Twelve Days of Christmas for Catholic Education

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On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, Catholic Education gave to me … a complete education.

In thinking of this completion, two sets of twelve come to mind (in addition to the completion of the twelve days of Christmas).

There are twelve points to the Apostle’s Creed, a complete articulation of the fundamental principles of our faith.  This reminds us that Catholic colleges, universities, and schools are born ex corde ecclesiae, from the heart of the Church (see Day 1 below).  As John Garvey has written, truly excellent, truly world-changing institutions and movements are most often animated by a coherent, unified vision of the nature of things.  To be truly great and truly Catholic, our institutions of learning must be animated by a united and unifying vision of reality illuminated by the Catholic faith.  From within this light, scholars and teachers may fearlessly and joyfully set out into the deep of their research, teaching, and lives of learning.

And then there are the twelve apostles.  These figures embody the historically situated life of faith, being complex men who, even after hearing and responding to their calling, often failed.  And yet, through grace, they learned how to “begin again.”  We are reminded that we as teachers, scholars, and students are historically situated in particular places and times with particular gifts and particular weaknesses. We too have received a call that is at once historical and universal.  We too must be fearless.  We too must be prepared to give ourselves, perhaps paying the ultimate price for the love of him who is Wisdom itself.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, we also consider the great feast of Epiphany.  Remembering that wise men still seek him, we prepare for the long journey with its hardships and joys.  We know that this journey–as well as its consummating vision–will transform us and the students who accompany us.  We know that through this vision, seeking the Christ child in Bethlehem, we are seeking the fulfillment of our deepest desires.  We are seeking not just temporal knowledge but also that heavenly banquet, the new Jerusalem, the Beatific Vision.

Consider also:

Jean Leclerq, O.S.B., The Love of Learning and the Desire for God

John Garvey, “What Makes a University Catholic?

Finding God on the Quad:  Pope Benedict XVI’s Vision for Catholic Education


On the Eleventh Day of Christmas, Catholic Education gave to me … 11 beads (for Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom)

What better model of the seeker of Wisdom could there be than Mary, as we often invoke her: “Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.”

The quiet, repeated reflection and prayer using eleven beads can shape the heart and mind to receive the insights–with great joy–that will animate a life of learning and teaching.  The docility and humility of “be it done unto me according to thy will” is a countersign to the dispositions that mark so much of life in the academy and seem required not only for the completion of the Ph.D., but for every step beyond it.

In his commencement address at the college and later in the pages of First Things, R.R. Reno offered a meditation on Mary as a model for the life of learning.  In Mary’s example we see the clarity of vision, purity of heart, innocence, commitment to silence, and devotion to prayer that will be required of any truly Catholic devotion to learning.


R.R. Reno: “Mary, Seat of Wisdom

Paul Griffiths: “Letter to an Aspiring Intellectual

Stanley Hauerwas:  “Go with God”

A. G. Sertillanges: “The Intellectual Life”


On the Tenth Day of Christmas, Catholic Education gave to me … the Ten Books of Plato’s Republic and the Ten Books of Aristotle’s Ethics.

It would be impossible to say which of these two works plays a more transformative role in the lives of students.

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” as a preeminent image of what it means to undertake a liberating education, the implications of “the divided line,” the different political regimes and their dynamic relationship to one another, the nature and parts of the human soul, the banishment of most of the poets and musicians (censorship!), the formation of the Guardians, and the larger quest for justice are only the beginning.

And in taking up Aristotle, students learn to think in terms of natures, means, and ends that are ordered to the highest good, consider the nature of happiness and its place as our highest desire, the virtues and vices, the parts of the soul (plants have souls?!), the preeminence of the contemplation (and its relation to the divine), and perhaps most striking for young people reading the work for the first time, is Aristotle’s reflection on the nature and types of friendship.

These books are inestimable treasures not so much for any “doctrine” they contain.  As valuable as this is, these works are even more valuable because they can awaken in students a hunger, an eros, for wisdom.  And ultimately they come to see how this quest for wisdom is not only compatible with faith but is ultimately cannot reach its highest goal without it.

Could the vision we obtain after leaving “The Cave” be an anticipation of the beatific vision?  Could leaving the cave and engaging in philosophical contemplation ultimately lead us–with the animation of grace–to the one who is Wisdom?

Consider also:

Josef Pieper:  Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation


On the Ninth Day of Christmas, Catholic Education gave to me … the nine Classical Muses

We typically think of the Muses as sources of inspiration: “Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.”  But how might the Muses fit into the tradition of Catholic education?

