The Empire – Modern American Education

I am apparently not alone when it comes to taste in contemporary Star Wars content, and I took a delayed approach when it came to watching one of the recent mini-series: Andor. We had all seen just how well mini-series were doing on Disney+, and when they came out with a back story…for a back story…none of us were seemingly convinced. I for one, care almost nothing about the upcoming series based on Echo – Maya Lopez, a character we were briefly introduced to in the Hawkeye mini-series. But that is a tangent. The more pressing matter I wished to write about are some thoughts that occurred to me after watching Andor.

Star Wars has been around now for a long time, and ideas about what Palpatine’s Empire means, what it does, and why we hate it have similarly been part of general public discourse for a long time. So even if you haven’t seen Andor you can at least understand the principles put forward here.

As I was recently watching the series I realized that Palpatine’s Empire and the United States’ public education system share at least one major trait: the belief that prosperity and success comes through more control. It’s easy for us watching Star Wars to dismiss the Empire as the bad guy and to think that since they are so obviously evil none of us would ever agree with them in real life, but the entire point of Andor is to show the larger scope of the consequences of the politics of the Empire, and the sincere hearts of those who fight and think for the Empire as much as those who rebel against it.

Throughout the series, it is demonstrated that the Empire does and must exert control over individuals and systems if for no other reason than the control itself. It has, other than Palpatine’s wicked desire for total power (which I have ideas about, but I’ll leave that for later), a sincere desire for peace and stability, but the way it achieves it is through controlling for wild cards and anomalies that fall outside of its desires. It does not view its own violent actions as counter productive or destabilizing because of pride and especially because of the belief that it is the ultimate good for the galaxy. Darth Vader’s conversion to the dark side is not one devoid of logic, focusing only on the death of Padmé; throughout the prequels we see distaste from Anakin about how the Jedi react to certain injustices, and Anakin wants to change that so that instead of resulting consequences like Padmé or his mother’s death, more good might come out in the galaxy on the whole.

Public education in the U.S. adopts a remarkably similar approach to promoting success and managing students. No, the Secretary of Education does not wield a red colored light saber, but if we look at what districts and states are doing and if we look at what professors in colleges are researching and teaching to the next generations of educators and administrators, we see where the comparison is strong. Most strategies for educational systems in the U.S. revolve around this idea: controlling any and all outside factors so that students achieve academic and social success. Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that what everyone wants? Certainly you don’t have the know-how or ability to do the job…you just ought to let them figure that out for you.

There are so many things that trouble modern public education, and the troubles seem to have no end. Random public attacks, high numbers of mental health cases, low test scores, truancy, apathy…the list goes on. Notice, however, what the response is to these issues: more. More security personnel, more psychiatric personnel, more teacher duties, more district policies, more funding consequences for districts, more testing, more school days, more classes, more teacher requirements, more initiatives, etc. The list goes on. By overtly controlling more factors, success can still be guaranteed or even improved.

From my perspective in the classroom I understand the appeal for this method of improving school; I am constantly tired by the way I have to work against the flow of student behavior. From my limited perspective, more control seems fine because maybe it means less for me to have to deal with on a daily basis. Yet also from my perspective in the classroom I can see that something is wrong and that things each year are not getting better but worse.

The answer, like the rebels demonstrate, is less. Less control and more freedom is what is needed in school. Less initiatives, less programs, less interventions, less requirements. Notice I’m not saying different, or smaller…I’m saying less, as in take them away. Forget them. This answer is so counter intuitive because it seems bad for two reasons. One, it doesn’t answer our contemporary woes with an actionable response, and two, it seems as the responder has no care for the fallout of such a solution. Yet both of these, in our contemporary context, are not true. Just recently my wife showed me a social media phenomenon of people talking about “Silent Walks,” where Gen Z somehow believes that they have come up with the idea of a long walk outside without the influence of technology. What the Gen Zers were amazed to discover was that after a while, they found their anxieties calmed; as if the constant attack of technology and busyness couldn’t somehow be the very cause of it all. The surprising answer to everyday modern anxiety? Less.

The second issue I mentioned, where the responder with such a solution of “less” seems to not care about the fallout, is the more significant objection. This is the case because it gets to the heart of the proponents of modern education. It is sincerely believed that “more” must be the answer because it is the conscientious and kind answer. It is a philosophically positive position, meaning it is a solution that introduces an intervention. The problem here is that while the motivation is kindness, the subjects of the many interventions are essentially being killed with kindness. There is simply too much happening to be effective. Think of an artist mixing colors, only to add an excess of variety to find an awful and disgusting brown as the result.

It must be acknowledged, then, that a solution of “less” will be met with inherent anger. How, the Empire asks, can we have more ‘order and peace’ if there are no interventions to establish it? Answer: we won’t. How, the Dept. of Education asks, can we have a higher rate of graduation, better student mental health, better test scores, more security, more literacy, more numeracy, higher college admission rates, less child abuse (etc, you get my point) without more interventions to establish them? Answer: we won’t. In the course of the events of Andor, the main character has just finished a heist job. Away from everyone else and after already losing several other teammates, his teammate suggests that they both split the heist and run away with the spoils. The teammate would abandon the remaining living teammates and steal the money not just from the Empire but also from the rebellion. At yet a later point in the show, a background rebellion organizer is speaking to an independent rebel faction, and is trying to convince them to cooperate with other factions, only to hear the objection that each faction had its own political ideology and can never possibly unite.

The point there is that when you advocate for “less” you are deliberately opening the door to suffering, moral inadequacy, and failures. You are literally inviting these things into existence whereas they may have not been seen before. The truth is, however, that even though they weren’t seen before, hearts were already set on them. Explicit interventions in a system the size of U.S. public education do not address problems – they cover up symptoms. In Andor, an Empire investigator is looking into missing technology. As part of her investigations she noted that fear of being reprimanded for losing equipment contributed to inferiors lying about it and covering it up. A solution to that is never addressed – but can we acknowledge that staying the course of fear tactics in a hierarchy is not going to solve the heart of the issue? The failure already existed – pulling back whatever “interventions” were already in place was simply exposing them.

Furthermore we must acknowledge that sincere proponents of Palpatine’s Empire, like Darth Vader, are seeking a utopia. Many contemporary progressivists are similarly desirous of a utopia. “With enough progress [interventions] we can achieve utopia.” As a Catholic, yea as a Christian, I strongly object to the feasability of utopia. Believing in such a utopia denies truths about our world and our existence that are unavoidably true. Free will – the ability to choose good as much as evil, is inherently part of our world. We cannot change that. Utopia inherently denies free will, since a utopic world cannot allow the possibility that someone might choose against it. Our education system inherently denies free will – of the parent and of the child. Our public education system, like the empire, cannot tolerate dissent. Worse yet is that even those who venture “dissent” still imbibe the same philosophical principles and educational practices, upholding public education as some sort of standard. In Andor the first governing authority we meet is not the Empire itself, but an affiliate authority who practices the same governance. It is not the Empire, but it might as well be. If other education systems are subject to similar regulation as public schools, like most diocesan schools, then even if they are allowed to do something like teach religion they commit the same flaws.

A world that involves free will is one that must accept “no” as a potential answer. At what point does public education accept “no” as a possibility? At what point did the Empire accept “no?” God Himself created us with free will, creating us knowing that someone would deny Him, so that those who accepted Him and loved Him did so with sincerity and not out of compliance. Just because something is good: order, peace, education, love; it does not follow that it should be forced because then it is no longer good.

What does “less” look like, then, for public education? The answer is astonishingly simple: abolish truancy and school attendance laws. While still providing the public with accessible education, but removing compliance, it means that the public chooses education as desired. Most of the ills that plague modern education would disappear, and nowhere more in particular than high school.

Now I find myself having difficulty suggesting that K-8 education should not be compulsory, since the benefits of a literate society are clear; but arguably it is even more critical for the K-8 sphere to be rid of compulsory education because of the demand such a freedom would put on parents. At the very least a freedom of choice for parents on what K-8 education looks like for their child should be provided.

I will focus, at least for now, on the more palatable suggestion that high school should be the first target of eliminated attendance laws. Maria Montessori, for those who sincerely follow her principles and design, does not have any programmatic guidelines for adolescents (those in the high school range):

“The essential reform is this: to put the adolescent on the road to achieving economic independence . We might call it a “school of experience in the elements of social life”

“Therefore work on the land is an introduction both to nature and to civilization and gives a limitless field for scientific and historic studies. If the produce can be used commercially this brings in the fundamental mechanism of society, that of production and exchange, on which economic life is based. This means that there is an opportunity to learn both academically and through actual experience what are the elements of social life. We have called these children the “Erdkinder” because they are learning about civilization through its origin in agriculture. They are the “land-children.””

(Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence)

The adolescent is not primed for high school. The adolescent is ready to begin learning about entering the adult world. Sitting in a compulsory class setting for the majority of their waking hours is a living hell. Their bodies and mind are going through such a tumultuous change that asking them to sit still and comply with endless amounts of rules and requirements to endure specifically intellectual academics is crushing them. Once they are developmentally calmed down again they will be ready to do more calm and intellectual activities, and here we can talk about university, but until then it has to be a matter of choice and awareness around the unique traits of each child.

What we can talk about, then, are other kinds of activities like apprenticeships and a Montessori style farm that might actually benefit the development of adolescents instead of something like current public education.

In any case, this all begins with a discussion of removing attendance laws. The solution, as I said, is astonishingly simple. Our society has sowed a disaster, but has been covering it up for a long time; a terrible harvest awaits us on the other side. Past the other side, however, is a place of sincere growth and a beauty. We have to learn the lessons set forth in a fictional way about the Empire, and avoid furthering ideas of intolerable hyper-control. Instead of creating conditions that precipitate rebellion, we should foster environments of true growth and nurturing. By accepting that we cannot control everything and thereby create a Utopia, we find those who willingly want to create a better world and work for it. The society as a whole is actually more motivated to work towards the good. But as long as we’re forced to go to K-12 education…we will see a decline in its value.

Swamp of Devotions

There is no doubt that the world we live in is difficult. Droves of people are leaving the Church and the Christian faith at large, societal sins like abortion and contraception are reaching new feverish heights, and whole crowds of people are letting themselves live in an absolute fantasy so as to seek out a world of delight, no matter the cost. Any reasonable Catholic or Christian would certainly feel repulsed by such a world, one that continually pushes away religion and a love of Christ and the Blessed Trinity.

