports that goal?

Traditional Catholic Church Design

As already mentioned, St. Mary’s follows fairly closely the traditional cruciform church design. This is a design developed over centuries, with deep roots in Jewish temple tradition, and designed to conform to Catholic theology, including a biblically rooted anthropology.

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Notice several obvious elements (so obvious they don’t really need to be pointed out):

  1. The floor plan is in the shape of a cross
  2. The sanctuary is clearly separate from the nave
  3. The altar is in line with the natural orientation of focus down the nave to the sanctuary
  4. The lectern and pulpit do not compete with the altar

Each of these elements arise from and contribute to the Church’s understanding of Christ, the Gospel, the nature of the Church, and the key characteristics of proper worship, and much more. The arguments in favor of traditional church design from a biblical and historical, not to mention phenomenological, perspective are numerous and easy to find. This is not the place to restate what has already been stated much better by many others.

What is important to say here, however, is that the call for a more traditional approach to church architecture is not a call for a slavish return to the past, nor is it merely a question of style or one personal preference over another, rather it is a call arising naturally from a proper understanding of worship rooted in Holy Scripture and Tradition. Though the past provides untold riches from which we can learn, the call is fundamentally to holiness. However, it is fascinating that again and again the pursuit of holiness (personally and corporately) leads us to rediscover what has been understood for centuries ─ that what we call traditional is also timeless.

Thus, we hear a call that looks to the past, yet is present with us today, and also looks toward the future. Though the Church allows for innumerable small variations in church architecture, significant deviations continue to fall by the wayside with each passing year as examples of poor theology, a faulty anthropology, and passing fashions ─ written, as it were, in stone, masonry, and wood.

Here is a newspaper clipping showing 1927 interior of St. Mary’s:

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The main altar was built by hand in Italy using Botticino marble, with a reredos of red Verona marble, and then carefully shipped to Eugene. Originally, a large crucifix was mounted above the altar and backed by a dark blue and gold brocade drape. The overall design had a simple elegance.

Notice the design was naturally suited to the traditional Tridentine Latin Mass (now Extraordinary Form) universally celebrated in that era (in fact for the preceding four centuries prior to the Mass of Paul VI promulgated in 1969) with the altar and reredos in the center and against the back wall of the sanctuary/apse, with the tabernacle also centered under the crucifix, and the altar rail for receiving communion and creating a clear separation between nave and sanctuary. The eye is naturally drawn to the altar, tabernacle, and crucifix at the same time.

Let us now consider one significant change to the interior design of St. Mary’s that was executed since Vatican II ─ the moving of the high altar and tabernacle to the side of the sanctuary. [Note: This author does not have any information as to the decision process and reasoning behind this particular move. It is assumed the decision merely followed the trends of those years following the council.]

St. Mary’s church interior today:

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At some point in the history of St Mary Catholic Church (late 1960’s?) the high altar and tabernacle were moved to the alcove in the right transept (or is it still part of the sanctuary? It is confusing). Also, the current altar was brought forward towards the nave in order to facilitate the versus populum orientation of the priest of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The large crucifix was lowered, and the wall behind the altar was painted gold. The original altar rail and baptismal gates, which had been crafted by hand, were removed altogether. The center aisle was also carpeted.

What appears to be marble flooring of the sanctuary in the 1927 photo, has now been replaced (perhaps only covered over?) with carpet and inexpensive tiles ─ neither of which are beautiful. This move most likely coincided with the liturgical beliefs of the post-council period that saw a need to emphasize there are no barriers between God and man, thus moving towards a sort of de-sacralizing of the sanctuary. Naturally this begins with moving the tabernacle out of the sanctuary.

Remember, all these moves have their origin in theological, ecclesiological, and liturgical debates that have occurred (even raged) from decades before Vatican II and continue today. It is not the focus of this paper to deal with those debates, but it is important to recognize that what might seem obvious to one Catholic can be a very different matter in the eyes of another.

Something to consider: It was not uncommon for Catholic churches to go through design changes over time. A church would be built with available funds and resources according to certain traditions and accepted norms. Later, perhaps decades or centuries later, more funds would be raised to finish work, or improve the design with mosaics and murals, statues, stained glass, pipe organs, a domed roof, and other expensive projects. Many of the world’s most beautiful churches and cathedrals look the way they do today because of centuries of incremental improvements as both resources and the desires of the faithful changed and grew. In this light, it is particularly ironic to think that just about the time when St. Mary’s might have gone through upgrades to enhance its traditional beauty, for example with beautiful murals on the sanctuary walls to enhance the call to worship the believer’s mind before Christ, or additional iconography throughout the building to reflect the deep theological riches of the Church, it is arguable that the church was instead “abused” according to the typical post-conciliar fashions of the time. Fortunately, for St. Mary’s the changes are relatively minor and easy to fix ─ and may even present opportunities for surpassing the original design with upgrades.

