music

Fragments Shored: T.S. Eliot and BASTILLE

In 1922, T.S. Eliot penned his now-famous poem The Waste Land, so cutting-edge in modern poetry that Regis Martin, in fact, recently called Eliot the “high priest of modernist poetry.” But if you have your ear to the ground in the world of pop music, you may be surprised to hear echoes of his sentiments coming from the indie rock band Bastille.

What do the 1920s American-English intellectual and the 2014 hipster band have in common? In a word: ruins. It may seem strange to suggest a rising rock star has an artistic gift comparable to that of a highly honored poet. Yet, there seems to be a certain uncanny similarity between Eliot and Bastille when it comes to their sensitivity to social collapse.

Eliot’s Waste Land is an eerie, confusing conjunction of rich images and obscure references, so bogglingly complex that most editions are heavily annotated with explanations. Shakespeare and Spenser, snippets of German, hints of Hindu literature, images of springtime in Europe, disjointed fractions of Psalms, and ancient Greek references are peppered through the poem alongside vignettes of modern life and details like taxis, horoscopes on demand, and contraception. Some readers complain that Eliot is simply showing off his knowledge of both Western and Eastern art and literature, making it seem almost incomprehensible to any reader less erudite than a studied intellectual like Eliot himself.

But the poem performs a valuable post-mortem on a Western world that has lost sight of its God. The keyword is fragmentation; someone once compared reading The Waste Land to sticking Chartres Cathedral in a blender and trying to make sense of the shattered fragments. The fragmentation of civilization—both in the sense of brokenness and of the dangerous compartmentalization of modern living—bears only the bad fruit of purposelessness, aridity, and an oppressive sense of ennui.

Both The Waste Land and Eliot’s doubly-depressing Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock reveal a deep sense of nigh-hopeless frustration at the emptiness of modern life, and a meticulous focus on ordinary, prosaic details to heighten the sense of lost meaning. “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” observes Prufrock glumly. The shots of the daily lives Eliot highlights are acutely depressing: after an evening of joyless sex, a typist’s lover leaves and she turns on music to drown out her thoughts.

Some snippets of The Waste Land demonstrate this fragmented picture of the living hell of the modern world:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images . . . . .

I will show you fear in a handful of dust. . . .

“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.

“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.

“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?

“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”. . . .

“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”

. . . .                         The hot water at ten.

And if it rains, a closed car at four.

And we shall play a game of chess . . .

The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights

Her stove, and lays out food in tins. . . .

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,

Hardly aware of her departed lover;

Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:

“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”

When lovely woman stoops to folly and

Paces about her room again, alone,

She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,

And puts a record on the gramophone. . . .

I can connect

Nothing with nothing.

The broken fingernails of dirty hands.

My people humble people who expect

Nothing.

At the end of Eliot’s poem comes a hint of a happy ending, a salvation for these dead souls: an image of a king, a fisher king, emblematic of Christ, who brings fruitful rebirth and the chance to rebuild from the ruins: “Fishing, with the arid plain behind me / Shall I at least set my lands in order?” Finally, the closing lines of the poem capture its purpose: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Witnessing the insidious destruction of the Western world in the hands of moral relativism, Eliot simply gathered up the pieces.

His insight was hardly shared by many of his contemporaries, but Eliot saw spiritual death eating away at the hearts of modern men like a rat at a corpse: cut off from the roots of faith and culture, they withered inside and sought all other remedies for their dryness—some cohesive force to hold together the broken fragments of their lives and give them meaning.

Since Eliot’s Waste Land dates from 1922, it is somewhat surprising to hear similar sentiments coming from the hipsters of today. The increasingly-popular British rock band “Bastille” can count a number of hits to their credit, including, “Flaws,” “Pompeii,” and “The Things We Lost In the Fire.” It is certainly a hopeful sign when a modern artist, writing what may be called poetry in its own way, shows enough artistic insight to notice some of the same things Eliot did.

Like Eliot, Bastille demonstrates an acute sensitivity to mundane and ordinary details and their cosmic importance to human life. In “The Things we Lost in the Fire,” which appears to recount the effects of a total and sudden loss of material possessions, the speaker focuses on the more personal, if commonplace, details that reflect a deeper loss:

Things we lost to the flames

Things we’ll never see again

All that we had amassed

Sits before us, shattered into ash. . . .

