A Lesson in Disinterestedness

Is it really possible to teach lessons about knowledge being for its own sake and learning being its own reward? How, in our hyper-utilitarian age of credentials, competition, and consumerism can such things be instilled and affirmed?

Here is a story from when I studied in Poland.

It so happened that I would be absent on the date of a scheduled exam in “Main Problems in Philosophy” due to a conference and so I arranged to write my exam in the professor’s office in advance.

I showed up to his office at 1 o’clock and he handed me a piece of paper with two questions that he had written out for me:

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A jolt of perspective

During my studies in Poland, I learned about a satellite campus of the Catholic University directly across the street from the former Nazi concentration camp, Majdanek.

One of my roommates was studying journalism there and I asked her what it is like to go to school across from the former camp.

She admitted that she no longer thinks about it every time she goes to class. But, she recalled, “One Friday, a professor gave us an assignment just when we all thought we would have a free weekend. Naturally, we started to complain a bit. Then he told us to think about what had happened across the street and take some perspective before we grumble about an assignment, and we all fell silent.”

Vocation Grasped in Retrospect

Today is the feast day of St. Edith Stein, a Jewish-Catholic saint and martyr born one century before me and to whom I have special devotion and affection.

In fact, I even spent one month a few years ago living in her former childhood home in Wroclaw, Poland (formerly Breslau, Germany).

Edith Stein was a German Jewish philosopher who became a Catholic nun and patron saint of Europe. Martyred in the Holocaust, she has been on my mind as I reflect on the meaning of vocation.

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Familiarity and Concern

Yesterday when I was visiting the Houston Holocaust Museum, I saw the map above.

The first thing that struck me about this map is that it has Rovno on it. Rovno is where my grandfather was born. It’s not always on maps of central Europe, just as it hasn’t always been on the map for me until I began to take a greater interest in his story.

The other thing that comes to mind whenever I visit Holocaust Museums now is that, looking at the maps, I now know how to correctly pronounce the names of many of the places that I wouldn’t have dared to attempt pronouncing just a few years ago.

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Genocide Education as Moral Formation

I still remember my utter perplexity at a so-called professor of Genocide Studies at a Canadian university having accused me of “voyeurism” for having travelled to Germany, Poland, and Rwanda on genocide study trips.

Now, I can see that such a bizarre accusation might stem from failing to see the way in which studying genocide properly can actually constitute an education in moral sense. By learning about perpetrators and meeting with rescuers and survivors, my friends and I with whom I studied and travelled encountered the moral drama of human action and responsibility in persons and deeds, not in mere systems or abstractions.

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Networking in a cemetery

Almost everyone has been to cocktail receptions and networking events.

Given my interest in visiting cemeteries, it just occurred to me to contemplate networking with the dead. There is no exchange of business cards, but there can be an exchange nonetheless. A thoughtful walk through a cemetery has sometimes been as helpful as any career advice.

Networking with the dead, it would seem, demands getting out of your comfort zone, going over to the tombs with the most personality, but also seeking out the ones that are neglected or discreet. It involves being curious and interested. It involves not being intimidated to talk to people who are older than you, wiser than you.

Sometimes, on special occasions, I have visited cemeteries on guided tours which means that I have had someone else making introductions for me to the dead.

This has been most helpful for breaking the ice, especially when I do not know whether or not we have very much in common.

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Not Wholly Gone

This Father’s Day, I have noticed many people acknowledging the ongoing influence of fathers, grandfathers, and other father figures in their lives – even after these men have died.

It is interesting to consider the ways in which, through memory and legacy, a person can continue to be a part of a family even after death.

This evening, my mother shared an anecdote with me to this effect about my paternal grandfather.

My paternal grandfather was Polish and he died in 2015.

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He knew how to suffer

Today is the anniversary of the death of a Polish poet named Cyprian Kamil Norwid.

Unfortunately, Janusz Korczak was right when he said, “The world is deaf to the names of many great Poles.”

I first learned about Norwid through reading texts and addresses by John Paul II since the pope quoted him often. Then, when I moved to Lublin, I found more traces of Norwid – from schools bearing his name, to collections of his works in bookstores, to the statue of him on the university campus.

It was during an address in 2001 that Pope John Paul II told representatives of the Institute of Polish National Patrimony: “I honestly wanted to offer my personal debt of gratitude to the poet, with whose work I have been bound by a deep spiritual kinship since my secondary school years.”

He went on to acknowledge that, “Norwid’s poetry was born from the travail of his difficult life.”

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A Patient’s Fight to Be a Protagonist

Today is the 40th anniversary of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II.

Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope’s longtime secretary, was in Rome today marking the occasion and remembering cradling the pope as he felt “his body slip as if paralyzed and fall into my arms.”

The cardinal also reflected, “Today, 40 years after that event, and 16 years after his death, I think with fear of what it would have been like if we had lost him in St. Peter’s Square back then. How poor and different the world and our homeland, Poland, would have been without his witness of faith and doctrine, without his indications and his warnings in the face of the dangers and turmoil that can threaten us in today’s world.”

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To the Tomb of a Teacher

On this date in 2008, Mieczysław Albert Maria Krąpiec OP, passed away.

I learned about this man as I gradually also learned how to pronounce his name.

This Polish priest-professor was a former rector of my university and is considered the founder of the Lublin Philosophical School – the most notable proponent of whom became Karol Wojtyła/Pope John Paul II.

It was in my very first week of classes that a professor of mine named Fr. Maryiniarczk spoke in an earnest yet convivial manner about this tradition saying, “The Lublin Philosophical School prepared, amid a very harsh time, an understanding of the human person and of reality. We aim to continue in this tradition of realistic philosophy. Metaphysics is concerned with discovering the content of being, not a conception of being and not merely a definition of concepts. We do not try to grasp a theory of man, but rather to understand man himself. This is part of what is meant by the approach called existential Thomism – an integration of truth and experience in our lives.”

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