As Christians it’s not hard to think about what our minds do and should turn towards: prayer. Here I am often fond of reflecting on Fray Luis de León’s La Vida Retirada. Plagued by the world and her woes, the poet seeks to escape into a simpler life, one pulled away from the chaos of society. A life, perhaps, filled with the simple but immensely pleasurable contemplation of God and His mysteries. Simple prayer is not, however, as tempting as a counterreaction.

For reference, I would like to highlight the Reformation, an event which, though never named as much during the time, became incredibly important to the Christian faith expressed in the cultural West. The Reformation is such an interesting event because while its supporters laud it as something of a genesis of genuine western faith, it is more actually an event which gains its character via protestation. In other words, it is not an event or way of thinking that has originality or even a renewal of its original roots, it is a way of thinking and an event which solely lives in reaction against the Catholic faith. Take away the Catholic Church and all of a sudden the foundations of Protestant faith begin to fall apart.

I would venture to say that this view of Protestants is unattractive and, perhaps, untenable. Some Protestants have found out just how unattractive it is, and have sought to reclaim their roots as “Bible Christians” or “Non-denominational.” No matter its label, however, the identity formed in reaction is inescapable. Generally speaking, no one likes such an idea unless they are of a postmodern mindset. For the sake of this article I will assume that the reader does not adhere to an explicitly postmodern worldview.

As the reformers so established their identity against the Catholic faith, it would be easy to establish something of a hyper-religious identity against the postmodern world which plagues us. Through a very sincere desire to escape the world and flee to the shadow of the Cross, though, we forget to look at the path we are taking to get there. Then, rather than finding refuge, we find ourselves in something of a swap, and it is hard to navigate or move out of. This is especially true for Catholics after Vatican II who want to pursue traditional prayer patterns instead of innovating new prayers or using prayers created by our contemporaries. Our whole goal is to abandon ourselves in the face of Christ and His Church, and to conform ourselves to Tradition, yet sometimes this abandonment leads to a lack of reflection on our choices.

The reason that a goal of conformity turns into a reactionary identity is because, as I said, the path to the shadow of the cross is not clear. One of the unintended consequences of post-conciliar Catholic culture was an ejection of traditional prayer practices. Seen as old and not of the ‘Spirit’ of Vatican II, many were discarded in favor of novel practices or ones that reflected other traditions. Therefore when traditionally minded Catholics grew tired of these new age practices they had to go back on their own and find out what their spiritual predecessors had been doing, or had to educate themselves on their own to find out what Tradition actually supports, rather than what was simply popular. Converts in the recent era, especially, are not necessarily as reliant on the experience of their local parish as they are on the Church across the whole country, if not the whole world, the internet being a great gateway into the deep history of the Church. When converts indeed convert, they are often not doing so based on what modern Catholicism looks like, per se, as much as what the Church has historically always been, and so when they ask themselves how they should grow deeper in prayer their first thought is to consult the long-standing traditions of the Church.

From experience I can tell you that once you begin down the road of historical Catholic devotions, it’s a lengthy journey you’re embarking on. Between all of the devotions known to tradition, one could easily spend all of their waking hours engaged with them and be plenty occupied. And so, with a mountain of devotional prayer in front of him, and a desire to jump right in to flee to the Cross and escape the world, the Catholic engages with as many devotions as he can.

This entails, as I have suggested, many things; a daily rosary, daily Mass attendance, frequent visits to adoration, wearing the brown scapular, making a morning offering, doing a daily examen at night, making a consecration to Mary, to St Joseph, to the Sacred Heart, or to an angel, praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet, always being engaged in a novena, collecting devotional medals, First Fridays, First Saturdays, and many more which I have not mentioned, which include devotions very particular (such as the Devotion to the Wounds of Jesus).

Let me make this clear: no devotion of our Tradition is bad. Obviously these traditions have survived and have aided many to grow in their holiness. Rightly, too, whenever I have talked with other Catholics, the discussion is not if we are engaged in prayer outside of the Mass, but which prayers we are engaged with outside of the Mass.

The trouble, I wonder, is the self-awareness that the Catholic has when performing a mad-dash to complete  and participate in as many devotionals as possible. Let’s not begin to talk about the shame of the Catholic who fails to do them all, or does not have the desire to engage in the same race. Mind you, I’m not questioning the Catholic’s faith as much as their method of engagement. If the reason for engaging in a Catholic act is “it’s traditional” then I think we have a bit of an issue. Engaging in practices solely because of their status as traditional erases the quality of engagement, and means that the practice does not serve it’s original goal as much as it serves the goal of shaping oneself as “traditional.” Just because someone started a practice 400 years ago does not automatically mean it is a practice we should continue; modern Catholics engaged in the Tradition are still obliged to do so responsibly, and that means engaging with intention and understanding.

Devotions should be practices which shape our prayer life in a particular way. It is not a question of how many devotions we engage in as much as which particular devotions we adhere to. Let’s use the analogy of school. Here, devotions are analogous to clubs. We all remember the crazy kids who attempted to participate in every open club, and also how inordinate their life was on account of it. It wasn’t about how many clubs you could be in, but about which clubs you were going to devote yourself to. Though it is very possible to spend every waking moment engaged in devotional prayer, it absolutely does not mean that we should be.

The analogy carries even farther. If clubs are the devotional life, then what is analogous to the school day, full of classes? If the logic of this analogy says that it us disordered to fill one’s day with club activities, then it should look for the main content of the school day as an alternative or as a primary mode of private prayer. Just as the school day is filled with a variety of subjects, we find that the center of the Christian life is filled with a few different things. The sacramental life, most importantly, service to our family and community, and liturgy.

Liturgy, I wish to suggest, should be the highest priority in the average Christian’s daily prayer. The sacramental and communal life, critical elements that they are, and even prayerful elements, are not things that can be done at any moment the way that devotional prayers can. For the Catholic heavily engaged in devotional prayer, I would make the assumption that these other categories are well attended, anyway. When suggesting Liturgy as a higher priority to devotional prayer, however, there ought to be some clarification.

Too often I have heard ill-catechized Catholics who use the word “liturgy” with a broad and undefined net, typically at the expense of the Mass. They casually refer to the Mass as The Liturgy, as if the terms are entirely synonymous, or will also refer to “a liturgy” for ceremonious occasions which are not a Mass, but loosely have some sort of prayerful dialogue written within them. No, indeed we must remember that liturgy as a word etymologically means “public office” or “public work,” generally referring to religious duties that the society owes to God.

Historically, there have always been two arms of liturgy which the Church has taken seriously, the first being Mass or the Divine Liturgy, and the second being the Divine Office or the praying of the Psalter. The first is well attended by serious practicing Catholics, but the latter is not as well attended. A Tradition received from our Jewish elders, the praying of the Psalter, or the 150 Psalms found in the Bible, is a practice which is split up among certain day hours. Certain ancient practices prayed all 150 Psalms every single day, but in the West we take our Tradition most directly from St. Benedict, who established a Psalter that rotated on a weekly cycle.

The Divine Office, broken up into specific hours each day, has a quotidian nature where the prayers are uniquely tied to the general atmosphere of every hour. Lauds, the principal morning hour, is characterized by it’s joyful greeting of God at the new day, and Compline, the minor hour before bed, is full of prayers which call to mind the calm resolution to face God with accountability for your day, and to inspire peace within the heart to let go of your own grandeur before God as you lie down to sleep. And so the Divine Office, more than any devotional prayer, meets the praying Catholic where they are in their day and contextually raises the Catholic’s mind to God from specifically wherever they were. Tied to the celebration of Church’s feasts and to the penance of fasting and abstinence, this is what further joins the individual’s work of prayer to the rest of the Church. The Office, by its very nature, is designed from the outset to consume one’s day in prayer, and to so so in an organized fashion. Devotional prayer is simply not intended for the same purpose.

If the Catholic has much prayer they want to engage in beyond the Mass, and they should, then the substance of that prayer life should begin with the Divine Office. It is not simply another devotion that we attend to; it is the substantive prayer that the Church has placed as a priority in the Christian life. While there are enough devotions to engage the layperson for his whole day, the layperson may yet barely find enough time to pray the full Office. Hereafter is where devotions can regain their ordered place in the Christian life: as a few select devotions toward which the Christian tailors his prayer.

In a mad dash to pray as many devotions as possible, the Christian finds himself knee-deep in a swamp of devotions. Substances which were meant to aid him end up becoming overwhelming and distracting from the path he was originally on. If instead the main course of the Christian’s prayer is that of the Divine Office, or even only a small portion of it, then the Christian finds himself in a Great Hall of architectural prowess, filled to the brim with meaning, where every arch and ornamentation cooperates with the rich literature lining its shelves. Whether or not the Christian makes use of every inch of the hall, it is nonetheless a foundation upon which the Christian can build the rest of his prayer life. Therein devotions become beautiful accents which tint the whole hall.

Anyone who is familiar with exactly how large this hall is, may contest that the Office is simply too large a task for the laity, and is something they need not or should not engage in. This is understandable, but may not be well made. Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s document on the Sacred Liturgy, says that “the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually,” meaning that the task is not reserved solely for religious and clerics. The laity are thus encouraged to participate in the Church’s work of sanctifying the day and the hours, no matter how much it may be. The same Church document encourages pastors to prioritize celebrating Sunday Vespers every week with the laity for the same purpose. Clearly the vision of the laity praying the Office is to whatever degree they are able, and that they should indeed try. Since the laity are not obliged to say the Office the same way religious and clerics are, it means there is a liberty for the lay person to decide their level of participation.

Truly, though, learning to pray the Office is a significant task, and for either a lack of education or a lifestyle that is necessarily too busy it is possible that praying the Office is not a task that certain lay people are afforded to do. This was indeed true for much of the Church’s history, such as when St. Dominic began his Order of Preachers in modern-day France. The life of the laity indeed fit this description, but it was felt that the laity should be able to have a prayer life which could similarly help them sanctify their day. The simple salutation of the Angel Gabriel was elongated into the Hail Mary prayer and was tied to a collection of mysteries from the Gospels, something the laity would know. 15 mysteries, in total, with 10 Hail Marys used to meditate on each one, meant 150 Hail Mary prayers. Religious prayed 150 psalms, and the laity prayed 150 Hail Marys. So indeed if you find yourself in a position of not being able to pray the office, praying the Rosary is more than an appropriate recourse. Naturally one could always do both the Office and a daily Rosary of 15 mysteries, as the Dominicans exemplify to this day.