I sat and made a list of all the things that we had

Down the backs of table tops

Ticket stubs and your diaries.

I read them all one day

When loneliness came and you were away.

Oh, they told me nothing new,

But I loved to hear the words you used.

These are the things,

the things we lost,

the things we lost in the fire, fire, fire. . .

Similar thoughts can be found in Bastille’s “Pompeii.” Like Eliot’s Waste Land, “Pompeii” draws heavily on a foreign, ancient, and almost obscure reference, something that probably would not occur to most people when they sit down to write a pop song: an ancient tragedy, a city and it’s inhabitants suddenly reduced to a smoldering heap of fire and ash from Mt. Vesuvius.

The suggestive power of these images and their affinity to Eliot’s phrasing indicates that Bastille’s songwriter Dan Smith may be tapping into something more than merely hipster angst: a desperate sense of disappearing cultural and civilizational identity and an existential awareness of the brokenness that results from such a loss. A sense of fragmentation permeates their songs: Bastille can sense, as Eliot did, when the world is somehow falling apart, and their songs grope about searching for cohesion.

“Pompeii” exudes a particularly powerful sense of hopeless but ineffectual frustration at continuing communal disintegration, of abandonment and loneliness:

I was left to my own devices.

Many days fell away with nothing to show.

And the walls kept tumbling down

In the city that we loved.

Great clouds rolled over the hills bringing darkness from above. . . .

We were caught up and lost in all of our vices

In your pose as the dust settles around us

And the walls kept tumbling down

In the city that we loved.

In this wasteland, the speaker feels moral responsibility and the need to begin again: “Oh, where do we begin,” he sings, “The rubble, or our sins?” To have a sense of sin is actually a rather radical statement in the modern world. (As G. K. Chesterton once said, modernity’s response to the sin of, say, skinning a cat is to deny the existence of the cat.) After decades of expansive social engineering to justify, normalize, and even legalize sin, Bastille’s sense that we are sinful, that we actually have to take the blame for something and “begin” again afterward shows that no amount of social change can fully expunge a sense of man’s sinfulness from the human heart.

Still, Bastille’s reaction to the dire situation they face in “Pompeii” is almost desperate escapism: “But if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all / and if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?” Even here, the speaker must admit the situation is grim, and doesn’t have an easy answer: “How am I going to be an optimist about this?” he asks, repeatedly.

Whatever Bastille’s inspiration or personal beliefs, their lyrics show hints of an authentic artistic insight which points to the same reality that Eliot outlined in The Waste Land. Like Eliot’s protagonists, they live in a postmodern problem, the Waste Land: a socially post-apocalyptic barrenness of cultural waste, things that have been lost in the fire of turbulent change, things which distance modern man further and further from what gives him meaning, his (Christian) roots.

But one thing, at least, very clearly distinguishes the psyche of the rock band from that of the 1920s intellectual:

Eliot knows the answers. Cultural renewal and rebirth from the Kingdom of Christ alone can heal the infectious wounds and deadened souls of the postmodern Western World.

But Bastille can only ask the questions, and eerily return to a sad and desolate refrain of fruitless search and denial: “How am I going to be an optimist about this? . . . If you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?”

