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What does it mean to ‘restore culture’?

[What follows is an address delivered on February 2 by Professor Anthony Esolen, at a gathering for supporters of the Center for the Restoration of Christian Culture.]

I am here tonight to talk about the restoration of culture, and as soon as I say the words, I am afraid that I have opened myself up to a couple of misconceptions.  They have to do with the word “restoration,” and then the word “culture.”  Let me take the words one by one.

So, some years ago the authorities in Milan decided it was time to resume the restoration of Leonardo Da Vinci’s great mural painting of The Last Supper, because over these nearly five hundred years it had gotten grimed with smoke, the plaster wall had cracked, the colors had faded, and mold had settled on it from the humidity of the place.  In this case there is something to restore, and that means that you do your best to bring back the original in all its glory.

Now of course there’s a lot of that kind of work for us to do: cleaning, repairing, refreshing, restoring something to its true self.  The church of my boyhood gives me a case in point.  My town grew up between rifts of one of the richest veins of top-grade coal in the world.  The men of Ireland came to mine that coal, and with their strong arms and their energy they brought also the Catholic faith, and it wasn’t twenty years before they had built, with their own hands, a large open-vaulted church, with no interior pillars and nothing to interrupt the curve of the ceiling fifty feet above the floor.  Evidently they built it that way because they wanted it to be painted, so they hired an Italian who had been doing work on churches in southern Pennsylvania and on the capitol building in Washington.  He covered the ceiling and the walls with works appropriate for the people and the place, most notably an immense painting in the center of the ceiling, of Mary giving the rosary to Saint Dominic, with Saint Thomas Aquinas, the church’s patron, looking on in adoration, along with Pope Pius IX, who had recently declared as dogma the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

When I was a boy, though, a great deal of the art in that church – not on the ceiling, which was hard to reach, but on the walls, was covered over with white paint; a marble communion rail with inlaid mosaics of Eucharistic symbols was jackhammered out; and the ceramic tile floor with cruciform patterns of white and dark green was covered over with a red carpet which could not survive one winter without growing dingy.  I take that as a symbol of all kinds of losses that our Church and our society incurred; you can yourselves suggest many others.

Well, about ten years ago the pastor entered the church and discovered that the whole ceiling had collapsed, fortunately not during a Mass, because many people would have lost their lives.  That required a real restoration, and the next pastor used the opportunity not only to bring back many of the things that had been obliterated, but to restore the spirit that moved the builders and artists in the first place.  So now there is once again a high altar in the sanctuary, and the pastor tells me that eventually a communion rail will be returned too.  This is not just a reverence for the old because it is old.  It is a reverence for the holiness of the Mass and the Eucharist, once again made the center of our attention.  It is a love for sacred things, deliberately set apart from the ordinary.

But this consideration brings me to a second and more powerful meaning of that word, restore.  This has to do not with repair but with a return of something that had been lost completely.  When the pastor restores the communion rail, he will be setting in place a work of beauty and devotion that no one in the church except for the oldest parishioners will have strong memories of; in that way it might as well be something entirely new.  The first kind of restoration, repair of what is in front of your nose, may be really difficult to execute, but not that difficult to conceive.  You see the stairs buckling, and you know that they have to be repaired before someone falls through them.  The second kind of restoration, the return of something lost entirely, may sometimes be not that difficult to execute.  The problem is that it is hard to conceive.  It is easy to notice something that is falling apart.  It is hard even to think of something that is not there at all.

Our students tonight give us an example of that kind of restoration.  The polyphonic chant they have sung may strike our ears as unusual, but if so, that is because we’ve simply lost a tradition of music that prevailed in the church from before the days of Leonardo Da Vinci.  I’m told that polyphony is not that hard to execute.  You don’t need an instrument.  You don’t need professional singers.  Indeed, in old times the soprano parts were sung by people who had had hardly any education at all, because they were only boys, children, singing in choirs from Lisbon to Warsaw, from Glasgow to Naples.  It is a lost art of tremendous beauty and power, one that fits perfectly with its sacred aim, and that requires no expense other than a little time, and attention, and a heart for beauty.

I would like to suggest here that most of our work of restoration is of this second kind.  We are not talking so much about repair as about the return.  Let me give another example.  In that same parish of my boyhood we had a Catholic school, staffed by sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  That order began to bleed vocations in the late sixties, and by the late seventies the school was in trouble.  Its building had been erected by a pastor a hundred years ago to serve as a three-story parish hall, with meeting rooms, a gymnasium and theater, a billiard room, and a library, to serve the coal miners as a place of refreshment, an alternative to the beer gardens everywhere.  He built it with his own family money.  Then it was converted into a grade school, and a later pastor bequeathed almost two hundred thousand dollars, again of his own money, to keep the school running in perpetuity.  That school no longer exists, and the building was sold by the parish to the borough, which now uses it for offices, the police headquarters, and a jail.

To restore a school to that parish would be to return what has been lost, and it cannot be in the precise form in which it was lost, because that order of nuns is near to death, no one has the two million dollars it would take to build the school, and the craftsmen who could do the wainscoting and woodwork and plaster-work are hard to find.  The building would be hard to replace, and the teachers would be expensive to hire, but the actual teaching itself would be comparatively easy.  We do not need new and improved methods of teaching, and new and improved curricula, because the human race itself is not new and improved.  The human race is what it has always been; human nature has not changed.

