I’ve spent seven years of academic life studying Greek. Class after class in which we diagrammed sentences, conjugated verbs, and mapped out tables of case endings. In our halting fashion, we translated and read out scripture verses or passages from the Illiad. Then we diagnosed the subtleties of the language and what was lost in the translation. We came up with strategies for explaining these nuances to our future audiences who would, no doubt, be carried away with admiration for our erudition and spiritually edified as we unpacked the treasures of St. Paul’s rhetoric. Our poor parishioners would never know what hit ’em.
In all my years of preaching, I have never once tried to teach my parishioners a Greek word. There’s a reason for this. It’s a betrayal of my education, of course, but it’s a good reason, understandable even – I forgot it all. You see, I’m terrible at learning languages. Wretched. It’s not a big deal, really, just one of many things I’m bad at. I’m sure my teachers, though, if they knew, would be incredibly disappointed. I’m a poor reflection of their mentorship. I refuse to even define the most intriguing Greek words for my congregation.
Helen Dewitt doesn’t know me, but she would also be disappointed. This is because Helen Dewitt wrote an entire novel, The Last Samurai, about how Greek is so easy that even a four-year old can learn it. The hero of her novel – a hero because he never stops questing, for it is only villains who arbitrarily declare a journey to be over – is a boy named Ludo. Or it’s David. Or Stephen. Sibylla, his single mother, cannot actually remember. She was too overwhelmed at the time of his birth and there was no father around to help name the boy. She calls him Ludo. Whatever his name is, she has him reading The Odyssey by the age of four. It’s simple, supposedly, to teach yourself Greek. All you need is a highlighter and a dictionary.
I’m telling you, I have those things. They don’t help.
Helen Dewitt’s point is well taken, though, that we can all attempt difficult, impractical challenges and progress further than we would ever have imagined. In fact, the journey itself is what matters, not the arbitrary endpoint. It doesn’t matter what you try, as long as it is wonderful there doesn’t need to be any further justification. Watch Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai for the thousandth time to pick up the subtleties of the film. Learn some advanced, highly impractical mathematics. It doesn’t matter. The point is that the universe is all potential. It’s all possibility. Confining ourselves to practicalities in the face of such an immense mystery is absurd.
As a Catholic priest, I am currently celebrating the Triduum almost entirely alone. On Holy Thursday, I knelt before the Blessed Sacrament in an almost empty church. Today, I offered a solitary kiss of affection to the crucifix. Tomorrow, when the lights finally come on during the Vigil, they will illuminate empty pews. Nevertheless, I am praying every prayer, chanting every chant, and even writing homilies. I incense the altar and have a few cantors sing every proper and ordinary part of the Mass. It’s the most impractical thing I’ve attempted since learning Greek. No one is there to see it.
It would have been much more practical to dispense with the fuss and offer far more simple, quiet prayers. But it wouldn’t have been right. The Mass isn’t about practicality. Neither are our human relationships, our interests, our loves, or the search for beauty. What I mean to say is, a human life well-live is not practical. It’s goodness comes from a far deeper source.
There’s a scene in Seven Samurai, a recruitment test to ascertain who is worthy of joining. Sibylla loves this scene, watching it repeatedly and pointing out that the recruitment goes well beyond weapons skills or strength. It isn’t about being elite. The recruitment seeks out hidden moral qualities. Ludo later appropriates this recruitment scene as he interviews potential replacement fathers. Along the way, he too learns that a good father isn’t necessarily the one with the most intellect or accomplishments. There’s something more. In an interview, Helen Dewitt points this out, saying:
He is drawn to the adventurous type of man he once imagined his father to be, not someone who simply sits in a room with a lot of books, but he picks a couple of people who augment this with intellectual brilliance – an obsessive linguist, a scientist who might win a Nobel prize. Then he realizes that they’re monsters…the shock forces him to think again about what he should be looking for.
Sibylla refuses to even name Ludo’s biological father, preferring to call him “Liberace,” because the man’s writing is full of glitz and self-rewarding virtuousity. Later, she takes Ludo to a concert by Kenzo Yamamoto, a pianist who grew disillusioned with the recording process, went to Africa to discover the meaning of music, and returned to give a long-awaited performance. It lasted all night, as Yamamoto said, so as to be sure the trains were running by the time it was over. Ludo got tired and walked home.
Later, after having tried out a litany of potential fathers and discarded them as unsuitable, Ludo hears Yamamoto playing piano through an open window. He now understands along with the great pianist that music, like life, is too grand to be encompassed by a single performance and sometimes you have to play the same piece over and over even if it takes all night. The quest is never finished, and each day brings both its successes and failures. Tomorrow those same successes and failures may be inverted, because remember that it’s only a villain who convinces himself that the journey is over.
Ludo asks Yamamoto to record a masterpiece for his mother Sybilla, an exploration of the infinite inner life of a single piece of music. By definition it will be incomplete. By definition no one will buy it. The project is entirely impractical and a waste of his earning potential, a waste of time that almost no one will ever hear. But Sibylla, an audience of one, is worth it. Staying on the journey is worth it. And the universe puts forth a new shoot from the dirt every single day.
Try something impractical today. Pray when no one is looking. Play the piano with your eyes closed. Try to learn Greek.