Stratford Caldecott’s Metaphysical Perspective
By Rev. Jacob A. Strand
During my first parish assignment in my home Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, much of my priestly ministry transpired in school as well as in church. Teaching the elementary school students and ministering the sacraments were two of my principal responsibilities. They also were experiences that disclosed a regrettable truth. Neither education nor the sacramental liturgy captured parishioners’ minds and hearts: more often than not, both these experiences bored them. T. S. Eliot’s lamentation—“We had the experience but missed the meaning” (Four Quartets)—was often on my mind.
For three years, I looked for the cause of this disconnection with meaning. One day, I unexpectedly received some welcome direction. While paging through a Catholic newspaper, I noticed the obituary of a man whose name I recognized: for I had read several of his articles. His name was Stratford Caldecott, and he was only 60 years old. Reading the praiseworthy words of remembrance inspired me to purchase a few of Caldecott’s books and return to several of his articles. It was immediately clear that this man shared my concern about the malaise that so depressed the Western world. Furthermore, many of his writings concerned education and sacramental-liturgical mystagogy. What I found in Caldecott was both a penetrating diagnosis and a hopeful remedy.
While they may seem distant from one another, liberal arts education and lifelong Christian initiation both share a deep rapport. A meaningful education facilitates a meaningful exploration of the sacraments and liturgy. By removing one set of blinders, Caldecott not only restores one’s vision of poetry, mathematics, ecology, and science, but also holy water, blessed oil, spoken prayers, Eucharistic processions, and genuflections, to take a few examples. Everyone shares the blind beggar’s desire—“I want to see” (Mk 10:51). Relearning to see the power of words, the importance of actions, and the radiance of the created order through an integral and meaningful education frees Catholics to explore the signs and symbols that communicate the saving mysteries of faith.
Championing the essential role of education in human development, Caldecott claims, “Education is our path to true humanity and wisdom” (Beauty for Truth’s Sake, 12). And he specifies that walking this path requires “the ability to find meaning” (‘Towards a Distinctively Catholic School’). Unfortunately, education often fails to realize this lofty purpose. “Contemporary education,” Caldecott observes, “tends toward the elimination of meaning—except in the sense of a meaning that we impose by force upon the world” (BFTS, 18). He attends to various symptoms of this educational crisis, including education’s reductive exploitation for economic and social purposes, made possible by educational fragmentation. And he diagnoses these symptoms as rooted in modern philosophy. “The via moderna of the nominalist philosophers from the 14th century onwards”, writes Caldecott, “undermined natural theology and metaphysics.” By slicing off this philosophical patrimony, nominalism (and its twin-sister voluntarism) provoked a reductive subjectivism, manifested predominantly by rationalism, scientism, and unhinged romanticism. The educational influence of such philosophical tendencies fragments curricula, encourages shortsighted educational goals, and ultimately obscures students’ perception of the inherent relationality and meaningfulness of creation.
If Caldecott’s reader is looking for novel tips to quickly fix the educational crisis, he will be disappointed. Opting out of modern educational battles, Caldecott appeals for the recovery of a traditional philosophical approach. Whereas modernity evacuates reality of intrinsic meaning and subsequently reduces meaning to exclusive subjectivity, ancient Greek philosophy assimilated by Christianity locates meaning within the created order, as given by the Creator and manifested by the “keys to meaning”.
“The keys to meaning are…form, Gestalt, beauty, interiority, relationship, radiance, and purpose. An education for meaning would therefore begin with an education in the perception of form. The ‘re-enchantment’ of education would open our eyes to the meaning and beauty of the cosmos.” (BFTS, 18; Beauty in the Word, 117)
Among the various keys that unlock the meaning of creation, a few stand out in Caldecott’s oeuvre: namely, relationality, the transcendentals, logos, and triune unity-in-diversity. To overcome the philosophical reductions implicit to contemporary education, Caldecott calls for a renewed appreciation for the metaphysical contours of creation.