The high altar and tabernacle as it stands today in the right transept:

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As one can see, the high altar and tabernacle is not overly fancy and ornate (as compared to many others in older churches and cathedrals), but it is sufficiently beautiful to declare the glory and presence of Christ. In many ways it speaks well of the probably unsophisticated yet obviously deep faith of Catholics in Eugene circa 1927. It is also a link to our local forebearers who worked to build a proper Catholic place of worship and a presence within this community. These were, for the most part, humble people with limited funds. Most churches of the past, those we love for their timeless beauty, were built by poor immigrants for their communities because they knew the value of what they were doing.

It interesting to consider this particular altar being the focal point of Catholic worship for Eugene during the years of the Great Depression, the troubling years of World War II, Korean War, economic boom, and the vast changes wrought by those and other events. And then (arguably) only to be set to the side when the spirit of the 1960’s seem to demand a focus more on the people in the Church than on Christ ─ perhaps more “spirit of the world” than of the council? Is this argument fair? Many would say yes.

What might it look like to move the high altar and tabernacle back to its original location?

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This is an architect’s rendering of how the sanctuary would look like. Notice a few things:

  1. The change is both significant, yet simple.
  2. The high altar and tabernacle seem to fit well in the space. This is because they are now where there were originally designed to be. (Of course they fit.)
  3. The crucifix has to be raised to accommodate the altar’s height, but the change is minor, and may be a better placement as well.
  4. The focal point for those entering the Church is now where the eye naturally goes, and draws one into the worship space more naturally. (Of course that is where our Lord is.)
  5. There is a kind of “completeness” now in the church design, with the tabernacle being at the head of the cross (in this cruciform church plan) rather than in one of the arms (transept).
  6. When the church doors are open, one can now see the tabernacle from the street ─ a powerful visual drawing the gaze into a holy space.
  7. The sanctuary now looks more like a sanctuary ─ the holy of holies on earth in Catholic theology. (Though there is still more to do in this regard, re-centering the tabernacle is the most significant requirement.)
  8. It restores a more proper sense of glory for what should be a glorious place ─ a Catholic place of worship.
  9. The priest now has the option to celebrate Mass ad orientem if he so chooses.
  10. The priest now has the option to celebrate in the Extraordinary Form if he so chooses.
  11. …yet the priest can continue to celebrate in the Novus Ordo form without problem ─ assuming the current altar remains where it is, out front of the high altar. (I do not know what is proper with having two altars in the sanctuary.)
  12. There is now less confusion for non-Catholics in wondering why Catholics believe in the Real Presence yet put Him to one side. This is an evangelistic move. The same is true for Catholics. This is a New Evangelization move (perhaps its most significant contribution in today’s climate).

St. Mary Catholic Church in our community

One could argue there are several reasons that the St. Mary Catholic Church building plays an important role in the life of local and regional Catholics, as well as the community as a whole:

  1. It is located in Eugene, the second most populated city in Oregon, and near the University of Oregon, the largest university in Oregon.
  2. It is the oldest Catholic Church building in the area, and thus exudes a sense of substantiality and permanence.
  3. It is directly linked to the earliest Catholics in the region, and thus has a profound provenance and important place in local history.
  4. It was built in a modified Gothic style with connections to the Romanesque style, thus it proclaims its connections to Church history of centuries past.
  5. It is the one Catholic Church building in the region that looks most like a Catholic Church, thus functioning unambiguously, merely by its architecture, as a witness to the faith.
  6. It is the only Catholic Church in the area that has a traditional pipe organ (and perhaps a choir loft?). The organ dates to the 1927 erecting of the church ─ this alone is a special fact.

Let’s pause a moment and remember three key points:

  1. The true Church is not the building. Rather, we are the Church, the Body of our Lord. If we do not “embody” the Church in our lives and community, then no mere building will do that for us.
  2. The building itself is to first serve in the worship of believers. To put it crudely, the church building is a “tool” for worship, used by the faithful in their pursuit of holiness. We must remember that we are not considering architecture or church design except as it is related to our consideration of the Real Presence of Christ and our proper orientation towards Him.
  3. The church building only secondarily serves as a call to non-believers ─ regardless of how powerful that may be. The best evangelical witness is to be fully and unabashedly Catholic.

If we remember these points then we should be able to keep in balance our desires and decisions. And, of course, our motivations must first be for the Kingdom of God (and all these things will be added).

Looking a little closer at St. Mary’s and its parish life and commitments, we find the following:

Mission (from the website)

“St. Mary Catholic Church is a Sacramental community united in Christ, proclaiming God’s love through liturgy, prayer, education, and service to others.”

