Teachers get a lesson on beauty

Like the still, small, voice beyond the raging storm, the Wojtyla Summer Institute for Teachers, at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Barry’s Bay, Ont., did not set out to dazzle or even impress, but rather, quietly resonate. Every year in mid-August, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College hosts a three-day seminar for Catholic teachers as nourishment and fortification for the coming school year. This year, more than 50 teachers gathered to consider the importance of beauty in forming our souls and the souls of our students, drawing us closer to the Lord.

Patristic scholar Ky Heinze began with a riveting discourse on earthly beauty as conceived by Origin of Alexandria. He spoke of how it awakens a longing for something beyond itself. Heinze spoke gently of how it is fitting to love worldly beauty, but loved too much, worldly beauty can obscure the heavenly beauty hidden within it. Heinze is a gifted young professor with a scholar’s mind and a poet’s heart. He spoke of the “wound of love” which beckons us beyond mere seeing, towards knowing and entering into beauty.  According to Origin, the preconditions for seeing Divine Beauty are that we not be too attached to worldly beauty and that we conform ourselves to God, for “only like knows like.” Our Lord will graciously draw us in and reveal as much truth and beauty as we are capable of receiving.

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom assistant professor of theology John Paul Meenan spoke of the elements of beauty: integrity, or unity of being; proportionality, an inner harmony; and clarity, brilliance or light. Meenan is a thorough-going Thomist, and imitating Aquinas’ fairness, he gave full voice to objections, and then rigorous explication of foundational truth. Meenan spoke of intrinsically beautiful forms, revealed through the Golden Ratio and the Fibonacci Series, but did not romanticise beauty. He spoke of the folly of the Copernican conception of a heliocentric universe, perfectly ordered and symmetrical. Enchantment with apparent order and symmetry can be an obstacle to seeing more truly and deeply. One of the founders of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, Meenan is the quintessential example of teacher as vocation. So far, four of our children have studied with him, and for each, he has awakened intellectual curiosity and enlivened faith. He is a friend to students.

Writer and artist in residence Michael O’Brien gave us an overview of the development and disenchantment of the visual arts. Beginning with the earliest cave paintings, of the human hand, art is always a mirror, reflecting on the distinctiveness of man within creation. O’Brien gave us a fascinating whirlwind overview of his art history course, but his key point was perhaps what would be least expected from an artist. O’Brien explained the distortion at the heart of the often quoted truism “Beauty will save the world.” The quote comes from Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot, and the key point of the novel is to show the limitations and even the falsity of this over-emphasis on beauty. Putting flesh and blood on the theoretical skeleton developed by Heinze, and Meenan, O’Brien showed that in the novel, as in life, it is not beauty, but Christ-like love and forgiveness which is redemptive.

Ryan Topping was a featured guest lecturer from Thomas More College in New Hampshire. Topping gave a lively and winsome talk and slide-show on sacred architecture. He lamented the professionalization of religious art and architecture, which for half a century has forced so much ugliness and dissonance upon us. Topping had all of us standing, intoning polyphony in rounds, to reveal intrinsic harmony and dissonance. Beauty and symmetry are an intellectual and spiritual habitat which gives rise to intellectual and spiritual flourishing, but conversely, ugliness and dissonance create environments of spiritual and intellectual desolation. Everyone was robustly engaged in Toppings slideshow contrasting beautiful and inspiring Romanesque and Gothic churches with modern monuments of chaos and desolation.

Literature professor Christine Schintgen drew us into a rich reading of a selection of Canadian poems. Madonna House iconographer Marysia Kowalchyk gave us an overview of the theology of eastern icons.  Professor Karen Hanlon awakened the artist within, with her workshop on painting Easter eggs, Melissa Rickwald gave practical ideas for creating a classroom which fosters faith through beauty and Jenna Henry drew it all together as moderator of the closing panel discussion.

Every teacher I talked to at the conference left enriched and inspired. Next year’s conference will also be in mid-August. Details will can be found at the Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College website.

 Joe Bissonnette teaches religion and philosophy at Assumption College School in Brantford.

 

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