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OUR SCHOOLMASTER REMEMBERED
(A Tribute to Dr. John Senior)

How many of us will be remembered long after we die? For a while we will be remembered by family, close friends, maybe a few descendants. But in a few short years the living memory of us will be gone, and we will be reduced to a name on a stone.

Occasionally a great person ―a saint, a missionary, a teacher ―is held in memory long after death. One such man is Dr. John Senior. On April 8, 2004, this fifth anniversary of his death, we wish to consider a great teacher who still lives through his former students. Some of them he taught over twenty years ago, and through them he still converses with another generation. Students of Dr. Senior are now teaching their own children or are school teachers themselves.

"John Senior taught for years with his good friends Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick in the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas. Once, that program came under attack in the College Assembly. Dr. Senior stood up to make his apologia, and he began with the claim that he was not a public speaker but a school teacher. That was no false humility or mere rhetorical device; rather it was John Senior pointing out the simple truth, something he did his whole life." Here are a few simple recollections of a great teacher by his students.

A Love of the Truth

"I think that the primary reason Dr. John Senior was an outstanding teacher was because he had a genuine love for the truth as well as for his students. He revered the great thinkers, historians, and writers of the past so that his admiration for their wisdom just naturally rubbed off."

"With all of his being, John Senior believed that the Catholic Faith represents the highest expression of truth. 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 her angels. He loved the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass because there he found Christ Himself."

"John Senior taught with Drs. Quinn and Nelick through conversations about Western Civilization, Greek, Roman, Medieval, and Modern. These conversations, or turnings, were celebrations, a bringing together of ideas found in the great works. Contemplation of the natural, the simple turns of a conversation or the turnings in the constellations, poetry, or calligraphy, lead us to the supernatural. As we read the greatest books, we gain a thirst for truth and a basis for discernment of other works. The beauty of the natural showed us the truth of the supernatural."

Dr. Senior writes,

"In your education, past and future, in the pursuit of happiness, in marriage, friendship, in vocations, recreation, politics and just plain jobs, if you can find them ―in the long run, you will have to ask what the whole thing is: What are all those activities and commitments parts of? What is the integer? If you forget everything you learned at college ―most of it you will ―remember at least this question (it will be on the very final examination which your own conscience will make at the last hour of your life): In your pursuit of horizons, of horizontal things, have you failed to raise your eyes and mind and heart up to the stars ―to the reasons for things, and beyond, as the great poet Dante says… ‘To the love which moves the sun/ And all the other stars’?" (The Integration of Knowledge)

This, then, is in great part the reason for John Senior’s love of the Rule of St. Benedict "…which in the strict sense regulated monasteries and in the wider sense, through the influence and example of monasteries, especially in their love of Our Blessed Mother, civilized Europe. The habit of the monks, the bells, the ordered life, the ‘conversation,’ the music, gardens, prayer, hard work and walls all these accidental and incidental forms conformed in the moral and spiritual life of Christians to the love of Mary and her Son." (The Restoration of Christian Culture)

A Love of Teaching

"Visits with Dr. Senior, either walking across campus or sitting in his office, made me feel like I was the only one in the world to hear those truths, that surely he had repeated a thousand times before. I soon discovered that he was no ordinary teacher, that something more was there. He loved his work, and that same love overflowed into me. It was contagious. I remember speaking to him one day after class about a certain scene in The Iliad, and then later in his office about Socrates. His simple explanations of the works and the profound insights into Western Civilization spurred me on to a greater desire to learn, a desire that up to that time had remained dormant. I remember he once described that indeed the task he performed with such joy and elegance was just like a man ushering people into the poetry, literature, and history of our civilization."

"Quiet and unassuming, Dr. Senior employed no dramatic or entertaining techniques to win his students’ attention. Rather, he already assumed that the subject matter at hand was worthy of serious study and that the students were aware of this. He had a wonderful mind combined with a passion for the good, the true, and the beautiful. I can still hear him reading aloud a passage from The Odyssey about Penelope descending the stair, then launching into a beautiful poetic discourse about the feminine ideal. Dr. Senior was a genuine teacher, without affectation or condescension, full of gentle tact and good humor, and always approachable."

"I remember when he would take up a theme, perhaps one introduced by another, and he would develop that theme like a Mozart symphony, exposing new lines and playfully finding new voices. Finally he would return to his beginning, though we thought he had long lost the thread, and effortlessly he would connect the whole back to that original theme. It was like music ―it was music."

A Love of Students

"A teacher must love his students, before he can teach and before they can, in turn, learn. But he loves them for the sake of Christ, and his teaching is an act of charity. His students respond to that charity. Oftentimes, adults out of school returned on Tuesdays and Thursdays to revisit the lecture hall and listen to the current conversation. They wrote to Dr. Senior who encouraged them in their callings, guided them in their decisions."

One former student sets the scene:

"It was amazing how he was able to lift our group of usually distracted, often burnt-out kids up to fascinated attention for an hour and a half. And sweetly he turned many of us (and we were over a hundred the first years) to an admiration and a love of the True, the Good, the Beautiful, and of God. Many of the students he received were pretty lost … despairing of ever leading a good, happy life ―and thus leading us to the great truths and values which alone give meaning to human existence and make it worth living, he changed or even saved many lives.

