When still relatively small, I sang in a church choir whose quality was the envy of our whole capital city diocese, so that its members, who included a chorus of boy sopranos like myself, were recruited, auditioned, trained, and paid. This last feature helped reconcile to plain song and Palestrina my career army officer father who would have seen me in the Scouts, out on the diamond, or headed for West Point instead.

Two afternoons a week after school, I got what was still then an awkwardly attenuated leg up the step of a rusted bus at the edge of the boonies, rumbled across the rivulet into town, transferred, and stepped off at the jewel in pearl-grey English Gothic granite on its velvet lawn in my grandparents’ genteel neighborhood. But there were also the Sundays at daybreak for pre-ritual run-throughs, plus the Thursday evenings with the grown choir—not needing, evidently, our regimen of diction, intonation, vocalize, ear-training, sight-singing, and Latin. Nevertheless, a night of Thomas Tallis or Vaughan Williams might have been expected to prove a little intense, exhausting, for children, so at the right moment our truly masterful choirmaster would masterfully thank us for our grown-up efforts at music and deportment. Then we were, about 20 of us, and all but me in easy position to foot it on home under streetlights, joyfully—noisefully—dismissed.

Of course it all had a name, then. We called it The Christian Life. It appeared undetachable from what we also thought of as American life. We could not imagine not taking it for granted, hardly aware that we were becoming relics (so to speak) of its dissolving disappearance, relics with our own nonnegative-growth unpopulation-controlled offspring to try and raise as wholesomely as may be in an immoralist, if ecologically smug, war zone.

I was 30 when I came up from my design loft in the big city to be a pallbearer at my grandmother’s funeral, the one who had helped me into the choir of happy memory that in turn had helped me lay the foundations of an artisanal, musical, literary, philosophical life. The church I had not seen since my voice changed had been refurbished in the manner of Episcopal Woodstock, Tudor altar cloths, damasks, silks, and tapestries whisked away and upstaged by psychedelic eyesores mocking the meditative majesty of lives of the saints in their harmonies of garnet and topaz leaded glass; our minister, now frail and venerable and white, actually going so far as to ask permission—out of deference to the deceased’s term of service—to say the prayers a “last time the good old way.” I, together with virtually everyone else there, a full house, as it were, mostly descendants of the founders of our obscure provincial capital that happened, on occasion, to have harbored a Washington Irving, a Herman Melville, a Henry James whose grandnieces went to school with my mother, had little trouble plopping the recently renovated travesty of a prayerbook back in its rack behind the pew, falling as one to our knees and making confession from indelible memory. à last time. The good old way. Even the psychedelic eyesores rippled with reverberant reverence.

It all came back to me at the gloomy end of the summer, as I threaded through the drizzle and the cobbled maze of Old Amsterdam paying belated homage to the wraith of my one Dutch friend, an old fellow teacher of Latin at what was once Melville’s academy, a well-known resistor who on the way to the usual session in the galley of the usual yacht at the usual wharf on the usual evening became so overwhelmed with nausea he turned back home and missed the SS trap that meant torture and death to his fellows. It came back on the night train to Basel, the young Swiss matron with her half-Italian heritage from the isle of Capri commenting, “They try to make a big cookie of all Europe. Soon it will be all just crumbs!”

It came back as my succinct cab nosed up and down smooth stone lanes of Lausanne under pelting rains, through herds of beaded vehicles, at the moment of the commencement of a celebrated trade fair I knew nothing about. “Had I not come for the trade fair? Had I not even reserved a room? Was it not a sad end of summer?”

I gave out what appears to have been a honey-sounding address on the high road to Bern, and felt the atmosphere mellow toward respectful deference in spite of my embarrassingly rusty French. My female cabby spoke well, beyond her vocation, and seemed the soul of Alpine composure now more or less flummoxed by an overturned truckload of demijohns and shards in the middle of a one-way, highly tilted alleyway called a thoroughfare.

