Newburgh, N.Y. — I saw a groundhog. That might be an unremarkable fact if your element is not concrete in Manhattan, but it was a highlight for this city gal. And it added to the retreat-like aspect of the event. So, too, did the sight just yards from the wildlife: a convent chapel full of young men in the white habit of the religious order established by the 13th-century Spaniard St. Dominic, looking a little like a throwback to anyone not expecting to see them (my taxi driver included). In reality, the third annual philosophy summer school, held last year, was an intense, contemplative, analytical engagement with the world, of the most practical and modern sort.
Gathered were graduate students and faculty from Princeton University, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Chicago, as well as from secular and Catholic institutions throughout the country. Of the highest academic caliber, they were also striking for their penetration, passion, and practicality.
I turned in around one o’clock in the morning Saturday as conversations continued still on the virtues and meaning and life today. But these aren’t the guys in the back of the room in your Theology 101 class asking questions for the sake of asking questions. These are seekers. Seekers not on an aimless journey, not avoiding commitments until they find a magic pill. These are young fathers and mothers. These are consecrated men and women. These are diligent, ebullient men and women who know the world as it is today, and who share the deep desire for something better than we often settle for personally, culturally, and intellectually. And they are here because they know they don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but they do have to be clever and creative in reformulating ancient truths for the present day.
The three-and-a-half-day workshop is imbued with sanctity, the joy of fellowship, and the kind of intellectual rigor Dominicans are known for. Held at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, just a stone’s throw from West Point (I wouldn’t recommend testing security, and no one at the session likely would), it’s a powerhouse of a summer school — just about as close as you’re going to get without a time machine to a summer intensive taught by Thomas Aquinas himself. Bags are being packed right about now for the fourth one of these summer schools, co-sponsored by the Thomistic Institute of the Dominican House of Studies (across from my alma mater, the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C.).
“The Newburgh event speaks to an intellectual need that is currently not being met,” explains Anna Halpine, a board member of MSMC responsible for bringing the conference to campus. It’s gathering of thinking people who are interested in working together on a variety of problems and seeking new options and solutions.
The conference focuses on Thomas Aquinas, who, says Halpine, “is the bridge from the ancients to the moderns, and himself played a key role in introducing Aristotle to the West.” Anyone even half paying attention to contemporary debates and challenges knows we need a new common language with which to speak about some key concepts. Thomas Aquinas might help. Halpine describes the event as “a synthesis of the pursuit of knowledge and truth which takes place in this broader experience of friendship.”
Classroom work is important at the summer school, but, as a general human experience, friendship is going to make all the difference. That’s something that often gets lost in our intellectual and political and even evangelical strategizing.
And the summer school is also a snapshot in something palpably going on in the culture today. It’s a countercultural renewal that involves both the most rigorous academics and the most pious faithful, sometimes both found in the same person. It’s about reaching people with truth and beauty and faith and reason. It’s about renewing institutions that might have languished in their zeal and rigor in recent decades, but have a bold future ahead of them with a renewed commitment to the integrity of their founding missions.
This May, at the commencement exercises at Catholic University, an NFL player talked to graduates about the difference a life of virtue makes. A mother who will go to jail and face death rather than denounce her Christian faith in Sudan knows this, but many of us in the West have forgotten it. It takes courage of conviction and a dedicated culture of witness and encouragement to pull it off and to show what a robust resource it is for a community, for civility, for art and the intellectual life. But as saints and martyrs testify and so many of our cultural treasures demonstrate, it’s worth the effort.
In one morning-Mass homily at the 2013 workshop, Father James Brent, O.P. — who teaches philosophy at Catholic University — said: “We are called not only to understand the mysteries of Christ — the mysteries of our lives and our eternal destination — but to live them.” That’s authenticity. And it’s radical — looking to keep to the Word. That’s what Pope Francis has in mind when he says, as he did just the other day during a morning-Mass homily, that the seal of a Christian is a joyful hope that flows from being truly reliant on God, in practicing charity and in plumbing the depths of human knowledge to discover the most beautiful truths available to us.
For one weekend every June now, young and more experienced scholars are doing just that. And they do it so they can head back to New York City on Metro-North or otherwise go forth from Newburgh, enriched and ready to replicate this vigorous, rigorous, fun engagement in every corner of the world.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.