Reverend Dr. Frank Prescott, founder and recently retired rector of the venerable all-boys school Justin Martyr, has been taking a walk with his young protege, the convalescent Brian Aspinwall. They were walking along the river, near the home of Dr. Prescott’s daughter, where, at Dr. Prescott’s insistence, Brian is residing while he returns to health. Dr. Prescott is not merely presiding over a younger man’s recovery from pneumonia; he is successfully speaking new life into Brian’s troubled soul and weakened faith. On this sunny day, David Hicks, author of Norms and Nobility, who had inquired about a visit with his old acquaintance and fellow educator, Dr. Prescott, was welcomed to visit Dr. Prescott here. He accompanied Frank and Brian, at a respectful distance, on their amble along the river. Brian has just returned to the house to rest, leaving Dr. Prescott and David alone. They sit in silence by the river and gaze at the gulls overhead.
FRANK: I am confident the boy’s hesitation to attend Harvard Divinity School is a reflection of nothing more than the afflictions of disbelief that all we men of God suffer, yet can learn to accept.
DAVID: And it is right that you, out of love, take a stand on this with him.
FRANK: I am an old man with little else to do, and I want to help him.
DAVID: Is that all?
FRANK: What else could it be?
FRANK: Ah love. You always have overvalued the sentiment of love.
DAVID: Brian seemed relieved when you insisted that devotion can be substituted for love.
FRANK: I used to worry that I did not sufficiently love my daughters…But now I see that loving them inadequately was part of me and part of the condition into which they were born. God did not expect me to love them more. I couldn’t. He expected me to tend them devotedly. Those who merely love get too much credit from a world of geese. It isn’t love children need. It is devotion.
DAVID: Yes, how that ideal tyrannizes us when we fall short! But I wonder, for a Christian, can devotion to a child be a substitute for love?
FRANK: Sometimes it is necessary.
DAVID: What does it mean to “merely” love?
FRANK: “Mere love” is love which comes without the effort of labor. At its weakest, “mere love” is affection and tenderness; at its strongest, it is self-abandon and insanity. At its best, it is a gift of the Spirit, what Socrates would call “divine madness,” what we may call foolishness for Christ; this is not a gift conferred to everybody. At its worst, “mere love” is a passion, a disorder, an abandonment of rationality.
DAVID: Is this eros?
FRANK: Yes, I think so. Effortless love in its most intense form could be thought of as eros.
DAVID: You used the words “best” and “worst.” Is love not always good?
FRANK: You know well that not all love is worthy of praise, my friend!
DAVID: What renders eros either good or bad?
FRANK: That to which it is directed. Dante tells us that love is both the source of good and evil. Eros directed towards what is worthy, beautiful, good, and Holy will lead to virtuous action; unbridled love misdirected makes us beasts.
DAVID: Is eros what you mean to say was missing from your love for your daughters?
FRANK: Yes, I think I did mean eros. Many fall in love with their children. Cupid’s darts distort; their children seem to them more interesting, talented, and virtuous than the others. But what good does it bring the children? What does it actually achieve? Love blinds. It also over praises, over indulges, and under disciplines. Parents find themselves in the uncomfortable position of realizing that their children are ordinary and undistinguished when it is too late to do anything about it. Turnus loved Lavina and destroyed a country; Aeneas was devoted to Julius and founded a nation.
DAVID: Are love and devotion in contrast?
FRANK: They are different.
DAVID: What then is devotion?
FRANK: Devotion is action, labor, a commitment, a fulfillment of duty. Devotion is a concern for another’s welfare that is acted upon.
DAVID: You use the words “self-abandon” in describing “mere love.” In Christianity, is salvation not dependent on self-abandonment? On the dying of the self?
FRANK: Certainly. A crucifixion of the flesh and its passions and its desires.
DAVID: How is this to be achieved?
FRANK: Devotion dear friend! Work and action! The commitment to the training of the mind, and the body, and the soul through discipline, rules, and prayer.
DAVID: Controlling the will?
FRANK: Yes certainly.
DAVID: Is this self-abandonment or self-control?
FRANK: Well, I suppose self-control. But the denial of the flesh clears space for the dwelling of the Holy Spirit. Self-control leads to self-abandonment.
FRANK: No, not always.
DAVID: What else could self-control lead to?
FRANK: Perfectionism, pride, narcissism.
DAVID: So self-control and self-abandonment are not the same?
FRANK: They are not.
DAVID: And the self-control that comes through devotion alone can potentially be spiritually harmful?
FRANK: It appears so.
DAVID: Then self-abandonment must be more than a crucifixion of the flesh and its desires?
DAVID: In what way?
FRANK: Well, self-abandonment implies not just a denial or negation, but a new object, other than the self, towards which energies and devotion are directed.
DAVID: Yes, I agree. The abandonment of the self must be a repudiation and a replacement of the self with something else. Yet, don’t we love ourselves too much to abandon ourselves! How do we break out of this ego-centrism? What could compel us to look outward, towards something more paramount and transcendent than ourselves?
FRANK: I will concede dear friend that the answer is love.
DAVID: We must love with intensity to be drawn away from our selfishness. We must love deeply outside of ourselves in order to avoid the pitfalls to our salvation that can result from devotion alone.
FRANK: Yes, I do agree.
DAVID: Is it implied that it is necessary for a Christian parent to be properly on his own salvific path in order to properly guide a child?
DAVID: And we agree that for a parent to be properly on their own salvific path eros is necessary, though we still have not completely thought through whether this eros should be directed at the child.
DAVID: In Christianity, this vehicle of salvation, the dying of the self, is often achieved through marriage – through one’s spouse and one’s children.
FRANK: This is true.
DAVID: Could it be possible that the vehicle for the parent’s salvation would be destructive for the child?
FRANK: It seems this could not be right!
DAVID: Christ’s commandment is to “love one another as I have loved you.” What is this love?
FRANK: I believe charity.
DAVID: What is charity?
FRANK: Charity is loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
DAVID: Is action implied in this love?
FRANK: Yes, Christian love implies action. Prayer, alms, feeding the hungry, quenching the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, comforting the sick, and visiting the prisoners.
DAVID: And aren’t we transformed ourselves by this charitable love? When we are face to face with the people we are helping, as you are here with Brian, we are also changed by this – we identify with someone outside of ourselves.
FRANK: Yes this is true.
DAVID: Devotion appears to be mysteriously interwoven with both eros and charity in a way that makes them inseparable for a Christian.
FRANK: Perhaps this is true, old friend. Here comes Brian now.
If you enjoyed this dialog (or if you like Norms and Nobility or The Rector of Justin) please be sure to check out the other posts in The Gathering Place, the community-written blog of the CiRCE Apprenticeship, a program where we discuss great books and study the venerable art of teaching well.