The strait, and narrow

The school year has recommenced, and I find myself once again modestly deranging the minds of innocent young seminarians, on the topic of Literature. Catholic Literature. (All great literature is Catholic: did you know?)

Here are five things I like to emphasize, from the start. Each is the most important.

Item. … Keep your thinking “inside the box.”

“Inside which box?” the clever one may ask.

“The Box of Reason and Revelation,” I then reply, smugly.

For everyone else is thinking “outside the box,” these days. This leaves the box empty. But it is a handsome box, and it is warm inside, and winter is coming.

Item. … Avoid “lateral thinking.” It is linear thinking we need. To which end, lock your laptop away, and write with a pen. Not only should each sentence “flow” from the last, it should be internally coherent, too. Provide a beginning, a middle, and an end in all you write. Keep everything in that order.

The West was able to conquer the whole world, thanks to linear thinking. We aced all the sciences, thanks to linear thinking. We will get to Heaven by the strait, and narrow.

Item. … Eliminate ring binders. You need a notebook so bound, that the contents cannot be re-arranged, and you can’t take pages out except by ripping. Retain all your stupidities. Date the pages. Flag keywords if you still can’t find anything, and create an index.

You want to make something substantial, that will be truly worth burning on the last day of school.

No scanners or copying machines, either. Everything you want to retain, write down, in an increasingly legible and elegant longhand. Anything you are tempted to underline in books: write down. If the quotation is three pages long, faithfully transcribe it. And learn to draw, so you can provide the illustrations.

This is how you become intimate with the written word, and gradually engage memory and attention. It is a method that will help you stay inside the box, and on the linear trail. Within weeks, you will find yourself beginning to remember things. Eventually, you might even become articulate.

Item. … If there is anything you fail to understand — such as a play by Shakespeare — read it six times. To discourage yourself from looking too much up (which is a distraction) use only heavy cumbersome dictionaries. Keep reading like a tank, with no reverse gear. Blast through the obstacles.

Soon the pennies will begin to drop. Pennies from Heaven.

Item. … Read with your lips. Sound everything in your head. Read passages aloud, to each other. Perform them, with gestures, and hands. Recite them in the shower. Use the exclamations to scare the cat. Chew lovingly on each delicious phrase, over dinner.

Soon you will be able to understand what is meant by rhythm, in prose and verse, and even the rules will become comprehensible. Soon you will discover that half the meaning is in the music. And the other half is between the lines.

Remember: “Only the lover sings.”

By David Warren, lecturer in religion and literature, St Philip’s Seminary

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
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