I was one of the last to leave Grace Hall that Friday in January when I stopped in my tracks. Sunlight—shielded so often by South Bend’s wintry, gray cloud cover—bloomed over the evening landscape, bathing buildings and bare trees in a rosy radiance. I lingered and looked and took it all in: the western sky, the soft blush of campus, the quiet pause in the descending day. There are moments in life when clarity blooms, when currents converge or when disparate elements align in a moment that seems providential. This was one of those times. It had felt like one of those days.
For one thing, I had eaten lunch with Notre Dame theologian John Dunne, CSC, at a small café in the Hesburgh Center called Greenfields.
I like Greenfields. It has an interesting menu, and the place is a lively crossroads for lunchtime conversations. It is located in the same building that houses the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and living quarters for visiting scholars wrestling with some of the meanest dilemmas on earth. So there’s more of a diverse and sophisticated air than is found elsewhere on campus, with faculty and graduate students speaking different languages and representing different cultures, nationalities and religions. Because these people are committed to peace and justice issues across the globe, the setting is 21st-century Notre Dame in microcosm: one corner of an institution striving to make the world a better place for everyone.
I had not spoken to John Dunne in 30 years. I took a pair of theology courses from him my senior year. They had had a profound effect on me, as his teaching has had an impact on thousands of other students over the past 50 years. A few days prior to our lunch I had seen him walking into O’Shaughnessy, and it occurred to me that many of the threads and themes of a book I had recently published could be traced to the readings and lectures from his classes three decades ago. I had never thought to say thanks.
So John Dunne and I went to lunch that Friday in January, and we talked about Rilke, Tolkien and Buddhism, his concept of “passing over” into an understanding of other modes of thought and “the path of the heart’s desire.” And we talked about his books and how students had changed through the years and how the heart speaks to us, and about Dante’s line that peace is found through God’s will. But the moment that left its lasting imprint came as we walked from Greenfields after lunch, heading toward DeBartolo. It had gone quiet between us, and, as I wondered what to say to fill the silence, I looked down at the sidewalk and saw our shadows, moving forward in tandem as we walked together after all these years. It was one of those luminous moments best left unparsed, but intuitively rich, textured and meaningful.
Another John Dunne story deserves retelling here; it epitomizes my undergraduate days. Three times a week during second semester of my senior year I went to Chris Anderson’s abnormal psych class. There I learned the truth about human nature—that we are driven by behavioral conditioning, stimulus-response mechanisms, physiological appetites and brain chemistry. He made his case persuasively, and I walked out of there convinced that, yes, that is all there is to the human species.
I went from there to Dunne’s theology class and listened to his lectures on the spiritual essence of life, the invisible, mystical and supernatural, the path of the heart’s desire. And as he paced back and forth, delivering truths like flaming hot coals, citing Kazantzakis, Augustine and Kierkegaard as worthy scouts, he would lift and inspire, reveal unseen layers of infinite human nature. And I headed into the weekend, and into life, believing in the way of the heart, the soul.
For 30 years that juxtaposition has stood for me as the most eloquent definition of my Notre Dame education—"the collision of intellects in action," as Notre Dame’s legendary English professor Richard Sullivan once wrote, the sometimes uncomfortable meeting of the rational and the spiritual, the clashing of the worldly and eternal, the dazzling facets of truth that come from living the right questions. I loved being in such an environment—reading, talking, trying on for size all kinds of ideas, some of which stand in opposition to each other, in order to track down truth.
I am fortunate to have been on this campus another three decades, working at a place that persists in asking the right questions, that embraces such inquiry and the conversation that derives from truth-seekers in dialogue. I have often felt the same excitement I did years ago as I’ve heard faculty talk about their scholarship and explain their research aims. Bulbs go on in my head, new light is shed on well-worn terrain, new pathways open up for exploration.
When I left John Dunne outside Malloy Hall after lunch that Friday, I felt vaguely like I did as an undergrad—swimming in ideas, a little bit over my head, with even more books to read and laden with that sense of the life journey being fetchingly, mysteriously both wayward and coherent.
These thoughts lingered as I took on the afternoon’s first task. I had promised Anna Nussbaum, a senior from Colorado, some contacts in Chicago. Earlier in the week Anna and I had discussed her prospects for a writing career after graduation. I have had many such conversations with students through the years, and I was happy to offer some names—though I was struck by the number on my list who are former students of mine, or former interns of this magazine, as well as established journalists I know. This ladder of names is one measure of the turning years and the continuity of conversations here.