A Thing Worth Doing Badly

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 Stepping into a strange church for Sunday Mass is invariably an adventure that evokes no little amount of trepidation; it is extremely difficult to know what to expect. So, two weeks ago, as a visitor in a strange town, I found myself wondering rather nervously what kind of Mass I had walked into. Would there be a borderline heretical homily? Sketchy changes to the words of the Mass? Liturgical dancers? 
At first it seemed like it would be middle-of-the-road: a quiet Midwestern parish with a school attached. The interior had obviously been built or redone in the 60’s, but there was nothing out of the ordinary, and it looked like the Mass would be conducted fairly well.
Until the music started.
From the opening hymn to the recessional, the entire Mass was accompanied by a lone soprano pounding bravely away on an electric organ, backed up by a heavy-handed snare drum. The hymns were all from the ‘70s and ‘80s: something about peace, and celebrating, and justice, and we are one people, and harmony—all punctuated by loud raps on the drum. “Let us build the city of God (BOOM-chh-BOOM) may our tears be turned into dancing (BOOM BOOM).” I gritted my teeth, closed my eyes, and strained all my attention to focus on the readings, the homily (which was decent), and the holy sacrifice of the Mass—all to no avail. When the final “Thanks be to God” was muttered—full of genuine gratitude, on my part, that it was over—and the congregation crowded quickly out of their pews and into the parking lot, I staggered out into the sunshine feeling as though I’d just been subjected to the very dregs of liturgical artistry.
Now, come to think of it, I have heard some genuinely dreadful liturgical music in my time, both lyrically painful (“Lord of the Dance,” anyone?) and musically inappropriate (saxophone jazz at the Easter Vigil), but this Mass marked a particularly depressing milestone in my experience. It wasn’t just the inane lyrics; it wasn’t just the Disney-esque, vague ‘70s melody; it was the fact that, in addition to already being bad music, it was done so badly.
I wondered why this fact was what had made the music so distracting and frustrating to me, and I remembered that “A thing worth doing,” as G.K. Chesterton once said, “is worth doing badly.” This essentially means that if something is worth doing, then it is still worth doing even if we’re not very good at doing it. Take, for instance, my kitchen garden. It’s not acres of rich, abundantly fruitful lands that yield bucket-loads of harvest; it’s a little square of Southern clay with a few scraggly vegetables vines and a berry bush or two. But growing a garden, planting seeds and reaping the fruit of your own labor, is a thing worth doing, so it’s worth doing even if one is not wildly successful at it.  Learning how to paint is something worth doing—even if the artist isn’t a Rembrandt or Michelangelo. Writing is likewise something worth doing, even if it’s done rather badly—which is my excuse, anyway.
But, on the other hand, I think it would be safe to propose a corollary to Chesterton’s principle: if a thing worth doing is worth doing badly, then a thing not worth doing is not worth doing badly. It’s not worth it to fight a war over a mile of territory; it is doubly idiotic to wage such a war badly. It’s not worth doing to plant a tree in the middle of the desert where it does not belong; it would be even less of a worthy task to badly botch the job of planting the tree.
I would not have minded the mind-numbingly-mediocre music at Mass half so much, I think, had it been goodmusic done badly. If the most a parish could get was a cantor singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” a capella, then very well: singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” is a thing worth doing. If all that the music ministry has to offer, however, is badmusic done badly, then it would be better to have no music at all. Insipid liturgical hymns from the ‘60s onward are not worth doing, nor is a snare drum snapping an electric organ into meter. Why, then, must we have these things at all? Would not a reverent silence be far more conducive to prayer, to raising the mind and heart to God?  
Such, at least, were my thoughts as the last pounding strains of “Here In This Place” faded away and I exited the Mass that Sunday, hoping desperately that somehow the Church will see a renewal of beautiful liturgical music—done well—in my lifetime. It will mean something of a revolution: throwing out the banal hymnals and the drums; putting more time and greater effort into seeking out good musicians, and cultivating the taste of younger generations to appreciate more traditional hymns. Meanwhile, I am resolved to stoke the fires of that revolution, by making it clear that the bad music done poorly has to go: give me good music at Mass (even done badly) or give me death—I mean, silence.
 

Adele, Fulton Sheen, and the "Hookup Culture"

The artists of our world, Fulton J. Sheen once said, have a special role; they often are the first to perceive—and point out—the real problems in a society. Artists don’t necessarily offer solutions to modern problems—but the best of them invariably identify and put before the public exactly what those problems are. This is possible because through art man can be brought to understand that what is evil is ugly (and, by contrast, that what is good is beautiful), even if he intellectually is having difficulty agreeing that what is evil is wrong. 
Lately, I’ve encountered a recent illustration of Sheen’s point; and I may begin by recalling the name popularly attributed to our society: “the hook-up culture.” Our world has seen no less than four decades of skewed moral vision when it comes to romance, since the sexual revolution of the 60s. And now, two or three generations later, the artists of our day are beginning to point out the nasty afterbirth of the free love, hookup mentality in a very provocative way. Modern musicians especially, often themselves deeply imbued with popular notions of sexuality and love, are unmistakably starting to outline the current generation’s desolate frustration and deep-seated dissatisfaction with the hookup lifestyle–in fact, it is arguably the dominant theme of pop-music from artists who write their own songs. Years of rushing into sexual relationships, inevitable and bitter breakups, have left their scars on them, and it’s coming through in their music, perfectly detailing how painful “free love” is in reality.
One such case is probably a British pop-star that has hit the top of the music world in the last few years: Adele.  This contralto’s powerful soul-style songs, which successfully rocked the boat of the American music world, have led the charts for a long while now. And they are almost all depressing. With the exception of some hopeful, committed-to-love kind of songs (like “Make You Feel My Love”), Adele’s pieces are almost exclusively—and all of her top hits are definitely—tortured, frustrated breakup songs. Her music plumbs human heartbreak, exploring the whole wild and wicked scale of tangled emotions and passions: from burning emotional desolation, to sorrowful unwillingness to let go of the past in spite of the pain, to furious, bitter vengefulness.  Invariably at the root of the anguish in these songs is a background story of having let another soul come close in love, of having given away oneself to another, only to have that gift and that sort of “love” necessarily destroyed in a culture that treats relationships as “hookups.” “Rolling in the Deep” is probably Adele’s most famous, and some fans might balk at the idea of it’s being a mark of the hookup culture. Musically, the piece is enjoyable, almost Diana Ross or Mo-Town style, but the lyrics betray that the sentiment of vengeance expressed is neither a normal nor healthy way to end any relationship:

