Catholic Phoenix


Odysseus, Galadriel, and Me: My Catholic Education

There's a beautiful story -- The Life of the Cheerful Schoolmaster Maria Wutz -- where the main character is too poor to afford the latest books, so he gets the titles and writes his own, based on what he thinks they must be about. He writes, for example, The Critique of Pure Reason and The Sorrows of Young Werther. I imagine his versions were, as compared to the originals, more lively than the first and more cheerful than the second.

So it is in the spirit of the great Maria Wutz that I set out to write a post for National Catholic Schools Week. I've never heard of it, and I've resisted the google reflex. I will suppose that the week was established to encourage the discussion of what makes a great Catholic education. That's a coincidence, because I happen to have had a great Catholic education myself.

The first part of my education that I remember took place in my parents' bedroom -- my goodness, that sounds ominous -- no, I'm talking about the nightly readings of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Lord of the Rings, just before bed. My father, who has always admired Mel Blanc, is no slouch either when it comes to making up voices. He can make his voice wily (for Odysseus), high-pitched and earnest (for Sam Gamgee) and up-all-night-with-the-lights-on terrifying (for the Nazgûl).

And then he would say, almost like the members of a Greek chorus, and with their terrible intensity: "Stop flailing around! How can I read while you're flailing!?"

It was hard for him to see that our "flailing" (and our jumping on each other, and our grimacing) was an instinctive attempt to, kinesthetically, internalize these epics. Eventually we would stop flailing, which was of course a sign that we were no longer conscious. We would protest that we had been listening -- "I was just resting my eyes!" -- but, if we were unable to repeat the last thing that had happened, it was off to bed. But we'd dream all night of Gandalf, and of grey-eyed Athena.

The second part that I remember took place on the couch downstairs. That's where my mother read us the Narnia books. There are eight of us, and she wanted everyone to hear all of them, so she read the series through about eight times. There was significant overlap, which we minded not at all.

When we got a little older, although maybe not really old enough, she read us Lewis' Space Trilogy, which I still reread with ever-renewed pleasure. She read us some Madeleine L'Engle and some J. D. Salinger, too, although she was careful to explain that even wise, talented people say some incredibly asinine things.

The third part took place at the kitchen table, where my mother taught me relativity, biology, theology, and metaphysics. Originally these subjects were discussed over breakfast or lunch. Later in life -- just a few weeks ago, for example -- they were discussed over morning coffee, or a midnight sandwich.

It was also mainly at the kitchen table that I heard my parents' conversion story. Like the Narnia books, I heard it over and over again; and as with Narnia, new things revealed themselves each time I heard it. As I got older, I was even made privy to the less reputable bits, just at the times when they would resonate. (Incidentally, you can read their story for yourself in Honey From the Rock: Sixteen Jews Find the Sweetness of Christ. If you like.)

So, that was my Catholic education. It is still going on. Oh, did I forget to mention Catholic schools?

Well. They can't have been as important as the rest of it.

4 comments | Add one of your own.

  1. Marilyn

    Thanks for the appreciation! I just want to add that the Salinger was not the abominable Catcher in the Rye, but Franny & Zooey, because of its portrait of life in a large and loving but crazy family.

    ~ from J. Prever’s mother


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  3. Danica

    That sounds a lot like my own education – at home, anyway. The public school system tends to ruin reading for a lot of kids; we once spent an entire semester on Dante’s Inferno, and the only memorable portion had something to do with flatulence (I can’t recall anything else, really). Each student read a page aloud to the class in bitter monotone before passing the thankless task to the next pupil. We read Shakespeare in this fashion as well — in broken, frustrated monotone. Luckily I had a rich childhood filled with fairytales, nursery rhymes, C.S. Lewis, and Tolkien to preserve me from the idea that reading had to be painful. Hoorah for parents who read to their kids!