When fleeing the world, then, we must avoid the temptation of finding and clinging to every prayer or devotion or act which is “traditional” and shame ourselves if we fail to do all of them. This intense fleeing, without reflection, culminates in a Catholic identity of counterreaction, so scarred by the modern world that is evermore “progressive” and modern that participation in all lowercase t traditions becomes nothing less than obligatory. Instead, an authentic identity formed in Catholic roots will know how to properly order devotions within the larger prayer life, and grounding oneself in the Divine Office is a principal way to achieve this. 8 hours of devotional prayer, which was never meant to be strung together in such a way, is much more chaotic than 8 hours of the Divine Office, which was orchestrated together down to the last phrase. This attitude greatly affects the disposition of Christian character, grounding him and centering him more within the heart of Mother Church, enabling them to engage the world more readily and with a firmer foundation. Ordering one’s prayer life, where the Christian grows his love for God, leads to an ordering of the rest of one’s life, properly disposing him to answer God’s call to mission.

May the Holy Spirit guide us all in the virtues of Temperance and Prudence.

The Divine Office in the Domestic Church

Praying the Divine Office at Home

As many churches begin phasing in the use of Propers during Mass, some may still use hymns, but if many of the young voices that I sing with have our way, hymns are likely on their way out in the parochial church. But do we hate hymns? No way! There are a great stock of traditional hymns we might use. When, though, might we sing them? During the prayed hours of the Divine Office, of course!

Many Catholic families who are actively seeking to raise their children in the Catholic faith are always on the lookout for things that will draw themselves and their children deeper into the Faith. Maybe they pray a nightly family Rosary, or they engage in Liturgical Living activities as advocated by Kendra Tierney in her book The Catholic All Year Compendiumor they prioritize going to daily Mass. In any case, they want to introduce as much extra-liturgical faith-based activity as they can into their home, the domestic church. This isn’t always easy, though. Take the idea of the daily family Rosary. Many mothers and fathers are incredibly impressed by great figures such as Scott Hahn talking about the spiritual benefit that a nightly Rosary had on their family. When actually attempting it, though, they fall way short of this ideal. Maybe they get through a decade every night, maybe they do a couple Rosaries a week, or maybe they only figure out how to do it together one evening a week.

To be clear, whatever you are doing is great. One Rosary a week, I believe, still makes a drastic difference on your family’s prayer life.

If you’re like me, though, you might ask “what is the best thing that a family can do outside of going to regular Mass?”

The Other Liturgy of the Church

I shudder when people refer to the Mass as ‘(The) Liturgy,’ as if there is no other liturgy or, if there is, the Mass is somehow equated to it. What can equal the literal presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist? The truth is that “The Liturgy refers to the public and common worship of the Church, which necessarily has a repetitive nature. The Mass is, as Vatican II says, “the source and summit of the Christian life,” but is there anything else involved under this larger umbrella of ‘Liturgy’?

Yes, the Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours.

Inherited from Jewish practice, and kept richly alive in the tradition of the monastics, the Church considers the Divine Office an integral part of Her liturgy. Through a period of time, all 150 psalms are recited at the various hours of the day. Some eastern traditions pray all 150 psalms every day. In The Rule of St. Benedict, he lauds this as the highest of standards. Some traditions, like the western monastic that started by St. Benedict, prays all 150 psalms over the course of a week. In anticipation of the grumblings he might hear because of the requirement to pray all 150 psalms in a week, he points to the eastern traditions and basically says ‘man up!’ and get over it. The Liturgy of the Hours which came into being after Vatican II prays all 150 psalms over the course of four weeks.

Notice, though, how I referred to the fact that this has been largely kept alive in the monastic tradition, even when the Church requires all of her clergy to pray the full Divine Office as well. That means that in the traditional Catholic family, praying the Divine Office hasn’t been high on the priority list in times past. And this makes all the sense  in the world! Families are busy.

Before getting into the depths of the Office itself, I would like to highlight that this is exactly how the Rosary came into existence. St. Dominic, a monastic used to praying all 150 psalms every week, wanted a way for the laity to participate in the Church’s liturgy in some extended way. To this end there is the Rosary. Just as the Divine Office has one praying all the psalms and meditating on God’s mysteries, praying all of the mysteries of the Rosary also draws one deeper into thought on God’s mysteries. Just as there are 150 psalms, the Rosary was originally designed so that, all mysteries prayed, 150 Hail Marys are said. So if you take nothing else away from this article, and you already pray a daily Rosary, know that you are still participating in the Church’s liturgical prayer through St. Dominic’s pastoral provision.

“So if you take nothing else away from this article, and you already pray a daily Rosary, know that you are still participating in the Church’s liturgical prayer through St. Dominic’s pastoral provision.”

To this end I will begin by saying this: just as praying a daily or weekly or Rosary is a great spiritual goal, so any amount of the Office that you incorporate into your life is also a great spiritual goal.

The Divine Office Basics

The reason that one associates the Divine Office with the monastic tradition before even associating it with the priestly and clerical offices of the Church is because praying the full Divine Office takes work. This is why the USCCB and tradition refers to this as “God’s work”: because it is a difficult task. There are, traditionally, 8 canonical hours:

Matins, the vigil office, tends to take the most time. Fully chanted, it isn’t unreasonable that it takes a full hour to complete. Each subsequent hour can take anywhere between 15 mins and 30 mins. In other words, fully committing to praying the office, especially at first, is a huge time commitment. The monastic life, unlike Peg + Cat‘s immature definition, is not primarily about helping people while dressed in a robe. The monastic life is primarily centered on praying the Divine Office, on doing the work of God.

The meat of each hour is of course the psalmody, the psalms done each hour. After the psalmody follows readings from the Bible or from great saints, and each hour has a timely hymn. The conclusion of the hour focuses on a liturgically appropriate prayer, usually the collect, or opening prayer, from the previous Sunday’s Mass.

Speaking of Mass, it is important to note that the Divine Office, as a portion of the Church’s Liturgy as a whole, deserves a lot of the same reverence and attention that the Mass gets. Daily Mass, for example, is well abound in the western Church, but that means it is often said rather than sung. Similarly the Office is more often said quietly to oneself, rather than sung. In terms of importance, though, the Divine Office, like the Mass, deserves to be sung on every occasion. This is where I discovered the largest treasure trove of Gregorian Chant in the modern time when trying to learn how to do it. A good textual example of this repertoire is the Liber Usualis, which contains nearly all of the Church’s chant for Mass and for a large portion of the Office.

How to Add the Habit of the Office

Before discussing the how, it is probably important to mention a why. Why pray (or attempt to pray) the Divine Office instead of just a daily Rosary, or on top of the Rosary? Paragraph 100 of Sacrosanctum Concilium states that: “The laity…are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually.” Wrapping this conciliar document into the discussion complicates things, but let it be known as a good starting point that while the monastic tradition is what has really kept the life of the Divine Office singing, it is meant for the whole Church to pray. While the Rosary and other devotional prayers are good for the soul, is it not more fitting that the central liturgy of the Church be prioritized as a main part of the Christian’s everyday prayer?

Adding in the practice of praying the Divine Office from no prior use is going to be nearly impossible. It takes time to form effective habits, and learning the rubrics of the Office takes time, just like learning the rubrics of Mass. Once learned, of course, the motions are secondhand, just like for the Mass. It is best to begin with the major elements. Once again we invoke that conciliar document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and how it emphasizes certain hours. Lauds and Vespers, said at sunrise and sunset, are, according to the document, the primary hours around which the Office hinges. Therefore it makes absolute sense that one praying the hours would begin by implementing these into their prayer habits. Out of the two, Vespers is probably the easiest to begin with. Instead of an evening Rosary, you instead simply pray the evening office of the Church. Out of all of the hours, these are also the ones you are most likely to pray in choir with your family at home, if you have one.

Once habits are formed around these two main hours, Compline is the next to add. In many ways, Compline is a choral favorite, and some may feel inclined to start here instead of the two major hours. It is a very special way to truly end the day, especially by candlelight and perhaps with some incense burning.

From here the daytime hours are the next to add. These will structurally be the more difficult to add in, especially depending on your job. If you are allowed to take a couple of breaks in addition to lunch, then this will be quite easy, for example. Here it is best to say “pray what you can” and to be merciful with yourself for what you may or may not do otherwise. Start with incorporating one hour into your daily work routine and only add in another once the first is comfortably set. I personally find that Sixth is the easier hour to add, since you would pray it somewhere around lunchtime. Of course if you don’t pray exactly starting the minute of the hour, that’s okay as well. If one day you start Sixth at 1230 PM, or 1130 AM, or even 130 PM, then you’re probably fine.

Lastly, and most weightily, Matins is to add. At this point if you’ve added all the other hours into your routine, then you’re well accustomed to the nature of the Divine Office, and so you won’t be bogged down with how to do the hour as much as being bogged down for the time. Now, if you’re single and have no family, then you have every reason to plan on waking up early (around 5 am, maybe) to pray it then. But, if you do have a family and/or you are bogged down with important responsibilities, then you can take advice from the Breviary’s General Norms (here in line 144) which states that, with good reason, Matins may be moved to the previous afternoon or evening, so long as it does not precede 2 p.m. I don’t know about you but I would consider kids a pretty good reason! Because Matins is the heaviest with 9 psalms and 3 readings, or maybe even 9 readings, it might show itself to be a proving grounds for your familiarity of the Office.

Which Divine Office resource to use

Now, you may have noticed so far that a lot of my references are coming from the 1960s – and there’s a bit of a caveat I have to add to everything on which I’ve just advised you. I have essentially been showing you the old way to pray the Divine Office. Why? Primarily so that you understand the fullness of the meaning of the Office from time past, but also so that when I explain the new office to you, you can see it for what it is: a simplification. This is where we see that my previous invocation of Sancrosanctum Concilium is a bit difficult, as this document is what called for the simplification of the Divine Office in the 1960s. Note the hours, for example:


There’s not a problem with praying the new Liturgy of the Hours. It is the common prayer book of the Church. But you do have to understand the old structure of the hours in order to understand what the new structure of the hours wants to achieve. Besides the restructuring of the hours, the Psalms are also spread out over the course of a 4 week cycle, meaning that there are generally less Psalms in any given hour than the old way, so it is quicker to do.

