Having been appointed as Chair of the new Department of Humanities at Ambrose in summer 2018, I was asked to speak at the convocation chapel to open the winter 2019 semester at Ambrose (January 3). Here is the text of my talk.
Scriptures: Col. 1:15-20; Eph. 1:3-10
My goals this morning are to inspire you to enter the new semester with gusto, to give you a little spiritual nurture, and to consider together the meaning of the Humanities at a Christian liberal arts university like Ambrose. And I want to do these things by inviting you on a short journey into the past, to meet the intriguing character of Francesco Petrarch, the father of Renaissance Humanism.
Some of you may know a little of Petrarch. Born in Tuscany in 1304, Petrarch grew up in southern France, near Avignon, because his father was a legal expert in the bureaucracy of Pope Clement V, during the time in which the papacy was held hostage by the French kings. For any of you who have fought with your parents over what your major should be, Petrarch’s father made him study law, but he hated it. All he wanted to do was to study the literature of ancient Rome and to be a poet himself. Indeed, Petrarch was totally fascinated by ancient Roman literature, philosophy, history, and (especially) the Latin language. He was so convinced that ancient Rome was the height of culture and learning that he coined the term “Dark Ages” to describe (unfairly) the time between ancient Rome and his own time, the time of the Renaissance, when the glories of ancient Rome were once again being rediscovered, reborn. And Petrarch felt so at home in the world of ancient Rome that he sometimes wrote personal letters to people like the statesman Cicero and the poet Virgil—men who had been dead for well over a thousand years.
Our use of the word Humanities today to describe subjects like languages, literature, religion, philosophy, and history is connected to the world of Petrarch’s Renaissance Humanism—his study of the language, literature, culture, history, and philosophy of the ancient world.
Let me share three things about Petrarch, taken from three of his many letters to his friends.
First, Petrarch loved to study. In a letter to his friend, the Abbot of St. Benigno, Petrarch describes his “inexorable passion” to write—it’s all he wants to do. He never tires of study and never feels heat or cold. (He’d be right at home in offices and classrooms of Ambrose.) A kind of scholarly superhero, he asks the abbot (rhetorically): “What then am I to do, since I cannot stop writing, or bear even the thought of rest?”
One day, a close friend of Petrarch’s came by to see him, a little worried about how hard Petrarch was studying. His friend asked for a simple favour. When Petrarch said yes, his friend asked for the key to his cabinet, then proceeded to lock away Petrarch’s books and papers, prescribing ten days of rest for the scholar. (A kind of reading week, perhaps.) Here is Petrarch describing what happened next:
“I saw his trick; to him I now seemed to be resting, although in reality I felt as if I were bound hand and foot. That day passed wearily, seeming as long as a year. The next day I had a headache from morning till night. The third day dawned and I began to feel the first signs of fever, when my friend returned, and seeing my plight gave me back the keys. I quickly recovered, and perceiving that I lived on work, as he expressed it, he never repeated his request.”
Second, Petrarch loved to travel. Throughout his adult life, he wandered about Italy, gathering up ancient manuscripts, working at government, church, or scholarly jobs, and growing in fame as a poet. When he was still a young man living near Avignon, he decided one day to climb a nearby mountain—Mount Ventoux—just to see the view. This was a decidedly modern thing to do—medievals didn’t climb mountains for fun.
Petrarch’s account of the outing—again, in a letter to one of his friends—is perhaps his most famous writing. In it, we quickly discover that his description of the climb becomes an occasion for spiritual reflection—the ascent of Mount Ventoux becomes a metaphor for Petrarch’s spiritual ascent towards virtue—what we might call holiness or godliness.
Petrarch explains how his brother Gherardo chose a straight, if challenging, route up the mountain, while he was attracted by what looked like an easier path. Soon, however, he found himself descending into the valley. Forced to turn around, Petrarch started back up the mountain, now far behind his brother. Three of four times during his hike, Petrarch made the same mistake, much to Gherardo’s amusement. At one point, the frustrated Petrarch stopped to reflect on the meaning of his futile attempts to find shortcuts up the mountain. In the spiritual journey to the blessed life, he realized, there is no substitute for exertion, for effort, for the abandonment of the pleasures of the valley, and for a striving to reach the heights of virtue. Like climbing mountains, spiritual growth takes work.
