Keough Hall, 10:30 p.m. Pat and Erin are “studying” together. Colin and Jason are still playing Guitar Hero, and Brian posts his nightly “away” message: “G-Run, Rain or Shine,” then he heads north out the front door. As he has done most every weeknight since freshman year, Brian follows the sidewalk between Walsh and CoMo, past Bond Hall and Fair Catch Corby, down below the sharp pines and tall spires to the Grotto, a cave of lights that “links every human island to the main” — as Notre Dame theologian Father John Dunne, CSC, explains sacred places in The Sense of ‘I’ in Christianity.
Brian drops several quarters through the slim slot in the black box, quickly transferring the dying flicker of the lowest candle to his new wick and nestling the glass cylinder safely between two others.
“The Second Joyful Mystery . . . The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth” rises from students gathered tightly on the path between the old tulip beds.
Brian takes his usual seat on the bench to the far right to pray or think or sometimes just sit. Tonight’s visit is for Aunt Rachel, who’s recovering from surgery — for her healing and for Mom, who’s visiting her. The low hum of Hail Marys hangs in the air as he thinks of Aunt Rachel laughing and then reluctantly tries to imagine her in pain. He looks up at the dark silhouette of a young woman lighting her own candle and wonders quickly about all the people who come here and all the silent prayers they carry around that nobody knows about.
“The Third Joyful Mystery . . . The Nativity.”
Brian offers a final prayer of thanks for home and family and this place. He crosses himself and heads past Tom Dooley, wondering still about Aunt Rachel and of lesser things like if Jason’s still beating Colin and whether or not the Knicks pulled it out.
Many faces of faith
As most of us are crawling into bed on Sunday night, students in fuzzy slippers, flannel PJs or sweatpants emerge from dorm rooms around campus to engage in that weekly ritual that’s gone on here for so many years. Most Notre Dame students study pretty hard during the week, party hard on the weekends and finish it all up with dorm Mass at 10 p.m. Sunday night, which, some confess, is as much a social event as it is an occasion for prayer.
This generation of young people is said to be the most tolerant of any before it. “Who am I to say what someone else should think or do or believe?” But such high tolerance can also make them so afraid of offending or judging others that they become even more isolated from one another and from what they themselves believe. For many of these Catholic students — good, kind and smart students — all religions are pretty much the same, Jesus is more a good example to follow than a savior, stealing from the dining hall doesn’t count but getting a good job, being “nice” and happy do. Violent video games and posters of scantily clothed women are not moral issues. And religion — or, rather, spirituality — is a private thing.
On the other side of the religious landscape is a growing number of students for whom religion and piety play a central role in private and public life. Cassocks are making a comeback, monstrances are coming off sacristy shelves and there are a lot more beads around these days than there were a decade ago — and not the Mardi Gras kind. The Angelus and liturgy of the hours are being prayed regularly, and the daily Mass companion, Magnificat, is a popular monthly campus subscription.
Though I’m not talking about the majority of Notre Dame students, I am talking about more than a few. The rosary and Eucharistic Adoration are not limited to one small group of devotees but gather a variety of different folks.
You’ve got your Center for Social Concerns justice and peace folks alongside your Catholic Workers, your theo majors, your right-to-lifers, your Children of Mary, your daily Mass attendees, your folk heads, your campus ministers and your faithful Sunday Catholics. And you’ve got double- and triple-dippers who don’t fall squarely into any one of these but have their hands and hearts in several places. The pendulum has indeed swung, some say. We bow more deeply and kneel more frequently now. Some find it more reverent, others more distant.
Several months ago a parish director of religious education told me she had heard that young Catholics, not just at Notre Dame but throughout the country, had become very conservative and hierarchical, focused on personal piety more than social justice and unaware of all that Vatican II had tried to accomplish. If that was true, she wondered sincerely how she and others of the “post-Vatican II generation,” as she put it, would mentor such students.
As a Notre Dame alumna and now director of catechetical initiatives for its Institute for Church Life, I’ve seen many faces of faith. So I sympathetically suggested that we can mentor them by talking with them, by sharing our wisdom and asking questions, by believing in earnest that the Spirit is alive and well and at work. While there does seem to have been a shift, I wonder if the re-emergence of “old” devotions is more than a mere retrieval from the past but is also partly an attempt to find a meaningful identity, a certainty in an increasingly relative world where all things are equal and anything goes, where young people feel the need to believe all things and so risk believing nothing.
It’s understandable why those who so appreciate a faithful commitment to charity and justice in the world, celebrating Mass in the vernacular and being invited around the altar might struggle with those who seem to prefer private devotions, kneelers, deep bows and beads. But perhaps students’ retrieval of the past is not meant to be a slap in the face to those who have come before but merely an attempt to live and find meaning in their own lives today.
Yes, there is a real danger of practicing empty justice on the one hand and narcissistic navel-gazing and pietistic posturing on the other. But when students themselves noticed gaps between those who “contemplate” and others who “act,” several came together in a contemplation and action retreat, making their pious prayer not simply a personal escape from the troubled world but one that allows them to enter and act in that world with faith and hope in something more than just themselves.
The man in the chair
It’s Wednesday morning and the start of a new semester. Thirty-plus students crowd into a second-floor classroom in DeBartolo Hall. I grab a seat on the floor against the radiator next to several other students. One of them pops little white, wired bulbs out of her ears and winds them around her silver iPod nano. I take one last glance at my cell, making sure it’s set on silent. Pens and paper are drawn, and a couple of computer screens sit poised for note-taking or email-checking or a bit of both. My attention, along with that of the other students, is quite taken by what’s going on at the front of the room.
There’s no pretty PowerPoint presentation outlining the semester or frantic professor trying to figure out why his flash drive suddenly won’t work. No, it’s much more exotic than all that.
It’s a man
sitting quietly in a chair
holding a white index card.
John Dunne is entering his 51st year of teaching at Notre Dame with his familiar course entitled Death and Rebirth. “We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence,” he begins, quoting Dag Hammarskjold, the former United Nations secretary-general perhaps better known for his spiritual journal Markings.
“When I am in my center,” Dunne continues, “I am surrounded by a silence that is the presence, the very presence of God. But how is it that we enter this center of stillness? Pascal says that most of our problems come from not being able to sit quietly in a room with ourselves. So maybe we could start there. Or, if you’ve ever gone to the Muir Woods in northern California, those giant redwood trees can take you right into your center of stillness surrounded by silence.”
A hand goes up in the middle of the room. “Well, so then, are there different ways of getting into the center of stillness? Like, I know for some people listening to a particular song helps them feel centered or connected.” As he completes the phrase, the buzz of a vibrating cell phone comes through his jacket.
Vibrate is apparently the new “silent,” so no one seems to notice. “So, I mean,” he continues, undeterred, “is music or things like that a way to the center of stillness you’re talking about?” Then he semi-subtly reaches into his pocket, flips open his phone and takes in the incoming text with his eyes.
“Good question,” the priest replies. “Ya, hmm, no, no, I don’t think so. By silence I mean, well, something more like silence, like an experience of real quiet.”
The student’s cell vibrates again. I smile to myself and wonder, a bit worried, if we know anymore what real silence sounds like.
And yet, even if these students are less familiar with silent silence than those who came here before them, something clearly stirs them to crowd in to hear what insights about life and death, God and themselves, the man sitting quietly in the chair with his little white index card has to share with them today.
Colleen Moore is an associate director of the Center for Catechetical Initiatives and the Echo Program in Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life.