If asked to examine the spiritual, intellectual, and relational character of my being, my interaction with the world, my perception of people, and my understanding of God all share one clear identifier: I am, at my core, an artist. And as is often the case in art, the finished work that is my life is nothing like I set out for it to be. At the age of 18, I left my home and all I ever knew for college in pursuit of a music degree. In the search for education and opportunity, it was the act of leaving itself that became the opportunity I needed to expand my world and unearth the foundation on which I would operate in it. While the education I received and the music I made were undoubtedly valuable in their own right, what I learned in the space between classes, assignments, and performances, would be carried into the rest of my days.
In The Life of the Mind, James Schall writes, “In a sense, the whole world is offered to us in order that we can know ourselves. We are the one thing in the variegated universe that we cannot directly know. We can look at our faces in mirrors, but we can only know our minds while they are knowing something else. The universe ultimately gives us to ourselves.”(1) It was only through seeking my own mind, as Schall implies, that I refined the tenets of my character. It is how I learned to cope with loneliness, trust my steps in building a professional and spiritual future, stumble through the responsibilities of adulthood, take up the torch as primary advocate for my well being, foster and protect valuable relationships—and walk away from harmful ones—and find a meaningful way to contribute to the world. While I cannot recall a specific moment when I realized my search for my place in the universe was actually my search for its place in me, I now know how to appreciate the rearview for what only it can do for one’s faith.
"In a sense, the whole world is offered to us in order that we can know ourselves...The universe ultimately gives us to ourselves." - James V. Schall
Questions that had formerly been cast in the role of “active imagination” or “curious disposition” turned into foundational pillars of my worldview, tried and tested by the experiences I lived independent of my family. From death, marginalization, suffering, and social injustice—all which I had been protected from or comforted through thus far—grew doubt, sorrow, and anger. My setting, however, proved divine as my professors, mentors, and peers shared books and ideas that touched my circumstances from every side. As Basil the Great says, “So we also in the same manner must first, if the glory of the good is to abide with us indelible for all time, be instructed by these outside means, and then shall understand the sacred and mystical teachings; and like those who have become accustomed to seeing the reflection of the sun in water, so we shall then direct our eyes to the light itself.”(2) The fruit of those struggles combined with “outside means” emerged as a value system and a faith all my own.
There is something about venturing into the unknown that demands a shift in thinking—a shift that would ultimately define what I would and would not participate in, who I would and would not trust to help guide my steps, and how I would and would not respond to the world. With every passing year, I solidified the city within my soul(3) by engaging with a traditionally marginalized music scene and building relationships outside of my own circle of faith, all while deepening my knowledge of God and anchoring my joy in the highest things. At times, my seemingly juxtaposed hero’s journey was misunderstood by loved ones, and at others, deeply understood, but as Schall states, “The intellectual life can be and often is a perilous life. But that is no reason to deny its glory.”(4) He also adds, “We begin our intellectual lives with minds that we did not give ourselves, with minds that have nothing in them until we begin to wonder, begin to know.”(5) I had always heard the sacred side of existence growing up. It was this time in my life that my mind began to truly wonder without bounds, into the full spectrum of what is. Through this mindset and its resulting loneliness, I felt the distinctness in the universe(6) start to impact my interpretation of art, scripture, faith, and even time. The power of learning that I had unlocked in my own soul felt limitless—a feeling that would never forsake me.
It was this time in my life that my mind began to truly wonder without bounds, into the full spectrum of what is.
My time as an undergraduate music student fostered a sense of independence and creativity that is what I now believe to be the only path to a truly contemplative life. I left my time in Memphis, ten years after I arrived, with more refined vision and a clearer picture of the depth, breadth, and interconnectedness of all creation. Emotions are sharper, convictions are deeper, and meaning is imperative in all I do. What I thought was a linear path forward swiftly showed itself as the ultimate journey back to myself, back home, and back to the heart of the Father. The enlightenment this time gifted me can be summed up no better than in Dante’s final words during his encounter with the highest things in Paradiso: “Here ceased the powers of my high fantasy. Already were all my will and my desires turned—as a wheel in equal balance—by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”(7).
James V. Schall, The Life of the Mind (Washington, D.C.: ISI Books, 2006), 11.
Basil the Great, “To Young Men, on How They Might Derive Profit from Pagan Literature,” quoted in Richard M. Gamble, The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What it Means to be an Educated Human Being (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 2007), 183.
Schall, The Life of the Mind, 26.
Dante, Paradiso, trans. Anthony Esolen (New York: Random House, Inc., 2007), canto 33, lines 142-145.