Follow Your Heart… A Passion for Words

English teacher David McCullough Jr.’s “You Are Not Special” Commencement Address at Wellesley High School in suburban Boston has created quite a stir (Check out the video, which is quickly going viral). Wellesley is an elite institution that counts poetess Sylvia Plath as one of its graduates, while McCullough himself is a son of the Pulitzer Prize winning historian of the same name. McCullough’s is a witty, eloquent, mordantly wise argument. In summary, he counsels his students to renounce the prevailing culture of entitlement and to engage life instead with passion and intellectual curiosity. Here’s one of the high notes: “Be worthy of your advantages. And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might.” This delicately balanced, insightful denunciation of complacency and mediocrity is reminiscent of the impassioned Commencement Address the late Steve Jobs delivered at Stanford in 2005, where he rises to stirring heights of eloquence. “Follow your heart,” he tells the students, “even when it leads you off the well-worn path.”

I think of the ways in which my own heart has led me off the well-worn path, specifically how throughout my life a love affair with words has propelled me metaphorically into those beguilingly uncharted regions symbolized in the conventions of mediaeval cartography by graphic pictures of sea serpents.

For me there have been a couple of signal moments of epiphany that I recognize quite vividly in retrospect as having changed the direction of my life, diverting me from a career in academia, which at one point was a real and beckoning possibility, towards a life of literary aspiration. I’ve mentioned before in interviews and elsewhere about the profound effect that C.S. Lewis’ hauntingly brilliant retelling of the story of the Fall in his space trilogy had on me as a Christian when I was an undergraduate. In a compelling, in fact, arresting turn of phrase, Lewis speaks of the work of George MacDonald as having baptized his imagination. This is a strongly evocative statement, but it’s precisely the role that Lewis played in my own embrace of the imagination as a pre-eminent means of illuminating deeper truths. After reading Lewis, it seemed that all the world’s academic theses and disquisitions on the Fall were as dust, trifling and ineffectual in comparison. In the end, I had been pierced to the core by beauty as a deeper, more powerful force than the formalities of discursive argument and reason.

My other encounter with the beauties of “word music” came at roughly the same time in my life, with my reading of English writer Malcolm Muggeridge’s autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time. As in the case of Lewis’ space trilogy, its flawless artistry proved a transformative experience for me—words used with virtuoso brilliance in rich, rolling cadences that had a sublime, symphonic quality. For days after the fact, Muggeridge’s flawlessly constructed periods, each word as delicately balanced and justly placed as the musical notes of a Mozart concerto, would echo through my mind like a profoundly haunting melody. It was a deeply etched and transfiguring aesthetic experience, and Muggeridge is rightly acknowledged as one of the very greatest English prose stylists of the 20th century. Imagine how utterly thrilled I was a couple of years later, when as a student in Montreal I was assigned as Muggeridge’s chaperon and guide. He had been booked to give a lecture in town, and I was given the task of picking him up at the airport and keeping him entertained for the weekend. I remember going for walks with him on Mount Royal, for example, and pressing him for anecdotes about some of the famous literary personalities he had known in his long and distinguished life. For me, it was a never to be forgotten brush with literary immortality. I’m happy to say that I seem to have made at least a superficial impression on him, since apparently he referred to me afterwards as “the Balt” under the mistaken impression that I was of northern European ancestry.

Such are the encounters, such the life decisions that lead us off the well-worn path. It is often through life’s vagaries, its seemingly fortuitous and inconsequential details and unavoidable detours, that the Divine pulls on our heart strings and shapes our journey. Bound to beauty as by a slender strand, one as slight and insubstantial as a filament of thread but as strong as corded steel, our passions are just as apt to turn our feet down the paths we were made to walk as they are to play us false. In some inscrutable way, it’s the fashion of our making, a token of the fecundity and boundless majesty of the God in whose image we’re made. My encounters with literary genius, both sacred and secular, and my innate love of words and their artful use have brought into high relief the thread, coruscating like a jewel, that has guided me through the years, conducting my heart to a place where it has been pierced by beauties that foreshadow that final lifting of the veil.

[Note: This blog entry is being run as an article in The Little Way, the newsletter of Ste. Therese College, and will be accessible on their website: www.sttherese.ca]

The Tumbler of God: A Significant New Book on English Writer G.K. Chesterton

Father Robert Wild, my dear friend and mentor, a Catholic priest of Madonna House, has just had his latest book published. The wise fruit of long years of study and reflection, it’s entitled The Tumbler of God: Chesterton as Mystic. The book is a ground-breaking examination of G.K. Chesterton not as a pre-eminent figure in English letters of the first half of the 20th century, which he undoubtedly was, but as a man who by his own ineffable way of conceiving life and human existence had opened a vast, mystic window onto the eternal. Chesterton’s vision was anchored in an exquisitely refined sense of the way in which all that we hold as solid and substantial in our lives hangs in fragile dependence on the mercy of a boundlessly generous God. It was a vision marked by Chesterton’s radical, instinctive, utterly guileless attitude of praise and gratitude in response to the gift of his own existence and the manifold beauty of creation. In the book’s introduction, Stratford Caldecott, the well-known English writer who edits the journal Second Spring out of Oxford, England, includes a beautifully illustrative quote from Chesterton himself:
‘A man must have magnanimity of surrender, of which he commonly only catches a glimpse in first love, like a glimpse of our lost Eden.”
I am reminded here of a deeply resonant observation made by the poet George Mackay Brown, himself a Christian, who is considered the greatest Scottish poet of the 20th century:
“We move from silence into silence, and there is a brief stir between, every person’s attempt to make a meaning of life and time.”
Chesterton’s life-long attempt at “making meaning” resulted in a body of work that in its mystic genius defies the ebb and flow of time and fashion and offers us a still vibrant, still perennially valid glimpse of the eternal. I was privileged to be asked to provide my own literary and editorial input for this marvelous and significant book, which Fr. Bob graciously notes in his acknowledgements. The Tumbler of God is available through Justin Press (www.justinpress.ca).