Such talk always reminds me of a very brief interchange I had my senior year. I was a naive and nervous student too shy to try out for the student media—but one who harbored fantasies of being a writer. Senior year, with graduation looming like an abyss, no credentials and no concept of what lay ahead, I mustered the nerve to seek advice from the chairman of the English department, Don Costello. I sat down in the chair across the desk from him and announced, “I’d like to be a writer, and I’m not sure how to do that. What do I do?”
Costello looked straight at me and said, “Well, go write.”
I felt as if I had been scolded. I sat for a moment and looked him in the eyes and could not think of anything else to say. I simply got up and walked out. Years later, when I lived across the street from the Costellos and he hired me to teach a writing course in the Department of American Studies, I told him this story. We agreed there would have been no better advice. It is reminiscent of a story that Barry Lopez ’66, ’68M.A., the celebrated nature writer, told me of his seeking similar guidance from Richard Sullivan who told Lopez, “Go write—and when you get up 10 years later you might be a writer.” Exactly 10 years would pass, and Lopez was a finalist for the national book award for Of Wolves and Men when he returned to face Sullivan.
These stories come back to me as I—drawn by the evening light and the solace of campus on this Friday in January—take a pass around the lakes before heading home. Like countless others, I embraced Notre Dame when I first set foot on campus. I was a sixth grader, and the feel of the trees and quads, the Dome, the Gothic architecture, Tom Dooley’s letter at the Grotto, the log chapel and lakes all wrapped me into their spell. As a student I walked circles around these lakes when I felt lost. Two of my sons grew up on these lakes, feeding ducks, swimming, fishing, riding their bikes on the paths I had hiked long ago. I have walked this campus for years and have run laps around the lakes at different stages of my life. I have year-old triplets now who saw their first duck and goose a few feet from where—35 years ago—I used to sit and read as an 18-year-old freshman trying to make sense of the world and my place in it. And when I came here to work and heard Father Hesburgh say that there is a certain geography of salvation, that there are holy places of special revelation that bring us close to God, and, he added, “I think this is such a place”—I knew precisely what he meant.
The people at Notre Dame
Still, the best of Notre Dame is its people—people who are very, very good at what they do and who are committed to the place and really care about each other, the Notre Dame family wherever and however it exists. While the stories I tell are my own, my experience is not unique. Notre Dame people through the years, whatever discipline or course of study, have similar tales to relate but with a different cast of characters and perhaps slightly different concerns.
At one time I would say there are more good people at Notre Dame than at any one place in the world. I still like to believe that’s true. A quarter century ago I spoke of this with Fred Crosson, who joined the Notre Dame faculty in 1953, as we discussed venerable professors who were passing on. Who would come after? I asked, to which he replied, “That’s for your generation to determine.” It was a directive that stuck with me, and it feels odd now to have been here long enough to be looking over my shoulder to watch how the legacy gets carried on.
After I emailed the names of contacts to Anna Nussbaum, I encountered another curve in the fateful undulations of life’s twisting byways. I spoke on the phone with Anthony DePalma, a New York Times writer who had written a cover story for this magazine, “The Soul of a University,” about Notre Dame’s response when cancer interrupted his son’s time here. Tony (whose son Aahren ’04 is doing very well these days) had agreed to do another piece for us, and we were talking it through and I was giving him sources.
The story concept is a good fit for us: If you want to effect change, do you work inside or outside “the system”? The question came from watching the world and watching students and faculty—idealistic and committed—work to change the world. Some try to make a difference by protesting, writing, participating in causes outside the confines of established structures; others embark on careers with government agencies, in corporate America, the political or legal system, hoping to make a difference there. Is one route more effective than the other?
One of the names I gave Tony was Steve Reifenberg ‘81, even though I’d had little contact with him in years. I was pretty sure he was still at Harvard’s Kennedy School for Government doing something with Third World justice and economic issues. I had met him in 1981 when he and I had sponsored a student joining the Catholic Church in a ceremony in the Log Chapel. After graduation he worked at an orphanage in Chile, and the magazine had published a few things he’d written about that. One day he showed up in my office.
During that conversation Steve asked if I knew Tom Werge; he said Tom and I would hit it off. I had taken Werge’s Mark Twain class but had never talked to him. But I did still have in my possession a paper I had done on Huck Finn, a paper I had written in Huck’s voice. Werge had liked the paper, and next to the A- was an invitation to come to his office to talk. Of course, I had been too shy to do so. But, at Steve’s urging, and 10 years after getting the invitation, I showed up—paper in hand—at Tom Werge’s door. We have been good friends ever since.
As for Steve, he is now directing Harvard’s first foreign studies program—in Chile, where his own story of service took flight. His wife, Christine Cervenak ‘82, received the Alumni Association’s 2001 Rev. John J. Cavanaugh, CSC, Award for her work with the U.S. State Department and the United Nations relief agency’s West Bank operations and the U.N.’s peace operation in El Salvador. It seemed like a good direction to point Tony DePalma.
Notre Dame’s richness
As I walked, I mulled all these crossings of past and present, and back to a deeper past. I did not return to Notre Dame to recreate my undergraduate days or because I couldn’t stay away or even to “give back” to the place. I came because I wanted to do good, too, and I wanted to do it with others similarly intent. The world’s problems felt formidable, even overwhelming to me, and there was great comfort in finding a niche in a community of people with dreams to do better. I suppose you could say I found my own “system” to join—an institution of higher learning with the intellectual might to change the world and the moral compass to send that change in the right direction.
How that happens does not fit so tidily into a slogan, for Notre Dame eludes, even defies definitions. But it’s this very richness I’ve come to appreciate. I like that it is a place encouraging those driven to discovery in their scientific and scholarly pursuits, wherever those quests might lead. This is not a new enterprise here. Father Julius Nieuwland, George Craig and Morris Pollard are names that come out of the past when gauging the history of Notre Dame research. Other University scientists worked on the Manhattan Project, flying in the plane that accompanied the Enola Gay on its dark mission to Hiroshima. But research activity, in both quantity and quality, has surely and substantially accelerated over the past few decades.
Many of those research efforts—from those examining the environmental dangers posed by invasive species to those retooling mosquito genetics to fight disease in Third World countries—directly benefit humanity. This element of University life is impressive and exciting. What was envisioned when I came 30 years ago is being realized now.
Of course, all institutions of higher education are engaged in the advance of knowledge, the dedication of research toward various societal and world problems. It would be arrogant to suggest Notre Dame was the only place applying its scholarship toward the greater good. But there are few institutions of Notre Dame’s academic stature where questions of conscience and service are so central, so essential to the overall mission of the place. Much of Notre Dame’s appeal when I came here was its countercultural bent—its taking a stance apart from our secular, materialist, morally neutral society while aligning itself with Gospel values calling for action against poverty, injustice, hunger and disease. Throughout my time here I have never ceased to be amazed by the number of Notre Dame graduates who have gone into the world to do good.
And I like being at a place where the ultimate concerns get talked about, debated, where idealism is fostered, where ethics has been at the heart of business education for decades and not a trendy add-on because of recent scandals in corporate America—a place where, as Norman Mailer once said, “you can talk about the soul here and no one snickers.”
In addition to everything else, perhaps permeating everything else, is this fundamental exercise—that Notre Dame is a place that takes on the overriding questions of the day, that concerns itself with dilemmas of right and wrong, the meeting of science and faith, the role of art and technology and the human in our culture, the importance of justice in our world. It’s a place that sets such discussions into a moral, spiritual, religious context, and yet encourages voices of dissent and disagreement, belief and unbelief. Honestly, there aren’t many institutions in the world so imbued with the commitment to religious principles and yet so open to the full exploration of human truth, wisdom and experience as Notre Dame. That’s a great meeting ground. And a necessary engagement, given the challenges facing humanity in the 21st century.
Being at a magazine that extends that conversation and replicates in print the full Notre Dame experience has been fulfilling and fun, a magazine that helps nurture Notre Dame’s aspirations toward intellectual leadership by addressing the vital issues of the day while telling Notre Dame stories of service and academic achievement, stories of its people, stories of the heart and mind and soul. Just today I had received a packet of information from an alumnus who’s helping build an orphanage and medical center in Africa because he had read a Notre Dame Magazine piece by an alumnus describing his work in a village there. I also received an article by an alum about rooming with the late Stephen Rogers ‘56, blind since childhood but one of Notre Dame’s most popular professors.
