On models of “everyday holiness”

In one weekend, when the Church celebrated its great feast of Pentecost, two men who had long inspired me passed on to eternal life.

Fr. Arthur Vella, S.J., who rested in peace on Pentecost Sunday, requires little introduction in Malta. He was a Jesuit priest and a man of great wisdom who mentored and guided spiritually generations of clergy, religious and laity. My first encounter with him was about twenty years ago and like many others, he left on me his indelible mark. Beyond his many remarkable accomplishments, Turu will not be forgotten because his presence personally and intimately touched the life of many, tutoring us to discern and trust in God’s presence in the midst of chaos. He mediated a holiness that one couldgaze at, listen to and cry with because it is embodied in the neighbour, mentor or friend who accompanies you.

Beyond his many remarkable accomplishments, Turu will not be forgotten because his presence personally and intimately touched the life of many, tutoring us to discern and trust in God’s presence in the midst of chaos

It was a different, albeit, as powerful, experience to be inspired and touched by the wisdom, grace and extraordinary insight of Dr. Eric McLuhan, who passed away on Friday May 18 in Bogotá, a day after delivering the inaugural lecturefor the Doctorate in Communication at the University of La Sabana. My only extended personal conversation with Dr.McLuhan was about ten years ago, but his scholarly works, and the writings of his father, which he edited with much diligence, have accompanied me both before and since. In the tradition of the great doctor of the church, Thomas Aquinas, Eric McLuhan, scholar and writer, was for me a model of that Christian witness that doesn’t touch you “immediately”—face-to-face—but “mediatedly”, through the power of the “written word” meant to educate.

Being Marshall McLuhan’s son, and following so closely in his father’s footsteps, must not have been easy. The fact that Eric not only carried the mantle, but took his father’s insightsto greater depths attests to his stamina and industriousness.  Marshall, a man of deep faith, was a controversial figure who transformed himself to what was unthinkable in the profession: a celebrity professor. He did so as the quintessential educator, who, inspired by a long tradition of humanitas, dared to use every means possible to reach out to any audience, immediate or mediated, to awaken the populace from its slumber.

The fact that Eric not only carried the mantle, but took his father’s insightsto greater depths attests to his stamina and industriousness

We tend to think of teachers as “explaining” or “passing on” facts or knowledge to their students. But Marshall was not interested in facts and thought it was ridiculous to assume that mere explaining would amount to an education. Rather, he believed that we all have an intellect that we can harness, if only we become aware of the perceptual biases that limited the exercise of our reason. Cultural pitfalls that shape us limit us from reaching our full potential to grasp truth and craft civilization. With the precision of a surgeon, but the militancy of a zealot, he challenged anyone who dared engage with his intellect to regain the ability to contemplate, and thus todiscern truth for themselves. Dubbed “the prophet of the electric age”, his style was exactly that: always paradoxical, probing and provocative… and for that reason, always offensive to those who failed to understand him or who would benefit from the status quo.

But like a comet, the light of prophets dazzles, but then dims as it burns out. The same would have happened to Marshall’s voice if Eric McLuhan did not meticulously and tenaciously keep his father’s work alive, but also order it, deepen it, give it the structure that would enable it to become seeds of wisdom for the long haul.

Cultural pitfalls that shape us limit us from reaching our full potential to grasp truth and craft civilization

I had an immediate taste of that vision when Eric McLuhan sat with me and graciously helped me articulate how the vocation of the Catholic theologian “to read the signs of the times” in a digital age necessitated a grasp of cultural dynamics mediated through new media. The Christian is in the world, even if not of the world, and an understanding of “worldly” dynamics allows for the necessary “detached” attitude that frees us for genuine discernment. Thus, the Church cannot afford to not study media and their effects, in the same way she cannot afford to not harness all their potential for truly transformative communication. In that one morning, Eric McLuhan had taught me more about the intellectual conversion necessary for living the “Catholic” vocation in a post-Christian world than most contemporary theological works.

That made me aware that I was in the presence of a truly rare kind of Christian witness that we are increasingly tempted to ignore, even if we do so at our peril: the power of the truly “Catholic”, scholarly word committed to Truth. Like his father, Eric McLuhan was a true educator whose scholarship was first and foremost in service of integral flourishing through authentic cultural betterment. It was characterized by that deep sense of responsibility that communication matters,since “words” and their veracity bind us together for better or for worse. Through “words”, in particular words imbued with the power to penetrate communal consciousness and sit there to last, we can build a culture that inspires, or we can push each other into collective decline.

Through “words”, in particular words imbued with the power to penetrate communal consciousness and sit there to last, we can build a culture that inspires

As a Fellow at the McLuhan Programme in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, I used to joke that the Coach House, Marshall’s place of work for decades, was like holy ground: you enter there and his overwhelming presence was still so palpable that he had to be “St. Marshall”,now enshrined in the walls, papers and books. But Eric McLuhan and his works reminded me of a subtler, but just as necessary, witness to holiness: a tenaciousness that like fresh air allows one to breathe better to sustain a long ordeal.

That persistent freshness, hidden but powerful, that touches hearts through sowing seeds that grow in time, is precisely what Pentecost is about, what Christian witness demands in these times of a long march of cultural transition. It is perhaps fitting that both Fr. Arthur Vella, S.J., the spiritual mentor, and Dr. Eric McLuhan, the scholar of communication, who eachfashioned wise words for personal and cultural betterment were called to eternal life as the Church remembered the descent of the Holy Spirit on all flesh.

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