Online Resources

Whichever way you want to go, the first thing to do is to try and use some digital resources to begin praying the hours. If you can build up the discipline of praying the hours on an app then you might be more disposed to successfully purchase and use a printed version.

Divinum Officum – This website has everything laid out plainly and you just navigate to the day. Use this if you want to become familiar with the old form of the Office.

iBreviary – This website, as well as app, allows you to quickly and simply navigate what you need for the old form AND the new form of the Divine Office. This is very easy to begin navigating.

Printed Resources

After you prove to yourself that you can begin praying the Office, then you can upgrade and move on to actual printed texts.

Liturgy of the Hours – 4 Volume Set – This is for the new Office after Vatican II. Anytime you find a four volume set for the Liturgy of the Hours, this is the same set you will find. And yes, they all cost about the same. Each volume has everything you need to pray the Office at the various times of the season, and everything is listed out pretty straightforward. There is a simpler version of this, titled Christian Prayer, which has some good short term uses (like for Evening Prayer and Morning Prayer), but is not useful for praying the full office. The shorter version lacks a huge portion of the Office.

Nova et Vetera Breviary – This two volume set for the Old Divine Office is excellent. I have not seen it in person, but if I were to buy a printed version of the old Office, this is the one I would go with. The first volume is for Advent through Lent, and the second volume covers Easter through the end of the Church year. If you needed English text as well, then I would recommend checking out the Baronius Press Breviary.

Abbreviated Resources

If you ultimately do find this to be all too overwhelming, then there are some abbreviated resources that are excellent.

The Little Office of Baltimore – The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore met in 1884, and one of the fruits of this Plenary Council was the production of a smaller Office, meant for the American laity. This office, being established in 1884, follows the structure of the Old Office, but essentially makes it the same for every day. Sundays are different and certain feast days are different, but otherwise it’s a great resource for praying the office in a much smaller way. I used this to help acclimate my family to the experience of praying the Office, and since it is the same every day, my daughter has very quickly memorized whole psalms!

The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary – This very old devotional prayer book follows the hours of the old Office, but attunes the psalms and readings to the Blessed Virgin. These, also, are the same every day.

Singing the Office

If you, like I, take chant and prayer seriously, then you very well may be interested in singing and chanting the Office. Here the water gets murkier, and this is a misfortune.

The Liturgy of the Hours – There are no full English chant books for the Liturgy of the Hours! And resources for the new Office are few and far between. If you know anything about chant you will know that the Abbey of Solesmes is responsible for everything we have as resources in the modern era. They are part of the whole revival of Gregorian Chant in the early 20th Century! They have since developed a set of the Antiphonale Romanum, which is a lot. While useful and effective, they specifically say that these books are not intended for the average monk, which means that though a good resource, it may not be easy to use. It is also in Latin, of course, which removes part of the accessibility of the new Liturgy of the Hours.

The Liber Usualis – This is a book containing all of the chant for the Mass as well as for Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. It has Lauds and Matins of some special Feast days, but that is all. This book would be more specific for people who chant a lot at Mass and are also interested in singing some of the hours.

Antiphonale Monasticum (1934) – This classic volume, also composed by the Abbey of Solesmes, has all of the Divine Office prior to Vatican II except for Matins. So it is a leg up from the Liber Usualis. It is actually rather common that Matins wouldn’t be included in chant volumes, unless it is for a special feast, since Matins as the vigil hour is probably very difficult to make everyone come together and do. It is much simpler to have everyone do it by themselves and maybe only chant it with a straight tone. The Nocturnale Romanum, an elusive text that contains all of the chants for the Old Matins, has made momentary appearances in recent history, but is currently not available anywhere.

Yes, a Family can really pray the Divine Office

One of the reasons I write this article is so that anyone, especially families, might be encouraged to start praying the Divine Office. Just like I encouraged the good use of praying a daily or weekly Rosary at the beginning of the article, I wish to emphasize again that whatever you include from the Divine Office in your life will be of great benefit. Sancrosanctum Concilium, in that same paragraph 100, states that “Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts,” meaning that the Council envisioned that even a once a week celebration of Vespers by a parochial community would add great spiritual benefit to their lives. Imagine that you and your family prayed Vespers every night, then, compared to that original goal!

As a father myself, though, I already know the excuses:

“We just have too busy a family schedule.”

“Nobody else is interested in it.”

“The kids won’t sit still!”

“I don’t know enough Latin.”

“The kids won’t understand what is going on.”

“It’s too much for me to learn.”

The great news here is that as laity, we are not required to pray the Divine Office. Our participation whatsoever in this liturgical prayer is a great blessing to ourselves and to the Church, and does great honor to God. If you only pray one or two of the hours as a family, and then pray the rest individually, or if the only hour prayed is one of the hours as a family, then, just like the daily or weekly Rosary, these are great victories and wonderful prayerful acts to be celebrated. Not to mention, this is why those abbreviated versions of the Office exist!

This being said, I want to echo what I heard Matt Fradd say recently when commenting on pulling himself away from constant modern cell phone usage: “How much are you willing to sacrifice?” in order to live a more prayerful and peaceful life? Are those excuses above really true? Or is there something else going on that you really want to spend more time doing, like scrolling through your phone, watching youtube videos go leor, staying caught up with a tv show, or being involved with sports or other leisure activities?

As families and even single people, we are always busy. I think of all the retired people I know, who are somehow busier now than they ever were when they were still working. We’re always going to have excuses to not dig in deeper and give our time to God. In my own family I have already seen this fruit. While I pray the more full Divine Office by myself, we use the Little Office of Baltimore as a family – my daughter has multiple psalms and the Magnificat already memorized, and she’s FOUR. If you, like my family and I, really want to turn away from the world and look more directly to God, then this is the way to do it. Plug into the fullness of the liturgy of the Church, and do the Opus Dei (the work of God) in the Divine Office.

Bullet list of tips to pray the Divine Office with family:

    • Revisit the order of introducing the hours into your daily routine that I mentioned at the beginning. It may take a year or longer to really get into the swing of the full office, if not a good amount of it!
    • Don’t pressure other members to do more than they’re able.
    • Allow kids a little wandering freedom (but keep them close!).
    • Provide kids with a tactile focus (Rosary beads, a book of their own, a religious image book).
    • Singing is way better than just reading – even if you want to adopt just one of the eight simple Gregorian Tones for the whole of the Office.
    • Allow yourself to feel a little confused at first. Eventually the habit will build itself. You’ll know you’re there when you’re kids start spontaneously singing and saying parts of the office on their own!

#6 – The Grammar of the Soul

In previous articles, I have written about the existence of the human soul, justifying it using Aristotelian and Thomistic logic. Expounding on the logic is difficult for a new reader, laborious for an amateur explaining it, and grueling for an academic trying to add to the already standing body of work around Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysical ideas. Of course, the intersection of my academic studies and Aristotle or Aquinas really collide when speaking about language. While there is plenty to speak of within the Thomistic tradition about the nature of language, it is done in one sort of way.

Seemingly from age to age, it is enough to send the minds of philosophers spinning to contemplate the fact that the phenomenon of language is so uniquely intertwined with the human soul, indivisible from our nature as both rational and animal. Most of the energy that St. Thomas puts toward contemplating the nature of language and the mind deals with the nature of man’s reception of knowledge. The reception of knowledge is the grounds on which we formally understand that we do have souls, and rational ones at that. This fact, as O’Callaghan writes, is closely intertwined with St. Thomas’ understanding of the purpose of man.

“Not only is it the case that for St. Thomas our mental life is incomplete without its welling in the world of animals, plants, and inanimate objects, but perhaps even more striking is St. Thomas’s position that the created world of animals, plants, and inanimate beings is itself incomplete until it is taken up into the mental life of the human person who dwells within it. This mutual indwelling is for St. Thomas the perfection of the created order, a more perfect image and likeness of God” (Thomist Realism & the Linguistic Turn, p. 280-281).

Man’s teleos, final purpose, is to behold God as He truly is, for “final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence” (Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, Q. 3, Art. 8) This is the Beatific Vision. God is a truly infinite being, infinitely higher in nature than we ever could be, and our purpose is to spend eternity beholding Him, coming to know Him. We could spend all of eternity beholding Him and still never find an end of wonder.

For Aquinas, the human soul is, primarily, receptive in nature. Its teleos is receptive, therefore Aquinas understands the whole of the soul as primarily being a receiver in and of the world, and more so a receiver of God. Thus, when exploring the soul’s relationship to language, Aquinas primarily engages in the notion of comprehension, the work of such contemplation leading to my aforementioned articles.

Yet as many know, this is not the whole of language. Sure, language is comprehended, but how does an integral view of an ensouled human explain the action of speech? How does it explain where languages come from and how they develop and change? There are many questions that we could get to, but for now my big question is this: how do we explain the phenomenon of language grammar within a Thomistic framework? Modern linguists all have their ideas about how words exist in the human mind, but a large part of my linguistic studies at university were not so much interested in how words are and become manifest in the human mind (though that was certainly of interest as well) but also how those words cooperated, whether in comprehension or production, to produce elements bigger than themselves.

Curious to my experience, there, was how the most successful language acquisition models would often sidestep some of these questions of the nature of grammar, deeming any one model or idea insufficient, ultimately claiming it wasn’t an important enough question to satisfy before looking on to classroom practices. It was especially odd since most of my other classes spent time looking at just how language is constructed in the mind, such as my syntax classes. It didn’t take long, though, to notice a particular obsession with my favorite acquisition theories that was common to my favorite philosopher: comprehension. From observing Stephen Krashen to Bill VanPatten and beyond into the larger community of language instructors that were hyper focused on enveloping learners with mountains of opportunity for purposeful comprehension, it was impossible to not connect my favorite academic subjects.

The theories expounded by these academics, the Input Hypothesis and the Input Processing theory, subordinate or eliminate grammar lessons in the language classroom when practically applied to curriculum. Overt grammar knowledge, they argue (and prove), is unnatural and isn’t effective for novices. What is? Many repeated innocuous exposures to significant forms of grammar in context.

So can Aquinas explain why these theories are true? Can Aquinas explain how the human mind learns grammar without overly explicit lessons? I firmly believe that a Thomistic Theory of Grammar would help explain and inform many courses of modern linguistic study.

