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The Discarded Spreadsheet: On the Medieval Cosmos and the Year Ahead

In a two-part lecture on the medieval imagination, published in a collection called Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, C. S. Lewis invites students to take an hour-long starlit walk with the assumption that Ptolemaic astronomy is true. My experience of Circe’s national conference, A Contemplation of Worlds, was a similar exercise: taking a starlit walk through education with the assumption of medieval cosmology. It was a feast of harmonious beauty that invited contemplation and wonder. In addition to the raising of heads to remember why we educate and what is at stake, it was a glimpse into a world where we are educating whole persons, not just minds. Senses were not neglected; in addition to feasting, we prioritized contemplations of art, music, and architecture.

On the morning following the conference, I ate breakfast with friends at a pâtisserie—balanced beauty, sweet and savory, washed down with coffee brewed from perfectly roasted beans. And then I went home. Twenty-four hours later I was staring at my computer screen on my final day of preparation before our homeschool year began. I was left with a question no one addressed at the conference: Where do I put the cosmos in my spreadsheet?

While I was still in the classroom, planning a yearly overview was a straightforward operation. I had curricula and concepts that I was assigned to teach, and a certain amount of time in which to cover them. I doled out material in evenly spaced increments throughout the school year. When I began homeschooling, it became a bit more complicated: adding school-aged children and changing the curriculum year after year as they progress through the grades. This is the most complicated year yet—all three are now elementary-aged in different grades, all rotating between group instruction, one on one instruction, and independent work. I plan reading lists and memory work for the year ahead, and, of course, schedules: weeks with and without co-op and orchestra. For a highly structured teacher, this is a maddening exercise.

After the conference, there are no substantial changes to my plans for the year ahead. The change lies not in the plans, but in the orientation in which they sit. Lewis thus describes how one’s perception of the cosmos might change from chaos to logos during this pre-Copernican midnight stroll:

You can lose yourself in infinity; there is indeed nothing much else you can do with it. It arouses questions, it prompts to a certain kind of wonder and reverie, usually a somber kind, so that Wordsworth can speak of ‘melancholy space and doleful time’ or Carlyle can call the starry sky ‘a sad sight’. But it answers no questions; necessarily shapeless and trackless, patient of no absolute order or direction, it leads, after a little, to boredom or despair or (often) to the haunting conviction that it must be an illusion…The old universe was wholly different in its effect. It was an answer, not a question. It offered not a field for musing but a single overwhelming object; an object which at once abashes and exalts the mind.

How do you plan for the universe? In short, you cannot. Life is not a rectangle in a spreadsheet; it is more akin to a sphere emanating wordlessly, like rings from a drop in a quiet pond. The spreadsheet is striking in its flattened effect—there is no music of the spheres in it. It lacks a dimension; in short, it cannot include everything.

In his book Chance or the Dance? A Critique of Modern Secularism, Thomas Howard argues that modernity is characterized by a shift in myth from the old to the new. The old myth of the classical and medieval world was that everything means everything. The new, post-Enlightenment myth is that nothing means anything. In education, everything matters. My spreadsheet catalogs, for example, what hymns we will learn and an order for the day. It does not include who sits by mom, how much coffee I will drink, how tidy the room must be, and whether we will stop and run outside every time a bird of prey flies through the front yard. Everything matters. My mood and tone, the beauty of the room, how we respond to interruptions—it all matters. There is no tab for the soul-shaping that occurs by cultivating the imagination through the physical space around us.

Our imaginations were created to respond to the unity and proportion of the logos. In a desire to prepare for the year, it is easy to slip into the mindset that I am creating order. But order exists outside of me. In the same lecture on the medieval imagination, Lewis describes the medieval mind primarily as a codifier, bringing unity and proportion to a varied collection of things. He lists the Summa, The Divine Comedy, and the cathedrals as the ultimate artifacts of this imagination. Through codifying correspondences among things using the image-making faculty, they embody what Howard calls a flight towards reality. They are ideal types of the following truths: the cosmos exists. It has a pattern. The pattern is the logos. The logos is incarnate. To pursue a harmonious soul, I must orient myself to the pattern of the logos not only with my mind but also with my body.

As the school year begins, my cosmos quickly shrinks into an abstraction. My focus narrows to the day or hour ahead. This is when my orientation towards the physical world and its interruptions matters most. The distractions that seem to interrupt the lesson may be the flight towards reality: the pattern of the logos and an opportunity for my children to harmonize their souls with this pattern. With an attentiveness to the world considered in space, I can remember that I am not the logos after all.

Leaving home to sit and write these words without distraction, I was interrupted. “Mom, wait! You have to see this!” A Carolina Wren stood in an abandoned fire ant bed. He appeared to be bathing in the dirt: flitting and fluffing and covering himself with dust. During his conference talk “There Are Worlds and There Are Worlds”, John Hodges reminded us that dust and breath are meant to be together. The dust matters no less than the breath. The physical world matters. Everything matters. My response to the wren as I am on the way out the door is a moment of instruction. I am teaching my children that the physical world does or does not matter, that we are or are not only breath after all. Tonight, I watched the wren.

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