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The Work of the Church and the Commonwealth
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Timothy Bartel

This address was given to the incoming freshman class of Saint Constantine College in August, 2022, by TSCS provost Dr. Timothy Bartel.



Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard,
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily “Hit them hard!”
I knew pretty well why he dropped behind
And let the other go on a way.
I knew pretty well what he had in mind:
He wanted to take my job for pay.
Good blocks of beech it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good
That day, giving a loose to my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.


The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.


A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And fronts the wind to unruffle a plume
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake: and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn’t blue,
But he wouldn’t advise a thing to blossom.


The water for which we may have to look
In summertime with a witching wand,
In every wheel rut’s now a brook,
In every print of a hoof a pond.
Be glad of water, but don’t forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth.


The time when most I loved my task
These two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You’d think I never had felt before
The weight of an axhead poised aloft,
The grip on earth of outspread feet.
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.


Out of the woods two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps.)
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax,
They had no way of knowing a fool.


Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man’s work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right — agreed.


But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes.


I will say nothing in this talk that is as masterful as any quatrain from what I just read. The poem is “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” and the poet is our literary great-uncle Robert Frost, who first published the poem in an October 1934 issue of the Saturday Review. It's a typical, New England Frostian scene, with the speaker chopping wood and exchanging words with a passing lumberjack who is looking for work. The juxtaposition of the speaker's activity of splitting wood as leisure and the tramp's desire to split wood as paid labor forms the chief meditation of the poem. In the middle of the poem is an arguably overlong interlude about April weather and a bluebird who isn't really blue. I'll ignore the weather and the bird, but I'll bet they matter more than I can yet tell. If you have some ideas, I'd love to hear them.

For now, let's look at what is going on with labor and leisure, with work and play, in the poem. The key lines here are the end of the first stanza and the last three stanzas. We are first alerted to the concepts at play in the lines: 


The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good
That day, giving a loose to my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.


Frost contrasts an imagined "life of self control which works for "the common good" with his own more leisurely chopping, which is a "giving loose to [his] soul," that is wasted, perhaps, on something "unimportant." It would be sad to think that the only true freedom of the soul is expressed in the unimportant, and yet Frost's speaker throughout this poem feels a bit guilty that he is chopping wood. He doesn't need to do it, and it is the livelihood of other men. Perhaps, Frost thinks, "I had no right to play / With what was another man’s work for gain."

But in the end, he rejects this conclusion as too extreme. 


My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right — agreed.


The fact that someone performs a task for gain does not mean that one who performs it freely for love has somehow stolen that task from the laborer. Nor, contrary to some contemporary suggestions, should the hobbyist feel that somewhere somehow they are owed a wage for their hours of hobbying. 

But Frost does not stop here, does not merely justify his right to chop for love when others chop for pay. "My object in living," he writes, "is to unite / My avocation and my vocation / As my two eyes make one in sight." For avocation, read hobby, that which is done precisely NOT for wages. What would it mean to unite one’s hobby—one’s acts done for love —with one’s career, one’s job, one’s acts done for pay?


Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes.


The word need here operates beyond the bare meaning of "done for wages." It means, I think, not just the necessities of the worker, but the necessities of the community, of the world, even. And with the word "mortal," Frost raises the pitch even more. What we do with our leisure could be done, at a clap of fate, for life itself. We might think of many instances of this in world literature, none, perhaps, more resonant than the moment where the boy who, out of love of the sling and the rock, has so honed his leisure-practiced aim that, when all Israel hangs on the brink of destruction, his work is play for mortal stakes, for heaven and the futures sakes:


David undaunted thus, “Thy spear and shield
Shall no protection to thy body yield:         155
Jehovah’s name——no other arms I bear,
I ask no other in this glorious war.
To-day the Lord of Hosts to me will give
Vict’ry, to-day thy doom thou shalt receive;
The fate you threaten shall your own become,         160
And beasts shall be your animated tomb,
That all the earth’s inhabitants may know
That there’s a God, who governs all below:
This great assembly too shall witness stand,
That needs nor sword, nor spear, th’ Almighty’s hand:         
The battle his, the conquest he bestows,
And to our pow’r consigns our hated foes.”


Thus David spoke; Goliath heard and came
To meet the hero in the field of fame.
Ah! fatal meeting to thy troops and thee,         
But thou wast deaf to the divine decree;
Young David meets thee, meets thee not in vain;
’Tis thine to perish on th’ ensanguin’d plain.


