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A quote from a Dorothy L. Sayers novel has lately been on my mind. “I was a scholar once,” says an acquaintance of Harriet Vane, the highly successful protagonist of the novel, at a university reunion in a fictional Oxford college. Harriet’s acquaintance had married a farmer and left the life of the mind behind in the myriad of chores and children that farm life demanded. I remembered the wistful phrase while my husband and I were hosting college students at our home, and I thought of my own transformative college years.

It has been almost twenty years since I stepped onto campus to start my first year of university; twenty years since a window was opened from my cloistered childhood to the bright sky of a new and wide world. Those college years gave my life deeper purpose, and I drank eagerly from the well of great texts and ideas. Boethius stared death in the face and said philosophy could console; in choosing duty over passion, Virgil’s Aeneas incited both anger and respect. From Dante and Augustine, I learned that human vice is desire aimed at the wrong ends. Bonaventure showed me that knowledge of material goods could lead me to knowledge of immaterial goods. These writers inspired me to transform my vices into virtue. 

Thus, a new thought entered my mind: My own limited experience did not exhaust the possibilities for a fulfilling life. An entire world of ideas existed beyond my personal experience; in fact, my flourishing as a human being depended on understanding what is good and true about our world. 

An encounter with the Great Books is an encounter with the best humans have to offer. These texts show people in all their triumphs and failures, in story and philosophy alike. Studying them is hard work, but the breathtaking intellectual views are worth it. 

In my senior year abroad at Oxford, I considered pursuing the life of a scholar. Guiding others in their journey through the humanities seemed a noble pursuit, and so I applied to graduate schools, receiving some letters of acceptance and some of rejection. However, in a curious turn of events, the very humanities I loved led me to choose a different vocation. 

Choices are odd; sometimes they are made at a crossroads. Other times they are made quietly by small steps, often in a direction that one cannot fully know in advance. In my case, that meant choosing the teaching job that I loved, staying near my family, and ultimately discovering that marriage and motherhood were my primary vocation. I became a wife, and a year later a mother. Both events fulfilled dreams that I had long held, and I recognized those vocations as being in line with my yearning to understand what is true about this world. 

And yet, almost ten years into these familiar responsibilities, with a fifth child on the way, sometimes my mother-self feels separated from what was good in my college-self. As we hosted the college students, I searched my mind for literary references and historical dates that have succumbed to children’s books, loads of laundry, “pregnancy brain,” and to unoccupied moments consumed with social media disguised as rest. 

Though I sometimes do feel lost in the mundane world of non-academics, and tired by the large demands of motherhood, studying the humanities taught me that although these feelings are real, they do not close the window to the wider world. I am not lost in a dark wood, as Dante was—but I do have guides both pagan and theological. At the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante sees the love that moves the universe; I too believe I am upheld by that love and headed toward it. 

Many of my peers chose the life of the scholar, and today most of those friends with whom I shared libraries and travels hold advanced degrees and are professors and teachers. Their work is good work. My work, too, has included teaching; but as more children arrive my focus has turned toward the world of home. My focus is on these small people whose hearts and minds I must help form and shape. But in many ways, I am a scholar still, concerned with my own flourishing and, more importantly, that of my children.  

The humanities must always be a twofold work. They must simultaneously inform and enrich, but then their lessons must be applied and joyously lived out. That is the life worth living. And such a life can be found as much in the home as in the common room. 

All around me is the music that moves the spheres, and I do not need to be a formal scholar to be caught up in its dance. I can be a mother and still a philosopher; when my son asks me bedtime questions like, “What happens when good people die?” I can answer, “Well, my son, God brings them back to life,” and recite Donne’s poetry: “Death, thou shalt die.” 

When that day comes, may we all be caught in the music that moves the spheres, taking joy in having lived out the vocations set before us. 

Leilani Mueller is a wife, mother, and teacher of English literature living and working in Houston. 

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Image by Chensiyuan licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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