It all came back as, late but stately, we pulled around onto the level entryway at last—emerald grounds, the panorama about to reveal itself from behind the parting storm, fruited trees in haze, a just-drained pool far off, the Château de Vennes, its mullioned windows, its escutcheoned doors, its neat ranks of roof slates slick still with barely abated downpour—and my chauffeuse (not one to feel outclassed, apparently) commented, “Ca fait très British,” though hardly a feature bespoke anything other than the French Swiss Alps but for one small sign that read, “The Erasmus Institute,” not British, but American, where I had been invited to give a lecture. It was my first visit.

It came back, our lost good life, as I stood at ceremonious table, my host enunciating Grace, all my company crossing themselves and sitting down to an expert mountain meal, the glass of good wine, the American conversation punctuated by French, Italian, German, the ice cream cake dessert, the ring of radiant faces of offspring of large old-fashioned families, their evident delight in seemly dress, refreshingly couth speech, ease of good manners, their talk of treks and glaciers and Lake Geneva rowing clubs, concerts, art openings, the ideal length of a contemporary work of literature in light of the speed of modern life, the trip to Florence past, a coming trip to Rome, varied progress in getting beyond high school French, varied reactions to various ethical themes brought up in class, the snag in visa procurement. It came back as I watched, conversed with, got to know my hosts, an exceptionally happy couple in middle years, marvelously adept at getting their charges to talk seriously of serious things in their virtual freshman year abroad, I myself almost regretting not having known them before, though I felt I had somehow always known them—both husband and wife out of Columbia, both of educator families, now with adolescents of their own to try and raise to resist the obfundities of popular culture and MTV, making their stand and offering refuge to a baker’s dozen or so of almost adults so unusual in being the offspring of whole families. One hopes they will survive this era to become the progenitors of whole families of their own. They are here because they want (or have parents who may be commended for wanting them to want) an introduction to the humanities as conceived not by Saint Lenin but Saint Augustine.

At one point my host mentioned the three theological virtues and averred that he felt a lifelong struggle over what he called the necessity of hope in a world so bereft of it, that one must have it before one can hope to give it. Perhaps it is not too much to say that what Dr. Michael and Mrs. Lynn Aeschliman principally do, after all, is create conditions for the incubation of hope. Their hospice, then, is actually an inn, an inn enclosing a school, a school enclosing an inn, offering Americans the haven of its enriching year between ideologically tainted high schools and ideologically tainted universities.

This really ought not to be necessary, of course, except that few, if any, of our schools are what they pretend to be, let alone what they were a mere three decades ago. One young woman, the eldest, as it happened, had had to be homeschooled by parents in protest against the unconstitutional business of so-called referrals, a euphemism for the obtrusion of psychological counseling into the rights of families to communicate their own values, those they actually live by, should they be other than collectivist, uniformitarian, other-directed, secular. Moreover, our present university graduates know conspicuously less about almost everything pertaining to human survival itself, let alone general culture, let alone civilities, than high school graduates did in my salad days. Yet because of their intense virtual indoctrination in what passes for The New Learning—à la “Condoms Forever! Vivisection Never!”—which has produced so far only fanatical hypocrisies and hypocritical fanaticisms, everyone appears to believe that no one ever knew so much since the world began.

Here Dr. Aeschliman’s Erasmus Institute performs a public service, quite apart from an imparting by exemplum and exemplar of manners, morals, conversational aplomb, genuine appreciation for the arts, intangibles once known as matters of soul, this by offering a traditional spread—discourse, history, literature, philosophy—in a classical Christian Augustinian spirit (a “wising up” rather than a “dumbing down”) in the hope of producing, for those who may want and need it, advanced standing at just those “good” name schools whose standards have gone down for the count but whose pride in various radicalisms is notorious. Advanced standing may get one by the most obnoxious of the required courses in the introductory curriculum. Dr. Aeschliman radiates a sense of solidarity with the giants of the tradition he reveres—Augustine, Erasmus, Newman, among others, plus his own one-time personal mentor the late Malcolm Muggeridge. So many turn out to be far less than what they give themselves to be that I must bear witness to the Aeschlimans’ classical Christian modesty, they and all their brood seeming not just capable, not just purposive, not just possessed of uncommon personal dignity, but happy.

