For University Students: Authentic Common Sense in An Age of Uncommon Nonsense

I just saw an ad for Google TV. It was entitled “Date Night.” The ad featured a man and a woman sitting on a couch together. The perspective of the viewer is seeing the backs of their heads. Both are watching a screen; playing on the screen is an obvious “romance” movie where a woman is crying. The ad cleverly states—this isn’t date night…this is. There is then a switch to a crackling fire on the screen and the man places his arm around the woman. My reaction: this is the stupidest damn thing I have ever seen.

Hey guys, if you want to have a “date night” make a real fire! If you don’t have a fireplace or a fire pit, either get one or go to a place where you can make a fire. If you don’t know how to make a fire write to me c/o The Wanderer Forum Foundation and I will send you step-by-step instructions, complete with pictorial representations of the process. Not only will it be a quality date night, but you will impress your girlfriend or wife at the skills inherent in the nature that God gave the man. (There are other skills that God gave to a man such as grilling and making breakfast—but I will reserve this as the topic of another article.) Yet prior to all this, one must recognize the fact that gazing at a screen at a make-believe fire is nothing less than nonsense.

Unfortunately, not a few things in colleges and universities are like the fake fire. Indeed, the flame of knowledge in most of the nation’s institutes of higher learning is very much like a false image on a screen. To be sure there are the trappings of academia—the revered buildings, hoary professors, extensive vocabularies, and a certain worldly reverence for the work being done in the confines of the campus. Yet, how much of it is true? Even on Catholic campuses? Better writers have articulated the anemic state of higher education—and specifically Catholic higher education—in this country, and it is not my desire to recount the parade of horribles in this article. Rather, my goal here is to draw a picture of an experience and to provide some suggestions for the restoration of an authentic academic experience. Think of it as tinder and flint for igniting the fire!

Cultivating Common Sense and Seeing the Really Real

An educator at a Jesuit high school once mentioned to me that in the apparatus that is the Jesuit education system in the United States, a believing and orthodox Catholic teacher survives in a catacomb. He may have other similarly-disposed colleagues but, in general, he is almost always marginalized by school authorities whose rise to the top of the Jesuit education totem pole has been marked—over the last 40 years—by an intolerant tolerance of the avant-garde. Adherence to the Church and her doctrines is passé. The universities are no different—in fact, they have led the way. Various scholars have pointed to different flash-points—some have said the Land O’ Lakes Conference of 1967, others have pointed to a modernism that was latent but active since the late nineteenth century, still others the disastrous project of the Enlightenment. All of these may be proximate causes of the current state of affairs, but the answer always comes back to what Chesterton said was the one eminently provable dogma of the faith: original sin.

That man has wanted to make himself God or desire to be thought of as a god, is nothing new. In various degrees it has manifested itself (and will continue to manifest itself) throughout all of human history. We see this very obviously in the academy. The desire for novelty and the desire to be seen as the smartest man in the room is the especial temptation of the academic. Oftentimes, this temptation turns to outright evildoing when the desire for and search for truth is replaced by the selfish goal of self-aggrandizement. At the root is, as always, pride. The lack of humility in submitting to reality is the hallmark of the academic who would create a “new reality” and, through the machinations of his fellow elitists in government, would enforce it on an unwilling and unwitting populace. So the question: how does one survive this state of affairs? Flee with other like-minded types to the catacombs. The catacombs are a good image. For they are cemeteries. Students today need to look for the answers in the writings of dead people (and oftentimes in secret). In our age of uncommon nonsense, it takes looking to the dead for common sense. Paradoxically, many of these dead people are very much alive and are waiting to help today’s students—this is what we call the communion of saints!  Besides, given the nature of a catacomb, it’s a great place to start a fire!

In the mid-1990’s at Loyola University Chicago, there was such a catacomb and a fire was lit there by Fr. Leo Sweeney, S.J. (1918-2001). Father was a renowned Thomist and professor of philosophy. He taught a graduate-level seminar every Tuesday evening of each semester and after each class, he would invite his students to Mass and conversation over port and cookies. One was invited to these gatherings even if he wasn’t in Father’s class. During my first semester, I became one of Fr. Sweeney’s attendees and continued until I graduated. Certainly the dumbest one in the room, I was present always with a small gathering of philosophy graduate students and others who wished to be nourished in body, mind and soul. Early on in my attendance at these gatherings, I did not fully know the pedigree of the holy priest with whom I prayed and conversed.1 His love of philosophy was infectious. His area of specialty was metaphysics and was always interested in a student’s story of his first realization of his own existence. He would often read some of these student recollections in class or in our after-Mass gatherings. I remember well his absolute fascination with and reveling in a student’s recognition of not only his own existence but Existence Himself, the Divine Esse, He Who Is.

