You may not have heard of John Senior, but he is one of the most impactful teachers and writers I have ever seen. I first heard about him from colleagues at the Augustine Institute, who recommended him knowing my interest in culture, but then it seemed like I was bumping into his students everywhere. I realized that my pastor in Littleton, Fr. James Jackson, FSSP, was one of his students; our Administrator in the Archdiocese of Denver at the time, Bishop James Conley, was as well; and then I became an oblate at Clear Creek Abbey, where the Abbot, prior, and five other monks were mentored by Senior.
I began teaching Senior’s writings at the Augustine Institute and then the University of Mary with amazing results. I should keep a tally of how many of students followed Senior’s poignant advice in his book, The Restoration of Christian Culture, to “smash your TV.” Today, of course, Senior would be saying, “smash you iPhone.” Why? He was concerned that we have become disconnected from reality, allowing our experience of life to be mediated through an artificial medium. He knew that kids need to experience nature and have their imagination formed by beauty in order to be open to living in truth and goodness.
Friends and students have been inspired by Senior to change their lives—getting back in touch with the basic realities of life and the beauty of the tradition. One took off from the Augustine Institute to do ministry on the land and has started a dairy. Others have jumped into learning about the arts and literature, incorporating them into their teaching and family life. Another friend who recently discovered Senior has decided to support the new St. Martin’s Academy and is considering a move to the area. Senior has challenged many of my students to reconsider how they use technology.
In 2016, Fr. Francis Bethel, the prior of Clear Creek Abbey, released an intellectual biography of Senior, John Senior and the Restoration of Realism. I consider it one of the most impactful books I have read in recent years. It traces the incredible story of Senior’s life—running away from home at 13 to become a cowboy, and meandering from Communism, to Plato, to occult symbolist writers, to Hindu spirituality, until finding the Catholic Church in his late 30s. Through his teaching at Cornell, the University of Wyoming, and the University of Kansas, he realized that his students needed a remedial re-formation in order to grasp reality.
In the Integrated Humanities Program he co-founded at KU in the 1970s, he led students to experience the great tradition in a living way to awaken them to reality, through song, poetry, spoken Latin, dance, stargazing, discussion of the great books, and trips to Europe. By awakening secular college students to the key questions of human life, IHP led to many conversions and vocations to the religious life—which became its demise after an outcry from parents. Parents weren’t happy that their Protestant and even Jewish sons wanted to join a traditional Benedictine monastery in France!
I have the great privilege of talking about Fr. Bethel’s book and John Senior’s legacy on EWTN Live this Wednesday, May 2nd, at 8pm EST. If you want to learn more about how Senior’s teaching philosophy can change family life and Catholic education, tune in! If, as Senior would recommend, you’ve smashed your TV, but still have a computer, you can stream EWTN here. If you are a father or educator, I can’t recommend enough looking into Senior’s life and his vision for the restoration of culture!