In my five days among them, it only got better the better I got to know them: the blond quasi-princess who vacuums around all day is seeking refuge from the hell of Bosnia, once her home. A gentlemanly young man from northern Germany, here for mountains and international law, sits tea-times at the library Beckstein and plays Bach or Chopin with rare mastery. A couple in sales, here for the trade fair, listens with rare attention; likewise, a charmer of high school years from a lovely bilingual town on the edge of the Bierlersee seeks solace from the pain of divorcing parents. My student-neighbor on the hall is playing his viola rather well; two nice young women from Luzern are perfecting their English; and there are lively locals from the Université Populaire at the evening events and open lectures. All are relatively early to bed and sleeping soundly in the elevated air.

Then early up, into the van, off toward the long high wide valley actually called “le Vallais” and on toward the glacial source of the Rhone, stopping for sung high mass (the intonation true) at Sion cathedral, higher and higher into the high Anniviers, on foot at last, gazing into those endless albino Alps of Italy, mass and vastness of the Matterhorn so startlingly “there” and going nowhere, then down, down, afar the funny ridge perched scalloped tower where Rilke spun his masterwork surrounded by what they call “La Noble Contree,” all its vineyards like terraced knitting come to fruition; and yet again beyond spreads that humped majesty of the Bernese Oberland wherein my host’s father was born; back, past the site of “The Prisoner of Chillon” where Beethoven also conceived the so-called “Moonlight” Sonata, past the lakeside resort where Byron wrote the poem, through the neighborhood of the sanitarium where Eliot gave birth to “The Waste Land” within an afternoon’s lakeside stroll of where Stravinsky composed “The Rite of Spring,” then home to tea with the almost elderly English portrait painter, he the picture of all our lost high courtesies in the lost high manner of the English portrait, the talk slowly edging—through apt, rollicking mimicries of his old friend T.S. Eliot and his high English manner—back to the long war now a full half-century behind us, wherein our painter worked at Counterintelligence, to memories of my old friend the Dutch resister, to our host’s telling of “the story.”

At a point in Michael Aeschliman’s New Hampshire boyhood, his Swissborn father, a scholar of ordinary origins in the aforesaid Bernese Oberland, sat him down in his study and told him “the story.” It seems that right in the midst of a memorable moment in modern history, the father, then a young man, found himself in the city of Bedin and therefore in chance attendance at what was to many in those days an enviable occasion, though none would admit so now: the public apparition of the high command of the Third Reich. All the applecheeked Mädchen with astounding figures were wrapped in dirndls, all the lederhosen’d Siegfrieds with amethyst eyes sporting too much stage makeup under blinding sweeps and kliegs, all the fatherlandish songs, fireworks, and orchestrated masses in hysteria. The fellow from the Bernese Oberland might well have felt a little daunted amid these reincarnate warrior giants out of the Nibelungenlieder, but all the manly Teutonic zest of all the singing had begun to tug at his heart and his own right arm seemed of itself to want to extend itself with so many other right arms and the chant, precise, deep-voiced, of “Sieg, heil! Sieg, heil!” over and over in heroic unison as the Führer himself and his entourage swept on by. Something, though—I’d like to think it might have been the wraith of Wilhelm Tell, the men of Uri resolved and ready with winnowing flail and pitchfork, the Rütli Oath, the Ranz des Veaux—held him back, a Swiss skepticism, a Swiss stubbornness, a Swiss neutrality, Anyway, it got him noticed.

“I see,” the challenge came from one nearby, “you did not do the salute. What gives, eh? You Red or something?” There appeared to be two of them, evidently drunk and sneering.


“Not Red. I am Swiss.”

“Aha,” came the ready reaction. “So, you are just a hill rube, then. The land of cows, yes?”

“Yes. I am a rube. But even I am not so badly educated that I do not know when I have looked upon the face of the Prince of Darkness!”

This might have ended badly, but the giants were content with unmasking a religious nut and moved on, the true import of what was said fortunately lost on them. It was not lost on Michael Aeschliman, though, who continues to try and get the world to take seriously Baudelaire’s overlooked remark on this crucial subject, as to how Satan’s greatest achievement has lain in getting so many right-thinking sorts to assert so blithely that he does not even exist.

This has sped Michael Aeschliman, surely, all the way to his marvelous and necessary refuge. May now it not be lost on any of us.