Peace on a Mountaintop

Many who encountered the faculty and students of St. Gregory’s Academy at various points in the school’s history were inspired by the joy and enthusiasm of the school and its teachers. The following article was written by Dr. Anthony Esolen following his visit to the Academy in 2008. It appeared in Touchstone Magazine in May, 2008 and is reprinted here with kind permission.

Peace on a Mountaintop

Anthony Esolen

I’d like you to take a look at a boarding school for boys, Saint Gregory’s Academy, in Elmhurst, Pennsylvania, a few miles from where I grew up.

Over the weekend I visited St. Gregory’s to give a talk, on the day before commencement, on piety and fatherhood, to the assembled student body (55 boys), their families, and the faculty. The school is inspired by the teaching of the legendary professor John Senior, a Renaissance scholar who headed a Great Books program at the University of Kansas back in the late 1960′s and the 1970′s. It was Senior’s unshakeable conviction that the desire for beauty was essential to the development of the human mind. That is why he required his students to commit poetry to memory, and to recite it publicly. His program was tremendously popular, and richly answered that longing in the young for something higher to devote their hearts to than self-gratification or the pursuit of wealth and power. Many of you no doubt know far more about that program than I do; and Professor Senior’s goodness and wisdom are still reaping a fine harvest, at new high schools and colleges that trace their intellectual lineage back to Kansas. I heard one delightful anecdote about a story that some duly horrified reporter for a Kansas City newspaper wrote on the program. Apparently, students who enrolled in it and who had had no discernible attachment to religion found themselves often turning towards the faith that inspired Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, and the rest. So the newspaper ran a series of pictures above the story, showing, panel by panel, the terrible metamorphosis of a perfectly ordinary hippie into — not a souse in a drying-out hospital, or a corpse, or a business executive — a monk. Eventually the university trustees shut the program down, but the damage, alas, had been done.

And at Saint Gregory’s, too. Perfectly ordinary boys who would be ignored or despised at most schools these days there mature into fine young men, strong in the faith, and blessed with deep friendships. All the boys study Latin, all four years. All learn music, singing old ballads a capella, and playing musical instruments. All learn to juggle (!). In fact, I was regaled with a juggling show that was as entertaining and impressive as anything I’ve seen professionals do — one hour of acting, singing, music, juggling, riding unicycles, and really fine physical comedy. All serve at the Latin mass. The curriculum seems particularly strong in the humanities and in the more abstract approaches to science: Euclid, physics, astronomy. It’s the old trivium and quadrivium, brought back to life. All the boys play rugby, too, and this little school managed to win the district championship against schools twenty times its size. The boys do most of the grounds keeping and janitorial work, and much of the cooking, too. All that, and there’s a woodworking shop and a sculpture studio.

That rugby championship, though, is most intriguing. It’s an inspired choice, to have the boys concentrate on rugby and soccer. Rugby especially is a sport that requires no unusual hand-eye skills, and no long experience. It’s quick to learn, and anyone with a body can learn to play it. The result is that the boys are not separated into the lucky few who are good at sports and the rest who sort of disappear. Some of the boys may arrive at St. Gregory’s stronger or faster than others, and no doubt some leave that way too. But when everybody plays rugby, and plays it all the time, then unless some serious physical ailment gets in the way, everybody is going to end up impressively strong. The same thing happens to boys on farms, and used to happen in boot camp.

And that makes me guess that something similar can happen with the exercise of the intellect. Not that any combination of curriculum and moral discipline can turn Ordinary Joe into Albert Einstein. But it can turn Ordinary Joe into a man capable of reading the classics of our heritage, discussing our history, expressing well-informed opinions about man’s nature, and working at his trade with skill and diligence. At a school like St. Gregory’s, you can see how the Ordinary Cleons could have built ancient Athens, or how the Ordinary Quinti could have grown Rome from an upriver village to the ruler of the Mediterranean. Give the young people Sophocles, Virgil, Shakespeare. Give them a life healthy for soul and mind and body. How can you fail to raise graduates who make their contemporaries from other schools, even the valedictorians, look paltry and puerile?

And I haven’t even mentioned the most important thing of all: their faith in Christ.

An addendum  to the previous post:

In the first issue of the Idler, there’s an article on Hillaire Belloc that incidentally illustrates a whole lot that is wrong about the way we raise our youth, and a lot that is right about Saint Gregory’s. It seems that when Belloc was serving as a young man in the French army, he met an American woman with whom he fell passionately in love. Once discharged from the army, Belloc sold his beloved complete set of the works of Cardinal Newman to scramble up the money for boat fare across the Atlantic. He landed in New York, and walked across the continent to San Francisco, supporting himself by manual labor. When he arrived at the young lady’s door in California, he proposed to her on the spot. She agreed. It was a long engagement — they were married seven years later, when she was 25 and he was 26. Read those last sentences again, carefully. Unfortunately, their happy marriage was broken by the early death of Mrs. Belloc, at age 43; and Belloc had already lost a son in World War I, and would lose another in World War II. But whatever you may say about the man’s writings and his polemical opinions, Belloc lived. He understood that mankind is built for adventure, in the medieval sense, earthy and mystical and humble and chivalrous all at once: you hit the road, and take what comes.

Boys especially thrive on it: for many a boyish soul, the greatest danger is to face no danger. Apparently Saint Gregory’s accepts that as a part of the created good that young men present. So their A-team of jugglers (with bowling pins, balls, tops, wands, swords, and fiery torches), clowns, and musicians (with accordion, bagpipes, Irish drum, guitar, and bassoon), accompanied by the English teacher who doubles as their instructor in those arts of legerdemain, will be bicycling from Barcelona along the foothills of the Pyrenees to Saint James of Compostela, earning their dinner and their lodging by performing on the streets. (They are looking for donations, by the way, to defray the airfare for sixteen people.) Imagine that …

Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College and a noted translator of classic works. He has translated Dante’s Divine Comedy, Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, and Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered. Dr. Esolen is the senior editor for Touchstone Magazine.