The Proposition

Grammar exists as Aristotelian form knowledge in the intellect as abstracted relationships.

In Article #3 of this series, I presented the facts that words are equivalent to the passiones animae, the impressions made on the soul from reality around it. As an important beginning point, I wish to recap the way that words exist in our minds. From the perspective of comprehension, we see that a set of phonological or orthographical conveniences become associated with a distinct passion of, or impression on, the soul. The human subject perceives something in reality, or rather, something in reality makes an impression on the human senses, and the intellect becomes impressed upon by the senses themselves. While the true Aristotelian form of the perceived object never leaves itself, the very what-ness (quidditas) of the object becomes grasped at by the soul, and the impression can be called a passio animae. The act of receiving the passio and remembering the passio within the passive intellect becomes comprehension.

Now, in my classes and in the field of study of linguistics, grammar is classified as a unique branch of the reality of language, because it seems to be its own category. Suddenly one is not considering the abstraction of ‘dog’ or even the abstract motion of ‘eating’ but the strange application and rules of how these words work together. We do not say “Eating dog” or “Eat dog” or “Dog eat” but rather “The dog eats.” It is no surprise that multiple words get strung together, but the linguist studying grammar wishes to understand not only why we string words together in this specific way, but how we implicitly know and control this construction of language and how we know when to add or remove different linguistic affixes. Perhaps, even, the linguist wants to know why an incorrect construction of these elements leads to miscommunication. The average man does not overtly think about constructing his sentences, but simply communicates his observations, needs, desires, and inquiries. Even an educated man, though, can be quite confused by obscure sentence strings and sentences that ignore standard grammar conventions.

Returning to our information of St. Thomas Aquinas, we see that when words work together, there is in fact a single passio animae that results from the conveyed information. All of the individual components work together and create a single impression, a “complex concept” (Thomist Realism & the Linguistic Turn, p. 19-20)  . Thus informed, one might ask where grammar fits in. It cannot be ignored, as clearly incorrect grammar leads to obstruction of comprehension, but done well or with little deviance it is unnoticeable.

Since language is particular, and not universal to all of mankind, it would be easy to propose that grammar somehow belongs solely within the material domain, in the brain, or, at the very least, as a sensory phenomenon. This would likely be akin to a behaviorist understanding of language and grammar, where there are positive associations built up with certain word or sound relationships, and negative associations with incorrect relationships. If I said to my friend “Nosotros hablas mucho bien español” I would suffer some negative reactions, but if I then corrected to “Nosotros hablamos muy bien el español” I would be received much more positively. The issue with this approach is that it ignores the fact that words and grammar conventions themselves carry meaning, which within the human mind properly belongs to the intellect. There’s a reason that behaviorist ideas of psychology haven’t aged well.

If grammar somehow belongs to the intellect, then we have to differentiate grammar and words. Words observe a singular entity, while grammar primarily entertains multiple entities. Here it is helpful to consider what sorts of substantial categories of things the intellect abstracts. Aristotle long ago distinguished between substantial forms and accidental forms, substantial being something like “human” whereas accidental is “red hair.” Within the concept of accidental forms, Aristotle described nine types, and one of the most significant here for us to understand is that of relation. Mere relationships are themselves abstracted accidental forms, beings, that the intellect entertains, separate even from the things that a relationship enjoins.

In Spanish, there are many suffixes for verbs which convey a range of information, from the time of the action and the subject that performed the action to subtle mood differences of the action (whether it for sure happened or whether it is desired that it happens). Certainly, then, the suffixes connect the primal identity of the word with more subtle applications of that word with other abstract notions of ‘past’ and ‘unfulfilled’ and ‘by us.’ At play is a distinct relationship. But this distinct relationship does not exist solely to that unique action in that one context. It can be applied to many words describing different actions, but it is the same abstract relationship at play.

When students learn a new language, it can be fascinating to learn about the novel grammar constructions of new languages. One of my favorites of these is one I learned of Irish Gaeilge, where possession cannot be expressed by a transitive verb. One must say that a certain object is “at” them. But by saying something is “at” one self, they have thus expressed possession.

Tá  an   uisce agam.

Is   the water at-me.

I have the water.

Yet, as wild and foreign as the grammatical concept may propose itself to be, it is nonetheless still comprehensible to the student, even if only after many exposures to the various instances in which the language proposes it to the student. In my experience of teaching language, this is the part that students struggle with the most. It’s not necessarily learning that certain phonetic or orthographic pieces are constructed together, but that the abstract relationships proposed by the grammar are actually meaningful and appropriate.

Why can’t I just say that I LIKE the food Mr. Skipper? Why do I have to say that it pleases me? That’s so wEiRd.

So inevitably, grammar is a composition of certain abstract relationships that one language orchestrates very differently than another. In Spanish one of the most important relationships is between Action, Time, and Subject. The importance can be seen in not just the primacy in a phrase, but how convenient the expression of this relationship is in phonetics. It all gets conjoined in the very same word.

Fuimos – We left

It is not impossible for other languages to convey similar meanings, but the conventions of expressing those meanings look differently, and the attention given to those conventions and relationships take on different value as an abstract whole. The fact that prepositions are always connected to other subjects or objects means that in Irish, personal pronouns become subjugated as suffixes to the pronoun in question. Yet that is the key – the two separate elements of preposition and pronoun, in Irish, are subject to a grammar relationship that results in a phonetic merge.

Ag + mé
(At    me)
= Agam

Where Grammar Comes From

This is a point I want to address with particular importance and stress. In an “I-make-me” world, we want to decentralize power into the individual, often to the detriment of our communal nature.

When a baby learns a language, they have to learn about the conventions of grammar and the abstract relationships that the language of their parents prioritizes. But the parents do not take the baby to school to expound on the nature of those relationships, and the baby still learns the language just fine. In general, it’s probably a common assurance that most parents are not able to expound on those relationships. For them, the language is as much innate given as it will be for their child.

Here I want to stress the obscure nature of the soul. You see, when Aquinas investigates the nature of the soul and talks about comprehension, he is never speaking about an overt process. He doesn’t talk about the intellect recognizing the act of cognition. He talks about the immediate and incognito effects of cognition. For Aquinas, comprehension is not really a voluntary action, it is mostly involuntary. Callaghan explains that, “in the case of intellect, a potentially intelligible thing extra animam, rendered actually intelligible by the agent intellect, moves the possible intellect to its act” (Thomist Realism & the Linguistic Turn, p. 214), where the motion of intelligibility and comprehension begins outside of the intellect. The intellect is capable of recognizing how it works, but it is a complex act of self-analysis, a reception of itself into itself, only after the primary acts of comprehension are already complete. So when one speaks of analyzing grammar, we are already speaking about things that we have understood, and are grasping at how it is possible for our intellects to have already done what they have. In other words, we do not know what the primary relationships motivating our language’s construction are until we are able to later reflect on them.

Initially, of course, humans did not just have their languages. They had to have come out of something else. What is innate to humanity as a source out of which language came? Perhaps philosophers like Naom Chomsky want to talk about the powers of Universal Grammar, where there are certain neurologically based constructs that predict the growth of language in the human person, and are evident in the analysis of syntax across languages. Later advocates, such as Ray Jackendoff, will of course be sure to tell us that such explanations are possible without resorting to a ‘magical’ view of the mind as soul. Yet, truly, it is the intellect and will, that which makes us rational creatures, that is the true substrate of the human person, which gives rise to language.

At some early point in human development, historically and not in any one person, groups of humans could have begun with artificially and intentional phonetic relationships that conveyed abstract relationships. One can think of how a string of words can convey grammatical notions:

Dog eat now but cat eat morning not now.

The children of those who came up with the more artificial constructions of language would receive them more naturally, and it would not be so difficult to use and explicitly remember those linguistic conventions. They might even feel so free as to build or synthesize more linguistic conventions and further their language into something more advanced. There is modern evidence of this behavior with the phenomena of pidgin and creole languages, where a certain community synthesizes two or more languages, oftentimes with difficulty or with novel structures and what would previously be considered unconventional, but then the children of that community acquire the synthesized language as its own and do so with ease, essentially creating a new language. To conceive of primitive human communities doing so without a previous linguistic base is not difficult. Certainly within three generations it is conceivable to think of a human community moving from not having a language at all to having an incredibly elaborate language. Yet, as the third generation carries on to the fourth, there is no need to overtly convey linguistic grammar conventions, if there ever was a need to do so.

Wherefore doth it import to us?

In the general process of abstraction, there is  an observation of particulars that contributes towards a non-specific thing which is shared between all of them. In the case of grammar, I have appealed to something of a grammatical relationship that guides specific linguistic constructions. But, one may ask, why is that any different than the more recent tradition of understanding a linguistic ‘rule’? In other words, how is a rule different than a relationship?

Before even engaging in the specifics, I think the description of rule vs. relationship is already a tangible difference. One can think of rule as something with authority that imposes on another, that conveys overt control, and paints an image of very finely tuned divisions between correct and incorrect. Yet quite readily anyone who has spent time in the language classroom will be able to observe that the ‘authority’ of a rule is realistically only a façade, that overt knowledge of rules does not guarantee fluency in the language, and that there are always exceptions. In other words, while there is speak of grammar ‘rules’ it’s really difficult to maintain such an appearance. Instead, a relationship implies something that works dynamically between idea and user, even between ideas, that more often exists implicitly, and is much more forgiving, or even encouraging, of deviances from any norm.

More critically, the average grammar rules are often too dependent on the material elements of language. I can easily picture a Spanish textbook in my head which looks at grammatical categories that are based on purely orthographic and phonetic differences, such as the difference between –ar and -ir verbs. Yet there is no movement of difference in meaning when analyzing these categories.

Fruitfully one can look at these textbooks and see the relationships that stand out as foundational. Ironically they can be found when textbooks attempt to explain the rules, talking about why exceptions exist, what the goal of these different grammatical forms are, etc. When looking at the differences between –ar and -ir verbs, for example, one might end up instead contemplating the relationship between verbs and the present sense of their action as compared to the relationship between verbs and a future sense of their action. While the traditional rules are generally divided somewhat arbitrarily, understanding grammar as a set of relationships is a notion fraught with meaning and purpose. Instead of a learner being taught how to create “correct” phrases, they are instead oriented towards finding meaning and purpose in phrases, and are oriented towards creating meaning and purpose in production.

