I am blessed to be the priest of a parish school, and one of the most delightful aspects is getting to visit each classroom every week, from kindergarten to eighth grade. I pray with the students, provide pastoral care, and answer their questions.
One of our students, a young seventh-grader named Hayden, has shown great interest in literature. He and several other middle-school boys regularly ask me about the best ways to foster their intellectual lives, and which books to read.
I recently gave Hayden a few books, along with the letter below:
Every Catholic man should have a well-stocked library. The reason for this is two-fold. First, Catholic men are protectors of knowledge. This has been our duty since the destruction of Rome in 476 AD, when countless monks and priests dedicated their lives to preserving ancient texts from around the world.
You have now been entrusted with this same mission.
You must seek to protect everything that is true, good, and beautiful. One of the best ways to accomplish this task is to maintain a collection of respectable books from various genres that can be passed on to future generations.
The second reason every Catholic man should have a library is for his own personal formation and development. In particular, it is important to keep an active imagination, constantly hungry for adventure and heroism. God created you to be a hero, a warrior, a knight, a defender, a saint. There is no better way to ensure the cultivation of these attributes than reading wonderful stories.
I hope you will accept these three books as the beginnings of your personal library. The first two books are J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. These are among the greatest epics of all time. In fact, J.R.R. Tolkien is the one who practically invented the fantasy genre of literature as we know it, and paved the way for other famous fantasy books such as The Chronicles of Narnia, The Ranger’s Apprentice, Eragon, and Harry Potter. His books are amazing. The story of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins is without equal.
The third book is titled Redwall. It is another fascinating story of bravery and sacrifice. I think you will enjoy it.
I would be interested to hear your thoughts and reflections on these books as you read them, especially The Lord of the Rings.
Never lose your love for adventure; it will make you a saint someday. In the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground.”
Your servant and priest in Christ,
Among the many responsibilities I have as a priest, and specifically as chaplain to the school, there is one I take with particular seriousness: to be an example of masculine virtue for our boys. I want them to witness first-hand the joy of Christian living, what it means to be a man fully alive in Christ.
I long for each of them to become saints and scholars, Renaissance-men imbued with the cultural genius of orthodox Catholicism. This requires introducing our boys to the rich Catholic intellectual tradition while making them aware of their duty to perpetuate it.
How do we do this? One way, as my letter conveys, is helping young men establish personal libraries. This is a lost rite of passage, but we need to recover it.
There are two main reasons why. First, the stewardship of knowledge. “The future is always the heir of the past,” writes A.G. Sertillanges in his classic work The Intellectual Life. Every person is born into a history, a story already in narration. Yet this story is not foreign to us. It is truly our story, the collective yearnings and encounters of humanity throughout time, now thrust upon us as a living tradition (from the Latin tradere, “to hand on”).
In this regard, Gustav Mahler was right in his assertion that “tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire”; the safeguarding of a divine spark infused in the human soul from the moment of his creation.
As I intimated in my letter to Hayden, there is no greater steward of this “fire” than the Catholic Church. It was her sons who preserved the flame from certain destruction after the fall of Rome in the fifth century. Germanic tribes demolished libraries, leading to the loss of priceless books and documents on philosophy, theology, physics, mathematics, language, and history. All hope for the rebuilding of a civilized and educated world was lost…or so it seemed.
Miraculously, copies of these works were preserved in African and Middle Eastern libraries, far from the incursions of the Gothic hordes. By the sixth century, copies of these precious texts had made their way back to the European mainland where Catholic monks began fervently reproducing and translating them for distribution in the West. These holy men spent hours every day hand-writing hundreds of thousands of pages, copying everything from Homer’s Iliad to the Gospels of the Bible. Furthermore, they established monastery libraries throughout Europe to keep the knowledge from being lost to history.
With this rich history in mind, we can appreciate the importance of libraries in a new way. When a young man begins a personal library, he is not simply starting a hobby or doing something idiosyncratic. He is actually becoming heir of a prestigious Catholic vocation to protect, promote, and progress the transmission of wisdom.
This is why the letter I wrote to Hayden was more than just a priest being nice to one of his students. It was a summons to identity, an attempt to awaken within his heart a sense of masculine commitment for those courageous men who preceded him, and now entrust into his hands the propagation of truth. If he plays his part well, Hayden too will leave behind a legacy of knowledge for other young men to receive, thus continuing the proud history of Catholic intellectual stewardship in the world.
A second reason why we should encourage young Catholic men to grow personal libraries is for intellectual formation. Walt Disney says that “our greatest natural resource is the minds of our children.” Libraries are vital to help them form pure and vivid imaginations. The boy must be taught to dream and dare, to think and critique, to observe and judge, to sacrifice and save. Aristotle says if you want to become good, watch what the good man does and then imitate him. That’s precisely what happens in stories. We learn virtue and wisdom by studying our heroes, but not vain, superficial heroes or crude uncultured heroes. We need to study real heroes, men of virtue who aspire to magnanimity. The stories young boys read should develop within them a sacrificially paternal character that selflessly seeks the good of the other. This will naturally translate to real-life attitudes.
Few contemporary books capture these ideals better than J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Every hero in the series, from Bilbo to Aragorn, portrays a profoundly rousing model of Christian leadership. They struggle, fight, suffer, convert, sacrifice, hope, inspire, rejoice…in short, all the qualities necessary for holiness.
We live in a time when children in general and boys in particular are in desperate need of heroes—virtuous role models, mentors, and saints. Although nothing can replace a living example, books can provide a valuable alternative.
Shortly after Hayden received his books and letter, I spoke with him. He was not only excited, but asked me what he should do to acquire more books, and how to properly store them. Needless to say, his parents will be buying him some bookshelves for his birthday.
My prayer is that the small seed I have planted as a Catholic man and priest will blossom into a rich tree of wisdom in the heart of this boy so that he too can be numbered among the many saints of our Church who have enriched their minds through the pursuit of knowledge so as to proclaim more lucidly the truth of Jesus Christ.