Comments: This mission will be seen and understood in how the Church body loves each other and those outside the Church. However, it will also be powerfully expressed and seen by how the Church body worships. These two things, worship of Christ and love of each other cannot be separated. Proper worship should lead to a better understanding of love, and our love should add to the depth of our worship. Even if many Catholics struggle with believing in the truth and power of the Sacraments (perhaps viewing them as mere symbols of their Catholic identity), the Church must believe and act in accordance with the truth. This is particularly crucial in regards to the Blessed Sacrament.

Core Values (the first two listed on website)

Tradition – We are a Eucharistic community committed to the sacred traditional liturgy, music, and sacraments of the Roman Catholic faith.

Education – We are a community dedicated to making available high quality religious education for all parishioners, returning Catholics, and those interested in the faith.

Comments: These values can be lived out best by actions that are expressions, and flow from, of a belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Any Church that claims such belief but acts contrary creates a tension in the hearts of both its members and those outside looking in. Though unfortunately minor in many eyes, placing the tabernacle in the center-back wall of the sanctuary (apse if it is a curved back wall) is a significant move towards expressing belief in the Real Presence. Placing it to the side is arguably an expression of diminished belief (at least outwardly) in this truly unfathomably powerful reality. Whether actual belief is diminished or not for a given individual member or priest of St. Mary’s, it is arguable the physical expression itself has no place in a Catholic Church. Start with the Real Presence and all else follows. (Consider this the passionate perspective of a Protestant, and formerly deeply anti-Catholic, now a convert to the Catholic Church who cannot live without the Real Presence.)

More thoughts on the mission

St. Mary’s is a Sacramental community, thus it places a strong emphasis on the fact that the sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.” (CCC 1113)

We know it is all too easy for any of us to take the sacraments for granted, and to treat them lightly and with less respect than is their due. We are sinners, after all. But doing so we deny ourselves the fruit of those sacraments because of receiving them with poor dispositions. We must be reminded, and remind each other, of what sacraments are, of how we should think of them, and of what our dispositions should be.

Lest we forget, or have not paid attention, and lest we fall into chronological snobbery, we should consider the centuries of liturgical practice and formulation that have come before us. Could it be that older forms do a better job of preparing us to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist? Although this is not the place for an historical unpacking, it can easily be noted that Church architecture and design, including such things as the historically traditional location of the altar and tabernacle, did not come about because of passing fashions, but because of thoughtful understanding in light of Christ’s commands, the traditions of the early Christians, deep examination of Holy Scripture, and a clearer (pre-modern) understanding of Human Nature. In the eyes of this author, it is obvious that more traditional forms of liturgical celebration represent a more substantial understanding of human nature and human needs than do more contemporary forms.

This is not to argue that only in the past will we find the proper way to worship. Nor is it to say older forms are necessarily more holy. However, just as blessed John Henry Newman said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant,” one might then argue that to be deep in Catholic traditions is to better see the poverty of much of contemporary worship and liturgical practice (to cease to be slavishly contemporary). The implication is that to lack an understanding of what has come before will more likely lead to conclusions that what should be obviously poor expressions of worship are, in fact, good. The past fifty years seems to prove this point.

Simply, a proper understanding of (and actual belief in) the Real Presence and true, properly formed worship would likely have prevented the moving of the high altar and tabernacle from its original location at St. Mary’s. This is a rather sharp claim, but it is, at least, a valid question.

However, perhaps the right question is not about tradition, or tabernacles, or high altars, or even Latin and altar rails, but to ask: What is the best way we know to show our reverence and devotion before the Real Presence of our Savior and King, to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, making truly present the proper graces pertaining to that Sacrament? Notice, the question asked is what is the “best way,” not what is the minimum that must be done, or what is merely licit, or what best suits the current tastes of the broadest number of folks (many of whom may be poorly formed, ignorant, or merely pursuing fashions). Of course one may find an image of a priest celebrating mass in wartime, using the hood of a jeep as an altar, both heartwarming and heroic. But no one would argue that jeep hoods should become the standard for altars in Churches. It is the ideal that should be normative if at all possible. And only because of that ideal can jeep hoods become powerful, temporary substitutes.

Consider how the role that St. Mary’s, and in this case specifically the church building itself, functions as an icon of the Church in time and space within our community. In our post-Christian age, where so many have no knowledge of even the basics of their Christian heritage, including many (most?) Catholics, St. Mary’s can function as something wholly other from the prevailing message of the world. Even in her form and structure it can teach and encourage. It does so now, and it may be able to do so even better in the future.

Finally, consider how strange it is that moving the high altar and tabernacle back to its original location could be considered controversial by some (I don’t, in fact, know if that it is the case at St. Mary’s, but it has been elsewhere). Perhaps with another church, built according to a non-traditional form, this might not be an issue, for then it might feel forced as it might be counter to the architectural design. However, with a combination of clear theological, pastoral, and architectural reasoning, there is no actual controversy with such a move at St. Mary Catholic Church.

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