Up in the heights of the tradition, protected in grandeur and difficulty, are life-giving waters that descend with surprising force into a world thirsty for courage...
Yesterday morning, after reading Murder in the Cathedral in preparation for the last sessions at this year’s Wyoming School of Catholic Thought, I took a long walk up Squaw Creek Road near our house outside Lander, thinking over the week just past and the nature of what we were doing. Five of us from the College have been engaged in lecturing and leading seminars in a very intense and rewarding meditation on “The Paradox of Courage.”
Our title came from Orthodoxy, where G.K. Chesterton writes that “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.” Aristotle expresses the same paradox in the Nicomachean Ethics when he says that “the more [a man] is possessed of virtue in its entirety and the happier he is, the more he will be pained at the thought of death; for life is best worth living for such a man, and he is knowingly losing the greatest goods, and this is painful. But he is none the less brave, and perhaps all the more so, because he chooses noble deeds of war at that cost.”
We began with the example of Achilles in the Iliad, and we ended our formal sessions with a meditation on the martyrs St. Perpetua and St. Felicity. In between, we read and discussed Sophocles’ Antigone; excerpts from St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle on courage; Plato’s Apology; passages from the Book of Daniel; a version of the Philoctetes by Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney; the Life of Antony by St. Athanasius; excerpts from the Second Tetralogy of Shakespeare, concluding with the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V; and Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot.
The days were long—mornings of lecture and seminar, afternoon breaks, and then more sessions every evening, several times ending after 10pm. Two nights were set aside for films, Monday night for Sophie Scholl, the compelling story of the White Rose heroine in Nazi Munich, and Wednesday for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic silent film from 1928, The Passion of Joan of Arc. On Tuesday night, Dr. Stan Grove led the group through a session on “Courage in Music,” which included selections from Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Arvo Part, and others.
It has been an exhausting and exhilarating week. This is the kind of intellectual and spiritual experience that condenses into one limited topic in a few days the kind of thematic coherence and integration that we hope for from the WCC curriculum as a whole. It has involved all of us, faculty and participants alike, in genuine thought and moved us to contemplate both the greatest examples of courage and the nature of what courage is. The effect has been a powerful renewal that was palpably present in our final session last night.
That walk yesterday morning gave me an image. Heading uphill and westward, I crossed a cattle guard, and fifty yards or so up the road, with Wunder Ranch spreading up the valley between the red cliffs of the Chugwater formations on the right and the great green foothills of the Wind River Mountains on the left, I crossed a little creek that runs through a culvert under the road. I’m usually unaware of its even being there, but yesterday the sound of it startled me because of the strength of the current.
It has not rained in two weeks or so; the days have been so hot and dry that the National Weather Service has been posting warnings about extreme fire danger—high winds, humidity around 10%. But the streams and rivers are running high. This same parching heat melts the snow up in the higher elevations, and all that precipitation stored all winter in the glacial heights bountifully descends to the lowlands.
I am not a great fan of allegory; it too often turns a rich image into a mere concept. Still, that creek reminded me of a passage in Christopher Dawson’s Understanding Europe (1952). “However secularized our modern civilization may become,” Dawson wrote, “the sacred tradition remains like a river in the desert, and a genuine religious education can still use it to irrigate the thirsty lands and to change the face of the world with the promise of new life.”
That’s the bounty we’ve been experiencing this week, especially in lectures like Kyle Washut’s on the Life of Antony. Up in the heights of the tradition, protected in grandeur and difficulty, are life-giving waters that descend with surprising force into a world thirsty for courage.
Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (June 2018).
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