And now the youth the forceful pebble flung,
Philistia trembled as it whizz’d along:         
In his dread forehead, where the helmet ends,
Just o’er the brows the well-aim’d stone descends,
It pierc’d the skull, and shatter’d all the brain,
Prone on his face he tumbled to the plain
Goliath’s fall no smaller terror yields         
Than riving thunders in aerial fields:


Older students in the program may recognize these words as Phyllis Wheatley's, from her poem "Goliath of Gath." She does not fiddle so much with the idea that David's little work of shepherding has prepared him for the greater need of saving Israel. No, there is one main and obvious actor in this poem, and that is God: "the battle his, the conquest he bestows." Wheatley flings herself into the Almighty's providence in a way Frost does not. He is trying to get his vision right. Her clear eyes are aligned on The Lord of Hosts.


This Summer, as we prepared to welcome you back for another year, our seventh as a College, we worked on honing our College Mission statement. For several years, we have described our mission as being Classical, Orthodox Undergraduate education for the Good of the Church and the Commonwealth

The first part of that statement is very straightforward: what makes us distinct amid the scrum of Christian colleges? Well, we're classical, and we're Orthodox. There are classical colleges–quite a few!---and there are at least a couple Orthodox colleges, but we're arguably the only one that is both. What it means to be classical, and what it means to be Orthodox, and what the two have to do with one another—well, those are matters for such long term rumination you could ground a school upon them for a hundred years or more. 

But I want to tell you a little more about the second part of that mission statement, which is the portion we've been especially working on: the good of the Church and the Commonwealth. This phrase comes from our morning prayers at Saint Constantine. And it's a phrase we recently expanded on. Here, then, is the Mission Statement of your Saint Constantine College in it's entirety:

Saint Constantine College provides classical, Orthodox higher education to a community of students seeking wisdom, virtue, and joy. By integrating Christian tradition, dialectical pedagogy, and the great books, we welcome students into the work of the church and the commonwealth. 

There's a lot here, to be honest. It expresses, in two sentences, all we do: the pillars and the tensions upon which we perform the balancing act of learning. 


This is a new word in the mission statement, and one that I think adds an essential element. We often speak in classical education of how education is an activity that orients the student toward virtue, not something that prepares you for a job. But I think that that's only half true here at Saint Constantine. We do mean to prepare you for a job, for work. And that work is liturgy. Liturgy means, literally, the work of the people. Letios: public; ergos: work. Liturgy is the work we do together as humans. We use the word in the context of church, of course: on Sunday mornings we participate in liturgy: we say prayers, sing Psalms and hymns, we read the gospel and hear the gospel preached, and receive and chew and swallow the wine and the bread that are, in a mystery, our Lord and Savior. Together we do this. We, the leitos, perform our ergos. 

But there is the work of the Commonwealth too. The work of life together in the city; there is the work of citizenship and neighborhood, of brother and sisterhood, of sonship and daughtership, of parenthood.

And I want to pause here and say that many college mission statements talk about forming students into Leaders, into culture shapers and nation changers. I think it would be lovely if some of you change the world. But the work of the Church and the Commonwealth isn't just for the elite; we can't all be presidents and senators and pastors and priests and CEOs. Most of us will be citizens and laypersons and–well, we'll be common. And learning to be a good citizen, a good layperson, is hard, and the work is deeply, deeply worthy. To those who only want to teach future aristocrats, I would remind them that the ergos of the common woman and common man is real and it's everyday, and what wise woman or elder is there who common ones, we folks, may look to to help us learn this work–these works–this work of the Church and the Commonwealth?

Well, it's there in the mission statement: the Christian tradition, the Great Texts. This tradition, these texts, are not abstract artifacts impersonally foisted into your education. They are the conversation of voices from wise women, from ancient elders, from those who have worked the work of liturgy before you, and teach us what to meditate upon, and how to act. Take this tradition, these texts, as your mother, your father, your older sisters and brothers. You may not always agree with them. They'll often disagree with one another. But the student who wishes to be invited into the serious liturgies of life will be constellated with these elder voices.

Constellated. I take this work form Dr. Anika Prather, who speaks of the canon of great Texts as a constellation, each a magnificent sphere, burning, flaming, churning it's radiance out to the universe, reflecting and refracting from planets and pin-prick moons. We students are those wanderers, those eccentric and light-swept orbs, implicated in star-shine whether we like it or not. Whether we're aware of it or not. If we use language we are responsible in some way for the right use of language, for putting words to their proper work. At this school, through our tradition, through our dialectic, through our texts, we invite you into the God-established and enduring liturgy—


Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes.