I Feel God Here: The Presence of John Dunne

Author: Gus Zuehlke ’80

Editor’s note: John Dunne, CSC, ’51 recently experienced a fall at the Detroit airport from which he has not yet fully recovered. Friend Gus Zuehlke reflects on the weeks since and the lasting impression Dunne has made on ND students.

Like thousands of members of the Notre Dame family who have taken a class with John Dunne, CSC, ’51 over the past six decades, I was shocked to hear that John had been injured from a fall at the Detroit airport on July 1. My good friend, Father Paul Doyle, CSC, called me with the news. John had sustained a head injury and had undergone surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. The surgery was successful, and John was recovering in the intensive care unit at Memorial Hospital in South Bend.

At the time of the accident, I had just finished reading John’s latest book, Eternal Consciousness, which summarizes what he has been saying for the last 10 years and recently received first place award by the Catholic Press Association in the spirituality genre. Coincidentally or providentially, I had also just finished Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (Light of Faith). As I read the encyclical, I was amazed at how much Francis’ teaching shared themes with John’s theology.

The notion of faith as a journey, the importance of encounter, passing over as a way to dialogue, the knowing that only comes from loving — these are among the many Dunnian themes in the encyclical. This encyclical vindicates all that John has been saying to the Church for the past 60 years about how to go deeper — “duc in altum” — in our efforts to confront the profound unbelief of our time. Those who thought he was not Catholic enough and those who thought he was too Catholic (one theologian called him crypto-Catholic) now ought to learn from him how to evangelize in our time.

When I first arrived at his bedside, I found John alone and asleep. As I sat and prayed silently, I found myself reflecting on my many encounters with John over the past four decades. I thought about his many insights into the spiritual life, about life as a journey with God in time, about “Thanks for the past and Yes to the future,” about “living in the present in the Presence,” about love being of God and from God and toward God. As I hoped and prayed that he might pull through, I also struggled to accept the fact that John might die. His counsel that we must combine “willingness to die with hope to live” came to mind.

A few days later, I visited John again. Father Paul Kollman, CSC, ’84, ‘90M.Div, the well-known theologian, and Father Jim Bracke, CSC, an historian who lives down the hall from John, were there. We prayed together over John for healing, using relics of Blessed Basil Moreau, the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross.

On my next visit, I brought a friend with me who was troubled by an impending divorce and had been helped by reading John’s books. When we arrived, John was awake. My friend introduced himself and thanked John for the way his teaching helped him ward off despair. We then prayed the Our Father. At one point John looked intently at my friend and said, “Forgive.”

A few days later, as I was silently praying in John’s room, a nurse walked in and said to me, “I’m on my break. Can I stay in here for a while?” "Sure,” I replied. “You see,” the nurse said, “I feel God here.” I said to him, “I understand.”

John eventually was moved to Kindred Hospital in Mishawaka for long-term care. On my first visit there, I sensed that John might like to have something read to him. I had brought one of his favorite books, The Lord of the Rings. I read him the section where the hobbits encounter a dangerous woods and eventually come to the house of Tom Bombadil, the Immortal Man. While I was reading this, Father Bill Miscamble, CSC, ’77, ’80M.A., ’87M.Div came in and read the gospel of the day. Then he said, “John, for 50 years, you have taught students at ND to follow their hearts’ desire for God rather than money. Thank you for your wisdom.” Later, when I finished reading the section from Tolkien, I said, “John, tonight stay in the light of the house of Tom Bombadil.” He opened his eyes and offered a wide grin.

The next day, I asked him what he would like to hear from the several texts I had brought. When I mentioned St. Augustine’s Confessions, he gave me a thumbs up. So I read from the first few pages.

On the vigil of the feast of the Assumption, I prayed a rosary with John, especially for his students. Then I read to him from his book, A Search for God in Time and Memory. I read his commentary on the Philippians passage about Christ’s kenosis — his self-emptying for our sakes. John argues that God’s passion is to empty himself as God so that man may be born. Later, he wept when I read, in his The Church of the Poor Devil, about the relation of individual suffering and the suffering of the world. That book, which is about a trip to Brazil, shares many common themes with the thought of Pope Francis.

Now, weeks later, how long full recovery might take and how much he can come back from his injury are not yet clear.

As I look back on John’s accident and the events which followed, the four “rules for discernment of spirits” that John culled from The Lord of the Rings come to mind. “Things are meant, there are signs, the heart speaks, and there is a way.” Certainly the accident, which occurred right on the heels of John’s being honored for his work, and also on the heels of the vindication of his theology in Pope Francis’ encyclical, was meant to underscore the value of his teaching. The signs include the many people from many points of view who are able to unite in following his thought on how to witness to the postmodern age about the deep waters of faith. The hearts of those who follow John’s thought speak as we strive to live according to the insights he has taught us. And there is a way, the way of Christ’s kenosis, his self-emptying love. This kenosis is at the heart of John’s Christology, as it is in Pope Francis’s Christology. Let us join John and Francis on their via dolorosa, and let the “dazzling light” of the Cross, as Francis says, light the way to a renewal of faith in our time.

My mind is drawn to a poem in The Lord of the Rings that John uses when describing the spiritual journey:

The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow if I can.
Pursuing it with eager feet
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

Gus Zuehlke is the founder and president of BOSCO, a nonprofit group that brings Internet and computer access to people in Uganda, a project John Dunne inspired. Zuehlke is also a lay minister at St. Bavo Parish in Mishawaka.