Paths and practices

Sharing another excerpt from Robert Barron’s The Strangest Way. Today’s is lengthier, concerning paths and practices of living.

I’ve heard it said that the best poetry contains the essence of the things it describes. That’s what an education is meant to do as well—not merely convey information, but rather help the learner enter into a way of living and thinking that was dead, yet again lives:

One of the earliest terms used to describe Christianity is the simple but evocative word “way” (Acts 9:2). This signals something of great importance: Christianity, before all else, is a form of life, a path that one walks. It is a way of seeing, a frame of mind, an attitude, but more than this, it is a manner of moving and acting, standing and relating. It is not simply a matter of the mind but of the body as well. In fact, one could say that Christianity is not real until it has insinuated itself into the blood and the bones, until it becomes an instinct, as much physical as spiritual. Perhaps the most direct description is this: Christianity, the way of Jesus Christ, is a culture, a style of life supported by a unique set of convictions, assumptions, hopes, and practices. It is like a game with a distinctive texture, feel, and set of rules. As such, it is a milieu into which one must be introduced through a process of practice and apprenticeship.

When a young man came to a Renaissance painter in order to learn the craft of painting, he moved in with the master, watching him at close quarters, catching the rhythms of his movements and the overall pattern of his life. In time, he might be given a simple task to perform—say the crushing of pigments—and this he would do for many months or even years. Though he undoubtedly found the process tedious and longed to involve himself in the actual painting of a great canvas, the young man did his job and thereby learned, not only the rudiments of color but more importantly the patience and discipline required for the production of a work of art. Only gradually would he be initiated into the more complex dimensions of the artist’s realm of activity: draftsmanship, composition, application of color, use of chiaroscuro, the depiction of philosophical and mythological themes. During this entire process, he would scrupulously follow the direction and style of his master who, in his youth, had learned the same techniques from his elders. Only at the end of his years-long training, having moved, body and spirit, into the milieu of the painter, would the novice perhaps develop his own approach, find his own path.

And something very similar unfolds when a child steps onto a baseball diamond to begin his initiation into the game. His coach moves him through a series of drills—throwing, catching, swinging the bat, fielding the ball—designed to place the requisite skills of baseball into his muscles and mind. When necessary, the mater of the game might demonstrate with his own body the pivot or slide that he wants the novice to make. If he is imaginative, the coach invites his charges to watch videos of great baseball players, encouraging them to mimic the graceful swing of Ted Williams or the energetic base running of Roberto Clemente. He might introduce them to the lore of the game, relating stories of the 1976 World Series or the Yankees’ 1927 season; he might pass on the wisdom and strategies of successful managers like Tony LaRussa and Leo Durocher, and he might share the goofy eloquence of Casey Stengel. At the end of this process of apprenticeship, the young man, it is hoped, will see and think and move as a baseball player—and he will love the entire form of life that is baseball.

When I was nineteen, I entered an accelerated program in philosophy at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. This was the beginning of my apprenticeship to a whole series of masters and my entry into a world that I still find enchanting. One of my professors in the first year of the program required us all to write a two-page paper each week on a single argument from a Platonic dialogue. His critiques were ruthless and his grading was draconian: he would return these papers (which we thought ranked with the classics of Western thought), and they were covered with lines, question marks, exclamation points registering his shock, corrections of grammar, and, hovering over all of it, a desperately low grade. One of his commonest remarks was “you are just repeating standard arguments here; you are not philosophizing.” What exactly philosophizing was none of us knew for sure, but the master’s criticisms and humiliations were compelling us to find out.

In another seminar, a classmate of mine finished his ninety-minute critical presentation on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle with the following rhetorical flourish: “What then are we to do with this text?” The professor, an avid Aristotelian, responded with devastating laconicism, “Perhaps we could read it more carefully.” Once more, we were all being taught how to philosophize through a sort of via negativa, seeing precisely how not to approach a great thinker. In my final year, I took a course that bore the improbable title “The Analogy and Univocity of Being in the Middle Ages.” About twenty of us met on Monday nights with a gentle genius whose native language, according to local legend, was Latin. Under his guidance we worked our way through the untranslated texts of Thomas Aquinas on this obscure but important issue in medieval epistemology, learning thereby an arcane and fascinating argot that linked us to our distant ancestors in the philosophical tradition.

The most memorable moment for me in the process of apprenticeship took place midway through my second year. After spending several months studying the issue of human freedom and divine foreknowledge, I raised a challenging question one day in class. My professor gave a brief response that I found inadequate, and I pursued the issue. Looking at me with a combination of delight and surprise, he said, “Okay, make your case.” With some trepidation, knowing that the entire class was listening avidly, I then began to philosophize—not so much commenting, learning, analyzing, but thinking on my own, following the argument where it led. Sensing my excitement, the professor kept guiding me, spurring me on with questions and comments. Suddenly, I was not studying a Platonic dialogue; I was in one, the teacher playing patient Socrates to my enthusiastic Thrasymachus. In that moment, still fresh in my memory all these years later, I entered, however tentatively and imperfectly, into the great conversation of Western philosophy; in the course of that exchange, I became a brother, however unworthy, to Parmenides, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, and Kant.

In the course of those three years I entered a new world. At the end of the program, I had, not simply new ideas and information, but new eyes and a new mind. I spoke a different language and related to my environment in a discernibly novel way. Those who knew me before my philosophical initiation realized that, afterward, something was radically and irreversibly changed in me. That is what a true apprenticeship does: it converts you.

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