Now, I hear the critics crying out, “the lists and divisions may be arbitrary, but they help divide up what is a long and complicated list of deviations! There’s no other way to learn so much content! Textbooks can still be used in the classroom if they were to perhaps include more organization around these relationships!” And in a sense, they are correct. Trying to organize grammar lessons and principles around relationships, one may inevitably separate out –ar, -er, and -ir verbs because of the ease of demonstrating their orthographic and phonetic differences, but this returns us to our friends who are teaching language in input-intensive comprehensible classrooms.

Comprehensible Input

The goal of the Input Hypothesis in a practical application is to provide a language learner with a ton of rich and meaningful input, input that actually bears meaning and relevance to a student, so that the student comes to possess the language. The input is often context-rich, heavy with cognates at the beginning of education, and long and drawn out towards a lofty goal at the end of every lesson, filled with many repetitions along the way. It draws the student with purpose towards a third-party goal that immerses and guides the student through language growth the entire time.

Over the years countless studies around input comprehension have demonstrated that students exposed to this rich input perhaps do not develop a rich overt knowledge of textbook rules, but that they have a high implicit understanding of how a language works. They do not struggle in reading books (yes, full books) that target their language level, they engage in relatively fluent conversations, and otherwise have a quite natural possession of a language.

In other words, students taught in Comprehensible Input based classrooms, classrooms that might be considered ‘immersive’ and most often without textbooks or guided curriculum, come to possess a language much in the way that a young child comes to possess their first language(s), without overt grammatical knowledge of a language. They implicitly have formed an understanding of the way that grammatical relationships work within a language, possessing those abstract forms within their intellect that easily guide their comprehension and production of a language, no matter the format.

The Soul is Necessary to Explain Language.

In the end, we return to the main point of this article. At the beginning I asked: “how do we explain the phenomenon of language grammar within a Thomistic framework?” to which we have this answer:

Grammar exists as Aristotelian form knowledge in the intellect as abstracted relationships.

Since grammar in practicality is a set of organizing principles of language that relate two or more meaningful notions together, then those organizing principles, relationships, must exist somewhere that can implicitly exert a governing dominance over the words and affixes that need to be arranged together. Since it has already been established that words root themselves in the abstract formations of the intellect, then it follows that grammar relationships need to similarly take residence in the intellect. Once again we find ourselves needing philosophical logic of the human soul in order to explain the phenomenon of language.

Of course, while this doesn’t seem to have any practical applications, we see that it is incredibly relevant not only to scientists and academics who are trying to explore the nature of language and the forces that govern it, but also to those who teach and learn language. Before you say “I’m not taking a foreign language class!” I just want you to think about how you’re understanding the words of this article, and how you perhaps have taught your own children to speak. What about that word you saw last week for the first time and you had to google search its definition? Language acquisition is most effective, it has generally been documented, when set up with effective Comprehensible Input. As a whole, also, language knowledge is largely implicit, and this Theory of Grammar – a Thomistic Theory of Grammar, finally explains what is going on at the root of our human nature to make it all possible.


~ * ~

Rising high in the midst of beautiful lands,
Are great ugly spires of death and decay.
Built to mimic ascent and to help men pray,
They created dissent, and made it a brand

The men who traipse in the mire below,
Only partially less happy than they
Who in misery built their prisons so gray;
The commoner, at least, is blessed to not know.

In great waves of toil, all fell in to fight,
Donning breastplates of old,  effaced with  great age,
Under those great towers of pleasure, their cage,
But heraldry, also, aloft at great height.

Recalled not their steps from afore, just what’s next,
They billowed into a carcass of salt,
A desiccate ocean where life came to halt.
So came these armies; into battle they trekked.


Grimly opposed, there sat fathers and brothers,
Staring down a world they’d ne’er think to bear.
Caressing the breeze, plate hard-cut, like feathers,
Capturing the sun and suspending the air.

Their vestments were white, full of color and life.
Calling on their Remittress, heraldry shone.
Close aligned they marched on, more keen than a knife,
Their strike ordained as much as mission condoned.

Plowing through their foe, relentlessly they flayed,
Laying waste to the mobs, though bearing no sword.
They descend’d up that hill whence fell their poor prey,
Sparing not mind nor heart ’til all heard their Lord.


Form never broken, their numbers now higher,
Their order never more graceful and tame.
Hardened faces and eyes ablaze with white fire,
In singular passion and voice they acclaim:


~ * ~



The Choice to Choose

One of my favorite political comments that I have ever heard was given by Bishop Robert Barron. He said, perhaps not exactly, that America has a fickle relationship with the law. In his book Catholicism he writes, “For those who love freedom as choice, the law is, at best, something grudgingly accepted” (p. 40). America is not the only recipient of his comment, as the U.S. is only one of many nations which share a Western history. As my patria and especially as the cause of this article, I will really only focus on the U.S.

In grad school one of my professors engaged us with the topic of epistemology in the vein of historical critical studies. The notion is that communities of men, at different times, had such different views of the world that we could not somehow equate our perspective with theirs, even if we live in the same region and culture as they did. Of course men have always had their disagreements, but there is always something that they have in common, uniting them without even realizing it. At one point in the course my professor asked us: “What is it in our modern time? What do people share in common now without even realizing it?”

I won’t pretend to have an answer to his question, as in many ways the changes that occurred at the beginning of the 19th century have persisted, even if radicalized. I do think, though, that there is something that the modern mind in the U.S. shares, and that is the notion of freedom of choice. This is such an essential characteristic of American identity that it may seem redundant to talk about it in the land of liberty, but there is more to it than that. As my patron was oft fond of doing, we here must make distinctions.

Freedom of choice, the ability to choose everything for oneself internally and externally, may be contrasted with freedom for excellence, the ability to know one’s limits and freely pursue excellence without excessive worry. If “liberty” is a positive trigger word for Americans, “limit” is certainly the opposite. As Barron says, lovers of choice only grudgingly accept limits as necessary evils, mostly to keep “others” from infringing on their own choices.

The wild thing for me is that everyone along the political spectrum is extremely concerned with freedom of choice. Many of our current “hot topics” can be boiled down to a preoccupation of choice. The ability to choose an abortion, to choose citizenship, to choose gender, to choose marriage, to choose gun ownership, to choose schools, to choose careers, to choose pleasure, to choose religion, to choose luxury, to choose healthcare, and, most recently, to choose stock investments. In order to maintain freedom of choice in areas one is interested in, there must be tolerable laws in place that protect one’s right to choose, but that is the extent to which most believe law should go.

I’ve made this observation before in a more casual circumstance and it was, naturally, deflected very quickly. Living in a hyper-politicized environment, it’s not a simple matter of picking and choosing what topics you want to be able to fight for. If one supports freedom to choose abortion, they likely support a specific set of other choices, and deny others’ right to choices as somehow infringing on their own. I know of an individual who is homosexual and obviously supports the freedom to choose what marriage looks like; but they also support the freedom to choose guns! One can imagine the controversy.

More often than not I see that if someone truly aligns themselves with an ideology or with a system of thought outside of the U.S., like religion, they might think outside of this framework. They might conclude that abortion is wrong, not because it impedes choice but because it commits a mortal evil. They might conclude that freedom to choose stocks is too volatile and there need to be strict rules in place not to impede choice, but to stabilize markets. They might conclude that the government should regulate a static income for all citizens, because self-interested companies are unlikely to provide fair wages ALL of the time.

Yet even if one perceives themselves as being outside of this struggle, as being part of an intellectual and moral framework that denies certain pleasures to achieve higher goods, there are temptations, ways that a priority of choice makes its way into one’s mind. Even if one perceives themselves as having concluded that their beliefs are based off of some external logic and not innate desires, I would imagine they are still prone to this way of thinking.

On a day to day basis, when one grows frustrated in not being able to choose the course of their activities and instead has to participate in something of someone else’s design, it is a frustration with freedom of choice. I teach middle-schoolers; I have an idea of what I’m talking about.

A preoccupation with freedom of choice is also really evident in the way that my contemporaries approach raising families, as well. That is, if they do at all. Many people cannot imagine having children because once one does, one has many less options about how to spend their time. Who wants to give up that freedom?

Going to work is a chore; it is the 9-5 grind that we are all trained to brace for and endure. One works for the weekend. Why? Because one does not choose what their daily life looks like while working. On the weekends, one has all the control they desire.

I know I myself get frustrated when my weekend is filled with obligations, and I love when I get to do my choice of activities.

So when a secular gun rights advocate is opposed to abortion, and vice versa, I truly stand astounded. When arguing on purely secular terms, and when both prioritize such freedom to choose, it makes no sense for there to be opposition. Surely both parties can agree and value the priority of choice that the other desires. After all, when someone’s choice might seem to conflict with yours, but you want to honor their difference, the first thing you say might be “it’s your choice!”

Overall when our very politically divided nation can’t find anything to agree on, it’s important to fight and find common ground, or at the very least create it. What better ground than this?

This is only the beginning, though.

As Bishop Barron illustrates,  Freedom of Choice is something of an illusion. The appearance goes something like this:

  • Pleasurable activities make me happy.
  • The more good activities I do, the more happy I am.
  • I have to choose activities to do them.

  • Therefore: I should choose as many of my activities as possible.

Everyone knows, though, that having a lot of choices to make is often burdensome. In fact what Bishop Barron might point out is that when one is consumed with prioritizing a freedom of choice, one becomes a slave to their choices. Time has to be spent, effort has to be made, and consequences must be faced, all to prioritize a freedom of choice.

Counter to Freedom of Choice, as I have said, is Freedom for Excellence. By appealing to a higher or more external authority to determine what is or isn’t appropriate, correct, or quotidian, one is more truly free to excel at what is presented to them. Bishop Barron’s classic examples of two people who have done this are Shakespeare and Michael Jordan. Both have found excellence and goodness not because they made all the right choices from scratch, but because they stuck to all of the rules (of the English language and of basketball, respectively), and made artistic choices within the proper confines of them. This is the true mark of their excellence : that they stuck to the rules.

Some see the Catholic Church’s depth of regulation as an obstacle to happiness, but the reality is that it is actually essential to any chance of lasting goodness.

The Atlas Complex

The unspoken burden of the modern teacher.

