Several days ago, I woke up to a beautiful morning in Stillwater, MN. My husband was already awake, reading on a little porch off of our “bed and breakfast” room, and baby Joseph was happily patting me on the head. We were there to celebrate the wedding of our friends, Dawn and Jack, and also our own fifth wedding anniversary.
Anyway, I got up that morning, made a little coffee with the so-called “fancy European” coffee maker, sat down next to Tom, and took out Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Thus, I started again the rhythm of reading for a new semester, which would start only a few days later. After a few minutes, I looked around me, took in the beauty of the flowers, the morning air, and felt very grateful for the privilege to be reading such a book on such an occasion.
It’s not that I didn’t read good books before St. John’s, but somehow a book like Aristotle’s Rhetoric would not cross my mind as something to bring on vacation, to read and reflect upon on a quiet “get away” with my beloved and my dear baby. But it is a book by an author that I aspired and tried to read for a few years after college, yet somehow couldn’t muster the attention and confidence to do so on my own. I really desired a community with whom to share these texts and to keep me accountable to my own goals to read and write about them. Thankfully, this program has truly given me such a community.
After two semesters now complete at St. John’s, I’d like to look back over the big picture and meditate on what I’ve learned and discovered. I think on the day-t0-day level, I can get caught up in the minor frustrations or petty issues of being in school again. There are the dynamics of particular tutors and classmates, lackluster seminar discussions, feelings of confusion or doubt about what a particular text is trying to say, disappointment about not being able to read more by a particular author…tired moments when I really wish the tutor would just lecture already! Most of all, feeling sad to not be with my husband and kids and knowing that it makes our family life a bit more stressful (though not by much really, especially now that the summer semester is over).
The last few days of the summer semester were a wonderful time to forget those little lows and allow myself to enjoy my classes and my classmates, to reflect on how much good the program offers and that I am certainly deriving from it.
First and foremost, the texts are pivotal. It’s not that I love every text that we read, or would necessarily read them again, but I am deeply challenged by each one. I can feel that my mind is expanding to see the connections between things, the progressions or developments of thoughts and ideas. The whole curriculum in some ways is akin to Euclid’s geometry in the sense that you must build and progress in a sensible way.
Then, there are my tutors and classmates who help me to delve more fully into the text and show it to be vastly more interesting than I had realized on my own. On the evenings when I am most ambivalent about going to class, Tom always reminds me, “At the very least, you should go because it forces you to think about what you have just read for two hours, and if you don’t go, you probably won’t do that at all.” Too true, too true.
I am also becoming a more patient conversant. Much more so than in college, I am now humbled by the quirks and sometimes the difficulties that my classmates often have in expressing their ideas, and I realize to what extent I myself have such quirks and stumblings in my own explanations. Everyone is sincere and earnest, and this is essential. We are such a spread of ages, professions, educational backgrounds, beliefs, etc, that our sincere respect of the texts and one another makes our conversations fruitful–not merely in an intellectual sense, but also in virtue, I think.
During my first semester, my friend Kelly often reminded me of a saying of her husband, a St. John’s undergrad alum, that “seminar is a lesson in charity.” Yesterday evening, during my first classes of the fall semester, I thought of that saying once or twice, as I was struck by the happiness and natural ease with which so many of us returning and even new students conversed with each other.