Learning by Heart, the Joy of Music, and the Power of the Prophetic
by Mark Chmiel
I received your letter today about the online Good News class and your hand-written adaptation of Kipling’s famous poem. The fact that you have had “If” as a companion in your work and life at Casa Maria Catholic Worker reminds me of a short book I recently read. It’s titled, A Long Saturday, and it’s a translation of a series of interviews from French between journalist Laure Adler and literary critic George Steiner.
Steiner was born in 1929. His father had the prescience to move his family out of Europe by 1940, thus escaping the Nazi juggernaut. He went to New York where his teachers included the noted Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson (whom Dorothy Day probably read at some point!). He later studied at the University of Chicago, was a Rhodes Scholar, worked for The Economist awhile, then joined Princeton’s Center for Advanced Studies. He’s been at various elite universities for decades and published many books (on topics like Antigone, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, translation, Homer). His contemporaries include Elie Wiesel and Noam Chomsky, and I’ve learned a lot from all three.
In their discussions, Adler and Steiner cover a lot of ideas, and I want to mention three that you may already find of interest as you live at the Catholic Worker: Learning by heart, the joy of music, and the power of the prophetic.
Your affinity for Kipling’s poem is suggestive of what Steiner has hammered home for decades: We must commit to memory and learn by heart those poems and literary/spiritual passages that move us. He says to Adler at one point: “When you learn by heart, no one can take it from you. It stays in you and grows, it’s transformed. A great text you memorized in high school, changes with you, changes as you age, changes with circumstances; you understand it differently.” I bet many Catholic Workers have experienced this with some of the canonical works in the movement, such as the last page of The Long Loneliness, one of Peter Maurin’s Easy Essays, or part of Father Zosima’s teachings from The Brothers Karamazov.
I am aware that Catholic Workers make a conscientious effort to live in voluntary poverty or intentional simplicity as a dissent from thoughtless mainstream consumerism. Even so, you in your community must have means of listening to great music. Steiner reminded me of the immense wealth we have available to us: “The appearance of the record was a miracle. To live in these times, to suddenly have within reach the entire history of music, all the music we want to hear, it’s a huge luxury. An indispensable luxury.” Maybe you have an old-fashioned CD player; still, that can provide a lot of delight and wonder in your home. One of my favorite recollections of Dorothy Day is by Joe Zarella, who knew her in the 1930s: “She loved [composer Richard] Wagner, which was something very difficult to understand.” Steiner stated, “A day without music is a very sad day.”
Last, Steiner has long been attuned to the Jewish contribution to world culture by the prophetic (via Moses and the prophets, Jesus, and Marx). He observed, “As for the great prophets, Isaiah declared himself the one who wakes us in the night, the one whose cries will awaken the city. Jeremiah pleads, ‘Wake up! Stop sleeping!’ But it’s really mean to deprive us of our bourgeois sleep. Sleeping well is the luxury of the bourgeoisie, the middle classes. People who are starving never enjoy a good sleep.” Fifty years ago, in reflecting on what people knew and did during the Holocaust, he said to his colleagues:” Whatever the massacre, the torture, the children being burned now in our name — it may be so .… I think it is our job as Jews, if anywhere in the world human beings are being burned alive, to ask ourselves: How can we sit still?” Of course, this imperative converges with the Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker.
Given you many commitments to your community and neighborhood, I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to join us in these classes and share and learn with us. I hope to get to Milwaukee sometime this year and visit friends, and would love to see you at the Worker, if your schedule allows.
George Steiner with Laure Adler, A Long Saturday: Conversations (University of Chicago Press, 2017)