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A Tribute to Dr. John Senior

By Robert Wyer

Dr. John Senior was a retired Professor of Classics and a well-known Catholic thinker, of international reputation. He authored The Way Down and Out (1959), The Death of Christian Culture (1978), The Restoration of Christian Culture (1983), Pale Horse, Easy Rider (1992), and The Idea of a School (1994). With two other professors, Dr. Dennis Quinn and Dr. Frank Nelick, he taught in the very successful Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas. Dr. Senior was a longtime member of the Immaculata Chapel at St. Mary’s College in Kansas. He was buried from the chapel on April 13, 1999, following a Requiem Mass celebrated by the rector, Rev. Fr. Ramon Angles. The following tribute is offered by one of his students.

  At the end of Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes, Tom returns to visit the tomb of Dr. Arnold, the former headmaster of Rugby School. Tom wasn’t always the perfect student during his years at Rugby, but he imbibed Dr. Arnold’s spirit because he was a good boy and perhaps, more importantly because Dr. Arnold was wise enough and good enough to see the man that Tom could become. When Tom returns, he goes into the chapel where Arnold is buried; he is brokenhearted and he cries as the memories of the past surround him. At first, his thoughts are of Dr. Arnold:

  And he turned to the pulpit [where Arnold regularly preached to the boys], and looked at it, and then, leaning forward with his head on his hands, groaned aloud. "If he could only have seen the Doctor again for...five minutes; have told him all that was in his heart, what he owed to him, how he loved and reverenced him, and would by God’s help follow his steps in life and death, he could have borne it all without a murmur. But that he should have gone away for ever without knowing it all, was too much to bear."

  Many former students of John Senior undoubtedly experienced similar sentiments when he died on April 8, 1999. Many of us, who were students, friends, and family of Dr. Senior, owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude for his witness to the truth. Above all else, he was a teacher. Dr. Senior was a man rooted in reality. The starting point of any conversation with him (and its arché sustaining the talk throughout) was things as they are. For him, the fundamental question remained, "Is it true?" He wholeheartedly subscribed to the sane and common-sensical philosophy recorded in Shakespeare’s As You Like It: "the property of rain is to wet and fire to burn." For this reason (though always a gentleman according to Newman’s famous definition), Dr. Senior believed in telling the truth. A lie is a deliberate frustration of man’s natural God-given capacity to utter the truth. Even when telling the truth meant disagreeing with a friend or someone he greatly respected, he would humbly but clearly beg to differ ultimately because God is Truth. In an age seduced by talk of "Who’s to say?" Dr. Senior began his teaching by pointing to the world around him. He was a poet, and poets are taken with reality. Dr. Senior was called a romantic and a dreamer (and worse), but he was not some utopian visionary. He was too grounded in the earth to be fantastical. With all of his being, Dr. Senior believed that the Catholic Faith represents the highest expression of truth. When he was led to the Church later in life, he embraced it with Pauline zeal and sought to steep himself in her wisdom and traditions. He loved the Latin language because it was her language; he loved St. Benedict as the patron of Europe and his monastic rule as the plow of Christendom; he loved the Fathers and St. Thomas Aquinas. He prayed the ancient Divine Office and preached the merits of the traditional Roman liturgy. He loved the Blessed Virgin Mary and all of her angels. He loved the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass because there he found Christ Himself. He led students to the baptismal font, to the altar as priests, to the bonds of good and fruitful marriages, and to the choirs of monasteries.

  He understood that Christian culture is the seedbed of the Faith. Though the Faith can (and does) endure amidst a culture antithetical to it, it cannot flourish under such conditions. Archbishop Lefebvre, in a statement Dr. Senior loved to recall, told him, La messe est l’Eglise (The Mass is the Church). In The Restoration of Christian Culture, Dr. Senior elaborated on this most important truth preserved by the courageous archbishop:

  Whatever we do in the political or social order, the indispensable foundation is prayer, the heart of which is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the perfect prayer of Christ Himself, Priest and Victim, recreating in an unbloody manner the bloody, selfsame Sacrifice of Calvary. What is Christian culture? It is essentially the Mass. That is not my or anyone’s opinion or theory or wish but the central fact of 2,000 years of history. Christendom, what secularists call Western Civilization, is the Mass and the paraphernalia which protect and facilitate it. All architecture, art, political and social forms, economics, the way people live and feel and think, music, literature all these things when they are right are ways of fostering and protecting the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. To enact a sacrifice, there must be an altar, an altar has to have a roof over it in case it rains; to reserve the Blessed Sacrament, we build a little House of Gold and over it a Tower of Ivory with a bell and a garden round it with the roses and lilies of purity, emblems of the Virgin Mary Rosa Mystica, Turris Davidica, Turris Eburnea, Domus Aurea, who carried His Body and His Blood in her womb, Body of her body, Blood of her blood. And around the church and garden, where we bury the faithful dead, the caretakers live, the priests and religious whose work is prayer, who keep the Mystery of Faith in its tabernacle of music and words in the Office of the Church; and around them, the faithful who gather to worship and divide the other work that must be done in order to make the perpetuation of the Sacrifice possible–to raise the food and make the clothes and build and keep the peace so that generations to come may live for Him, so that the Sacrifice goes on even until the consummation of the world.

