Life at Notre Dame is an invocation. It is a prayer, a petition, a benediction. It is a blessing of grace and community, lives devoted to a higher calling, a sense of the divine threading through the strands of human endeavor here. Notre Dame is a place where God is spoken—and not just as some enigmatic concept but as a real and living force, a participant in daily affairs. Notre Dame can be a sacrament of holy initiative, of sacred creativity, blessed learning and ancient wisdom. It has soul. The spirit is palpable. The expressions of faith are abundant and diverse, commonplace and rare.
Mass is celebrated to open and close each school year. Masses are said to honor deceased family members, to observe national tragedies, to bring a special reverence into the doings of daily life, informal gatherings, those routine events made authentic by this intimate profession of faith. Candles are lit at the Grotto, Lenten prayers offered on a chilly winter night. The mystery is passed along in simple acts of kindness, a generosity of spirit, the gentle give-and-take of human interaction.
The outward signs of Notre Dame’s religious tradition are readily apparent. Statues and crosses are everywhere. The resplendent Basilica of the Sacred Heart stands adjacent to the Main Building, anchoring the core of campus. The Word of Life mural, depicting Christ the Teacher, spans the height of the Hesburgh Library. One lake is rimmed by the Stations of the Cross; the other extends from the Grotto, where penitents and petitioners have knelt for a hundred years. Our Lady, Notre Dame, watches from the summit of the Golden Dome.
The architecture and the accents are important—not only as symbols and reminders but as holy places, too. The Grotto, the basilica, the hall chapels offer sanctuary and solitude, the proper climate and space for communal worship, celebration and retreat. The spirit is found in the darkened corners, too, and in the transactions between teacher and student and along the paths around the lakes. Notre Dame provides an environment where the otherworldly has a home, where people can almost touch the invisible, where divine whispers are nearly audible. There are ducks and geese and trees and green grass spread like blankets for those wanting to sit and rest and read. And no one need be bashful about the desire for time alone, moments of meditation, the pause of contemplation. It’s okay here to go solo for a while in order to get in touch with life’s hidden rhythms.
It’s okay here to talk about the meaning of life, moments of epiphany and illumination, questions of morality and conscience, and to bring God right into the classroom, the dining halls, the dorm rooms, and onto the pages of The Observer, where the merits of clashing viewpoints get debated. There are few expressions of faith more powerful than residence hall Masses, the communal faith life of young adults brought randomly together for a few years, then forging bonds as tight as family. Even students of other faith traditions, and those in various stages of belief and unbelief, are welcomed to the conversation. And there are many causes to take up, many avenues for expression, some more traditional, more religiously orthodox than others, but certainly many pathways to God, many ways of serving Him, His world, His sacrificial call to action. The opportunities abound. Service is a hallmark of the place.
So is the presence of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the founding order of priests and brothers who have served this place for decades—as teachers and scholars, hall rectors and presidents, administrative staff and chaplains, mentors, guides and shepherds. In many ways, they are the keepers of the traditions. Their legacy is a University rich in heart, a residence hall life that is simultaneously crowded and personal, abrasive and pastoral, the peaceful, edgy mayhem of well-intentioned humans trying their best to live responsively in close proximity.
It is evident to most of those who come this way that the Spirit dwells here, and that the Spirit of Notre Dame abides in its people and their many pursuits, in their faith life, in the very buildings and natural landscape, in the way the light shines off the Dome, penetrates the leafy trees, pools beneath a lamppost on a snowy night. It’s in the air, the quads, the chimes and in the voices of the choirs and teachers. It’s in the silence, too, and in the spaces between buildings and people, in the darkness and the hopes, and in all those who have ever called this place home.