He recognized that we participate in something greater than ourselves, that our great duty is to listen and be docile to the mystery of things and to the great masters, who by their docility entered into that same mystery. And he himself was a master in the art of helping the students participate in his conversation, in his contemplation of the great truths, thus helping us to acquire a taste for the absolute."

"I was already a baptized Catholic ―but with very little knowledge of my Faith except to say that I believed it true. So in a way I learned just as a sort of ‘pagan’… A little later in the year a girl invited me to come to a catechism class Dr. Senior taught. He talked about angels. How surprised I was to find that anyone believed in them ―and to find there was so much unknown to me about my own Faith."

In his correspondence with a student, Dr. Senior wrote,

"I pray you will get the Mass. Of course we are living ‘inter’ and have to grab what bits or grace fall from the Master’s table. We deserve less, deserve nothing and less than nothing, having abused the abundant graces received. The ordinary way of life is to live on bread and wine (even with some extra gifts like tobacco) and to be sustained in our spiritual way by His Body and Blood. But it may be that like John the Baptist we have to live on locusts and honey in the desert, where perhaps a crow will bring the Eucharist once a year on Holy Thursday as for other desert Fathers. I mean your children may have to grow up as desert sons! With the love and teaching you are giving them, they will survive and flourish."

The Greatest Teacher is Example

"I used to watch him before class his legs crossed, sitting back, usually one hand in his pocket. I used to try to imagine what great thoughts he was thinking. Only later did I come to the conclusion that it wasn’t thinking that he was doing I would guess that it was praying. Silent prayer ―prayer before class – in ordinary times an ordinary thing. In that time and place where public prayer was not allowed, I think now that he prayed."

"He said once in Catechism that without the prayers of the Church we would be able to do nothing. That all his and the other professors’ teaching would be worthless unless the prayers of the Church continued. The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin was no longer being said in the church at the base of Mt. Oread. The sisters whose calling it was to sing the Little Office were no longer doing it, so someone had to. That’s why a handful of College students, who barely knew Latin and knew less about Gregorian chant, sang Vespers of the Little Office on weekdays."

"We sang Vespers in the late afternoon, and on Tuesdays following that, we had catechism with Dr. Senior at the nearby students’ home. I still remember the crowd there and the topic of my first lesson. Dr. Senior spoke of the glory of the Invisible and of the angels and of how much greater the Invisible was than the visible. He said that as Catholics we don’t proselytize loudly, but make quiet acts of consecration. He showed us that through the ages, Tradition teaches how to make the Sign of the Cross secretly. By touching thumb and first two fingers together to symbolize the trinity and then by tapping our heart three times, we can consecrate each thing we do throughout the day to the honor and glory of God."

Dr. Senior was a lover of the traditional Latin Mass and led many of his students to discover its treasures. "Whatever we do in the political and 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." (The Restoration of Christian Culture)

"I know nothing firsthand, of course, of his personal spiritual journey, but my guess is that his interior life was deep and strong. His love for Christ permeated his being and manifested itself in his humility, his wisdom, his humor, and his solicitude for his students. I remember at our 1995 reunion he dwelt upon St. John’s final words to his flock, ‘Little children, love one another.’ Like his patron saint, Dr. Senior loved us enough to share with us Eternal Truth and Eternal Love. We students were truly blessed to know him!"

Our Life as a Preparation for Heaven

"In the ordinary daily life of men in Christian culture, who work not only in the sweat of their brows, but for the love of their families, there is also love of work." John Senior writes, "When men cut wood or go to war or make love to their wives, or when women spin or wash and reciprocate that love, they are working not only to get the job done so that children will be born and grow and have clothes to wear and food to eat. They are working so that those children will one day be saints in heaven. They are working as the very instruments of God’s love to create a kind of heavenly garden here and now in the home, by which each axe becomes a violin, each loom a harp, each day a prayer, each hour a psalm." (The Death of Christian Culture)

One last moving tribute from a student, upon learning that Dr. Senior had died: "His death ―what a shocking reality for me. ‘All life is a preparation for death.’ And my teacher had died. Upon hearing the news I arose, drove myself to Mass. And then I prayed for him. I could think of no other thing he would have me do. In John Senior I could see that he possessed something that I desired very much. I loved my teacher. My teacher loved the Truth. So I wanted to love the Truth, too."

So we close this remembrance of our dear schoolmaster with his own words from the final chapter of The Restoration of Christian Culture reflecting his great love for Our Lady. We are so much richer for having learned from him and humbled by a desire to teach our children and our students in some small way as he taught us. "We must get calmly on with our work and our taxes, redeeming the time in our station in life, even while the miraculous birth and the martyrdom occur, ‘anyhow in a corner,’ perhaps in some unlikely Bethlehem like our own backyard. There may be someone reading these words right now who, like St. Margaret Mary or St. Catherine Laboure ―unknown as yet to herself ―is the focal point of a great historical change. All over the world at this very hour, Mary and her angels are moving among the human race. If we consecrate our hearts to hers we shall be among those who make a difference."