See how I’ll leave, with every piece of you
Don’t underestimate the things that I will do           
 . . .
Baby, I have no story to be told
But I’ve heard one of you and I’m gonna make your head burn,
. . . .
Think of me in the depths of your despair
Making a home down there, as mine sure won’t be shared.
The message beneath the music plainly conveys a firestorm of fury; although the source is somewhat vague in “Rolling in the Deep,” another Adele song about heartbreak, “Set Fire To the Rain,” sheds a little light on the situation. “Set Fire to the Rain” comes from the same album, 21, which Adele supposedly wrote about her breakup with her lover of two years, and tells her story of passionate “falling in love,” consequent breakup, and ends with some disturbing imagery describing the singer’s sense of betrayal:  

When I lay with you
I could stay there
Close my eyes
Feel you here forever
You and me together
Nothing is better 
 . . . there’s a side to you
That I never knew, never knew,
All the things you’d say,
They were never true, never true,
And the games you play
You would always win, always win. 
 . . . . . .
I set fire to the rain
And I threw us into the flames
And I felt something die
‘Cause I knew that that was the last time!
Although less famous than Adele, another striking artist rapidly rising in popularity is Ingrid Michaelson, whose music betrays at the same time a desperate longing for fulfillment and a painful realization that a hookup lifestyle leaves one unfulfilled. “The Way I Am,” certainly her most popular song, describes a desire for committed, faithful love:

If you were falling, I would catch you;
You need a light, I’ll find a match . . .
If you are chilly, here, take my sweater;
Your head is aching, I’ll make it better
Because . . . you take me the way I am.
While she sings of fidelity and commitment, however, Michaelson also recounts how scarred living a free love lifestyle can leave a person, in her less-well-known, post-breakup song, “Starting Now”: 

I want to crawl back inside my bed of sin
I want to burn the sheets that smell like your skin
Instead I’ll wash them just like kitchen rags with stains
Spinning away every piece that remains of you
But before you finally go there’s one thing you should know: that I promise
Starting now I’ll never know your name
Starting now I’ll never feel the same
Starting now I wish you never came into my world
It’s my world, it’s not ours anymore.
There is a tangible pain and bitterness in these shocking lines, which simultaneously describe both the hookup world and exactly what it does to a soul: brings it to the apex of commitment, the utmost physical indication that a total self-gift has been made, only to destroy that sense of love and leave the heart shattered and aching in the end.
If Bishop Sheen was right, and the artists of a time are the first to speak about the problems with a society, then modern music is a signpost pointing unmistakably to the modern notions of love.  There are others; Ingrid Michaelson and Adele are just two of many whose work runs along similar themes. These musician’s voices are singing some poignant truths about our world’s problems, and, while not prophetic or profound, and whether or not they realize it, as artists they are at least unanimously pointing to the same truth: the hookup culture hurts. It leaves souls desperate, thirsty for fulfillment, broken, feeling betrayed and angry. Hopefully, as the world listens to their music, it will start to listen to their words and what they have to say about our society’s stance on love.  

