The Beauty of Catholic EducationThe Beauty of Catholic Education: Literature and Poetry

In his homily for New Year’s Eve, Pope Francis spoke about the importance of time and the way we use it.  He urged that we make a daily examination of our attitudes, activities, and our behavior—how we use time.  As our students advance from grade to grade, we see how time affects them in all aspects of their development.

The Gift of Time

Some years ago in one of my college music classes, I had a student, a bright, beautiful young woman, conscientious about her work, a fine athlete, poised to apply to graduate school.  She loved the class, and her face would light up at the sound of the music. On a given test, I had mistakenly awarded her two credits for a wrong answer.  She could have pocketed the error without my ever discovering it.  Instead, she came to me on a Friday afternoon prepared to forfeit the credits.  I told her to keep them; her honesty was so refreshing.

The following Monday, I trembled at the tragic news; I wept, incredulous at the narrative.  Over the weekend, the young lady had been killed by a driver, recklessly jumping the curb at the corner where she was standing, ready to cross to the other side.  For months, her parents were inconsolable.  Later, they told me that she had a maturity far beyond her short span of twenty years.  I of course knew this.   

The Scriptures and writings from Early Christianity to the present exhort the followers of Christ to live in present moment. The spiritual director, Jean-Pierre Caussade, S.J., writes that life is really all about the “sacrament of the present moment.” 

Educating Our Children through Literature and Poetry     

Our students are our first priority.  This concern begins with the neediest, the most vulnerable and at-risk children.  Reading books that inspire and uplift, and memorizing classic poetry are the raw materials of a first-class education.  They contribute mightily to building students’ self-confidence.  When I taught in dangerous and depressed neighborhoods, my classes of sixty ethnically-diverse children came from difficult backgrounds.  But they were eager to learn because we educators believed in their future. Catholic education was the key to their success.  They relished those hours of diagramming sentences and playing grammar games, giving oral topics on any topic, but especially about their future.  They cultivated the habit of reading and writing well. Most of all they loved reciting poetry.  Learning was fun!

Our students should be encouraged to make solid and uplifting books their close and constant companions.  Reading and memorizing poetry jog the mind.   Reading frames our thoughts and values.  It makes our world grow larger.  Children should begin reading the classics at their own level.  When they are in the early grades, children in Italy read a simplified version of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  As they mature, they read Dante in the original.

Memorizing poetry, presented in an attractive way, can be enjoyable as well as intellectually stimulating. I recommend reading an article in the New York Times (August 3, 2014) entitled, “The Case for Bribing Kids to Memorize Poetry” by Kate Haas.  She remains unapologetic for bribing her young son to memorize the classics—Shakespeare, Keats, Tennyson, and many other poets. The author ends her essay on this note:  “Educators and writers still make the case for memorizing poetry:  It teaches rhythm, improves vocabulary and instills a sense of ownership in kids.”

Educating for Wonder and Beauty

Recently David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a fine article entitled, “The Subtle Sensations of Faith” (Dec 22, 2014).  His central point is this.  When people say that they have no religious impulse whatsoever, they should be asked if they have ever had an experience of wonder.  

Religion is “the means of making these moments part of your life rather than merely radical intrusions . . . .,” writes Brooks’ friend, Christian Wiman.  “Religion is what you do with these moments of over-mastery in your life.”  We can wonder at the beautiful person of Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, St. Joseph, wonder at the lives of the saints.  They help us to answer the all-important question of life:  What does it all mean?  Ours is a beautiful faith filled with wonder and joy.  Apparently, the 26,000,000 Catholics who have left the faith in recent years would disagree, or they would not have severed their relationship with the Church.   

We Catholic educators owe our students opportunities for wonder, beginning with the arts:  enjoying classical music, singing, dancing, painting or drawing, dramatizing the scriptures and becoming part of the scripture stories.  All these offer them opportunities for celebrating the beauty of a faith that celebrates the arts.

New Year’s Resolution

Commitment to fine literature and beautiful poetry, so easy to memorize and to love—this is a lofty resolution for 2015.  Now and again, one hears television journalists recite parts of the classics and poetry when they speak on public platforms. Gov. Mario Cuomo who died last week rarely gave a speech without quoting poetry, not to mention great thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Lincoln, and Churchill.  He was educated in Catholic schools.  He became a Renaissance Man. As for writing his speeches, his son Andrew said this at his Mass of the Resurrection: “At his core, my father was a philosopher and poet. Every sentence, every word was arranged like fine pearls, each chosen for its individual beauty but also placed just so with the one that came before and the one that followed in a seamless flow of logic and emotion . . . .”

Maria Bartiromo, the Wall Street analyst, is fond of reciting Rudyard Kipling’s “If” whenever she delivers a commencement address.  The poem is printed below.

President John F. Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy supported the arts with splendid enthusiasm. One month before his tragic death, Mr. Kennedy received an Honorary Doctorate at Amherst College. In his speech, he describes the role of an artist in society, noting Robert Frost’s many contributions to American arts and culture.  This is what he said:

. . . I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our natural past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.
. . . I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business and statecraft.  I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all our citizens.  And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.

Eileen Lomasney, C.S.J.

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