“Frances! Come here!”
Frances Chesterton flew from her half-prepared afternoon tea to the study where she had left her husband reading. With flapping apron and flitting heart, she rushed to see what he could possibly be bellowing about. His voice had not ceased to call when she burst into the study.
“Good heavens, Gilbert, what on earth is the matter?”
Little did she know, it really was a matter of heaven and earth.
The chair Mr. Chesterton had been occupying was shot over on its back. The book Mr. Chesterton had been reading was splayed out on its pages. As for Mr. Chesterton, he was at the window as though he had been flung against it, his palms pressed to the pane, his hair leaping in the sunlight. Mrs. Chesterton could not imagine what manner of vision had occurred to excite Mr. Chesterton so.
“Gilbert,” said she, “what is it?”
“Frances,” said he, his eyes glistening through his pince-nez, “the grass… It is green.”
* * *
This is a story of a man’s strange and sudden homecoming to a homely truth; and it was born of a strange and sudden moment when the ordinary was recognized as extraordinary. On that quiet afternoon, Gilbert Keith Chesterton saw the color of grass not as a plain fact of pigment, but rather as an artistic decision of creation. He witnessed the accidental become essential. He beheld the green mantle of the world as the miracle it is. G. K. Chesterton finally came home to the beautiful truth and goodness of grass like a Euclidian proposition that had taken decades to demonstrate. And he rejoiced in that homecoming—in that education.
We all know the Odyssean joy of returning home after a journey. Everyone has a place where they belong, and when they wend their way back after weary wanderings it is a fulfillment of the heart. The happy reclamation of familiar surroundings and personal orientation has provided inspiration for poets and peoples throughout the ages. It is a powerful mystery, and it is the powerful mystery of a strong education.
This past fall, I rounded up my literature students and led them out to a large ash tree on the front lawn of our school’s campus. I have taken hundreds of students out there to talk about Robin Hood, but little did I know, walking towards that tree that this year it would be different. The boys strewed themselves on the grass around the trunk with their books, as they always have, and I looked up into the branches, fast growing bare, the air littered with fluttering yellow leaves. It was then that I heard it:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
I suddenly recalled a poem that my literature teacher had taught me—a poem about fall and childhood—and it was then and there, standing under that golden unleaving tree with those children, that I understood the poem for the first time. I had memorized it when I was a child myself and had carried it in my heart all those years for, as it seemed, that precise moment. I had come home to that poem at last. I recited Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall” as I never had before, with a new and real meaning:
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
My eyes may have glistened through my glasses, but none of my young companions were the wiser as they pulled at their ties in the close autumn air and swatted at leaves, waiting to talk about the bone-rattling battle between Little John and Eric o’ Lincoln at Nottingham Fair. They were not ready yet.
And neither was I ready for the surprise that awaited me when I went into the academic dean’s office after that class only to find him hearing recitations of Hopkins from his junior students. I sat in, listening to one boy struggle to recite. Then he stopped and said in frustration, “What is the point of learning this poem when I can’t understand what it means?” What glad words I had ready for him. Sometimes it takes years to learn what you already know. Often, we do not see how the goods we gain will profit us. A beautiful education brings us round to the beautiful in its own good time. God has a way of carrying his children home.
As God brought that poem home to me, I know He will bring it home to that young man someday. We all know the joy of returning home, and returning home in its many forms. We all know the profundity of seeing something again for the first time. We all know these fulfillments of the heart. Whether in a poem, a place, or a long-remembered conversation, returning to some memorable thing and finding new meaning, new significance, and new fulfillment is a vital aspect of the human journey. And such instances, such touchstones, form the backbone of a real education.
Such revolutions are what is at stake in the never-ending work and war of teaching. They are the reason for the existence of good schools: to plant perennials in the soul that may only be noticed and appreciated after years of blooming. These perennials include not only poetry like Hopkins’, but the poetry of literature and the Liturgy. The prayers and rhythms of Mass and the impact and impressions of good stories work their way into the soil of the heart, returning as unexpected fruit in the lives of children grown to adults, often when their savor is most needed, even as Mary kept all those things and pondered them in her heart. It is in these moments of unexpected comprehension after years of pondering that the salvation of a soul may well lie. This is what is at stake, and it is of eternal moment. Such are the homecomings of a true education.
Education should be a homecoming of the heart to the heart of things. But any true education must first prepare the way for an epiphany, for that Chestertonian apocalypse of seeing that the grass is green, that leaves are like the things of man, that there are tears in things, and that this world is a wonder of grace.
Copyright © 2019 The Cardinal Newman Society. Permission to reprint without modification to text, with attribution to author and to The Cardinal Newman Society, and (if published online) hyperlinked to the article on the Newman Society’s website. The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Cardinal Newman Society.