Advent and Melancholy

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By Dr. Glenn C. Arbery, The Imaginative Conservative, Dec 11, 2017

Nothing breaks through melancholy like a baby. During Advent, we wait for that moment of absolute newness that we need within but cannot muster, that moment when the whole of the divine nature, the whole meaning of universes beyond number, lies helpless before us…

Glenn Arbery

On Monday of this week, students met with me in the new classroom building (the Augur Building, for now, after Fort Augur) for a coffee hour. The College’s Vice-Presidents, the Dean, and the Director of Student Life also attended, and all of us were interested to find out what’s been on the students’ minds—to address concerns, find out about specific problems, or discuss the general direction of the College. One of the questions that came up—given the fact that we are expanding our footprint in Lander—was what our plans for the permanent campus are. The answer: We are staying downtown. God has blessed us with some opportunities right on Main Street, and we intend to take them.

One of the students had a more personal, yet also more penetrating question that seems to me especially important in this first week of Advent. Over halfway through her studies at Wyoming Catholic, she finds herself dry, lacking in joy, overwhelmed by work, and constantly feeling that she is simply skimming the surface of the great texts we read in the curriculum. She wanted to know what to do about it. Her question had such resonance because it was not her experience alone, and every professor in the room leaned toward her in sudden sympathy.

What she described was classic melancholy, which is not quite the same thing as our more clinically-tainted contemporary “depression.” Melancholy is the cold, dry humor of the classical four. Young Hamlet (actually, at thirty, not so young) is melancholic when he complains “how weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/Seem to me all the uses of this world.” Even more to the point, when Polonius comes upon the prince and asks him what he’s reading, Hamlet famously answers, “Words, words, words.” Perhaps melancholy accompanies study itself—reading, reading, reading, and so much of it hastily read and always so much left to read.

I told the student that I sometimes have the feeling she described when I go into a large library. I remember going into the stacks at a huge university when I was in my twenties and peering down a dusty, half-lit aisle as long as a football field. Ceiling-high shelves of books loomed on each side, and each one of those shelves held hundreds of books; each of those books was labored over in the writing, yet most of the authors are long dead and the books themselves, if they were ever read at all, are now long forgotten, never to be revived.

Poe’s Raven might as well have been croaking “Nevermore!” from the bookshelf.

In his odd classic of English literature, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1652), Robert Burton complains of how much there is to read already and how much more keeps being published: “We shall have a vast chaos and confusion of books, we are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning.” Everyone who loves learning has felt overwhelmed with what there is to know and also with the telltale pull of melancholy.

At our session on Monday, people had various solutions and suggestions: physical work, prayerful attention, the new clarity that comes from studying for final exams, the actual synthesis of writing and pulling things together. But I came away from the meeting (at least after I got over my melancholy) thinking of the promise of this new liturgical year. Advent, from one point of view, is all about breaking open a text that has gone dead; it’s about the promise lying all along beneath all the words, words, words of the Scripture that for many had become cold and dry and legalistic over two thousand years ago.

Regardless of what Scripture literally foretold, who would have thought that the whole interior spirit and meaning of the text itself would appear as man, the Word made flesh? There is something both unspeakably solemn and impossibly comic in the birth of the Christ Child in Bethlehem. In this season of Advent, we acknowledge our coldness and dryness. We wait for that moment of absolute newness that we need within but cannot muster, that moment when the whole of the divine nature, the whole meaning of universes beyond number, lies helpless before us. Nothing breaks through melancholy like a baby.

Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (December 2017). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


AUTHOR – Dr. Glenn C. Arbery is President of Wyoming Catholic College, where he previously served as Dean and Associate Professor of Humanities. He has taught at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, the University of Dallas, and at Assumption College where he was d’Alzon Professor of Liberal Arts. He is the author of Why Literature Matters(2001) and the editor of two volumes, The Tragic Abyss (2004), and The Southern Critics: An Anthology (2010).