Given the weightiness of this metaphysical approach, where can educators look to discover an educational method capable of doing the heavy lifting? Caldecott gestures to the liberal arts tradition, specifically the trivium and quadrivium, as it was assimilated into the Christian Western world. Here, he discovers the resources for reviving an “education for meaning”. Ever a realist, Caldecott does not seek to replicate the ancient and medieval educational arrangement, but rather “to derive inspiration from the liberal arts” through “a creative retrieval and development” (BITW, 10; ‘The Search for Wisdom in Education’). Exhibiting such a creative development, he argues that the trivium of rhetoric, dialectic, and grammar form the fundamental anthropological skills of remembering, thinking, and acting. He also amplifies the quadrivium, demonstrating how these arts teach students to find the meaning manifested by the beautiful form of the cosmos. Throughout his retrieval of the trivium and quadrivium in Beauty in the Word and Beauty for Truth’s Sake, Caldecott uncovers the metaphysical foundation of the liberal arts tradition. This reintegrates education by elucidating the often-overlooked connections between various academic subjects. Furthermore, it restores the intelligence of the heart, poetic imagination, and metaphysical perspective, thus freeing students to grow in wisdom by exploring the meaning communicated through words, actions, and aspects of the cosmos.
By uncovering the metaphysical thrust of the trivium and quadrivium, Caldecott shows how the liberal arts tradition contains wisdom for confronting our educational crisis, and offers an education for meaning. But Caldecott goes further. He also shows how the right education helps one see the relevance of the liturgy and sacraments. For example, by highlighting the common integration sought by both education and liturgy, he argues the former culminates in the latter. One could also argue that, by evoking the sacramentality of the created order, Caldecott’s educational renewal further accentuates the relevance of the sacraments. Such arguments are geared primarily towards the evangelization of those—both secular and Christian—who struggle to believe in the sacramental economy.
Without disregarding the importance of confronting modern skepticism, I would like to propose another argument that primarily targets those well-intended Catholics who struggle, not with faith, but with curiosity; not with the ability to assent, but with the desire to explore. The truth is that many fully initiated, faithful Catholics are bored by the formal celebration of the sacraments and liturgy. For such people, a deeper penetration of the sacramental liturgy, while by no means necessary for salvation, would yield a greater appreciation for the Church’s prayer. While this would benefit all Catholics, it would particularly help those living in places where cultural Catholicism is long gone. As such, it seems pertinent to ask, “Does the liberal arts’ recovery of a metaphysical perspective on the meaning inherent to language, action, and the cosmos further benefit a Catholic’s mystagogical exploration of the meaning communicated through the signs and symbols that comprise the celebration of the sacramental liturgy?”
To begin searching for an answer within Caldecott’s writings, it is helpful to consider his explanation of mystagogy as the “exploration of the symbolic meanings and theological dimension of the rites of the Church—and not just the rites but the gestures, words, music, images, and structures associated with those rites” (BITW, 99). Caldecott implies that mystagogy requires transitioning through the sacramental principle, that is, through the symbolic form of the celebration of the sacramental liturgy, to its interior, theological meaning. He offers various descriptions of the capacity required for this progression, including a “religious consciousness” that is “sensitive to the many-layered meanings of symbolism” and a “religious sensibility” that “appreciates sacramental and liturgical forms” (‘The Spirit of the Liturgical Movement’). For the sake of convenience, I will refer to this consciousness or sensibility as a ‘sacramental perspective’. Unfortunately, this perspective is largely absent today: thus we are experiencing a mystagogical crisis. Catholics lack the resources to explore the deepest theological meanings of the sacraments and liturgy. Caldecott’s critique of 20th century liturgical reformers’ experiments (which ignored the sacred significance of the liturgy before reducing its meaning in a subjectivist manner) highlights the absence of the sacramental perspective. Diagnosing these errors, Caldecott unmasks nominalism, rationalism, and radical romanticism. While Catholics have many sacramental-liturgical experiences, they rarely explore their life-changing meaning.
How can we restore the perspective required for lifelong mystagogy? Perhaps education is a good place to begin. Interestingly, Caldecott diagnoses the same modern philosophical reductions implicit to both contemporary education and mystagogy. Given his common critique, I would argue that uprooting these limitations from education furthermore frees Catholics for ongoing initiation into the sacramental economy. The trivium and quadrivium’s recovery of a metaphysical perspective of the meaning communicated by words, actions, and aspects of creation further restores a Catholic’s sacramental perspective of the interior reality channeled by sacramental-liturgical matter and form. Admittedly, these approaches differ not only because of their respective contexts but also because mystagogy assumes both catechesis and the gift of faith. Nevertheless, one cannot fail to appreciate a crucial similarity: experiencing the truths communicated both by the trivium/quadrivium and the sacramental liturgy depends upon the interpretation of words, actions, and parts of the cosmos. By capturing students’ hearts and prompting their imaginations, the metaphysical perspective of the liberal arts tradition not only rectifies the fragmenting effects of modern philosophy, but also accrues to the mystagogical benefit of Catholics, freeing them to proceed through sacramental-liturgical symbols and signs to their transformative, theological meaning.
