Catholic Literature Conference: Innocence and Wisdom

By Sandra Kirby, Class of 2018

Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 18:13)

On April 21st, students from Thomas More College of Liberal Arts attended the 5th Annual Catholic Literature Conference. The topic was “Innocence and Wisdom,” focusing on the innocence of children, their simplicity and goodness. The panel of speakers included TMC Visiting Fellow Joseph Pearce, TMC Visiting Fellow Dr. Amy Fahey, President of Wyoming Catholic College Dr. Glenn Arbery, and TMC Fellow Dr. Anthony Esolen.

Joseph Pearce centered his talk around the Chronicles of Narnia. Though they are written as children’s books, Pierce warned his listeners not to dismiss them as if they were only meant for children. He believes that Lewis works on multiple levels, handling deep themes within a story which can be enjoyed by a small child; if we approach the works with humility, we open ourselves up to wonder, and that wonder leads us to wisdom.

Next, Dr. Amy Fahey gave her speech, “Children’s Literature: Restoring Imagination for All Ages.” She began by noting how all great writers talk about those childhood experiences which ignited their imaginations, whether it was something they observed in their surroundings or a story they were told by their mother. Yet, somehow, there is a tendency to dismiss the early influences in childhood learning as if it is simply too basic for the dignity of an adult mind. 

According to Dr. Fahey, children’s literature is not merely a simplistic and incomplete view of reality, but an invitation to something large, mysterious, and healthy. It invites the reader along, asking him to fall into step beside him as he does his chores or fights a dragon, and shows him a whole new world. This world of a child is a simple one, not a simplistic one, yet it is a world becoming more and more foreign to us. Rather than push it away, we should engage it, answer the invitation, and rediscover our own childlike simplicity.

Dr. Glenn Arbery offered a comparison between C.S. Lewis and Milton in his speech, “Lost and Found: The Fortunes of Eve in Milton and Perelandra.” He compared Milton’s Eve in Paradise Lost to Lewis’s Green Lady in Perelandra. Dr. Arbery remarked that the very nature of both works, in considering prelapsarian man, requires an elevation of the imagination that is no mean feat. The innocence of our first parents was not ignorance or the result of imperfect knowledge, but a fitting and noble grace, unpolluted by disorder.

It is the destruction of this innocence due to the Devil’s temptation and Eve’s disordered pride that leads to the Fall of the human race. Lewis offers a new narrative in his work, Perelandra, where the world, Venus, is new, and its Green Lady is the first woman. She too, is tempted, but thanks to an intercessor, Ransom, the outcome is rewritten. The Green Lady allows humility to prevail over the temptation to pride; rather than listen to the empty promises of her temptor, she realizes and chooses the good she has rather than clinging to an imagined or expected “good.”

Dr. Anthony Esolen gave the final speech of the afternoon: “Dickens and the Gospel of Childhood.” His chief focus was the representation of childhood in Dickens’s novel, Bleak House. In this novel, Dickens offers commentary on the various ways childhood is misunderstood and abused. 

Some simply miss the point of childhood altogether, forgetting it is something to be nurtured and taken care of, and so neglect their own children. Alternately, there are those who are hyperfocused on a particular idea of the child, and stifle childhood with forced shows of goodness while failing to raise them as truly good. Then there are those sad souls who skip childhood altogether, forced to grow to adulthood before their time by some necessity of their position. Finally, there are those who usurp the place of a child, adults who refuse to take responsibility for themselves and simply look to transfer this burden of their personal responsibility onto others. 

Dr. Esolen ended by reminding the audience of our responsibility towards children, to the preservation of their genuine childhood in all its innocence and wonder. This responsibility, however, cannot take the form of mere sentiment. Many people have a tendency to take on a sort of telescopic philanthropy, projecting all their warm feeling onto the distant sufferer and forgetting those at home. Yet, while more than happy to be the keeper of our brother out in Africa, we neglect the ordinary, homemade article, one not softened by distance and living under our very nose.

 

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