What has Parnassus to do with Jerusalem?

If Catholic liberal education is to bring wisdom to bear on all things human—think of the “universal” aspect of the “university”—then the Muses must play their essential role.  How else, other than through the study of poetry, history, music, and dance, can we best reflect upon the paradoxical nature of human life, its deep narrative structures, and its epic, heroic, lyric, comedic, and tragic aspects?  How else shall we meditate on “the great forms of the poetic imagination and their deep unity in the human soul.”

And while music as a mathematical art finds its place in the quadrivium, is it not its larger role as song and symphony that has given it an enduring place in our lives?

Let the poetic imagination, under the guidance of these Muses–perhaps the greatest gifts from among the gold of Egypt–take its proper place in our programs of study, illuminating the paths of wisdom.

Consider also:

Dr. Mary Mumbach on the wisdom born of imagination and paradox in “An Education for Heroism” (Episode 7).

Dr. Bainard Cowan on “The Curse and Gift of Tragedy

A summary of Donald and Louise Cowan’s understanding of the “Poetic Imagination

Anthony Esolen reads selections from his poem, “The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord” (in each of his podcast episodes)

On the Eighth Day of Christmas, Catholic Education gave to me … Eight Doctors of the Church

In early Christianity four Latin doctors of the church were recognized—Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Jerome—and three Greek doctors—John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus. To these Greek doctors Western Christianity added Athanasius the Great (whose Epistula ad Epictetum is part of today’s Office of Readings).

If “faith seeking understanding” is of the essence of education in its fullest sense, then the Church Fathers are indispensable as part of any program of studies.

In his Idea of a University, Newman observed that if theology and its sources are omitted from the university, some competing and secondary discipline will assert itself to become the dominant, governing and hermeneutic key for the other disciplines.  (This is how sociology, history, economics, politics or any other derivative discipline becomes the dominating voice in the academy.)

Furthermore, study of the Fathers grounds our students’ understanding of the Church and her teachings deep in history in a way that will enable them to withstand more vigorously the cultural riptides of relativism and skepticism that will assault their belief as they move into adulthood.

On this first day of the new year, may these eight doctors become our teachers (and the teachers of our students) once again and let Theology be restored as queen of the sciences.

C.S. Lewis, “Introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation” (or “On the Reading of Old Books”)

Benedict XVI, Doctors of the Church


On the seventh day of Christmas, Catholic Education gave to me … the Seven Liberal Arts

This structure, which provided the basis for so much of human learning from antiquity through the Middle Ages, now provides a guide to the recovery of classical education at every level.

The Trivium or three-fold way, consisting of Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic, provides the basic verbal and cognitive tools to begin and take the initial steps along the path to wisdom, while the Quadrivium–first called such by Boethius (ca. 457-526)–consists of Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astronomy.  Note that here, music is not a fine art or a liturgical art but rather concerns itself with the relation between numbers, e.g., 2:1 is the mathematical basis of the octave, 3:2, of the musical fifth.

But where do these three-fold and four-fold paths lead?  In the conventional rendering, they prepare the younger student for more advanced studies in philosophy, theology, or even medicine or law.  There was a great deal of variation in thinking about the details of these arts in antiquity, the Middle Ages, and today.  However the details or orientation of this plan might be conceived, the seven liberal arts provide a trustworthy starting point for the renewal and development of education at every level.

Consider also:

Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning.”


On the sixth day of Christmas, Catholic Education gave to me … Benedict XVI and Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalicon.

Today we consider two “six-related” gifts that are too often overlooked.

The first is from Benedict the XVI, his “Address to Catholic Educators” delivered in 2008 at The Catholic University of America.  Consider this sentence:  “First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.”  “First and foremost”?  Is this true of our Catholic colleges, universities, and schools?  What might a revelation of Christ’s “love and truth” within an educational setting look like?  These and many other questions arise from just this single sentence.  The work as a whole is a treasure.

This address by Benedict is concise, cogent, and rewards each reading.  It is the perfect work for a faculty, administrative, or trustee seminar devoted to reflection an institution’s mission.  Parents of students attending Catholic schools should read it as well.

To this must be added the six books of Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalicon, the great treatise of the twelfth century that continues to shape Catholic education today but should be more widely known.

