Dr. Bennett’s Top
Undoubtably the most memorable character I met while an undergrad at St Norbert College was Dr. Bennett. Dr. Bennett was a cannon ball of a man with fierce eyebrows. He constantly puffed at little imported cigarettes as he paced back and forth as he lectured. He was an award-winning poet and a man I deeply admired, and I was just a bit afraid of. He refused to apologize for using a vocabulary that had many students scribble notes furiously with a pen in one hand and a dictionary in the other. It was both a surprise and honor when, as an English major in my junior year, I had already exhausted my course options, so he agreed to teach me poetry writing 1:1.
That first day of the semester I nervously met him at the service elevator on the ground floor of Boyle Hall. He took the service elevator because with his age, weight and smoking habit the stairs were too much for him to reach his 4th floor office. We got in and he slid the door shut and the elevator began creaking and ratting upwards. “I call it my double indemnity,” he grinned as he sensed my apprehension.
To my relief, we did make it to his office floor. He slid the door open and we stepped out. Within steps he held his hand up and motioned for me to stop. “Wait here. I have something to show you.” A few minutes later he came back; he had a top in the palm of his hand and he was busy winding the cord around it. When the cord was completely wrapped, he snapped his wrist and the top began to spin on the linoleum floor. We watched. And we watched. Minutes went by. He suddenly bent down, snatched it up and pronounced, “Well, we’re not trying to set any records today.”
He motioned me into his office. It was just what I expected. Books lined the shelves. Books were piled up on the floor. Books were stacked on his desk. He motioned for me to have a seat in the little visitor’s chair. “Just think,” he said, and he closed his eyes and was quiet. After several minutes he asked me to tell him everything I had observed. I can’t recall my exact list after 40 plus years, but if you picture that top spinning in your own mind, I bet we could come up with a good list right now: stillness, hand, action, cord peeling off, motion, axis, speed, balance . . . well, we’re not trying to set any record today. You get the point.
Dr. Bennett and I spent the entire semester working on that top. We discussed observations, thoughts, metaphors, symbols, verbs, nouns – all the marvels of language. It is amazing the complexity your mind is capable of if you release it. It is a powerful skill to train your mind to really observe. We don’t observe with our senses, our senses are simply the tools that all feed the world and beyond into the mind. It is in the mind where truth is uncovered and where imagination is inspired. This is why St. Paul urges us, “Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)
As humans, especially my male counterparts and I, we want to act, to do, to be busy and to get on with it. That can be good. But much more can be accomplished, perhaps even a greater good may be accomplished, if we first stop, observe, listen, and seek to discern God’s will before we act.
Dr. Bennett also taught me that all great literature comes back around to God. He stated it as fact; he didn’t tell me why. But after mulling on it for years, I think it is because all great literature leads you to contemplate a deeper meaning, the purpose of life, the reality of death, the possibilities in eternity, and the glory of the transcendent. When we contemplate truth in the ultimate realities it always leads us to God, who is the ultimate reality, the ultimate truth. And, it is when we enter into the act of contemplation that we are most like God, because it is how God acts. God contemplates us into existence. “All were created through him, all were created for him, He is before all else that is, in Him everything continues in being.” (Colossians 1:17)