Discover Chesterton Series: "Building a Culture"

By ERIC DEMEUSE, Headmaster and theology teacher

The Discover Chesterton Series offers perspectives from students, parents, and teachers on the culture of life being cultivated at Chesterton Academy of Milwaukee.

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There’s an old story—many of you have likely heard it before—of a man walking through the countryside of England when he comes across two stone masons constructing a wall. To the first he asks, “What are you doing?” “Laying bricks,” says the mason. He then turns to the second with the same question, “What are you doing?” “Building a cathedral,” the mason replies. The first man had a task. The second had a vision. The first wasn’t wrong, he just didn’t see the whole picture.

Now, when you ask many educators today “What are you doing?” they will likely say something like, “We are teaching students skills to help them succeed in college.” And that is indeed a noble goal. However, if you ask me what we are doing at Chesterton Academy, I say, we are building a culture.

Any culture, to thrive, needs at least three things: a story of our past, a hope for our present, and a sacrifice for our future. First, we need a story of our past, a story about who we are and where we come from. In the world today, many people are story-less; they don’t know where they come from and thus they feel homeless. At Chesterton Academy, we teach young people their story through great books and great ideas. We teach them about virtue and sin and life and death through the wisdom of the past and present. We teach them who they are and where they come from, and we teach them where their true home is – heaven.

Second, every culture needs a hope for the present—not just a hope for the future; not just a “someday things will get better” but a “today is a brighter day.” The Church is in desperate need of hope today, and this hope is in our young people. For too long we have treated young people as if they are the future of the Church, as if one day they will lead. But think of all the blessed who didn’t wait for that one day – St. Therese was 24-years-old, Jose Luis Sanchez was 14, Maria Goretti was 11, Antonetta Meo was 6 – the litany of the young goes on and on. The Church today doesn’t have the luxury, manpower, or means to treat our young people as the future of the Church—that is to say, we need them to be the Church right now. At Chesterton Academy, we call young people to live a life of courage and holiness; we teach them what virtue is and how to live it; we take young people seriously, and they rise to the challenge.

Finally, every culture needs a willingness to sacrifice for a future we may not see with our own eyes; a willingness to die to self so that others may live. As the scriptures remind us, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it will not bear fruit.

It has been said (though perhaps more a rich legend than a hard fact) that when the Romans sacked a city, their soldiers would salt the fields to prohibit the possibility of that city growing crops and rebuilding. It was only after decades of digging and tilling; after thousands of seeds fell to the ground and died; after the sacrifice of generations, that the first sprouts of new life arose, and civilization could be rebuilt.

Many today feel that the soil of our culture has been salted. For generations, it is said, we have forgotten the treasure trove of the past, and thus we have forgotten who we are. For years, it is said, we have treated young people like children rather than calling them to be heroes and saints. And yet, for years now, people have been digging and tilling; for years, people been dying to self and sacrificing to steward our culture and to educate our young people.

The students of Chesterton Academy are those sprouts of new life, borne from prayers and sacrifice. And more fruit is continually being borne. I’ve spoken to middle school students who tell me they pray every night for their parents to send them to Chesterton Academy. I’ve spoken to mothers with one-year-olds who dream of sending their children to Chesterton Academy. We are giving hope to a new generation, and our parents, benefactors, faculty, and students continue to dig and till and die and sacrifice for this hope. For we know we are not merely laying bricks. We are building a cathedral. We are building a culture.

“If you ask me what we are doing at Chesterton Academy, I say, we are building a culture.”

This piece is adapted from a talk given at the 2019 Chesterton Gala.