And we do need Catholic schools, new schools all across the country.  We need them in every city and every town of any size.  But here we come to the really difficult thing.  I said that we’re about the restoration of culture, and we may assume that it’s the restoration we have to worry about, because “culture” is a self-evident thing.  Everyone knows what culture is.  It’s – it’s culture, it’s what everybody does all the time, like watching television, sending snide messages to their enemies on social media, posting pictures of puppies and suchlike, getting tattooed on Friday and drunk on Saturday – culture.

Again I want to avoid misconceptions.  I want to suggest that culture is something other than mass entertainment, mass politics, mass education, and mass habits.  It has to do with memory.  “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” cries the psalmist from captivity in Babylon, “let my right hand forget her cunning.  If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy” (Ps. 137:5-6).  The modern man produces little to remember and much to forget – the stuff of his vast landfills, so unlike the honest droppings of horse and oxen as they pulled the plows over the farmlands of old.  I do not mean here to champion horse-drawn plows, underrated as they may be, but rather to note that our whole orientation is towards disposal, junk, burial, razing, obliteration.  So it behooves me to bring culture into clearer focus, lest we be led down a false alley – or boulevard, lined with posh restaurants, clothiers, and museums.

A “Lady in a Box” seat in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town uses the word in the sense of something high and fancy, that you buy: “Mr. Webb, is there any culture or love of beauty in Grover’s Corners?”

“Well, ma’am,” he says, “there ain’t much – not in the sense you mean.”  The townspeople of Grover’s Corners, an imaginary village in New Hampshire, have the ordinary beauties of sun and mountain and birdsong to enjoy, and one of the ladies in town actually prevailed upon her husband after many years to take her to see the ocean, all of fifty miles off, “but those other things – you’re right, ma’am, – there ain’t much. – Robinson Crusoe and the Bible; and Handel’s ‘Largo,’ we all know that; and Whistler’s ‘Mother’ – those are just about as far as we go.”

“So I thought,” says the pleasant snob.  “Thank you, Mr. Webb.”

The irony of it is that Our Town is all about memory, of families extended in time, knowing all there is to know about one another, and the central events of the play are a marriage and a funeral, wherein all the people of the town are in one way or another involved.  Culture is what Hillaire Belloc knew when he went back to the Sussex downs and took up the scythe again, with cunning in his hand and a keen eye for cutting the grass while there was still some green in it, and breathing the slightly salty breezes rushing in from the sea, and singing the Sussex songs with men he knew when he was a boy.

For culture has to be cultivated: it requires the patient tilling of the soil.  You can’t have it with a snap of the fingers.  An oak tree doesn’t grow from an acorn in a day, or even in a year.

What would man without culture look like?  Maybe we can draw an analogy between place and time.  Suppose you belong to a tribe that has no permanent settlement.  You wander where the herds of buffalo go.  You pull up your tents and follow the seals and the fish.  You may return after twenty or thirty years to roughly the same spot where you had once stayed for a while, but you are still rootless, as far as place is concerned.  But that does not mean that you lack culture.  That is because you still sing the songs that your grandfathers and their grandfathers sang, and you tell the stories that they told, and you worship the same gods, with the same prayers.  You may be rootless in place, but you are not rootless in time, nor are you rootless in your relationship with the divine.

Imagine what it would be like to be rootless in time, as rootless in time as the wandering peoples of the world have been in place.  Imagine not what it would be like to have the culture of a nomad without a permanent home, but to have a house and a yard and yet no common memory, nothing you have inherited from your grandfathers and their grandfathers, no common songs, no common stories of heroes, no common prayers and common worship.  The nomads may have been half-barbaric, but they were human.  Without culture, without what spans the vast dimension of time, we may be polite enough and not likely to roast big animals over a fire, but we will be missing much of what it means to be human at all.  In our case the restoration of culture would mean more than repairing the features of our common life that have gone bad.  It would mean the patient return to what would qualify as a culture to begin with.  It would not be to repair our place among the ages, and in man’s encounter with the divine.  It would be to return to that holy place, or to build it up again from the ashes.

That, I think, is our task.  Where to begin?  Where not?  Every person alive can set his or her hand to some task of cultural restoration; I cannot possibly enumerate them all here.  But the important thing is to begin.  And that is what I see we are about, in the Center for the Restoration of Christian Culture, and in fact at our college itself, Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.  I can have conversations with our students that I could not have with most of my fellow professors at the school where I taught for twenty seven years, simply because our students have been introduced to a world that transcends their immediate time.  It is not a creature of a day.

Think of how strange a creature man is, that we can put Plato in conversation with Saint Augustine, and both in conversation with us now, so many centuries after their bodies returned to the dust!  But this strange creature is not just a bookworm, either, or an after-dinner philosopher.  Think of all the things we might pass along to our children and our children’s children: art that still speaks to us, music that does not die when the hand ceases to sweep the strings, poetry that enters our hearts and puts down roots there, real liturgy that does not skip and jump with every whim of a priest or a committee, habits of being human that bring people together, regularly, with passion, to share what they love or the innocent things that bring them delight.  No one can be really lonely, if he lives in a culture, because he is surrounded by so great a cloud of neighbors, some of whom he has never looked upon with his eyes, though he hopes one day to do so, in that city that is the consummation of all that is good and worthy in every culture, the heavenly Jerusalem, descending from God out of heaven, like a bride adorned for the bridegroom.

So we welcome you to the enterprise.  We have shovels, picks, mortar, beams, and nails.  We have ideas.  We need hands, and we ask for yours.