Christmas Calculus

So There I was …

Sitting in Math Class at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, 1979, backed up against the Sangre de Christo Mountains. I was trying hard not to be a Christian. I was failing. This may have had a lot to do with the math teacher/theologian/ saint/teacher sitting in the room named Michael J Ossorgin. He was old, and round, and pink faced with a lot of white Russian hair and blue eyes that saw WAY too much.

They don’t let you do math the easy way at St John’s.  You do not do learn formulae and crank out answers. You fill up blackboards with theorems and proofs of old dead alchemists and magicians.

In my memory the boards looked like this. But with about 8 students around a table not a lecture hall.

Often in my own handwriting. You memorized a proof and presented it to class without looking at the book. You were expected to possess what you were professing. Your proof often took up several blackboards. Rooms were equipped with several for that reason.  In the third year I was reaching the limit of my brain capacity. But I was working hard to keep up. 

The student de jour was presenting from Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Book 2 Lemma2, I believe.

Mr Newton was making a circle. The hard way.

Onto his circle he scribed a series of stacked rectangles. Thusly.

At first there are not many rectangles and the circle has the look of a giant sunflower with pointy petals.

Then he starts shrinking the size of the petals and increasing their numbers.

He calls this diminishing infinitesimals.

Now the drawing starts to look like a giant sun with a sugar crystal corona.

And then, at a certain, ultimate point, the number of petals become infinite.  It is at that point that the many pointed object becomes a true circle. It is integrated. Boom. It also has a finite circumference.  The infinite has become finite.

I got it, but I rebelled.

I scraped my chair back on the tile floor.

“Hold it. Just one minute. That is NOT math – that is magic!"

Ossogin looked at me with anticipatory mirth. I bet he had seen this a hundred times.

I looked at Ossogin. “No, that’s not magic… That’s ...   Religion!”

And as the word leaked out of my mouth, I knew what I was looking at…

The Word made flesh

The infinite Divine crawling inside of the tiniest of human finite forms.

“Ah, Crud, Sir – That’s the Incarnation!”

He grinned.

“That’s Christmas!”

"Oh, no…  We just proved Christmas… "

I believe I stood up and walked out of the room at that point. I was almost done with ST. John’s. I had learned about everything I needed.

Every year this time, I remember that class. I dream of blackboards and chalk dust. 
I remember how silly it is to draw arbitrary lines between Mathematics and Mysterium.

With special Thanks to Alec Spencer Lamson, present Johnny extraordinaire for the aid de memoir.

The first St. John’s lesson can be read here.