Atlas is a famous titan of Greek mythology, condemned to forever bear the weight of the world. He alone is responsible for holding it on his shoulders; if he falters for even a second, the world will fall away and perish, and he will forever bear the fault of it.

Today’s teachers stand in Atlas’ place. The educational success of each student that comes through their classroom rests entirely on their shoulders. It is fair to say that this was not always the expectation of society. In more recent years there has been an excessive attempt to standardize and systematize education so that all who participate may receive equitable profit, yet this mission is fraught itself with iniquity. Most importantly, here, is that the teacher becomes the focus point of education, and this is no good thing.


Standardization was generally achieved through a few main channels. Standardized tests is the most recognizable, but textbooks are also significant for this process. Most importantly is the notion of Standards Based Grading (SBG), where students are graded according to content mastery rather than assignment completion.

Most definitely, at face value, we see that standardization really helps students. By establishing a system for better education and for more regular education, we find less educational performance gaps, regardless of where the students are living and regardless of who the teachers are. I personally have found that SBG really does seem to take away the “racing” mentality of school. Students are less focused on earning all their points and are more focused on mastering content knowledge.

At its root, standardization is an attempt to systematize what already existed. Standardization determined education to be a good thing and disparities in education to be a sad thing. That one child in rural Arkansas might not be getting the same level of education as a child in a well-to-do area of Washington D.C was not okay. By systematizing the medium of education (curriculum, grading policies, etc.) then education itself became systematized. The ultimate goal? To fine-tune the system of education so that every child, no matter of background, strengths, or interests, will come out the other side as a well-educated and well-rounded individual.

An Unintended Consequence

For a moment, I will lay aside some philosophical concerns about the nature of systemizing a civic institution. I instead want us to think about the effects of standardization and what it does with its participants. For the children, there are a mountain of benefits. There are, perhaps, some drawbacks when we think about creativity, but on the whole we find that more children are improved than not. But children aren’t the only people in this scenario: teachers are also in the midst of it.

Instead of an approach to education that begins with the unique qualities of all participants, standardization methods begin with predicting appropriate or inappropriate methods of instruction. With this understanding, teachers are part of the medium itself. Just as textbooks have to be standardized in order to deliver a standardized curriculum across broad circumstances, teachers also have to be standardized. This is necessary in order to truly establish a singular standard of education across the nation, but it has a serious side effect:

When teachers themselves are seen as part of the system at hand, that means that they are attributed direct causal authority over the outcomes of said system.

Your standard drip coffee maker has a filter holder, a filter that you insert, a water vat, a heating element, a switch, and an electrical plug. Each of these elements are arranged in such a way that they all have a causal effect on the outcome of the coffee maker. They are individual pieces, but there are a cascade of causes that make them work. If you have your coffee maker plugged in, and it doesn’t make coffee, what is to be assumed? Certainly that something in the middle isn’t working.

We can think about a standardized education system looking something like a coffee maker. We hope to design such a system that when used, produces expected results; if it’s plugged in, it should make coffee. When something goes wrong in the educational system, we can assume something similar to the coffee maker problem: something in the system failed. There could be a number of things that end up receiving the blame: the textbooks, the structure a school administration has put in place, or, most importantly here, the teacher.

Under the principle of subsidiarity, the teacher is the most significant element in a system of education, as they are the closest human element to the students. Being human means they are the most variable, and so the most problematic in the face of standardizing education.

The Teacher, Atlas

The teacher is the last domino to hit the children, so to speak. They are the final deliverers of content, the assessors, the troubleshooters, etc. Now, when I was teaching as a graduate student at the university, my role was extremely minimized into being a mere facilitator of content. I had no design authority and it was not my place to change anything; I was merely meant to deliver. My professor meant it when he said that we were not responsible for our students’ outcomes. Barring some major immoral act, the challenge of our university level classes was between our students and the content. We were not Atlas.

When I got my first public teaching job, I got the complete opposite message. It was told, albeit not directly, that my students’ performances were a result of my efforts. If my students failed, it was my fault. If my students succeeded, I had done my job sufficiently. The idea was that the curriculum and knowledge was already standard, and so any variance in student performance would be a result of my effectiveness as a teacher.

The first test I gave went very poorly for my Spanish students. I’ll never forget when a student asked me:

“Well you’re going to curve the grades, right? That’s what all the other teachers do.”
“No, absolutely not!”
“Why? It’s only going to look bad on you if you don’t.”

Even my students thought that their failure was actually mine.

The teacher, here, is the Atlas that holds up the classroom. Whereas my college professor told us that we were nigh an independent variable when it came to student success at the university, my new school’s policy was telling me that there were nigh any other variable as causal as myself. The most crushing reality of my new job was in this difference: that an entire world came down on my shoulders, and nearly swallowed me up.

“Oh, get over yourself Robert. You just don’t get it. One group is made up of university students and the other is made up of high schoolers.”

“You’re just upset because you finally took on a real job instead of babysitting university level students, and you don’t actually like having responsibility.”

Thankfully no one has ever said these things to my face, but I’m just anticipating the most likely responses to my article. They might even be comments I would have levied against myself, had I not experienced it for myself. Now, though, with more experience I am able to look back and realize that I had been thrust into Atlas’ place without warning. The newfound weight was unbearable.

The Difference

When teachers become part of the system, their individuality is forgotten: their strengths, weaknesses, and unique experiences are pushed aside in the interest of standardization. What is worse, though, is that children are almost forgotten, too. As previously discussed, children do indeed reap many benefits from standardized education, but by forgetting their individuality along with their teachers’, their learning is negatively impacted.

Think back to the coffee maker example: in order for the device to be effective, and for the resulting cup of coffee to be the same every time, the coffee grinds going into the filter need to be the same as well. If the grinds are different, you notice.

It goes without saying that children are even more diverse than coffee grounds.

Any perfected system of standardized education necessarily forgets that all human beings have free will.

For teachers, the issue of human will is a pretty easy variable to rule out. We want to be there, either intrinsically because we want to teach and we want the kids to be successful or extrinsically because we want to be paid for doing a good job. That means that our will power is automatically counted in and you don’t have to worry about whether the teacher is invested. There are, of course, exceptions, but by and large this rule applies.

Students are not equally incentivized. Students are not coffee grounds that can simply be placed into the machine: they have to will themselves to be educated. In application, standards-based education suggests that motivation is irrelevant. As long as students are put through the best system their motivation doesn’t matter, because the best system has accounted for their motivation and has provided the right tools to get the students engaged.

But this makes my analysis too shallow. I’m not just addressing the issue of intrinsic motivation in students. If that was my issue alone, I might get on board the “gamification” trend within education. What I am getting at is a deeper reality within the culture. Students are not only human beings that have will power that needs to be engaged at school. How they are raised at home to handle life’s challenges are dramatically more important than what they learn at school.

First and foremost, parents are the primary educators of children. 

This is a teaching of the Catholic Church. Part of the burden of parenting is that as a parent, you become the primary teacher and role model of your children.

Does the parent:

  • Care that students master content or only care that students bring home a letter grade?
  • Think education is about getting a good job or that education is primarily about self-improvement?
  • Care more about their own work and interests over their children’s growth?
  • Foster that inner moral compass innate to us all?

Teachers are sometimes recognized as spending more active time with children than parents, but this isn’t ever just one teacher. Usually it’s multiple, and even then it’s with a large group of children. The time that matters most is the time at home and the voices that matter most are the ones that feed them every night.

Not only are parents’ voices the ones that matter most, but parents’ actions are the things kids watch the most. We tend to think of our sins as private, but the reality is that our children are very perceptive of us at home. They’re very quick to recognize hypocritical tendencies. They know our habits sometimes better than we do. They hear what we say about government, about our own friends, about our worries, and about school. Sure, they know what you want them to do at school, but what do they think you would do if you yourself were sitting in a classroom?

It is said that actions speak louder than words.

When I talk about the unique human quality of will when it comes to understanding children, I do not exclusively mean intrinsic motivation. I instead mean the entire culture that students carry with themselves as they enter the school doors, and that is nothing a teacher has ordinary power over. It has everything to do with priorities in a student’s home life.

Upon the many goats and the few sheep.

Christ tells us in Matthew 7:13 that the way to hell is broad and easy to follow, while the path to heaven is narrow and difficult. Many will enter through the wide gate, he warns. Thus in an operative way we are obliged to have great hope that many will be saved, but we must live with the reality that this will probably not be the truth of what occurs. This is the shadow under which the Church operates. The most fundamental reality which we face, the existence of God and the necessity that we cooperate with the Church, is something that we don’t expect everyone to conform to.

Certainly we don’t expect that there is some miraculous system of evangelization that will convert the whole world, if Christ Himself didn’t even convert every person He came into contact with.

Education is a process that involves the human will, just like religious conversion. We might refer here to St. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s notion of assent. As much as any human individual needs to assent to something for it to be manifest in them in a real way, education must reach past logical agreement and into a deep assent. But it will not reach into a real assent if the student never consents to receiving educational content.

If the Church herself does not assume that all she preaches to will be receptive of God’s word, why does educational policy assume that all it drafts into its curriculum will be receptive of its content?

By no means does this mean that the Church does not have hope that all she preaches to will be receptive. Similarly, too, it does not mean that the educational system itself must fail to hope to reach all of its recipients in an authentic way.

What I am trying to address in this article is the ultimate issue of the Atlas Complex. When we forget that the ultimate source and goal of education is a group of human beings, we might have the arrogance to assume that there could ever be a perfect system of education. Most importantly, when we forget that students are also human beings with will power, with their own ideas, with their own goals, with opinions, with problems, we think that they are all average and adequate recipients of educational formation. Thusly, and usually unfairly, we attribute student success and failure to the next most variable portion of the educational system: teachers.

When standardization is the primary organizing principle for education, and when it is allowed to play out, then teachers bear the weight of the responsibility for the success of their classrooms. If my student fails, it is my fault. If they are successful, it is due to my good effort. This is a detriment to the student because it forgets them and their inherent personality and ignores their necessary volition as a part of the educational process. We must not forget our students’ humanity. We must not be so arrogant as to assume that we can perfect human institutions and that we can solve all human problems with them.

No matter the system of education in place, students will fail. No matter the quality of teacher, students will fail. No matter the accessibility of knowledge, students will fail. We must always remember that public and standardized education exists at the service of parents, the primary educators. If parents raise and teach their children to be cynical and untrusting, then the children stand a good chance of becoming cynical and untrusting. If parents raise their children to value education (in and of itself, not for some further goal of money or status), then their children stand a good chance of making something of their education.

