A muse in stone for Notre Dame’s poets
My job requires much involuntary reading during the workday, so when I’m asked what I’m reading lately, I’m a little abashed at what boring prose most of “what I’m reading lately” is.
While other may find cause to stray — in protest or indifference — he has plenty of reasons to stay with this maddeningly human, redemptively divine social sacrament with people like himself.
At Notre Dame, on Tuesday of Holy Week, winter has gone on exactly too long. A dusting of stubbornly persistent snow falls from a galvanized gray-steel sky. Darting from residence hall to lecture hall students stoop against the oncoming wind gusts, scowling into their iPhones, looking, and doubtless feeling, uncertain and out of joint, as if suddenly feeling that they don’t belong here, that some placement mistake has been made. And the feeling is contagious.
To its many other distinctions, Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart may now add its recognition as the most beautiful college church in the country, in celebration of which I offer this brief report of something glimpsed there after this morning’s 11:30 Mass.
In 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday, 21-year-old John Haley was a corporal in Company E of the 157th New York Regiment. With his 23-year-old brother, Thomas, he had enlisted less than a year before, and both young men had been through quite a bit during their short military careers, leaving the sentinel camps around Washington for a particularly ugly tour.
I lived a fair amount of my childhood before the Second Vatican Council and had little acquaintance with that ruthless God James Carroll describes. Oh sure, I can remember one hair-raising homily in our parish church during which the pastor thumped the coffin-lid for emphasis as he bellowed: “It’s too late for Arthur now!”
Responsible finance has been an awkward subject for Christians at least since Jesus attended that dinner party in Bethany where one of his hostesses poured a pint of rare spikenard (worth roughly a year’s salary for the average Palestinian wage earner those days) over his feet and wiped them with her hair.
Prayer can pounce on a poem (or a soul) unbidden as a bobcat dropping from a tree limb, all fangs and claws. Prayer is downright predatory. Prayer can pick up a sinner’s scent, silently begin to stalk, keep motionless watch for hours and patiently await the moment to leap.
“Of all hostilities,” Dorothy Day once wrote, “one of the saddest is the war between clergy and laity.”
The quaint word “fortnight” had seldom been heard in America before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted it for use in a campaign for religious liberty. A principal concern of the USCCB’s “Fortnight for Freedom” is, of course, a federal law that could require conscientious private employers (most notably Catholic ones) to support services morally repugnant to them.
“Of all hostilities,” Dorothy Day once wrote, “one of the saddest is the war between clergy and laity.” She penned those words in the summer of 1964 as some controversy, long since forgotten, roiled the Catholic Church in America.
Years ago I spent Holy Week in the Holy Land. As much of that time as possible, I was within the walls of Jerusalem. An anomaly or a coincidence or perhaps even a miracle of the calendar had aligned the celebrations of three feasts sacred to the sacred city’s three faiths, and the streets of the Old City were redolent with the smells of freshly slaughtered flesh, clouds of incense, burning palm branches and smoldering beeswax.
On Ash Wednesday, the 12:10 Mass in the crypt of Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart was more crowded than usual. It was to be expected. On Sundays and 10 other holy days, Church law requires Catholics to be at Mass, but not on Ash Wednesday, when every Mass seems nevertheless to be jammed to the rafters.
It appears early each Advent season, the massive crèche mounted on a platform of hay bales at the eastern edge of Notre Dame’s Grotto.
Notre Dame theologian Gary Anderson, an Old Testament scholar, recently wrote about purgatory. I read it late last Saturday night, after a day spent raking up the first autumnal deposit of dead leaves from our front and back yards.
An exaltation of larks whirled and sang above the hut where he lay dying nearly a millennium ago. That’s only one of the countless stories told of Saint Francis of Assisi, whose October 4 feast will be celebrated here at Notre Dame.
In addition to its being the 10th anniversary of that terrible day, this September 11th is, according to the Catholic liturgical calendar, the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time. The Mass readings for the day are from the Book of Sirach (“Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. . . . If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?”).
Ongoing scandals in the Catholic Church, along with noises recently being made by several presidential candidates and their supporters, bring to mind George Orwell’s grumpy observation that “as with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for socialism is its adherents.”
In late summer, the bicycle commute between home and work is nothing less than an honor, requiring, as it does, a passage through the groves of oak and sycamore on the north bank of Saint Joseph’s Lake. Invisible choirs of cicadas thrum from their bark and branches, enveloping those woods in an ancient sound.
On vacation at a Lake Michigan beach, shooting the breeze with some younger and nicer people, I made a nonchalantly dismissive remark about acupuncture or chakras or astrology or something. A reprimand was not long in coming: How could I, who believe a wafer of bread and a cup of wine can become both a meal and God, accuse anyone subscribing to Whatever-It-Was of being credulous?
The city council of Encinitas, California, must soon decide whether or not the most recent apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe is an act of vandalism. Appearing on the wall of a railway bridge over Encinitas Boulevard last month, Mary stands expertly atop a white surfboard on a curling blue wave.
If you subscribe to Saint Anselm’s notion of theology as “faith seeking understanding,” it is difficult to imagine how, exactly, a theologian “retires,” but a professor certainly can, and Lawrence S. Cunningham, John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology at Notre Dame, will do so next year.
Notre Dame historian Father Marvin O’Connell likes to tell a story about one of the first of the numerous books he has written, Thomas Stapleton and the Counter Reformation. He gave a copy to his mother, who told him she planned to read it during Lent. “After finishing the first chapter,” he says, “she let me know that she had changed her mind. She’d decided not to read the book and to give up chocolate instead.”
It was a celebration of many things: Of the three-decade-long career of a pro-life leader, of an academic institution’s rededication to the defense of society’s most vulnerable, and of a new and conspicuous way to honor such commitments.
Perhaps even more than most other mammals of the northern hemisphere, human inhabitants of the cloud-shrouded Saint Joseph River valley long for the vernal equinox. I certainly do. And this was Palm Sunday. The earth had begun its warming tilt toward the sun three weeks before, the moon was swelling night by night, and the forsythias my wife had planted two years ago were blazing into flower.
As Stanley Hauerwas once observed, “We assume that being modern involves at least agreement that no one ought to take religion too seriously, especially if it is going to ask any real sacrifices from us. . . . Any idea that religious convictions might challenge our deepest beliefs about ourselves or ask us to make extraordinary sacrifices is simply unthinkable.”
In the last quarter of the 19th century, near what has since become Gallup, New Mexico, while the United States and its military were persecuting the Navajo people, a U.S. Army surgeon named Washington Matthews, who had learned the Navajo language, sat down with Old Torlino, a Navajo priest, and asked him who the Navajo people were.
The great Jacques Maritain may have been less authoritative an art critic than a philosopher, but it’s difficult not to sympathize with his grumpy remark that far too many of the artists of his own era had found “a means of releasing the resentments of a boorish soul and getting at little cost the admiration of an idiotic public.”
Among us returnees, here at Notre Dame as in workplaces around the world, nearly every conversation includes some reference to a fresh start, a clean slate, a new beginning.