Reaching the top of the mountain, Petrarch takes in the view: southeast towards Italy, where he longs to be; east towards the Alps; west towards the Pyrenees (he can’t actually see that far); north towards the city of Lyon, and south towards the Mediterranean coast. After some time, he catches himself, and realizes that he should be thinking about spiritual things, and not just taking in the scenery. Like any good Christian, he pulls out his pocket copy of Augustine’s Confessions and begins to read, employing the open-the-book-to-a-random-passage method of spiritual discernment so popular among young Bible readers. As he opens the Confessions, his eyes fall upon the following words: “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.” Once again, Petrarch is chastened—he closed the book quickly in shame and resolved to devote himself more deliberately to his spiritual progress.
I need to add, here, that throughout Petrarch’s account of his “Ascent of Mount Ventoux,” as he wrestles with the relationship between earthly and heavenly pursuits, he looks not only to Christians like Augustine and Athanasius but also to pagans like Livy and Ovid. Simply put, he draws inspiration for his spiritual journey from Christian sources, to be sure, but also from the Roman writers, philosophers, and historians he studies, who likewise encourage him towards virtue.
Third, Petrarch loved to joke. One day, Petrarch received a letter from his friend Giovanni Boccaccio, the hot young literary sensation. Boccaccio was alarmed, because an old cleric had prophesied that Boccaccio would soon die, and had instructed him to give up his literary pursuits in order to prepare his soul for death.
Petrarch replied, agreeing that “what comes from Christ must be true,” but wondering whether the old man’s prophesy wasn’t perhaps born out of envy or ignorance, rather than piety. Petrarch teased Boccaccio, telling him he would give him some of Virgil’s poetry to ponder, if his young friend hadn’t been forbidden to read literature. Next, he reminded Boccaccio that it was not exactly newsworthy that he would die at some point: “Did you not know well enough, without hearing it from this man, that you had but a short span of life before you?”
After these barbs, Petrarch offers Boccaccio some friendly advice:
“Neither exhortations to virtue nor the argument of approaching death should divert us from literature; for in a good mind it excites the love of virtue, and dissipates, or at least diminishes, the fear of death. To desert our studies shows want of self-confidence rather than wisdom, for letters do not hinder but aid the properly constituted mind which possesses them; they facilitate our life, they do not retard it.”
Petrarch goes on to recount how several noteworthy figures of antiquity continued to study well into their old age. In the end, he argues strenuously for the unity of learning and piety:
“If I may be allowed to speak for myself,” he declares, “it seems to me that, although the path to virtue by the way of ignorance may be plain, it fosters sloth. The goal of all good people is the same, but the ways of reaching it are many and various. Some advance slowly, others with more spirit; some obscurely, others again conspicuously. One takes a lower, another a higher path. Although all alike are on the road to happiness, certainly the more elevated path is the more glorious. Hence ignorance, however devout, is by no means to be put on a plane with the enlightened devoutness of one familiar with literature.”
I find Petrarch’s book-nerdy approach to Christian virtue oddly inspiring, and I think it says something about what the Humanities—subjects like Christian Studies, English Literature, Philosophy, and History—bring to the Christian university. The Humanities are about the exploration and the communication of the human experience. From the ancient world through to the time of the Renaissance and down to our own time, people in cultures around the world have consistently turned to spiritual writings, to literature, to philosophy, and to history to find meaning and purpose in life, to make sense of the world.
Of course, those of us working in the Humanities also teach practical skills like research, critical thinking, analysis, problem-solving, and communication—skills that study after study show are important to employers in our ever-changing work-world.
But beyond that, and more importantly, we offer ways of understanding the human experience—ways of making sense of things, of finding meaning, of discovering purpose. And in the Christian university, the spiritual writings, literature, philosophy, and history that we specialize in can contribute actively to the formation of Christian character, to the pursuit of Christian virtue. In our history courses, for example, we talk from time to time about the way the study of the past can foster empathy, humility, hospitality, and love for others.
If what the Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1 is true—that the great mystery of God’s will is that everything in heaven and earth be brought to unity under Christ, that everything on earth and in heaven be reconciled to Christ—if this is true, then we can pursue our academic work with joy and confidence, knowing that we’re participating in the exploration of the natural and human worlds created by God and ultimately finding their fulfilment in Christ. We can, in short, pursue both academic knowledge and Christian virtue. Indeed, these are joint pursuits that feed one another.
So my hope and prayer for you all as we enter this new semester is that you’ll fall in love with your studies, like Petrarch, who couldn’t tear himself away from his books, and that as you study, that the Spirit of God will regularly draw your attention to the many, many connections between your academic subjects and your spiritual lives, so that your studies become one of the ways in which you are formed into the image of Christ.