As a professor who values intelligence, I tend to like most those students who talk to me about books and ideas. Yet recently when a student, unasked, quietly shoveled the snow from my sidewalk, he taught me a lesson about a profound depth of goodness that I need to study up on…
G.K. Chesterton joked, once, that to the man holding hammer, everything looks like a nail. That is also true, I am afraid to say, for an academic: for the college professor, everything in the world looks like an exam, a feat of intelligence, or a test of subtlety. I tend to like most students who enjoy talking to me about books and ideas. With my most intelligent or creative students, friendship comes effortlessly. I do, of course, think learning is dearly important (“seek for it as fine silver…” ). I’ve written on that subject here in The Imaginative Conservative. But the problem with being human is that when we love something, we love it exclusively. When I am good or talented in one domain of life, I tend, tacitly and secretly, without admitting it to myself, to come to have disdain for all other things. But on a spring morning just a few weeks ago, I was challenged in this, and for a brief moment my self-deceiving illusion, by which I tacitly judge all things merely according to intelligence and learning, was shattered.
During one of Wyoming’s heavy spring snowfalls—the only time of year the snow out here is wet enough to build snowmen and make snowballs—I came home to find my walk shoveled. The kids said it had been done by a neighbor. I didn’t think much of it. I just assumed that the walk had been warm enough to keep the snow from sticking. But a week later, our snow angel returned. During another April snowfall, he came around 7.45 a.m., with a team of guys, and they worked quickly and quietly. They shoveled the walk, the sidewalk, and the driveway in under six minutes, without a word. And then they slipped away. But my kids caught them. They all ran to the upstairs window—because I told them it would be rude to spy from the downstairs window—and from that lookout they identified a couple of my students, who had decided to swing by before their morning classes started. The gesture meant a lot: my wife is pregnant and I’ve been going to physical therapy for a hurt back. Indeed, seeing these young men do this act of service, without expectation of reward or even hope of notice, moved me profoundly. This was a taste of something great that was not intellectual: This was an act of service, an act of profound goodness. And, as I have said, I was deeply moved by it. I realized that my student had done something kind, and profound, in a domain that I, without realizing it, rarely think about. My student—who said to me one time, “Dr. Baxter, God made me to be a laborer, and I love that”—became my teacher.
I think Dante must have thought about this same thing, because in Paradiso he has to pass a series of college-level examinations. Dante models these examinations on faith, hope, and charity, somewhat humorously, on the medieval Bachelor of Arts exam. The pilgrim comes forward to be tested, and, as he says, he gets himself ready to answer his professor, but in the first exam, his professor is Peter, the “dumb,” impetuous fisherman. And so, while Peter is thinking about how to phrase his question, the pilgrim gets himself ready: “just as the bachelor arms himself and does not speak / while the master is setting forth the question […] // so I armed myself with all my arguments” (24.46-47, 49). Then, Peter asks Dante about faith, and Dante replies with a stunningly perfect, and remarkably boring, textbook definition, that came straight from a scholastic commentary: “faith is the substance of things hoped for, / the evidence of things that are not seen” (24.64-65).
But that’s not what Peter wants. In heaven, Dante’s pesky professors are difficult to please. And so Peter keeps prodding, asking him to go beyond the definition. Peter begins to probe him on particular keywords: and what is substance? However, as the examination continues, it unexpectedly starts to take on a peculiarly poetic tone: “Now this coin’s alloy / and weight are well examined, // but tell me if you have it in your purse” (24.83-85). We begin to see that Peter doesn’t want to know if Dante knows what faith is, he wants to know if Dante has it. Peter wants to know not just that Dante holds the right opinion about faith, but that he possesses it as his own. The coin, as Dante puts it, is in his pocket. One of the characteristics of a virtue is (and faith is a theological virtue), is that it is not just rectitude of opinion, but a power, an energy, a strength that brings about effects.
And so, as the examination continues, we hear Dante affirm his faith, by stating: “I believe in one God, one and eternal, whom Himself unmoved, moves / all of the heavens with his Love and their desire” (24.130-32). In other words, the pilgrim starts reciting the creed, but in a vernacular, poetic form. The creed is now translated into the rhythm and cadence of poetry! Thus, the real demonstration that Dante possesses the theological virtue is that he can move those around him. At the end of his oral exam, when Peter finally approves of the pilgrim’s response, he announces it by demonstrating that he has been literally moved:
As the master to whom a servant brings goods news
rejoices when he hears it, and puts his arm around
the speaker just as soon as he has finished,
thus, blessing me as he sang, the apostolic light…
encircled me three times…
because my words had brought him such delight (24.147-54).
Thus, the true test, as it turns out, has been whether the pilgrim can fit the raw matter of ideas into the shape and order of cosmic poetry. Peter doesn’t want a definition of faith, so much as he wants the pilgrim to perform faith for him, to perform it within him. Peter wants Dante to describe it, poetically, so that he wants to have it, too. Just as the medieval love poet tries to make the beloved share in his love—to perform in you what is happening in me—so, too, does Peter want to see Dante’s faith working, acting, making new faith. There can’t be any parasites in heaven: to make it in, you have to able to add to its love, not just suck up the love others.
To conclude, I return to my student. I am responsible, of course, for helping him form his intellect: to learn to read deeply, to learn to write with clarity and depth, to have a creative mind that does not just assert opinions but makes them seem desirable. And yet, and yet… I am fairly certain that, in the fullness of time, I will have to take his quizzes and pass his exams, because the world is more than mere intelligence. There is a kind of profound depth of goodness that I need to study up on. Thanks for the lesson, Sean.
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