Language has an extraordinary place in an education like ours because our aim is the restoration of the world and the transformation of culture through Christ the Word…

Earlier this week, I was having lunch in the cafeteria with a group of new freshmen and one of their teachers, Dr. Kent Lasnoski, who is working through the early books of Genesis with them in Theology 101. In Philosophy 101, Mr. Kyle Washut, who returns from a year at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh, had just moved from Plato’s dialogue Alcibiades into his work on language, the Cratylus. The freshmen were talking about the relation of words to things in Adam’s first naming, and they were excited that the same question was being addressed and worked out philosophically in another class at the same time—the kind of coalescence an integrated curriculum makes possible.

Their discussion occurred to me a few mornings ago when I was walking westward up the road near our house just after dawn. The waning full moon, almost transparently white, was setting above the foothills of the Wind River Mountains, still about ten degrees from the horizon; when I glanced back, the sun, also up about ten degrees, was a red-orange wafer rising between the chugwater formations to the east. I could look at the sun almost directly, because the haze from the fires in Montana and Idaho subdued its full intensity. Sun and moon faced each other across the long green valley of ranchland bordered on one side by the foothills and on the other by Squaw Creek Road, which runs beneath massive, overhanging ledges. Huge boulders, some at the road’s edge and some fifty yards or more out in the bordering pasture, stand as a warning not to be complacent.

Sun and moon: like most of our common nouns, they become automatic, and neither word—unaided by context—summons up the kind of primordial awe I felt for a moment on the road between these heavenly bodies. (Neither, of course, does “chugwater,” the unfortunate name for these red sandstone formations common in Wyoming. They are named for the town of Chugwater, which is apparently responsible for a word that would have made Adam wince.) The question before the freshmen was whether language is purely conventional, with no real relation between a word and what it names, or whether words actually do correspond to essences, as one imagines with Adam’s first use of language. What would the Edenic names for sun and moon have been? Even to imagine such words brings us into a new relation of wonder with the realities, wonder that has very little to do with communication, to use Allen Tate’s distinction, and everything to do with communion.

Language has an extraordinary place in an education like ours because our aim is the restoration of the world and the transformation of culture through Christ the Word. To use words as though any cliché were good enough to render the truth of things is to betray the necessity of cutting through the thick rind of habit into fragrance and seed. Poetry is crucial: That’s why we have students memorize poems almost from the moment they arrive at Wyoming Catholic, including the apparently simple lyric, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Robert Frost explains what he does in a wonderful short essay called “The Figure a Poem Makes,” full of potent aphorisms. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” he says. Frost says that when he writes, he discovers something he did not realize he knew, and then “Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing.” If the writer discovers nothing in the process of writing, the reader will feel nothing.

My favorite part of Frost’s essay comes a little later:

Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. A poem may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being. Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it. Read it a hundred times: it will forever keep its freshness as a petal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.

That freshness is the achievement of words in a revelatory mode. My highest hope is that the whole curriculum at Wyoming Catholic College rides on its own melting and “runs itself” and carries our students into a world whose meanings they can help renew.

Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (September 2017). 

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