Consider also:

Benedict’s address:  https://tinyurl.com/txcyege

On Hugh of St. Victor: https://tinyurl.com/wgxngn8

On the fifth day of Christmas, Catholic Education gave to me … the five common notions of Euclid (and a door to confidently know reality)

The patient study of Euclid’s Elements can explode the Cartesian cage in which most of us grow up and live.  There is no substitute.

The five notions are particularly critical because the student–of whatever age–comes face to face with the question, “Might there be knowledge that is self-evident?”  Conventional education drums into our heads ideas such as “all knowledge is socially constructed” and “real and true knowledge is impossible” and “my truth is my truth and your truth is your truth.”  In short, most people come to believe, at least implicitly, that true knowledge is virtually impossible about the most important things.  We are cut off epistemologically from reality.  Thank you, Mr. Descartes!

Yet patient meditation on the five common notions can lead us to trust our God-given capacities for knowing again or perhaps for the very first time.  This quiet epistemological revolution can become the door to our confident and joyful engagement with reality in all of its splendor.  If we can know (and discover that we have always known) Euclid’s common notions, what else might we know?  God?  Ourselves? Nature?

An introduction: https://tinyurl.com/pwmykfy


On the fourth day of Christmas, Catholic education gave to me … the truth of the four cardinal virtues

Catholic education is ordered not only to the acquisition of knowledge–be it technical or speculative–but also to the classical moral virtues.

There is no better introduction to this topic than The Four Cardinal Virtues by Josef Pieper.  In this work he offers a lucid articulation of the virtues classically understood and in relation to contemporary ethical and religious thought.  Though in many ways his Leisure the Basis of Culture (with a preface by T.S. Eliot) is more foundational to reflection on the nature and purposes of liberal education, The Four Cardinal Virtues provides the framework and principles for thinking about how Catholic Education can lay the foundation for formation of the whole student.

This source is also a treasure because it builds on the natural capacities of all students, be they Catholic or not.  This is critical since most Catholic colleges, universities, and schools also serve non-Catholic students and their families.  In short, this text presents the nature that grace can perfect and provides a common language through which the co-curricular aspects of the mission can unite parents, students, faculty, and administrators.

For those of us who seek to rebuild a more classical world-view for our students and ourselves, bringing it to life in our Catholic institutions, there is no better place to begin.

Pieper’s The Cardinal Virtues  


On the third day of Christmas, Catholic Education gave to me … three works on university education by St. John Henry Newman

From St. John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University:
“A university is, according to the usual designation, an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill.”

John Henry Newman offers us three works on university education:  (1) the Dublin lectures or “University Teaching” (1852); (2) the occasional lectures and essays or “University Subjects” (1859); and (3) the university sketches (1856). The first two form his Idea of a University and the third was published as Historical Sketches, volume 3, “Rise and Progress of Universities.”

These works articulate his well-considered views on education. But there is more. How was it implemented in the concrete circumstances of Dublin with flesh-and-blood students, concerned parents, and the rough-and-tumble of residential life? For insights into these and much more, the reader should consider the invaluable study, The ‘Making of Men’: The Idea and Reality of Newman’s University in Oxford and Dublin by Paul Shrimpton (Gracewing Publishing, 2014).

Newman’s Idea of a University 

Newman’s Historical Sketches

Shrimpton’s The ‘Making of Men’: The Idea and Reality of Newman’s University in Oxford and Dublin  


On the second day of Christmas, Catholic Education gave to me … Fides et ratio

Fides et ratio, the great encyclical issued by Pope John Paul II in 1998:

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

Imagine if the wings of faith and reason were to be integrated at the very heart of our colleges, universities, and schools.  What if, before every other institutional concern, we created the conditions for faith and reason to carry our students to ever greater heights of knowledge—of God, themselves, creation, and culture—while opening up opportunities for communion and contemplation that our students never imagined were possible?   This great encyclical is a gift that shows us the way to achieve these ends.

Fides et ratio: https://tinyurl.com/vxx77gp


On the first day of Christmas, Catholic Education gave to me…
Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the great Apostolic Constitution issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990: “It is the honor and responsibility of a Catholic university to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth.”

Think of what the Catholic Church in America could be like if every Catholic college, university, and school consecrated itself–no matter what the cost–to the pursuit of truth and the One who is the source of all Truth.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae: https://tinyurl.com/w4lb2vh

In this series we consider some of the greatest resources that inform authentic Catholic education as well as the gifts it gives to the students and families that it serves.

Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, where students are called to “Set out into the Deep” wishes you and yours a blessed twelve days of Christmas.

Check back to this page each day of Christmas as we post more in this series.

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