Dr. Anthony (Tony) Esolen visited the college for three days this week, speaking in chapel and classes, giving a poetry reading, and talking to many of us one on one. We have seen in him and his work the beauty of the intellect informed by devotion to Christ, and some of us will never be the same.
Tony’s first chapel talk challenged us to consider the loss of a true “popular culture” – one which emerges from the people themselves based on a common identity and values. Because entertainment today is done for and to us, we no longer know how to create such a culture, nor do most of us even believe that we should – like so many other things, entertainment – culture – should be left to the experts. Tony got at this concept through a discussion of the morality plays popular across Europe and Great Britain for three centuries – plays produced by the people of their own towns for the Christian festivals such as Corpus Christi. He narrated the “Second Shepherd’s Play” to show the depth of the people’s knowledge of human nature, its depravity and its possibility for redemption. He kept us laughing and in the midst of the laughter reminded us of the need for grace and compassion, forgiveness and love. It was challenging, compelling, true excellence in which love for the Lord and the people He has created shone.
The second chapel talk was brilliant. Tony drew us through The Tempest, Shakespeare’s lovely tale of betrayal, correction, redemption, and reconciliation, showing us how obedience and love are intertwined. I can’t summarize it at this point; so many images swirl in my mind: Caliban, who – though half-witch and hateful – can feel wonder and so has hope for redemption; Ferdinand and Miranda, whose love shows the spirit of self-abnegation and purity; Prospero in his God-like role of judge and profferer of the means of grace and forgiveness: repentance and obedience. All bound up in the capacity for wonder, for seeing that which is beyond and above ourselves – for without wonder there can be no acknowledgement of God, of love.
In the Renaissance Lit class, Tony discussed with the students the courtly love tradition through the story of Virgil’s proper response of instant obedience to the heavenly lady Beatrice, to carry out her wish that he guide a lost soul in the first stages of his journey back to truth – as contrasted to the improper story of the adulterous couple Paulo and Francesca, who fall in love at first sight and pursue their own desires. The second day, he took us through contrasts in the image of the journey: Dante sets off on a journey to find God; within the rings of hell are many who, because they refused to journey anywhere but for and to the self, are condemned to be always moving while going nowhere. Throughout the discussion both days, the contrast between love of God and love of self – the need to abandon ourselves completely to God in childlike trust, to practice the divine madness of love.
Tuesday night, Tony read poetry to us: Milton, Browning, Hopkins, Herbert. He blindfolded himself to play the part of the blind poet, and in some cases blind Satan, and quoted passage after passage from Paradise Lost. He recited Browning’s monologue “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s” and Hopkins’ sonnets, and Herbert’s passionate poems about his journey with the Lord of life. After an hour and a half, which amazingly seemed like fifteen minutes to a group of college students in mid-term week, we knew that we had heard the gospel from someone who lived it, through the poets he loves. And we walked away desiring a better love for God and man alike.
I have known one other true genius in my life. He is a good man who practices the Christian virtues without knowing the One by whom they exist; he has that capacity rare among the truly intellectually brilliant of being able to articulate ideas at any level. This week I saw what that man would be if he turned to his Creator and embraced the One who makes his life, his love, his goodness possible. I saw the deepest devotion to Christ, flowing from a man who has given heart, mind, soul, and strength to love Him, and I was challenged as perhaps never before to make that kind of life mine.
And that is the most important thing that happened at our college this week. We saw that brilliant intellect can exist integrated with unabashed, flooding love for God. Praise Him for His work in Tony’s life so that ours might be challenged and changed to more and deeper love.