When God took flesh in the Person of Jesus Christ, he made a wager upon the dignity of the human body. And when Jesus gave his Bride the sacraments, he made a wager upon the dignity of words, actions, and material things. Just as Christ’s sacred humanity allowed his contemporaries to touch his divinity, so too sacramental-liturgical matter and form now permit us to touch the life of God. The failure to see this simple truth signals a sacramental crisis. What is its deepest cause? No doubt, the cultural absence of God and faith in his revelation is at the top of the list. The absence of catechesis, that is, a failure to teach saving truths, is another important consideration. But another factor, which cannot be overlooked, is the absence of wonder, imagination, curiosity, and affectivity: which all contributes to an over-arching boredom with symbolically dense rituals and traditional liturgies. Whereas the Church takes great care to perform celebrations of the sacramental liturgy in a beautiful, dignified manner, few are deeply moved by these.
One reason for this is a characteristically modern way of thinking, acting, and approaching the world. Most contemporary educational curricula have espoused such an approach. By unearthing of the age-old wisdom beneath the liberal arts tradition, Caldecott offers an alternative. He advises teachers how to confront, for example, the empty chasm of nominalism, the power struggle of voluntarism, the claustrophobic prison of rationalism, the cramped laboratory of scientism, and the narcissist pool of emotivism. Surpassing such roadblocks, he argues that the trivium and quadrivium, in particular, restore a sense of humanum, and in so doing open boys and girls, men and women, to expansive vistas of meaning, both in the classroom and the church.
In the final year of his life, the John Paul II Institute conferred upon Stratford Caldecott a doctorate honoris causa for his adherence to its mission. Without difficulty, one sees the reason for such recognition. Caldecott’s work represents a fitting response to a warning and challenge issued twenty years ago by the founder of the Institute, Pope Saint John Paul II. In Fides et Ratio, the Holy Father explained:
“Wherever men and women discover a call to the absolute and transcendent, the metaphysical dimension of reality opens up before them: in truth, in beauty, in moral values, in other persons, in being itself, in God. We face a great challenge at the end of this millennium to move from phenomenon to foundation, a step as necessary as it is urgent. We cannot stop short at experience alone; even if experience does reveal the human being’s interiority and spirituality, speculative thinking must penetrate to the spiritual core and the ground from which it rises. Therefore, a philosophy which shuns metaphysics would be radically unsuited to the task of mediation in the understanding of Revelation.” (Fides et Ratio, n.83)
The “metaphysical dimension of reality”, explains Pope Saint John Paul II, summons all people through their experiences of truth and beauty, encounters with other people, musings upon existence, and awareness of God. However, “a philosophy which shuns metaphysics”, inhibits this indispensable transition “through phenomena to foundation”, or rather, through experience to meaning. Hence, the Pope appeals for a renewed perspective, capable of overcoming the modern prejudice against metaphysics, which could help explore not only the original meaning of creation but also the mediated, revealed meaning of the new creation bathed in grace.
During his tragically abbreviated career, Caldecott rediscovered a well of resources for confronting the superficiality of the contemporary milieu by renewing the search for meaning and truth, which, in his own words, “leads us beyond the level of phenomenon and appearance to a deeper level of understanding; that is, beyond the visible world to the invisible principles of order” (BITW, 110). While some may judge a worldview founded upon “invisible principles of order” as an old well, long gone dry, Stratford Caldecott has found in it not a parched bottom, but wetted soil. Indeed, he has discovered a second spring.
Rev. Jacob A. Strand is a parish administrator in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He has just completed his SThD dissertation for the Pontifical Theological Institute of John Paul II for the Sciences of Marriage and Family on the connection between liturgical mystagogy and educational theory in the work of Stratford Caldecott.