Portsmouth Institute Bill Buckley Conference, First Thoughts

In the latest Community Crier announcement of the Portsmouth Institute’s inaugural conference, on the topic of William F. Buckley, I wrote of the importance of stepping away from one’s life. I mentioned dislocation of place — the religious man’s journey into the desert, as well as the working man’s days of intellectual pursuits, as represented for me by this event.
A letter from Portsmouth Institute Director James MacGuire on the inside cover of the program notes that the organization’s purpose will be to offer the opportunities of “a conference, study, recreation, and retreat center for all those interested in Catholic life, leadership and service in the 21st century.” It will be exciting to watch that opportunity take shape, in the hopes of partaking.
Arriving on the campus of the Portsmouth Abbey school evokes another difference of lives with which we all ought to pursue experience from time to time — that of cultural distinction. In all honesty, had I known such settings in my youth (meaning prior to my marriage) — and had I not been a thorough-going agnostic — I might have considered taking the monk’s path. It was my understanding, back then, that entering into religious life was the end of one’s ordinary life and foreclosed altogether the possibility of an extraordinary one. Thus does a secular mindset get the truth completely backwards.
There is another way to enjoy this particular abbey as a quotidian setting, of course, which is much more in keeping with the secularist’s vision of an extraordinary life. In the case of renowned private schools, it comes with the prerequisite of tuition and puts one in the company of such peers as Mr. Buckley’s son, Christopher. And among that company, one can find a substantially different world. A charming anecdote from the biography of tonight’s pianist, Lawrence Perelman, is telling of that world’s breadth:

Larry gives two recitals annually for friends. In 2006 he performed Beethoven’s last three sonatas at Steinway Hall on the occasion of his 30th birthday. He first played for William F. Buckley, Jr., in April 1995. He gave many recitals at National Review’s fortnightly editorial dinners at 73 East 73rd Street in Manhattan and on occasion in Stamford. Larry and Bill had a tradition, whereupon after Larry performed a piece, Bill would pick the next one for him to learn; both pieces on tonight’s program were learned for Bill.

As a cultural figure, WFB stands at the nexus of routes into this world, which one can enter as an aristocrat, as an artist, a writer, a priest, a thinker, even as a reader. That is to say, it’s a world permeated with the strands of history, and encountering its various folds, by whatever method, taps into a sense of something bigger and longer standing — to wit, the “extra” that we all yearn to suffix to the ordinariness that we ought never to discard.

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