  Elsewhere, Senior explained that not all of these elements of civilized human life have to preach the Faith explicitly, but they should echo it in their order and beauty, and even (especially!) in their simple elegance. John Senior was not an advocate of luxurious living or empty aestheticism; he was a troubadour of simplicity, a virtue reflected in his subtle austerity. Though his boyhood dreams were of cowboys and poets (and both were realized), Dr. Senior found his vocation as a teacher. To his tribute, he became a latter-day Socrates to countless young men and women. Not all of Dr. Senior’s students followed him into the Church, but the thousands who did not surely gained some greater affinity for the good, the true and the beautiful as a result of his teaching the classic works of literature. In this regard, he was a worthy son of another great teacher, Mark Van Doren, of Columbia University, though he outdistanced his mentor in coming to the fullness of revealed truth. As successful as he was, Dr. Senior remained humble, giving the credit to God. He insisted that no Catholic was going to win on the world’s terms, he realized that "losing" is the path of martyrs and saints, paved by the Passion and Death of Our Lord.

  Nothing is coincidental, Dr. Senior used to maintain; all is providential. He died at home on Easter Thursday, while praying the rosary with his beloved wife. The epistle appointed for the day is from the Acts of the Apostles:

  Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying: Arise, go towards the south, to the way that goeth down from Jerusalem to Gaza: this is desert. And rising up he went. And behold a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge over all her treasures had come to Jerusalem to adore. And he was returning, sitting in his chariot, and reading Isaias the prophet. And the spirit said to Philip: Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. And Philip running thither, heard him reading the prophet Isaias. And he said: Thinkest thou that thou understandest what thou readest? Who said: And how can I, unless some man shew me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him (Acts 8:26-31).

  Dr. Senior ended one of his last essays, History and the School, by quoting and commenting on this passage as a paradigm of good teaching.

  1. "Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip." Before the beginning, the angel speaks. There is a theological dimension outside time to the act of teaching, which though not sacramentally sealed, is nonetheless a vocation; the teacher is called.

  2. "And rising up, he went." A sign of one’s vocation is his instantaneous response. Like falling in love, against all rational reluctance, it is a "want," something one cannot live without.

  3. "And behold a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch." Good students must be Ethiopian black in ignorance if not in skin (often in skin as well) who, castrate of their arrogance, come up to school to learn. Smart-aleck know-it-alls cannot be taught.

  4. "Reading Isaias the prophet."  Teaching is not advertising or salesmanship. College English teachers faced with freshmen who hate literature, think their job is somehow to convert them —by cajolery, finding something in a text (or selecting lesser texts) relating to their sick, impoverished wants. But the fault was back in high school where they should have loved Shakespeare. But, the high school teacher found his freshmen coming up from elementary school with no desire to read Shakespeare because they had not first loved Stevenson. And the grade school teacher found his students coming up from home without Mother Goose. And more important still, the love of literature at any stage supposes love of life grounded in acute sensation and deep emotion. I remember a famous college professor who, asked for a reading list, replied, "Why take the course if not engrossed in it already? One can no more study a book than love a girl on assignment." And if they do not love girls?

  5. "And the Spirit said to Philip: Go near and join thyself to this chariot." The original call is general–the angel said to St. Philip, "Arise and go toward the South," which is to say to some good school. But when the teacher, perusing rows of up and down-turned faces, hears an interior whisper "That one, there" it is love at first sight. That teachers have favorite students and students favorite teachers is a fact no sentiment of fairness can delete. Of course we must be just and love in charity; but affection knows no law. Sometimes a student goes through several grades before he finds his master and a teacher must be patient when the spirit fails to speak.

  6. "And Philip running thither." It is true that because the teacher qua teacher is superior to the student, the student must come to him you cannot force learning on unwilling souls. But as we love God only because He first loved us, so teachers, when they hear the second call, must run to wake their sleeping students up.

  7. And then, like Socrates, quicken them with questions: "And thinkest thou that thou understandest what thou readest?"

  8. Then such love may be requited: "And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him." The student now stays after class with questions of his own, comes to the teacher’s office, follows him around, gets invited to his home and, like good fathers and sons, they become lifelong friends.

  John Senior could write so eloquently of what he called "a little eight-note scale of its own on the acts (not arts) of teaching and learning" because he loved his students. Quoting Garrigou-Lagrange, he said that an analogy exists between paternity and teaching; both are generative. But the love of the teacher for his student, like the love of the father for his son, is greater than vice versa because it is the love of the cause. Finally, however, Dr. Senior was urged on by charity, the love of God. His greatest lesson was to teach others to do the same. As Tom Brown remembers Dr. Arnold, he also recalls the number of other students who were influenced by the great man others "nobler and braver and purer than he." Hughes ends his novel with words even more appropriate in the case of John Senior and his students.

  For it is only through our mysterious human relationships, through the love and tenderness and purity of mothers and sisters and wives, through the strength and courage and wisdom of fathers and brothers and teachers, that we can come to the knowledge of Him, in whom alone the love, and the tenderness, and the purity, and the strength, and the courage, and the wisdom of all these dwell for ever and ever in perfect fullness.