Coming Out of the Closet: I Am Not Charismatic

            I have a guilty secret, and I think it’s time to come clean.
First, I must explain that the city I call home has long been what might be called a hotbed of the charismatic movement, hosting multiple charismatic retreats and Praise and Worship youth events each year. Parishes across the diocese hold special Praise and Worship adoration nights. Almost every parish has a Youth Mass, at which P&W music is played, and a youth group for which the same music is played.  
Now, in a way, this is all well and good. I’m overjoyed to see people, especially young people, taking their faith seriously and praising the Lord with their all their body and soul. There are some very wonderful people whose lives have been changed by this sort of music and prayer.  So, as I say, it’s all well and good—for people who are charismatic. But after years of attending charismatic youth groups and Masses and listening to Praise and Worship Music, I have a confession to make: I am not charismatic.
            I can’t help it. I honestly did my best to “just let the Holy Spirit move me” by participating as fully as I knew how, holding my hands up and swaying and singing along with all my heart. After all, for people my age, there wasn’t all that much else available. Every youth event and every youth group is, so to speak, à la charismatic renewal.  Short of joining the “elderly and older” choir—or the convent—I didn’t really have a chance to participate in a more traditional style of music, liturgy, or praise.

            So, I tried it. But through it all, I wasn’t really satisfied. I eventually had to face the fact that charismatic prayer and charismatic music move me much less to raise my mind and heart to God than does more traditional music—and I don’t mean the 1970’s and 80’s Marty Haugen songs in the Glory and Praise Hymnal.

One of the most common assumptions in youth groups seems to be that it is easier for everyone to really “participate” in liturgy or prayer if it is cushioned with the rock-music patterns they are accustomed to.  It’s thought that Praise and Worship music is easier to sing along with, easier to “get into” than other music. I agree; but that doesn’t mean that it will better raise the mind and heart to God.  Irish drinking songs are also easier to sing along with and “get into,” but that is not an indication of their intrinsic musical or spiritual merit. Making up solo dance moves is easier than learning the complexity of the tango; but dancing the tango, once you’ve learned it, is a much more awe-inspiring way to dance.
The word “charismatic” comes from the word charism, which means a special gift given by the Holy Spirit to individuals for the good of the Church. Being “charismatic” in the Praise and Worship sense is simply not my individual gift. I find I can pray much more easily when listening to Gregorian chants and polyphonic motets by composers like William Byrd or Palestrina than to something akin to what plays on the soft rock station.  Again, for people who are charismatic, I believe God can and does use P&W to bring them closer to Him. But it is not this way for everyone. I began to be frustrated when I found that every time I confessed to a youth group that I prefer old music and am “not really a fan of P&W,” I was looked at as if I had just announced I was going to join SSPX and wear a burqa.
The response I got alerted me to the fact that the vast majority of Catholic youth in America are treated as if they would all unanimously prefer praising God to pseudo-rock than to anything else. The sacred music that has been at the heart of the liturgy for hundreds of years has just as much power to move hearts and is just as much a channel for the Holy Spirit to reach us as anything produced by a snare drum and a guitar. Why is it automatically assumed that it is better to give everyone under 21 what Matt Maher wrote last month than, say, Thomas Aquinas’ Pange Lingua? (Edit: I’ve heard Matt Maher’s version, “Jesus, Lamb of God,” but it’s just not the same as even two or three guys singing Thomas Aquinas’ own version a capella.)
Baseball legend Babe Ruth once wrote a sort of spiritual auto-biography entitled “The Kids Can’t Take It If We Don’t Give It.” in which he pointed out that if we neglect to pass our religious tradition and heritage on to the young, they will never have it, and we can’t expect them to one day just wake up and choose it for themselves. Teens in my diocese who are regularly fed Casting Crowns, Switchfoot, and Rich Mullins probably haven’t even heard of Palestrina’s soul-stirring Sicut Cervus.  Have most Catholics my age even been given the chance to experience really sacred music, or learn about their Catholic musical and liturgical inheritance? Are they expected to go find it on their own if they want it?
So, I love my charismatic friends, and I love the liveliness of their faith. But I’ve had a taste of the indescribably beautiful treasures the Church has to offer in sacred and liturgical music, and my question is: when do we get to share it with our youth? Because, as Babe Ruth would say: they won’t ever have it if we never give it to ‘em.    