Of course, I would be remiss to leave it at that and possibly leave you thinking that parents are Atlas in place of the teacher. As much as a perfect system of education and the perfect teacher will not lead to 100% student success, I must also emphasize that perfect parents and a perfect family will also not lead to 100% student success. The nuclear family is just the most basic unit of societal structure and is where people are most affected by others’ opinions and beliefs. If anyone stands a chance to make a drastic impact on children, it is the people that exist within that unit.

The issue in this article is that teachers, especially in public education, have been encouraged to have an Atlas Complex. If the main factor contributing is that the educational system has shifted all responsibility of success onto the teacher, the antidote is to successfully remember the place of student assent. Instead of further questioning teachers and encouraging an Atlas Complex, we should focus on supporting families and fostering a culture that values education for its own sake. Then, of course, remembering that nothing we do will establish a perfect system for success, we must incorporate an expectation of failure into our systems of education, and do our best to accommodate those failures with compassion and charity.

Kyrie, eleison.

A Home Altar

Protestants may shudder at the mere mention of the word altar, a word that is inherently tied to the notion of sacrifice, perhaps supposed to be a relic of an ancient Israelite past. Yet every Catholic church has an altar within it, where we believe that the same sacrifice Christ offered which was Himself to the Father and is as eternal as Himself, is re-presented during every Mass. In other words we say, by Christ’s own authority, His flesh is made present to us in the Eucharist. Since this is His sacrificed flesh which we are called to consume, as the Jews of old were to eat the sacrificial lamb, then the Altar in a Catholic Church is the dignified place where the very flesh of Christ is again made present.

Now this Holy Sacrifice is only ever had under the authority of a priest, as he has particularly been handed the authority through Apostolic Succession, an authority which is sourced  first in Christ at the Last Supper. Lay Catholics may not do this on their own as they have not been handed the authority to do so, but we are all called to present ourselves as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1), and so we ought to find ways to do this. One way we can do this is by offering our prayers, which St. Paul suggests we do without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). At home we can have our own altar dedicated to prayer, and this is what I have done in our own home.

Of course the first place I had to begin was by planning. I drew up some rough plans:

Now, this is where I began:

Incredibly modest, using what was available around the house we had just moved into, it was enough. Using a table leaf on top of storage boxes, I set it up with some basics: A diptych as the central focus as well as a few appropriate candles. Of course, this is highly unsustainable. It was only a matter of time before my infant crawled and pulled something down!

Initially we found a local craftsman who was putting together custom tables from pieces of a building that fell in Nashville after a really large tornado. Ultimately, for a couple of reasons, the plan fell through. Yet nearly as soon as we forwent our deal with the craftsman we stumbled across a lovely buffet table on Facebook Marketplace. That, combined with a crucifix and icon of the Theotokos, really made a big difference.

With the buffet table serving as a base I was finally ready to begin on the back, which I generally have referred to as a retable. This is because it sits primarily on the back of the table rather than having support from the ground.

I went to the local hardware store and picked up my next supplies. My plan? Use a smooth-sided piece of plywood as the base and find some molding pieces to serve as columns. I would find a jigsaw to cut out the main shape of the retable as well as form my own molding for the arches from the remaining plywood.

When I got there, I actually found newel posts that had been cut in half length-wise. It was perfect!

The first thing I did was cut the newel posts down by taking off the heads and most of the bases.

Having a general idea of where the pieces would lay and what I wanted the arches to look like, I went ahead and stained the columns. I also drew out the arch shapes onto the plywood.

After getting my hands on a jigsaw, which was most generously gifted by a new friend, I got to work cutting.

My cuts were far from perfect, but I also knew I would be layering it with some higher trim pieces, so I let it be okay…not that the trim pieces were much better!

Using paper towels I made stencils for the trim pieces.

The trim pieces…well…required much trimming. But the result was pretty neat! I prioritized the fullness of the outside arches while cutting the middle arch pieces into finer tips so that the result was a mostly-seamless  connection between the arches.

Next was putting stain on the trim pieces and the back of the retable!

In line with the design I began with, I also painted the face of the plywood with a light blue in honor of our Blessed Mother.

With an extra set of hands (clamps), I held the columns and trim pieces to the board while I screwed them in from the back.

Once the pieces were on I used wood putty and stain to fill in those cracks. I also put wood putty on areas of the plywood that had knots, painting over it once it was dry.

Once it was put together, it was just a matter of using trim screws to secure the retable to studs and rearranging the altar pieces.

Just in time for Advent!

Sovereign Mother – A Sonnet

Adornéd maid, never lacking in beauty,
Within and without, life ever begetting,
Her veil her virtues, by Him ever breathing,
Highest of all by fulfilling her duty.

She is ancient and worn, her gown just now rags.
Vain children, forgetful, grown into their own,
Cast aside their life-giver to play, then groan,
Treasures of her bosom sit out in dead bags.

Here, as much as then, does her splendor abound.
Only the wise, between Mother and Daughter,
Can discern and then understand and behold.

For none is her love concealed, though she offers.
Her prayers, her tears, unceasing aid through night’s hold,
Caressing this vine planted in her womb’s ground.

Too Much Religion For Me

“I’m sorry, that’s too much religion for me.”

“I wanted to make sure my kids had enough religion, but not that it consumed their whole life.”

“Christianity is about faith, not about religion” or “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.”

I’ve had about enough of this statement. Let’s look at a bit of a hypothetical conversation.

Michael: Here, sir. Consider the Catholic faith. We go to Church every Sunday, we receive the very Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, we go to confession to restore our relationship with God every time that we cause God pain through sin, we hold that sacraments have literal effects in the world, we formally pray about five times a day, and we hold that God wants to invade every part of our lives. Won’t you join us?

John: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.

M: Well, then, consider going to Church every Sunday, receiving Holy Communion, participating every so often in the sacraments, pray five times a day, but just ask Jesus to forgive your sins personally.

J: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.

M: Well, then, consider going to Church every Sunday, participating every so often in the sacraments, pray a few times a day, and we won’t worry about regular reflection and repentance.

J: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.

M: Well, then, consider going to Church every Sunday, we’ll extend the preaching so you don’t have to study Scripture on your own, pray every once in a while, and just make sure you’re baptized at some point.

J: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.

M: Well, then consider going to Church every Sunday, and make sure you say some prayer at some point during the week.

J: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.

M: Well…come to Church every Sunday?



What is the notion of ‘religion’? Where does that come from? Even in ancient Rome the origin of the word was not exactly known. St. Augustine considers multiple, good, potential etymologies, but the most significant one he entertains is connecting the word to religare, which means ‘to bind together again’, ‘to reconnect’.

People who have fallen away from Catholicism or people who would never in their right mind consider it as a legitimate expression of Christianity (much less the expression of Christianity), see the notion of religion as a stumbling block.

“It’s just a bunch of stuffy rules.”

“It’s not authentic.”

“If you are following a religion, you are trying to work your way into heaven. That’s not faith.”

Let’s walk through a little exercise together, if you don’t mind doing a bit of work.

John has, for some personal reason, accepted the Lord Christ into his heart. He believes He died and rose again, won victory over Sin and True Death, and that He truly loves him.

Great! Now what? Does John lie back and wait for Christ to come again, or until death takes him?

I should think not. He should engage his faith! React to it! But how?

He could start by going to Church every Sunday. He could start by joining a community. This way he is not practicing his faith in isolation, something very counter to the nature of God. By going to Church every Sunday he can also open his heart and mind to hear the Word of God, to increase his faith in previously unknown ways. At what point, though, is prioritizing this important faith activity and regularly participating in it then “too religious”?

He could pray more. Prayer is not an act that changes God, as God does not change, but primarily an act that draws us closer to Him! Be it the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), a Hail Mary (Luke 1:28, Luke 1:42-43, James 5:16), singing/chanting/meditation on any of the 151 Psalms, or spontaneous prayer, these are all opportunities to engage with the Lord. St. Paul exhorts us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). All of these are ways for John to do that. At what point, though, is prioritizing this important faith activity and regularly participating in it then “too religious”?

He could follow Christ’s commands.

Christ said for His disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So John could participate in baptism.

Christ said “This is my Body” and “This is the Chalice of my Blood” and “Do this in remembrance of me” (wherein remember means more than just recall the fond memory). He said whoever does not eat His flesh and drink His blood will have no life in Him (John 6:53).

Christ told His disciples that whatever they bind on earth will be bound in Heaven and whatever they loose will be loosed in Heaven. This is the power Christ gives to His disciples to bind and loose sins, not in their own power, but as avatars of Christ on Earth.

At what point, though, is prioritizing these important faith activities and regularly participating in them then “too religious”?

I’m sure you understand my point, but let me make my point clear:

One may shove off religiosity in the name of faith, assuming that these elements are contrary to each other. But in the act of faith, seeking and trying to bind ourselves to our Creator and Sustainer, what better way is there to join ourselves to our God than through regularly practice and custom, or even ritual?

I think there is a misconception against religion that begins with an understanding of God as unchanging and immutable. Because He is unchanging, then we assume that our participation in His saving grace is similarly unchanging and immutable. But remember the dynamic of prayer: it is not about changing God, it is about changing us. While here on Earth our mission as Christians is not about passive participation in faith, it is about actively approximating ourselves to God, it is about sanctification and justification.

A faith without works is dead (James 2:17), but works alone does not save. The Catholic Church has long recognized (since the beginning) that one must receive faith and then respond to the faith with works of love.

The truth of the matter is that religion is a tool wherein one can deepen their faith, their hope, and their charity.

The other truth of the matter is that even those who say they do not like religion, yet have deep faith, actually practice religion. They have habits that actively deepen their faith. They have habits that protect them from sin and from breaking away from God. They have habits of learning more things about God. They have habits of participating in Community around God’s love and grace.

The phrase “I’m sorry, that’s too much religion for me” is a dangerous slippery slope.

Even if one maintains proper religiosity, but utters this phrase or expresses it in some way to the people around them, they promote an air of disregard for the Faith. It tells people that “you can do what you want, so long as you acknowledge God,” yet doing whatever one wants is exactly what drives us away from God.

Don’t be afraid of religiosity. Embrace it.