An Interview with Matthew Mehan, Catholic educator and author of Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals
“Poetry helps order all knowledge by rendering truth more lovely and, if the artist and the art is up to it, by rendering the heart readier to love the truth.”
Katie Warner interviews Catholic artists and artisans about their crafts, asking how their art impacts the Church and their faith impacts their work.
Tell me a little about who you are and about your craft.
I’m a husband and father of seven children. I teach at The Heights School in Potomac, Maryland, a private boys prep school dedicated to the moral, spiritual, physical, and intellectual development of each boy into “a man, fully alive,” as St. Irenaeus said, which is “the Glory of God.” I’m also a college professor and a fellow of the Center for Thomas More Studies, where I’ve studied leadership education, Cicero, Seneca, the Greeks, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and especially the training with which St. Thomas More prepared himself to serve the common good so well.
My craft follows from this study in what we can call 21st Century Christian Humanism: poetry and philosophy, wit and wisdom, the liberal arts as the arts of liberty, self-government and human development. I’ve been a scribbler since I was very young, but over the years my craft has followed these guiding lights, one’s I’ll never reach, but happily die trying to.
When did you start writing poetry? What inspired you to do this as a career, part-time work, ministry or hobby?
I first started writing poetry when my parents had me sit out of some inappropriate sex education programs at my local school! My parents’ desire to refine my understanding of love led me to refine my love of poetry! I started a more disciplined writing regiment for myself after studying St. Thomas More in England. More honed his writing out of love for God, excellence, and especially out of a desire to communicate fruitfully with everyone around him, for the sake of friendship, wisdom and peace for all. That moved me to practice the poetic and literary arts more and more (sorry, More puns are too easy).
Also, some of More’s chosen and beloved ancient models, like Cicero and Seneca, practiced these arts with great zeal because they wanted to prepare themselves for public service by, well, offering a public service of helpful, lovely, and encouraging poetry and oratory. More did likewise. I’m happy to imitate my betters! I’m a full-time teacher, but I worked on this as a friendly service to others. That’s why I kept my name in the title: “Mr. Mehan’s” book is a gift to you, my friends. I really mean that. Ask my wife. We labored greatly as a family to finally complete this book.
How does your faith influence your art?
It makes me more zealous to suffer for it. I’ve prayed a great deal for guidance in the work, and I took that duty very seriously as any good work of art must be inspired, both by great human models from the past and, even better, by the grace of God in the heart of the author. And Christ is in the marrow of so much in the work, in a myriad of ways that an attentive reader will come to see more and more with each read of Mehan’s Mammals.
How does your art impact your faith?
My art impacts my faith in ways I’m sure I don’t understand fully. But one way is lovely for being so profoundly mundane. I wouldn’t write if I didn’t think I was called to it, as a teacher and prophet in the great and lesser sense respectively. And that means that the practice of my art is, in a real sense, my duty of charity and the proper use of my (admittedly) limited gifts, to glorify God and serve my lovely fellow mammals on their way.
Can you pick a favorite work you’ve done recently? Tell me a little about it.
I’m currently writing a poem—it’s not finished—about the deep night and the dawn, about how we look with hope in hard times. To see rightly and, like a little songbird that trusts in the dawn, to sing rightly take great care and effort. Many see too casually or sing too carelessly, and often too sadly. The poem is more than this, but such work is really a joy and a privilege—the good kind!
As for finished work, Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals (TAN 2018) has been the major accomplishment for my friend and illustrator John Folley and me. It’s an alphabetical book of illustrated poetry with many whimsical mammals that introduce many wonderful aspects of the liberal arts, the arts of friendship, and the means to a happy life despite the sorrows that come from our fallen world and, harder still, from our own fallen hearts.
Why do you think Catholic art has such an important role to play in the Church?
St. Thomas Aquinas says, along with so many of our wisest saints, that all knowledge is order to and in the service of charity. Poetry helps order all knowledge by rendering truth more lovely and, if the artist and the art is up to it, by rendering the heart readier to love the truth. A good friend can’t make you grow in loving virtue, but he can help you want to. Art and friendship are very much alike in this way.
To whom do you turn for inspiration?
I always ask the Holy Spirit and my Guardian Angel for aid and guidance, also Thomas More, St. Cecilia, and others depending on the themes of the work.
Name one piece of advice/wisdom that has had a great influence on your work.
Shakespeare has a great line in King Lear, as sing-songingly sung by the Fool: “Have more than showest, speak less than thou knowest.” Best leave it at that!
If people want to explore your work in more detail, where can they look?
You can find all my social media info and more about my latest work Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals at www.mythicalmammals.com. You can also check out some of my podcasts and writing, and that of other great Catholic educators from my school, at https://heightsforum.org/podcasts/.