Thinking about the Benedict Option, a friend and reader sent me this historical reflection by Robert Louis Wilken on the work of Christian culture. In it, Wilken discusses how the early church built its culture from nothing, and how it not only endured, but transformed the culture around it. Excerpt:

Material culture and with it art, calendar and with it ritual, grammar and with it language, particularly the language of the Bible—these are only three of many examples (monasticism would be another) that could be brought forth to exemplify the thick texture of Christian culture, the fullness of life in the community that is Christ’s form in the world.

Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture. The unhappy fact is that the society in which we live is no longer neutral about Christianity. The United States would be a much less hospitable environment for the practice of the faith if all the marks of Christian culture were stripped from our public life and Christian behavior were tolerated only in restricted situations.

If Christian culture is to be renewed, habits are more vital than revivals, rituals more edifying than spiritual highs, the creed more penetrating than theological insight, and the celebration of saints’ days more uplifting than the observance of Mother’s Day. There is great wisdom in the maligned phrase ex opere operato, the effect is in the doing. Intention is like a reed blowing in the wind. It is the doing that counts, and if we do something for God, in the doing God does something for us.

I could have accepted this as true before I became a more faithful participant in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, but having seen how the liturgy and the sacraments have worked and are working to change me without my being fully aware of it, I can testify to the truth of this from experience. Here’s what a big deal this is to me: if a wealthy patron offered me a big salary and a lovely house to move to my beloved France to live and raise my family, I would turn him down, because what I am given by my little country parish is priceless. It is far more than church; it is a culture, absorbed into one’s bones by the liturgy, the Psalms, the ancient hymns, the incense, the repetition.

Along these lines, the Catholic Bishop James Conley, who came into the Catholic Church while a student of John Senior’s, reflects on how being introduced to beauty — a fruit of culture — by Senior opened his mind and his soul, and transformed them both. Excerpt from the Conley essay generously shared by a reader:

As I mentioned, I am a convert to the Catholic faith. I entered the Church in 1975, under the guidance of one of the 20th century’s great teachers—the late John Senior, co-founder of the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas. John Senior was my godfather, and his ideas about faith and culture are a continuing inspiration to me.

My godfather loved beauty—not for its own sake, but for the sake of Jesus Christ, the creator and redeemer of beauty. Senior saw the beauty of this world in the light of eternity, and he helped others to acquire the same transcendent vision.

John Senior was not an evangelist, in the traditional sense of the word: he did not preach from a pulpit, or write works of apologetics. His goal in the classroom was not to convert us, but to open our minds to truth, wherever it might be found. And he did that primarily through the imagination.

In his own unusual way, Senior was a remarkably gifted evangelist. He had a deep love for the Church, and for the beauty of historic Christian culture. And that love was infectious. There were literally hundreds of converts to the Catholic Church at the University of Kansas in the 1970’s.

The Integrated Humanities program ran from 1970 to 1979, a decade that, with the exception of some really great rock and roll, was a cultural wasteland.

When I began the program, there was little of Christendom’s rich history in my cultural formation.  At the University of Kansas, my fellow students and I had very little sense of our own cultural inheritance. We were ignorant of Western civilization’s founding truths, and we had only a passing acquaintance with the beauty they had inspired.

Our lives had largely been shaped by the crass appeals of the mass media, and the passing fads of popular culture. There was a lack of truth in our lives, certainly; but there was also a profound lack of beauty. Our souls were starving for both, and we did not even know it.

But John Senior knew what we were lacking. His fellow professors, Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick, also knew. They knew that students had to encounter beauty, and have their hearts and imaginations captured first by beauty, before they could pursue truth and goodness in a serious and worthy manner.

Truth was the ultimate goal. But the search for truth involved certain habits of mind, and habits of life, which we—as students—did not have. Our pursuit of truth required an initiation into beauty: the beauty of music, visual art and architecture, nature, poetry, dance, calligraphy, and many other things.

Through these experiences of beauty, we gained a sense of wonder; and that sense of wonder gave us a passion for truth. The motto of the IHP was a famous little Latin phrase: Nascantur in Admiratione(“let them be born in wonder”).

The experience of beauty changed us. When we studied the great philosophers and theologians, we were open to their words. We no longer assumed that truth was found in the dictates of popular culture—just as we no longer saw modern fads and fashions as the pinnacle of beauty. Truth is perennial and beauty is timeless.

As I mentioned, a large number of students became Catholic through the Integrated Humanities Program. But this was not the result of proselytism in the classroom nor was it engaging in apologetics. It occurred because we became lovers of beauty, and thus, seekers of truth. Beauty gave us “eyes to see” and “ears to hear,” when we encountered the Gospel and the Christian tradition.

Bishop Conley says that Catholics (and, I think he would say, all Christians) have to pay attention to culture, because to be true to their faith, they must be concerned with more than personal sanctification. They must seek to renew the world. And it starts with beauty. Here’s the bishop:

To renew Catholic culture, and evangelize our contemporaries, we must restore beauty to the sacred liturgy. If we cannot restore beauty and holiness to our sanctuaries, we will not be able to restore it anywhere else.

This is true too. Maybe it’s just me, but the breathtaking beauty of the Orthodox liturgy we celebrate not in the Hagia Sophia, but in a converted workshop on Highway 61, is doing the work of cultivation inside me. It’s not something you can adequately explain in words. You have to come and hear and see.