The discussions during those evenings generally revolved around Aquinas and the application of his teaching to the modern world. We also discussed the Church, politics, culture and the mundane such as why the Jesuits always bought cheap port. Between sips of port and cookies, I came away with an ever greater appreciation of reality and the truth of things. Here was a man who was a Catholic priest who had weathered the storms of doubt that were swirling about and had a rock-like conviction in the power of the intellect to find truth and in power of the Church to articulate and never waver from that truth. Father was always humble and interested in what everyone had to say. I can say that it was a place where we could truly be ourselves as we talked into the night. Everything was relevant to everything else! The intellectual life was alive, and more so having just been nourished by the graces of the Holy Mass. Indeed, during those evenings one could really unite himself to the mystery hidden for ages in God—the Truth, Goodness, Beauty, Existence and indeed the communion of saints. This last ever more so when Father would announce before the Holy Sacrifice, “Let’s offer Mass in Latin this evening.” Indeed Fr. Sweeney and his generation were the last of those priest-scholars who spoke Latin, knew Aquinas inside-out, and had the innocence and humility engendered by a rigorous following of St. Ignatius Loyola’s formation. A rare treasure indeed, and all of us who had the privilege of knowing him and studying with him were richly spoiled.

How to Survive the Academic Environment: A Practical Guide.

Some might comment that graduates of Jesuit schools in the1990’s probably didn’t achieve much by way of truth-seeking. Indeed, the graduates of such fine institutions as Thomas Aquinas College and Christendom College likely fared much better. Nevertheless, because there was this island of sanity at Loyola during those years, we not only survived, but we thrived! Indeed today tradition and orthodoxy are on a rebound in ways unimagined fifteen years ago. Nevertheless, at the older Catholic institutions or even at the state schools, there remains a very real stranglehold on the academic program and culture by those for whom truth-seeking is not a priority. Therefore, might I humbly suggest the following for the reader that he might not only survive the academic environment of the college or university, but that he might be better equipped for the lifelong project of cultivating common sense and seeing the really real:

1. Find a Mentor. I was lucky enough to have Fr. Sweeney and host of other Jesuits of the “older pre-Vatican II generation.”2 These wizened men had the habit of seeking the ultimate reality and taking joy in the simple things of life. Likewise they cultivated the virtues and had developed tastes for good and beautiful things. You might be thinking to yourself: “These guys are rarae aves (“rare birds”)—how am I going to find them?” Trust me they are there. If you look you will find them. They are the traditionally-minded (and oftentimes of the older set).

2. Find Some Like-Minded Friends. Be humble and recognize that you don’t have all the answers. Surround yourself with others who want to engage the adventure that is life and truth-seeking. Find those who are united in the same Catholic convictions as you. You need not be carbon-copies of one another, but a united effort to seriously consider the great questions of life is the sine qua non.

3. Cultivate a Traditional Devotional Life.   The Church has a rich tradition of prayer and devotions. It is a treasury that is open to all and available to all. In the words of one priest, “take as much as you want and keep coming back for more.” Take time for silence—a very difficult thing to do. The Mass, the Rosary, Adoration, novenas, chaplets, devotions to the saints—both ancient and more recent—and those on the path to sainthood (e.g., Blessed John Paul II, Blessed Mother Teresa, Frs. John Hardon and Walter Ciszek.) and keeping the rhythms of the liturgical year are all musts! If you can, attend Mass in Latin (either the Extraordinary or Ordinary Form). By doing so you pray in the very language of the faithful who have gone before you and are still with you in the communion of saints! If your school doesn’t have these opportunities, seek them out. Most large cities will have such available.

4. Have a Right View of Education.  Reject outright the pragmatic notion that education is job-training. If that is your notion of education, then stay at home and “train for a better career” with Sally Struthers and her correspondence schools.3 True education is about the apprehension of truth, goodness and beauty—in a word, about seeking the ultimate reality—God. Indeed, reading Cicero or Shakespeare will not bring you money, but it may bring you happiness and provide you a habit of mind that will make you successful in any terrestrial endeavor.

5. Read Augustine and Aquinas.  No modern master can surpass these guys. (Indeed read modern masters, such as Chesterton, as well!) In order to cultivate common sense and a solid grounding in authentically Catholic thinking, no Catholic can afford to be ignorant of these thinkers. To start out, gather your cadre and read together Augustine’s Confessions. Later, read Aquinas on anything—might I suggest selections from the Summa on God’s existence and law.

6. Read Good Poetry and Literature.  C.S. Lewis once said, “If you must read the newspapers, be sure to give yourself a good mouthwash with [J.R.R. Tolkien’s] The Lord of the Rings.” I don’t think that I can improve upon that statement.