In my office I hear a lot stories about Notre Dame—of candles lit at the Grotto, of late nights in the architecture building and all-nighters before an organic chemistry exam, of residence hall Masses and football weekends, of lonely nights in the library and peaceful walks across a nighttime campus in the snowy, late-night cold of winter. I hear about mountaintop epiphanies, anxiety about entering “the real world” and the importance of summer service projects. I hear about alumni doing great things who point to a time or person on campus who changed their lives. I hear from alumni who want me to tell them the place hasn’t changed.
Of course it has changed. But who among us does not think his or her time here was the very best time to have been here? And who among us does not want Notre Dame to represent our particular point of view or principles? In my office I hear from those who believe the University’s iconic “God, Country, Notre Dame” is the final word on behalf of a militaristic patriotism; I also hear from those rankled by such a concept, who say the Kingdom of God knows no such temporal allegiances, especially when it means war. I hear from those outraged that certain events take place on campus and from those equally outraged if the University curtails certain activities. Even among Catholics there is a spectrum of opinion and divides, and loud arguing across those divides.
What I love about Notre Dame
As an observer of life here, I have settled comfortably into the tensions that exist. No, I am animated by the tensions that exist here. It’s what I love about Notre Dame—because at heart the tensions arise from its two foundational concepts: Catholic and university. This isn’t anything new. There may well have been a tension between Rev. Edward Sorin, CSC, the founder and patriarch, and his confreres in the 19th century (certainly with his religious superiors). If not then, certainly it was an issue early in the 20th century when Holy Cross priests Zahm and Nieuwland were advocating “university” dreams as its president, Rev. Andrew Morrissey, CSC, was saying, “What we need here is a compact, tidy little boarding school.”
It’s been an issue ever since, whether the president is O’Hara, Cavanaugh, Hesburgh, Malloy or Jenkins. It is true that certain eras and issues as well as Church and cultural trends—as well as the school’s burgeoning academic prowess—bring their own frictions, but that rub between Notre Dame’s Catholic character and its intellectual aspirations is simply heart and soul of this place. And I hope it always will be.
It feels now like it is time to move on, time to head to the parking lot and get on home. But as I head up the hill here past the Grotto, I am reminded of a final story. It was the moment I decided to come here as a freshman, on a day similar to this, when I felt the splash of an epiphany—like when I saw my shadow and John Dunne’s on the sidewalk side-by-side after all the seasons that have turned in my life to bring me to this day.
It was 1970, and I was a high school senior. I had been accepted to Notre Dame, and since I first stepped onto campus as that spellbound sixth grader, it had been the only place I had wanted to attend. Now I was having second thoughts. I was tired of working so hard, and I knew I’d be in over my head at Notre Dame. I also knew Notre Dame was then seen as a kind of Catholic service academy. There were no girls, no social life, no cars, the only fun a pickup basketball game at the Rock and a room full of guys.
My sister was a senior at Saint Mary’s College that year, and my family was in South Bend from Louisiana for a visit. It was colder and grayer and windier than I imagined Siberia to be. I was thinking a warm-climate state university was the place for me as our family drove slowly between the Rockne Memorial and Saint Mary’s Lake. The lake was frozen solid, and I had never seen such a thing, and my sister was talking about all the ducks on the lake, and my mother asked, “But where do the ducks go in the wintertime?”
Few people would understand the poignancy of this question, but I—an avid reader of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye—knew its significance, for during Holden Caulfield’s escape to New York City he is concerned about the ducks in Central Park in winter. On several occasions he asks just that: “Where do the ducks go in the wintertime?” So my mother’s question carried an eerie echo, and I looked to the lake and saw, dotting its frozen surface, whole flocks of ducks—looking miserable, perhaps, but holding their own on the Siberian landscape.
Then, as the car turned past the Grotto, my sister said, “They stay here, I guess,” and just then I looked up and saw the Dome. It was shining brilliantly.
There are indeed moments in life when clarity blooms, when elements align in a moment that seems providential. That was one such moment, when the gleaming Dome appeared as a call to port, a beacon heralding the uncorrupted good that Holden longed for. So, too, was that Friday evening’s exit from Grace Hall—another luminous moment best left unparsed, but rich, textured and meaningful, when disparate currents converge to convey a clarity and grace that words cannot hold.
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Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine and the author of Back to Earth: A Backpacker’s Journey into Self and Spirit.