The Bonfire

The road to the professor’s farmhouse looked much different in the soft, bright twilight of late spring than it had in the chill darkness of mid-December. The first wild bursts of spring had past, and the landscape had calmed down into the quiet existence of a mild summer: the trees were full of thick, green foliage and there were bright spots of wildflowers along the twisting road. We were so distracted by the lovely scenery we nearly missed our turn “before the brown fence posts,” as the directions said.

We had both been in eager anticipation, all afternoon, to join the “little end-of-the-year bonfire” to which our professor had invited us. On my part, I confess I was a little too proud of being on the guest list; he had said that it was not a party for the whole campus, which made me feel privileged for being invited. “It will be,” I thought to myself, “a delightful, quiet evening with just those students he wanted to invite.” In a way, I was right; but it was not exactly as I expected.

Although we were technically ten minutes late, according to the time he had specified, we were the first pair to arrive; so with distinctive Southern courtesy he seated us on his front porch and let us chat with his mischievous little daughter. Then, he came out and spoke with us for a short time; but it was not long before the other guests began to arrive, and we soon moved to the backyard to gather wood for a bonfire, play on his rope swing, toss bean bags, or just talk with one another.

I had, as I have said, anticipated a certain group of people coming—the sort of students I admired and knew fairly well. Yet, as car after car pulled up the gravel drive, I was surprised—at first mildly, gradually more so—at who else had been invited. There were very many of those whom I had expected would come; there were also many whom I had not anticipated seeing: misfits, outgoing personalities and shy folks—both alumni and students, those successful and those less so, those I had expected and those I had not all mingling together around our professor. Throughout the evening, as more people gradually arrived, it invariably gave me pause to see who joined the steadily-growing ring around the fire the professor was stirring into a strong and steady flame.


As the cool shades of the evening slowly descended round about us, we settled in with treats—s’mores, popcorn, pie, cookie-bars—and began to sing in rounds. “O how lovely is the evening . . . Jubilate Deo . . . Away, away . . . Dominus tecum . . . yet will I be merry . . . ” Then, we listened to his reading of “On the Mowing of a Field,” by Hilaire Belloc. It was incredibly peaceful, to sit beside a roaring bonfire, a few diamond-point stars overhead, and the night breezes gently stirring the trees around us, and simply listen to the pastoral scene painted by that writer, who always seems to speak of tradition, of eternity, of what is lasting and what is passing, and the steady, solid, common things that—thank God—fill most of the journey of our days, between milestones of tragedy and joy.

When the story was finished, there was the sweetest, most beautiful pause, a marvelous silence. Then we entered a long and passionate discussion, involving all of us, ringed round the blaze: about joy and suffering, active and contemplative prayer, plans for the future, God’s presence in scripture, and the mysterious workings of His providence. The professor asked the graduating seniors to share a brief insight and all of them—even those of whom I least expected it—had something profound and poignant to share.

In both that sweet moment of silence and in the subsequent discussion, I suddenly perceived the strange miracle of that gathering. We were of all sorts; not merely of different classes, but of different opinions, personalities, and vocations. There were people round that fire who seldom would be together in the course of ordinary life; even those whom I knew disliked each other, or who generally avoided social gatherings, were all united that evening. He had specifically asked each person; had seen something in each one of us, even when we couldn’t see it ourselves, that made our presence there wanted and somehow fitting. It reminded me of nothing so much as the similar gathering around Christ—Pharisees, tax collectors, fishermen, and prostitutes. We were gathered around something eternal: communion. It was not just our teacher himself that drew us, it was what he represented and what he sought for us—the pursuit of God; because of that, the goodness in him truly drew out the best in each one of us. He can see Christ in all of us, and enables us to see it, too.

There may be some symbolic providence in the fact that often, when I have seen the philosophy professor in his “natural setting,” at home, outside the classroom or the office, he always seems to be lighting fires. It isn’t a simple task; it is a craft, one he seems to have mastered, which takes a special knowledge and a kind of skill. What he does with a few sparks and a little kindling, he seems to do with the people he gathers around him. He is lighting sparks, blowing on the embers, encouraging the little flames to rise and burn, planting seeds of fire that may someday burst into flame. We can’t be in college forever; we have a few short years here and then we step out into the great, grand world and will face the drudgery of the workplace or the household. But hopefully, by the time we leave, we will be like a “brand snatched from the burning,” (Zech. 3:2)—on fire, and fervent enough, wise and willing enough, to light sparks of our own, and live zealously for the Lord.