7. Shun Technology, Engage the Human Things.  I will be accused here of contradiction by the very fact that I have posted this article online. The point is not to condemn technology or to become a full-fledged Luddite; rather, it is to maintain one’s sanity and freedom in a world that is increasingly made up of robots. No IM-ing will ever take the place of a real face-to-face conversation, nor will email ever have the same savor or feeling as a handwritten letter, nor will a fake fireplace on a screen come close to the real thing. Take walks and converse with your friends—preferably in wooded areas. Look at a tree. As I have written elsewhere: “Today it is easy to be taken with the advanced mechanical things of man’s intelligence: iPads, iPods, and the world wide web. Aren’t lily pads, pea pods and spider webs equally—if not more—fascinating?”

8. Take up Smoking and Drinking. If for no other reason than to tick off the reigning elites for whom both are evil. Catholics have traditionally been  virtuous smokers and drinkers. Remember, Our Lord’s first miracle was turning water into wine. Let’s continue that revered tradition always, in the language of Scholastics, usque ad hilaritatem (“continually to the point of hilarity”).

9. Recognize the Practicalities of The World. Living in the world and choosing your vocation requires knowledge of and engagement in the practicalities of life. Knowledge of Aquinas alone will not get you a job or equip you to begin a family. Be sure to be savvy and know how to talk to people. While cultivating tastes in literature and philosophy, acquaint yourself also with Notre Dame’s record and a healthy dose of pop culture (though not enough to be sullied by it). Be normal. Dress normally. There’s nothing that says “shun me” like ankle-length denim jumpers for the gals and oxford shirts with the top button buttoned sans tie for the guys. If you reject this latter observation, I suspect marriage and family will be a long time in coming.

10. Be a Smart-aleck. For the Catholic and the traditionally minded, the world is a cruel place. A well-placed smart-aleck comment and demonstrated insolence to the zeitgeist is to be praised. It demonstrates that one is not a pushover and that he can reject the pomps and empty promises of the world and the “inventor of every obscenity.” Such also engenders laughter which aids in the development of a sense of humor–a necessary thing today.

Hopefully this is a helpful guide to cultivating common sense and to see things as they really are. In a word, to see things as God sees them. If such groups and such attitudes are nourished, one will want to be better than he is. He and his friends will want to spur each other on to greater things and to holiness. He will light a spark in his university which—God willing—will become a flame and set the world afire.   A real fire, and not a fake one!

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Endnotes:

1 Back in the 1930’s, then-Jesuit Scholastic Leo Sweeney was the inaugural editor of the Thomist philosophical journal, The Modern Schoolman; shortly after ordination, he studied with and was a disciple of Etienne Gilson and, subsequently, became a world-renowned Thomist in his own right. He taught at St. Louis University from 1954-1967, Creighton University from 1967-1970, Catholic University from 1970-1973, and Loyola University Chicago from 1973 until his death. He was always a true son of Ignatius and a loyal son of Mother Church. Indeed, he had the battle scars to prove it. In the late 1960’s while at Creighton University, the university’s leadership began to espouse positions that were detrimental to or in opposition to the Catholic Church. Father Sweeney and several other Jesuits penned a position paper that resulted in his being fired by the university. A Jesuit being fired by a Jesuit university. (I should note here that the exact details of the firing are shrouded in mystery. Was he fired or “asked to leave” or were conditions such that his resignation was welcomed? I’ve never acquired the position paper and I doubt if Jesuit archivists would release it!)

2 By “older pre-Vatican II generation” I do not mean cranks who rejected the Council. Not at all. By this I mean, men who were well grounded and who embraced the Council as a faithful sons of the Church would and sought to understand it as the Popes understood it and as it should be understood in line with the Church’s Magisterium. Indeed this is the “hermeneutic of continuity” that Pope Benedict XVI so often speaks of.

3 Readers of a certain age will remember this reference.



Louise Matlin DeJak liked this post

2 Responses to For University Students: Authentic Common Sense in An Age of Uncommon Nonsense

  1. Johnny – I dug it the most!  I hate the fake fires – and what is better than a late night conversation with friends while tipping back a drink – sure, you may not have to get into a cold car if you just skyped – but you won’t get to take home any leftovers either.

    In Christ,
    A

  2. I knew Fr. Leo quite well back in the 90′s. He was a personal friend… I am a graduate of Loyola University, like the author of this article. If possible, please send me the contact information of Mr. DeJak. I would like to share some of my of experiences of Fr. Leo and Loyola with him… I apologize for seeking his contact information this way… I cannot find another way on the website.

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